Reality check on Sri Lanka’s progress on Universal Children’s Day

By Mohammed Mahuruf

Universal Children’s Day is an important global event that focuses on the rights and welfare of children worldwide. It is celebrated on November 20 in commemoration of two significant milestones in the history of children’s rights. On November 20, 1959, the General Assembly approved the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, which established the importance of protecting and promoting children’s rights on a global scale. Then, on this day in 1989, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), a comprehensive treaty that outlines the fundamental rights of children. Universal Children’s Day serves as a reminder of our collective responsibility to safeguard and enhance the well-being of children everywhere. This day offers an opportunity to amplify the voices and address the needs of children, mobilizing governments, organizations, communities and individuals to work together for a better future for all children.

The significance of Universal Children’s Day lies in its emphasis on providing children with a nurturing and secure environment in which they can flourish, learn, and develop. It is a day to advocate for policies and actions that protect children from exploitation, abuse, and discrimination and to ensure that their voices are heard and valued.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child

There is no discussion about Universal Children’s Day without acknowledging the significance of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. We take this opportunity to reflect on and assess the progress made in implementing these rights. In this article, we explore specific aspects of children’s rights and examine the progress Sri Lanka as a country has made in achieving them.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) is an international human rights treaty that sets out the civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights of children. It was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1989 and entered into force in 1990. Sri Lanka is a signatory to the CRC, and as such, it is obligated to protect and promote the rights of all children within its jurisdiction.

The UNCRC consists of a total of 54 articles. The first article, which defines who is considered a child, identifies a child as any individual under the age of 18, unless the laws in a particular country stipulate an earlier age of majority. The following 41 articles directly address various issues, rights, and welfare of children, covering a wide range of topics, including the right to life, survival, and development; the right to a name and nationality; the right to express opinions and be heard; the right to education, healthcare, and social services; protection from abuse, neglect, and exploitation; and protection during armed conflicts. The remaining 11 articles of the UNCRC specify how the convention works, how it should be implemented and emphasize the importance of governments and international organizations in promoting and protecting children’s rights. They also highlight the role of parents, families, and communities in ensuring the well-being of children.

Four Core Principles of the UNCRC

The UNCRC establishes four core principles to ensure the rights and well-being of children worldwide. These include non-discrimination, the best interests of the child, the right to life, survival, development, and the right to be heard. These principles guide the interpretation and implementation of the rights set out in the convention. In the case of Sri Lanka, progress has been made to protect and promote these rights, but there are still challenges. While efforts have been made to eliminate discrimination and ensure equal opportunities for all children, issues of inequality and marginalization persist. The country has taken steps to prioritize the best interests of children, but there is room for improvement in areas such as child protection and access to quality education and healthcare. The right to life, survival, and development is hindered by issues such as poverty, child labour and child marriage. Although steps have been taken to promote child participation and encourage their voices to be heard, there is a need for further empowerment and inclusion of children in decision-making processes.

Non-discrimination is a fundamental principle of the CRC and requires all children be treated equally and without discrimination of any kind. This includes protection from all forms of violence, abuse, neglect, and exploitation. In Sri Lanka, there are specific categories of children who endure discrimination and marginalization. These groups include children from minority ethnic or religious backgrounds, children with disabilities and displaced or children from economically and socially excluded families and communities. Unfortunately, these children are often denied the same opportunities as their peers in terms of access to education, healthcare, and other essential services. As a result, they are more likely to experience poverty and exclusion. Such treatment goes against Article 2 of the UNCRC, which emphasizes the principle of non-discrimination.

Ensuring the well-being and development of children should be the top priority when making decisions and taking actions concerning them. This principle, known as the best interests of the child, should guide all aspects of policymaking, legislation, and programs related to children. In Sri Lanka, the best interests of the child principle are enshrined in the Constitution and have been incorporated into legislation such as the Children and Young Persons Ordinance and the National Child Protection Policy. However, there are still challenges in effectively implementing this principle, particularly in areas such as child custody, adoption, child abuse and sexual exploitation, and child labour. This indicates a failure of the state to uphold Article 3, which states that the best interests of the child should be of primary consideration in all actions involving children.

Child Labour, the State Violates the UNCRC

Sri Lanka has made some progress in addressing the issue of child labour, particularly through amendments to the Children and Young Persons Ordinance. These amendments have raised the age of majority to 18, aligning with international standards. However, child labour remains a significant problem in the country, with a large number of children still involved in exploitative work.

According to the International Labour Organization, there were 4,571,442 children in Sri Lanka in 2016, and approximately 2.3% of them were engaged in some form of work. Most child labourers are found in the agricultural sector, followed by the service and manufacturing industries. The situation is particularly severe in rural and plantation areas, where poverty and a lack of opportunities push children into working.

Efforts have been made to combat child labour, including the implementation of laws and regulations. However, more needs to be done to protect the rights and well-being of these young individuals. Failing to address this issue violates Article 32 of the UNCRC, which focuses on protecting children from economic exploitation and hazardous work. It also goes against Article 28, which states that all children should have access to education without discrimination and that education should be aimed at developing their full potential. Moreover, this issue falls under Article 24, which highlights the right of children to the highest attainable standard of health and access to medical services.

