Last month Cabinet approval was granted for the Cabinet paper submitted by President Ranil Wickremesinghe for the implementation of national guidelines and minimum standards for child development centers in Sri Lanka.
That we will soon have a transparent, careful monitoring of institutions that deal with the development and growth of all Lankan children in all aspects of life, guided by national standards and guidelines, has been welcomed by child activists across the country.
Six main areas related to the most important aspects of child care are covered under the national code of guidelines and standards- all of them carefully thought out with the objective of ensuring that every child irrespective of class or creed , those from affluent homes or underprivileged, those living with parents or those languishing in institutions, gets optimal child care services to face their future with confidence, financial independence, and hope.
The Sunday Observer spoke to Senior Lecturer in Paediatrics and Hony Consultant Paediatric Neurologist, University of Sri Jayewardenepura Teaching Hospital Colombo South, and Past President Sri Lanka Association for Child Development (SLACD) Dr. Saraji Wijesekara for her views on this new development in child care services in Sri Lanka.
Q: National Guidelines and Minimum Standards for Child Development Centres initiated in 2013 are likely to be implemented across the country covering all child development centers. Many child- friendly activists have welcomed this strong initiative and political commitment to children’s welfare, as a significant and timely step forward in filling the unmet gaps in services in the field of child care in Sri Lanka. Do you agree?
A. Certainly, I agree with this. Although there were guidelines from 2013 onwards the implementation of them was slow and not methodical. With the new initiative hopefully the gaps would be filled. Upgrading existing child care services at a national level will definitely benefit our vulnerable child population in Sri Lanka as a whole.
Q: Six main areas related to childcare are covered under the National Code of Guidelines and minimum standards. What are they? How relevant are each in today’s context, and how will they benefit optimal quality care for our future citizens?
A. The six areas cover a range of child development and care issues: namely staffing of child development centers, institutionalisation and re- socialisation of children, standards for physical environment and safety, child health and welfare and complaint handling, inspection and supervision of centres. They include in broad terms the standards for legal aspects, health, child development and care which were initiated after studying the international policies that are already in place. As for their benefits, once the national standards are set in place, it will be compulsory for child developmental centers to practice the best policies knowing that a legislative framework is in place to ensure they are implemented.
Q: Evidence has shown that minimum standards in child care vary from institution to institution. From your own experience, what are the gaps you see in our present minimum standards in child care as compared with minimum standards at international level?
A. Let me focus on our own local standards. I must confess that while some of our child development centers adhere to the currently practising standards, there is no legal framework to enforce the standards nationally. However, with this strong initiative and support on the part of the government we are hopeful that minimum standards in childcare would be implemented in the foreseeable future and usher in a new era in child protection and development.
Q: What category of children are likely to benefit the most from these revised guidelines? Children from low income groups or those from more affluent families? Why?
A. I feel both groups would benefit. Low income groups would benefit from safety and health issues such as the child labour, parental migration where mothers leave their breast fed babies to work abroad, addiction to illicit drugs would be minimised by enforcement of laws in the country.
Children from affluent families on the other hand, would benefit from cyber safety, psychosocial and developmental concerns that may pop up with poor child-parent interactions, peer pressure and abuse by the care providers (baby sitters) specially when forced to be in child care during the day.
Q: I understand that children in institutional care are some of the most vulnerable victims of the gaps caused by their unmet needs, especially in education. According to information obtained from the nine provinces there are around 14,000 children in institutions of whom around 4000 are above the age of 16. Studies have reportedly revealed that the majority of institutionalised children do not qualify for higher education and are forced to stay in institutions due to their inability to survive economically as they are not skilled/trained to do a job/occupation. Your comments?
A. As far as I know most of these centers would release their children once they reach 18 years. However, many young people who after reaching adulthood are not interested in pursuing a higher education for various reasons, including limited avenues of employment open to them as a result, opt to remain inside the institutions.
