Promoting the Rights and welfare of children
I discussed in Rights Watch last week the need to develop community
structures for protection purposes. Whilst this will go some way towards
helping the vulnerable, we also need much better structures at state
level for dealing with problems, in particular those affecting women and
The conditions of many of our children's homes are disgraceful. Some
do a good job, and I am sure that many who fall short do so out of
helplessness rather than cruelty, but that is no excuse in the eyes of
those who suffer. We need them to radically rethink the system, making
more use of foster care and ensuring both proper supervision, and a
practical allocation of available resources.
One suggestion we have made to the Police is that they maintain a
system of accurate statistics that should inform all decision makers.
Thus, if they are recommending to a magistrate that a child should be
sent to a particular home, they should also provide statistics as to how
many the home is designed for and how many are actually in residence.
They should also request clear instructions from magistrates as to
how long children should be placed in custody, with specifications as to
when that custody should end or be renewed, and if so, under what
Records of such matters should be maintained with probation offices
as well as magistrates, with regular reports to the National Child
Protection Authority. I have been impressed with the tremendous work
done by that agency in recent months, and in particular the close
attention paid to the North, with regular visits and inspections of
homes. Recently I found a situation where a Magistrate had ordered the
continuation of a home that had not been registered, where children were
kept with no proper authorization.
I am sure there are many such examples, and officials in the regions
must work together with the police and the judiciary to prevent abuse or
even slipshod approaches to formal requirements.
Because children's homes are often in a mess, children are frequently
remanded in jails without second thoughts. This is disastrous, because
it generally dooms them to a life of hopelessness. The result is even
greater problems for the state, in addition to increased expenditure. It
would be far more sensible to embark now, as envisioned in the
President's budget speech, on a programme of radical reform that would
give such youngsters training and hope for the future, through
programmes of rehabilitation.
The cost may seem more at this stage, but it would be economical in
the long term. Supervision of such programmes could also be entrusted to
the graduates the government often has to employ, to no productive end.
Other simpler measures that should be instituted include ensuring
that Magistrates fulfil the responsibilities laid upon them to visit
places of remand, prisons as well as children's homes. Some do this
regularly, which suggests that others are simply lethargic. If the
Judicial Services Commission insisted, as I gather it used to do when
Justice Priyantha Perera was a livewire there, that Magistrates should
fulfil their duties, and that promotions would depend on both acting and
reporting in a responsible fashion, I have no doubt the situation would
Even if visits were not as frequent as originally envisaged, when
magistrates had more leisure, knowledge that such visits could occur at
any time would keep those responsible for custody on their toes.
Magistrates should also require from probation officers regular
reports on their work. The need for counseling and psycho-social support
may not be easy for a magistrate to judge, but probation officers should
be trained in such and should record their findings and their
recommendations on a regular basis.
Such monitoring will also prevent situations that are not infrequent,
of children who are committed, often for protection rather than because
they have themselves committed any offence, being forgotten. In this
regard we have also suggested that specific timeliness be given for
reports that are needed.
The Government Analyst sometimes delays reports which means unfair
incarceration, and sometimes delays in the Attorney General's Department
dealing with files has the same outcome.
In addition to all these improvements that could be made to
correctional procedures, I found however in recent discussions that
there is also deep concern about a very different type of pressure that
is now being brought to bear on children in general. This arises from
the current educational system, which is dedicated to cramming of
knowledge for examinations, rather than productive of rounded citizens.
Tackling the issue as a whole will require much cogitation, but one
point that came up is the absence for most children of programmes of
extra-curricular activity that contribute to socialization.
I remember when I was in school there was a requirement that one
should do either cadeting or scouting, but I suspect that would not go
down well today with parents dedicated to tuition.
The result is that children forego the opportunity to learn about
working together and taking initiatives and responsibilities.
It would make sense then to restore the concept of the school being
responsible for more than mere teaching. This would be easier if schools
were permitted to revert to double session, to build up the sense of
community that was a feature of education in the past. An interval for
children to play actively, opportunities to engage together in
productive activities after school instead of rushing home to lunch and
tuition, would help in strengthening the other capacities children need.
And this might also help to reduce all the improper if not criminal
activities that were brought to my attention when I was at
Reconciliation Committees in the North.
The concern in particular in Jaffna with the ills of the tuition
industry brought home to me how seriously the people there took
education, and we in turn should recognize the importance of their
concerns in this regard.