Amongst the recommendations developed at the consultations on Human Rights arranged by the Consortium for Humanitarian Agencies that were held in my office a few weeks back, perhaps the simplest to implement swiftly is that about the lack of well-trained counselors for children. It is true that the Education Ministry has set up a system of counselors in schools, but training has been minimal in some cases, and there are no clear guidelines as to how they should be used.
Counselors need to work in collaboration with the teachers who are most likely to be a child’s first point of reference, while they should also have access to social workers from the relevant Ministries as well as well as medical personnel in the field. In addition, it would be useful if the education system worked more coherently in developing peer group support mechanisms, in particular through the entrenchment of extra-curricular activities that ensured socialization through cooperation.
In this regard I had approached the Girl Guide Association about doing more to support youngsters in the North, and they have responded positively. I have not as yet had a response from the Boy Scouts, which was not surprising since they have generally been socially less aware than the Guides, but perhaps cadeting would be better anyway for our youngsters.
Such basic attention is one necessity, given the alienation that can develop so easily in students subject to the pressures of our current schooling system. However, in addition to setting up a system of possible referral for problem cases, we also need to pay greater attention to professional counseling for these. In particular we need to ensure high quality psychosocial care for children involved in court cases. Mechanisms must also be developed to empower children to speak in such cases, and to ensure that what they say is given due notice.
We also need to ensure protection for them when they speak, so that they will be free of fear of abuse, or further abuse. That is yet another reason for moving expeditiously on the Witness Protection Act. Unfortunately that has been delayed by what seem to have been worries about it being misused in politically sensitive cases, but those are no longer a central concern, and the protection of children in particular should now be given priority.
I was surprised and pleased to find in the North that the police have taken the lead in developing a training programme for counselors. That area obviously requires much work in this field, given the traumas of the war and the periods both before and immediately after the war, and it is good to see the leadership of the police so sensitive in this regard. They should however ensure that they work together with the medical personnel in the area, most of whom are acutely aware of the problems in the regions.
I should note that it is not only children who are in need of psychosocial help, and there should be mechanisms to monitor adults too, and provide support for troubled parents. Special attention needs to be paid to single parent families, and it must be recognized that households without a mother are even more likely than those without a father to develop problems for children who are deprived of the full sheltering they need and deserve.
This, it cannot be enough stressed, is a special concern in households where mothers have gone abroad for work, and the social service system must ensure preventive as well as curative counseling for problems that might arise in this regard.
I have mentioned before the need for early warning systems, and it should not be difficult for Grama Niladaris to maintain records of vulnerability, and develop appropriate support mechanisms. One problem in this regard is the proliferation of offices concerned with support, and the lack of actual officials for each such office. I hope therefore that the system can be streamlined, and we eliminate the practice of Central Government appointments on top of those appointed by Provincial Ministries, under whom in theory the subject lies. What the Central Ministries should do is formulate policies that can then be agreed upon by Provinces and implemented by Provincial officials with distinct areas of responsibility.
Job descriptions should involve the preparation of reports, with performance indicators that must be taken seriously. Given the relatively high incidence of suicide in Sri Lanka, and what I am told is increasing numbers of teen-age pregnancies, the need to ensure that these are avoided must be part of the training of officials.
Officials also need to be more thorough in their supervision of children’s homes, and also of foster parents where the practice is in operation. They should also be charged with promoting the development of fostering, since it is widely accepted now that that is a better system of care for children than homes in which they often do not get the individual attention they require. But fostering must be accompanied by proper supervision, and appropriate support both to the children and to those doing the fostering.
For this too the involvement of the community can be invaluable. Local networks, with participation by Parent-Teacher Associations as well as medical personnel serving the community, should be developed. We need to develop awareness in the community about possible problems, and encourage involvement in overcoming them. Human Rights should not be a question of violations that are punished, they should rather be seen as entitlements which are obtained and protected and strengthened by social groups working in harmony.
By: Prof Rajiva Wijesinha