One of the biggest problems with promoting Human Rights in Sri Lanka is that it has turned into either a business, or a battle, or both, for many. Those NGOs which believe it their duty to attack government, and use the funds they obtain primarily for this purpose, bear a heavy responsibility in this regard, but so do those elements in government which therefore react by being antagonistic to all NGOs. Many I know do extremely good work, and most are extremely well intentioned. Sometimes the overlap and failure to monitor and report coherently arises from incompetence, but often it is because government has not prescribed easy and effective systems of reporting and coordination.
Indeed, elements within government too often do not coordinate. There is also, often, a lack of clear cut job descriptions and reporting mechanisms. Recently for instance, in surveying the work of several Women’s and Children’s desks in terms of my efforts to facilitate District and Divisional Level Reconciliation Committees, I was struck at how different were the levels of involvement and achievement.
In the first place I should note that I was pleased at how the service has grown, as compared with when I first monitored its progress when I was Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights. I also found a very competent and thoughtful person in charge in Colombo, and in a few stations – such as Vavuniya South and Kilinochchi, since I believe one should give credit where credit is due – there was innovation and coordination. The latter sent a pair of police officers, Sinhala and Tamil, the latter a fluent bilingual, who showed how easy it is to work together to ensure communication and mutual understanding.
Elsewhere however I found, despite what seemed good will, systemic failures and an inability to provide services in Tamil. Though there are now many more Tamil police officers, bilinguals are rare, which means communication within the station, and interactions to ensure protection, are difficult. It would not be difficult to devise a programme to have enough people fluent in both languages in every police post to ensure active responses, but this has not been deemed a universal priority.
In addition, there is a lack of coordination in some places between the police and government officials concerned with protection issues. We have several of these, Child Protection Officers, Women Development Offices, Probation and Social Service Officers and Counsellors of all sorts, but there is no system to ensure that they meet together and divide up responsibilities area wide too. Obviously none of them can visit the whole area under their purview on a weekly basis, but it would not be too difficult to allocate one geographical area to each and provide for regular visits, with weekly meetings to pool information and plan necessary interventions.
This has now been suggested and promised, and also weekly meetings at Grama Niladhari level, together with a couple of police officers allocated to that area, the government official responsible for protection for the area, and leading members of civil society including school principals and health workers. In this regard I was deeply impressed by an initiative of the police officials in the Mullaitivu / Kilinochchi area to initiate a programme to train counselors. We do not have enough at present, given all the traumas that have been experienced, going hand in hand with the lifting of moral and social restrictions that is inevitable in conflict and post-conflict situations. I hope that these Counsellors, together with those trained by the Commissioner General for Rehabilitation, and those who now function in schools, will all work together to ensure total coverage, with guidance from the medical personnel responsible for psycho-social health in the area.
Those officials I found in general deeply committed, with innovative schemes to monitor progress in the more distant areas they have to cover. Basic health and nutrition have recovered remarkably in the last few years, and I think we need to showcase the manner in which the Ministry of Health, together with aid agencies, managed so soon after the war to bring mortality figures and nutrition levels to normal. But we also know that what is normal in rural Sri Lanka, nationwide, can be improved, and for this there must be constant awareness programmes, as well as support mechanisms where essential.
With regard to awareness and support for adolescents as well as adults, there is no substitute for community concern. Grama Niladharis have been asked to discuss possible vulnerabilities at weekly meetings, and work out ways of overcoming these. Where sex and drugs can lead to problems, what might be termed technical awareness programmes are essential, to make clear the risks that some behavior patterns might carry. But there is also need of awareness of potential risks in terms of one’s social peers, and youngsters must learn to recognize and deal with possible threats.
And perhaps most importantly, there is need of support groups, that can advise and provide a protection ring. This is most important for single parent households, including those with the male parent, for the girl children of such households are particularly vulnerable. The community must be trained to recognize and respond to such dangers, and also work out mechanisms for economic support, for economic deprivation also enhances vulnerability.
In this regard, Grama Niladharis have been asked to prepare schedules of assistance that is available, since we sometimes find that some areas have excessive support from several agencies whilst others are neglected. Government has still not worked out a way to encourage a more equitable division of resources. In that regard what I might term the perennial problem of states is also a shortcoming of the NGO sector, which is why better consultation is essential to ensure protection as well as equity.
By: Prof Rajiva Wijesinha