Q: So what is the solution? I understand that since Provincial Probation departments provide some training vocational and skills training programmes from province to province, the Department decided to provide a more systematic vocational training to these children with a higher recognition, by joining hands with National Apprentice and Industrial Training Authority (NAITA). Your comments?
A. I think it is a welcome step forward that institutionalised youth now have more opportunities that offer them alternative avenues of employment especially in the field of vocational training. It is also heartening to note that the scope of the advanced level syllabus has been broadened to include, several practical technical subjects so that children who fail to get the minimum qualifications from O/Levels could still continue their studies while at the same time allowing them the opportunity of training at a workplace. NAITA is one such organisation for school leavers to join and pursue their training with economic support.
Q: Could you tell us more about these new training courses to help empower institutionalised children and facilitate their reintegration into mainstream society?
A. The courses are diverse and based on current needs of the country with emphasis on local raw materials. They include training courses such as carpentry, mechanics, dyeing of fabrics, poultry and rearing of animals. They could join any of the courses they wish and will be given free guidance by the trainers. Additionally these adolescents are paid a monthly subsistence as well.
Q: You are the Past President of the Sri Lanka Association for Child Development (SLACD) . Why was it set up in the first place? What are some of the recent activities of your organisation since it was set up in 2012 with the objectives of promoting, facilitating, and supporting the advancement of knowledge and skills; research and interest in child development and developmental disorders in children.?
A. The SLACD was set up with professionals of multiple disciplines related to child development to care and support for children. However, we emphasise more on children with development concerns and vulnerable children. We support the stakeholders to optimise the development of such children while advancing knowledge and awareness in the community.
At the inception one of our main goals was to establish research in this area where Sri Lanka was far behind from the rest of the world. Sri Lanka being a developing country the resources including manpower and finances were not optimum to carry out quality research. However with international collaboration we are now able to carry out quality research in the country although there have been disruptions due to the global Covid-19 pandemic over the last two years.
Q: Parental migration especially by mothers to keep their families from starving has an adverse impact on young children left defenceless under the protection of a father or distant relative of neighbour leading to rape, incest and even murder of innocent children. Has the SLACD and Probation Care Office as well as the NCPA done any research on this issue to minimise and avert these risks that endanger vulnerable children of our society?
A. There is ongoing research on these groups, The results are yet to be released except a few that are carried out in institutionalised children and small sub groups. We see individual cases presented to us at the hospital and clinics with these problems and it is imperative that we implement these national standards to prevent these unfortunate incidents.
Q: Drugs, cigarette smoking and alcohol abuse are also on the rise among our youth, many taking their first drink or smoke while still at school. What has the Ministry of Health done to raise awareness on such issues?
A. Both the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Health have approached adolescents in different ways and levels to combat this issue. The Ministry of Health has published posters, paper advertisements, awareness programs on television and radio as a health promotion activity. At school level they conduct lectures and awareness programs .With the help of the Education Ministry I’m happy to note that many of these issues as well as matters regarding their reproductive health are also now included in their textbooks.
Q: Your message to students in general?
A. A child/adolescent’s best friend should be their parent or the closest caregiver and not their peers with similar or less life experiences. Instead they should discuss and get an opinion for their problems from a senior person (parents, teachers or colleague with reasonable understanding) who has the best interest of the child in their minds.
Do not fall prey for the people who try to make a fantasy world specially with illicit drugs, smoke, alcohol and sex. You need to understand that these are very temporary. Be in touch with the ground realities however unattractive to make the right choice.
If in doubt, seek help from your Care giver or an experienced student counsellor in your school, university or any other educational facility you attend, in order to make a wise choice that will benefit you eventually in the long run. Keep in mind that education is an important tool of empowerment. So you need to continue your education in whatever field you wish and at whatever the cost.
Strive to perform well at the assessments. Remember that in the end, it is the level of education you achieve and your performance which will help you reach that elevated position you have been dreaming of.