Children's situation in Sri Lanka

Kopika, 14, is the eldest in a family of five siblings. Kopika and her family were displaced six times before arriving in Arunachalam Relief Village, Vavuniya, Sri Lanka. Photo: Menaca Calyaneratne/Save the Children 06-05-2009

Although a ceasefire between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil Tigers was reached in early 2002, ethnic tensions continue. The country now needs to face the challenges relating to the rehabilitation of the displaced population and the rehabilitation processes to reintegrate former child soldiers.

Sri Lanka still suffers from the aftermath of the catastrophic December 2004 tsunami, which claimed tens of thousands of lives. Property damage was extensive, and hundreds of thousands of people have fallen into poverty after losing homes and jobs.1 As a result many children work as domestic servants and are often subjected to sexual abuse. An increasing number of children are exploited sexually, and especially young boys are forced into prostitution, both locally and in international sex tourism.2

Health

In its 2003 concluding observations, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child expresses its deep concern about the high level of malnutrition among children. Statistics show that about 23 per cent of new-born infants are underweight at the time of birth and that children belonging to vulnerable and disadvantaged groups are especially at risk, such as displaced and refugee children who have little or no access to health care services. The Committee is also deeply concerned about the surprisingly high rate of suicide among youngsters.3

Children in conflict

Tamil rebels were known to forcibly recruit children, particularly in the east. If the families refused to send a daughter or son to fight for "the cause", they were often subjected to threats and harassment and the children were eventually taken by force. According to UNICEF more than 40 percent of recruited children were girls, but unlike most girls being forced into armed conflicts, reports of sexual abuse were rare, and sexual relations between group members were strictly forbidden. However, boys and girls would still be beaten by their superiors and allowed no contact with their families. They were also forced to learn how to use weapons and mines, often causing permanent disability.4

And the conflict influences all aspects of the daily life, the violence spreading into everyday situations, affecting the children: In certain provinces in Sri Lanka which experienced ethnic conflict for many years, children account for one out of every five nonwar-related homicide victims. More than half of them are under 6 years of age and the proportion of male children is slightly higher. 70 percent of theperpetrators are blood/other relatives.5

Children without appropriate care

More than 19,000 children are staying in 488 voluntary residential care institutions in Sri Lanka and a total of 6,722 live in remand homes.6A large number of children are left behind as their mothers are forced to migrate for work, especially to the Gulf countries. Those children (between 200,000 and 300,000) often live in difficult circumstances and may be subjected to different types of abuse or exploitation.7

In Sri Lanka, trafficking of children for commercial sexual exploitation
and child sex tourism remains a well organized economic activity that affects pockets of communities and their way of life. Both boys and
girls from very young age to adult age becomes involved.8

Justice

Children's rights have not been sufficiently incorporated into current national legislation and there are disparities in Sri Lankan general law, Kandyan and Muslim law with respect to the minimum age of marriage of a girl (12 years). According to the UN Committe of the Rights of the Child the views of the Child are not taken sufficiently into consideration in the current legislation, concerning family matters, school and the juvenile justice system. The Committee is also concerned about the apparent persistence of discriminatory attitudes directed towards girls, children born out of wedlock, children from poorer income groups, rural children, child refugees or displaced children, working children, children affected by armed conflicts and children of overseas workers. No specific rehabilitation measures exist for abused children, instead they are treated like delinquents. Corporal punishment also persists in Sri Lankan society and is accepted in schools.The age of criminal responsibility is low (8 years) and children between 16 and 18 years old are considered as adults by penal law.9

Education

Sri Lanka has high rates of school drop out, discrepancies in education facilities (especially in rural areas), and an insufficiency of pre-school establishments which are usually managed by non-governmental institutions and are not under State responsibility.10