Healthcare, Nutrition, Education and Social Protection: Fundamental Rights

The right to life, survival, and development is a fundamental right of every child. This includes the right to access healthcare, nutrition, education, and social protection. In Sri Lanka, significant progress has been made in improving children’s access to healthcare and education. The country has a good healthcare system that provides free healthcare services to all children. The education sector has made significant strides in increasing enrolment rates and improving the quality of education. However, there are still disparities in access to healthcare and education between urban and rural areas, as well as between different social and economic groups. In addition, more efforts are needed to ensure inclusive education for children with disabilities and to address the issue of child malnutrition.

Many children in Sri Lanka live in poverty, with limited access to basic necessities such as nutrition, healthcare, and education. Poverty affects their overall well-being and limits their opportunities for a better future. Child malnutrition in Sri Lanka increased in 2022 amidst the economic crisis, UNICEF states in its report. A report by the Health Ministry’s Family Health Bureau showed that all forms of malnutrition in children increased in 2022 after a steady drop since 2016. According to the Bureau, more than 43.4% of children under five years are suffering from nutrition problems (Reuters). The economic crisis in Sri Lanka, its worst since 1948, is causing food prices to soar. As a result, families are struggling to afford the cost of food and feed their children adequately (UNICEF).

The education system in Sri Lanka is renowned for its high-quality education. The country boasts a literacy rate of 92.38%, which is considerably higher than the average literacy rate in South Asia. However, children encounter several challenges within the education system, which does not align with the principles outlined by the UNCRC. One major challenge is accessibility, as many children, particularly those from marginalized and disadvantaged backgrounds, struggle to access quality education. This can be due to factors such as poverty, discrimination or a lack of infrastructure and resources. Moreover, children may face challenges related to the quality of education, including inadequate educational facilities, outdated teaching methods and a lack of trained teachers. Furthermore, children with disabilities often face significant barriers to accessing inclusive education that caters to their individual needs. These challenges pose a threat to children’s right to education, hindering their overall development and future prospects.

State Failure in Addressing Articles 19, 34 and 35 of the UNCRC

Sri Lanka faces significant challenges in implementing Articles 19, 34, and 35 of the UNCRC, among others. Article 19 talks about protecting children from all forms of violence, abuse, and neglect. There have been numerous instances reported on a daily basis of child abuse, including physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, within Sri Lanka. The government has made efforts to address this issue, but more needs to be done to ensure effective prevention, reporting, and prosecution of such cases. Despite several initiatives and public discourse to ban corporal punishment in schools, it is still prevalent in many parts of the country. It is very clear that there is a lack of awareness and effective enforcement mechanisms to eradicate this form of violence against children.

Article 34 addresses Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC). The country has faced challenges in addressing CSEC, including child prostitution, child pornography, and child trafficking for sexual exploitation. The government must take genuine measures to combat this issue, including stronger enforcement of the law and increased awareness.

Child Trafficking is mentioned in Article 35. Sri Lanka is both a source and a transit country for trafficking of children for various purposes, including forced labour, sex trafficking, and exploitation. There is a need for enhanced interagency coordination, better identification and protection mechanisms, and improved victim support services to combat this issue. Limited resources and capacity constraints have hindered effective response and prevention efforts.

Sexual exploitation and abuse of children is a grave violation of child rights that continues to be a concern in Sri Lanka. Despite efforts to combat child abuse, Sri Lanka still faces significant challenges in addressing this issue effectively. The NCPA is the primary government body responsible for implementing child protection measures and prosecuting offenders. However, the NCPA has limited resources and faces various institutional and legal challenges, including inadequate laws, a lack of trained personnel and limited coordination between government agencies. The senior police officer of the Bureau for the Prevention of Abuse of Children and Women recently revealed in a press conference that in October 2023, 131 girls under the age of 16 were reported as victims of rape in Sri Lanka. The officer also stated that 10 of these girls had become pregnant because of sexual abuse. She further revealed that 32 girls and 16 boys had experienced grave sexual abuse. Among them, 18 children were below the age of 11, and 29 were between the ages of 12 and 16. The State Minister of Women and Child Affairs provided similar statistics for September 2023, reporting 168 cases of underage girls being raped, with 22 of them becoming pregnant in 30 days.  It is evident that the state has failed to adequately protect children from sexual exploitation and abuse, including their involvement in prostitution or other illicit activities, as mandated by Article 34 of the UNCRC.

Children Also Have Freedom of Expression

Respect for the views of the child is another key principle of the CRC. It requires that children have the right to express their opinions and have them taken into account in matters that concern them. The government has taken steps to promote children’s participation through the establishment of children’s councils and platforms for child participation at divisional, district, provincial and national levels. This alone is not sufficient to ensure that children’s voices are heard and respected in decision-making processes, especially in areas such as child protection, education, and policymaking.

