Investing in the most disadvantaged children is imperative to achieve equity - UNICEF Sri Lanka Representative

World Children’s Day falls on October 1


In an interview with Sunday Island, UNICEF Representative in Sri Lanka, Una McCauley, shares her agency’s commitment towards the welfare of children here and discusses challenges that must be overcome to ensure better lives for our children.Una McCauley

by Randima Attygalle

Q: What are your perceptions about the strides Sri Lanka had taken in terms of overall child welfare?

A: Sri Lanka has made great progress towards the implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) since it was ratified in 1991. National indicators on children are very good in Sri Lanka, compared to most nations in the region and many countries in other predominantly middle income countries. The legal and policy framework for children is solid and most children enjoy basic services across the country. There are of course areas for improvement but there is considerable political will to make those improvements.

 Q: Despite the fact that we were one of the first countries in the world to have signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, drawbacks in the justice system need to be addressed, especially regarding the delays in administering justice, age of criminal responsibility, re-victimization of sexually exploited child etc. How do you think UNICEF can influence the state regarding the above?

A: The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was intrduced in 1989 and Sri Lanka ratified it in 1991. Thereafter, the National Children’s Charter was formulated, based on the CRC and approved by the Cabinet enabling application of the CRC into state policy. Sri Lanka’s commitment to advancing children’s rights through the Convention has inspired changes in laws and practice that have improved the lives of millions of children. The Government of Sri Lanka has given high priority to the protection of children and women from physical and sexual abuse and has undertaken a number of initiatives in this regard, including enactment of the Domestic Violence Act in 2005. It also leads South Asia in terms of indicators on education and health, and made commendable efforts to promote gender equality. Yet, challenges remain.

The physical, sexual and emotional abuse of children need more stringent and prompt responses from law enforcement authorities, the judiciary and care systems. Speeding up further the implementation of laws related to violence against children including raising the age of criminal responsibility from eight to 12-years in line with CRC recommendation remains a priority. Appointing Commissioners for High Court cases related to children, and having a separate High Court in the more populated provinces to hear ‘only child abuse cases’, will also be an effective way to clear up the backlog of cases and ensure justice for children. The Government and UNICEF initiative to ‘End Violence Against Children’ will also assist the elimination of sexual abuse and violence against children. This will also improve reporting and help victims to seek redress and justice.

Q: Does UNICEF have a special mandate regarding vulnerable children? Eg. displaced children affected by war, children of female migrant workers etc.

A: UNICEF’s mandate covers all children irrespective of their age, sex, disability, colour, race, language or religion. A key focus is to achieve equity which means investing in the most disadvantaged children. If we fail to invest in these children, we will fail to achieve sustainable economic, political and social progress and stability.

Q: What state-private collaborations are suggested to enhance the quality of education, thereby bridging education inequities and disparities prevalent in the country?

A: UNICEF is supporting the strengthening of public-private partnerships in the area of Early Childhood Education provision, where the government could play the role of quality assurance, technical support and guidance to the prevalent privately-provided pre-schools and potentially additional financial support in under-served areas. Moreover, we will support the government in studying and exploring options for public-private financing in the same sub-sector based on lessons learned from other countries.

Q: What challenges remain in assuring optimum child welfare in the country and how important is the political will for overcoming these challenges?

A: The benefits of rapid economic growth have not been equally shared. Children living in fragile and conflict-affected contexts are the most under-served and are at greatest risk. In communities with high levels of gender inequality where women and girls have low education, mobility and decision-making power, children often suffer multiple deprivations.

Specific groups of children, including many adolescents, are at a disproportionate risk of losing out on the large gains made in recent years in child survival, education, poverty reduction and protection. Excluded and under-served children may be living with disabilities, in minority or indigenous communities, in fragile settings, in urban slums or peri-urban settings, or in areas where girls and women face heavy constraints

Climate change, environmental degradation, economic crises and population dynamics have all become pressing issues, and disasters more frequent. The past decade was the warmest on record. Sea levels continue to rise and carbon emissions are increasing rapidly. The effects of climate change threaten the economic livelihoods and social fabric of affected communities, particularly for the most disadvantaged children and families.

Development assistance is evolving with the changing world and the emerging new development agenda. Political leaders and taxpayers throughout the world are calling for more focus on results for the most disadvantaged, and for increased transparency and accountability, efficiency and effectiveness.

Q: How can UNICEF address the issue of absence of data pertaining to child welfare? For example there is absence of solid data related to sexually abused children, exploited children etc.?

A: UNICEF continues to work with the Sri Lankan Government to improve evidence-based policies and programming. This includes supporting research and data collection design, and by strengthening related quality assurance mechanisms. Evidence generated from research will support policy dialogue and advocacy.

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