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Nobody’s baby


Pics by Sujatha Jayarathne
By Sajitha Prematunge

Kusuma (not real name) is a mother of two. She is a drug addict. So is her husband. The public toilet at the Pettah bus terminal is the meeting point for people like them. They meet there at 7.00 am, go about their business and return around 4.00 pm. This is their routine, except on Friday, when they go begging near a mosque. She and her husband use their children for begging to fund their habit.

National Child Protection Authority (NCPA), Chairperson, Marini De Livera says a special team has been deployed to nab those who use children for begging. In 2017, 312 cases of exploiting children for begging were reported. Under Section 28 of the 29th Amendment in1998, to the Penal Code, using the labour of children below the age of 18 is an offence which carries a five-year prison term.

De Livera says one way of raising the living standards of children used in begging is to find employment for their parents. "Where children are found to be adversely affected by the parents’ economic status, mothers are provided skills training and fathers given jobs." For those who are not fortunate enough to receive such aid, there are night shelters, where children can spend the night with the parents.

"Two night shelters have been established, one in Kirulapone and the other in Fort, close to Malay Street," said National Institute of Social Development, Additional Director General (Academic), Shamini Attanayaka. "It’s a child’s right to live with parents, a right recognised by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child."

Most NGOs and even judges argue that even street children should not be separated from their parents. In children’s homes they may receive the necessary education, health care and comforts, but they are deprived of parental love and care. "These are prerequisites for the development of the child other than the infrastructure that state authorities can provide," says Attanayaka. "The money they earn through begging is enough to cover basic needs such as clothes and food. The purpose of shelters is to provide secure lodging."

It will be easy to round up all the children on the streets if there are enough places to accommodate them. Most children’s homes are overcrowded. De Livera says the NCPA is looking at kinship caring, where next of kin can care for such children as opposed to institutionalization.

Asked whether parents found guilty of using children for begging are at risk of losing custody over their children, De Livera said that it depended on the degree of the offence.

Police Children and Women’s Bureau Director, WSP Lanka Rajini Amarasena pointed out that some parents were reluctant to seek help of a probation officer though children could be cared for under state patronage while they find gainful employment with the help of Women and Child Affairs Ministry. "Children to them are like cobras to snake charmers. They can’t earn easy money without children in tow."

Attanayaka opined that raising awareness among the guardians about the importance of educating their children would go a long way in preventing the exploitation of children. In a study conducted by the National Institute of Social Development in 2006, it was found that out of the 1,523 interviewees, 10.3 percent were below the age of 18. Boys clearly outnumbered girls on the street. The percentage of them attending school was very low; 24.13 percent of them were dropouts. About 58.62 percent of the children had never been to school.

The NCPA chief opine that this trend can be reversed with a good support network. The NCPA is currently in the process of developing a youth leadership network for the benefit of such exploited children.

Not all street children live on streets. Some of them are from shanties in the city, in areas like Wanathamulla.

Amarasena says that where a single parent with no formal income has to resort to begging with a child in tow because he or she has no one else to leave the child with. But, many procure children for begging. "In some cases the children are exploited by close relatives. For example, a child left in the care of an aunt can be used for begging.

Street life has an adverse effect on the personality of children. With the total neglect of their psychological needs, street life often makes children aggressive, disobedient and unapproachable. "They may come to hate society because the negative aspect of society is what they are predominantly exposed to," says Amarasena."These children can become a burden and perhaps even a threat to society. They are not properly educated and a good many of them may get involved in criminal activities."

Often the money earned by the parents or guardians is not spent on the child’s welfare. The children attempt to earn money for themselves. As a result some of them resort to illegal means or fall prey to unscrupulous adults.


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