This convention recognizes the importance of children’s participation and contribution to society, promoting an environment in which children can freely express their opinions and ideas. However, the exercise of freedom of expression is not always fully protected, particularly for children and youth. There are various challenges that persist that hinder children’s ability to express themselves openly and without fear. One of the main obstacles is the prevalence of societal norms that restrict the voices and opinions of children, often treating them as subordinate to adults. This cultural mindset perpetuates a lack of recognition of children’s rights, undermining their ability to freely express themselves. Also, traditional hierarchical structures within families and schools often discourage open dialogue, inhibiting children from freely expressing their thoughts and opinions.

Moreover, restrictions on freedom of expression in Sri Lanka are reflected in the media landscape. Journalists and human rights defenders, including child rights activists, face intimidation, threats, and harassment for expressing dissenting viewpoints or criticizing government policies. This creates an atmosphere of fear that can discourage children from participating in public discussions or speaking out on important issues.

Challenges in implementing the UNCRC

In the Sri Lankan context, there are several challenges and issues that need to be addressed to fully implement the CRC. One of the main challenges is poverty and its impact on children’s rights. The government implements poverty alleviation programs to reduce poverty, but there are still pockets of extreme poverty, especially in rural areas and urban settings. This economic disparity affects the ability of the government to provide adequate resources and services to children, impacting their access to education, healthcare, and social protection. Moreover, poverty further increases children’s vulnerability to exploitation, trafficking and child labour. The unequal distribution of wealth in the country further exacerbates these challenges.

The nation’s rich cultural and traditional heritage can sometimes clash with the principles outlined in the UNCRC, leading to challenges in the implementation of children’s rights. Child marriage, for example, is still prevalent in certain communities, which goes against the convention’s goal of protecting children from harmful practices.

The long-standing civil war that ended in 2009 has had a significant impact on children’s rights. Many children were displaced as a result, leading to their lack of access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, and protection from violence. The post-conflict rebuilding process has been slow, which has further hindered the implementation of children’s rights.

Gender inequality is another issue that affects the implementation of children’s rights, particularly for girls. Discrimination and harmful traditional practices, such as child marriage, forced marriage and gender-based violence, undermine the rights and well-being of girls. There is also a lack of awareness among parents, caregivers, and communities about children’s rights and the government’s obligations under the UNCRC. This lack of awareness can hinder the effective implementation of children’s rights laws and policies.

Capacity and resource constraints within government institutions may also limit the full implementation and monitoring of compliance with the UNCRC. While there is domestic legislation in place to protect children’s rights, there are gaps in the legal framework and weak enforcement mechanisms, impeding children’s access to their rights.

The UNCRC emphasizes the importance of involving children in decision-making processes that have an impact on them. However, in Sri Lanka, children have limited or no opportunities to participate in decision-making at home, in their communities, and in policy and program development. This limitation restricts their ability to influence and shape the implementation of children’s rights.

How Can the Sri Lankan Government Uphold the UNCRC?

The Sri Lankan government should take several steps to effectively implement the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child as stated below:

  • Review and update existing legislation to align with the UNCRC. This entails incorporating all provisions of the UNCRC into national law and ensuring their harmonization with other relevant laws and policies.
    Conduct awareness campaigns to educate the public, including parents, teachers, and children, about children’s rights as outlined in the UNCRC. Utilise schools, community centres, media channels, and other platforms to achieve this task.
  • Actively encourage and facilitate children’s participation in decision-making processes that affect them. Establishing forums for children to express their opinions on issues affecting their rights and well-being can help achieve this.
  • Establish robust child protection mechanisms to ensure the prevention of abuse, violence, exploitation, and neglect of children. There should be effective reporting mechanisms, such as actively functioning helplines and child-friendly spaces and providing necessary support and services to child victims.
  • Prioritize the provision of free, inclusive, quality education to all children, ensuring equal access without discrimination. This includes addressing barriers such as poverty, gender inequality, and disabilities and providing necessary resources and infrastructure.
  • Prioritize children’s health and well-being by ensuring access to essential healthcare services, nutrition, sanitation, and clean water. This can be achieved by providing adequate funding, trained healthcare professionals, and awareness campaigns on preventive measures.
  • Take steps to eliminate child labour by enforcing and strengthening laws and regulations that prohibit child labour. It should go hand in hand with providing livelihood opportunities and social protection for families to alleviate poverty, which often drives children into labour.
  • Ensure a fair and child-friendly justice system that prioritizes the rights and protection of children. Establishing specialized courts, training professionals on child-friendly procedures, and providing necessary support and rehabilitation services for children in conflict with the law
  • Establish a robust data collection and monitoring system to track the progress of children’s rights and well-being. Collecting disaggregated data, conducting regular surveys, and utilizing the data to inform policies and interventions.

The government should collaborate with international organizations, NGOs, and civil society to exchange knowledge and best practices, receive technical assistance, and mobilize resources for the effective implementation of the UNCRC.

On this Universal Children’s Day, let us reflect on the progress made in advancing children’s rights and recognize the challenges that still exist. Let us commit ourselves to creating inclusive societies where all children can thrive, regardless of their background or circumstances. Together, we can make a difference in the lives of children and build a brighter future for every child. Another world is possible!

-Mohammed Mahuruf is the Executive Director PEaCE/ECPAT Sri Lanka

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