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Rights of children: More needs to be done

On December 14, 1954, the United Nations General Assembly recommended that all countries institute a Universal Children's Day, to be observed as a day of worldwide fraternity and understanding between children.

The date November 20 marks the day on which the Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1959 while the Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted in 1989. In Sri Lanka, World Children's Day was celebrated on the October 1, 2015.

The Convention, which is the most widely ratified international human rights treaty, sets out a number of children's rights including the right to life, health, education, play, and the right to family life, protection from violence, discrimination and to be heard. As such, it is the responsibility of all adults, especially of the parents to ensure that children's rights are protected and to build up a conducive and friendly environment for all children.

Can Sri Lanka be satisfied that the aforementioned children's rights are protected and every child in the country has the right to education, health, play, and to live in a friendly environment? The answer to this question is 'yes', to a great extent compared to most developing countries. But there is a lot more that needs to be done, especially regarding the children of poor families.

Right to education

Sri Lanka has almost achieved Universal Primary Education, with the net enrolment rate reaching 99.7 percent, indicating that almost all children in the age range of 5-10 years attend school. Over 98 percent of children aged 10-14 also attend school, which confirms the effectiveness of making education compulsory for all children up to 14.

However, after 14, some children, especially from poor families, drop out of schools. It is estimated that 16 percent of children in the 15-17 age group drop out of school and do not attend any other educational institute either.

These children are mainly from poor households headed by 'agricultural, forestry and fishery labourers', 'skilled agricultural, forestry and fishery workers', those engaged in 'household work', 'non-agricultural labourers and similar workers' and those who are 'unable to or too old to work'.

As such, the attention of the authorities is essential to ensure that every child will have an education at least up to the GCE (O/L), which means the compulsory age for schooling need to be increased.

There are a few other factors which may need the attention of authorities, and parents. Although Sri Lanka can be proud of achieving significant progress in the basic indicators on education, the quality of education needs priority attention.

There are regional variations in the quality of education, and in the available facilities.

Lack of qualified teachers and facilities, especially for science education, in schools in remote areas and in the estate sector, are a major concern. Children in these areas are deprived of a quality education especially in science and technology, even if they have aptitude and abilities, because the facilities are not available close to where they live. Of the 10,012 government schools, 28 percent have classes up to Grade 13, of which only one-third have a science stream.

Right to play

As specified in the UN declaration, children's right to play is as important as the right to education. However, some children in Sri Lanka are deprived of this right, as many parents are keen on sending their young children to tuition classes after school. Because of this practice, some children are totally deprived of time to play, with their entire childhood devoted only for education.

Playing is equally important as education for a child. Playing helps children to develop social skills, to work as a team, learning to be patient, and improving creativity. It is not only education which prepares the child to take up the challenges they may have to face in later life, when they go out to society and work with others.

Health achievements

It is the responsibility of parents to ensure that children have sufficient time to play with other children, and on their own, which helps to improve imagination and creativity.

In child health too, Sri Lanka has done well, except for nutrition which is puzzling, as most of the other health indicators show steady progress.

Under-5 Mortality Rate (U5MR) has declined from 21 in 1990 to 10 per 1000 live-births in 2012 and Infant Mortality Rate has declined from 18 in 1990 to 8 per 1000 live-births in 2012.

Almost 99 percent of the children have received all the basic vaccinations, which includes BCG, measles, three doses each of DPT and polio vaccine, before reaching the age of two.

Over 98 percent of the births are attended to by a skilled health worker, of which more than 74 percent are doctors.

These achievements are mainly due to free education and health services provided by the State for over five to six decades.

However, under-nutrition of children under-5 is still a major concern. According to the latest estimated statistics of the Family Health Bureau (FHB), 17 percent of children under-5 are underweight.

Statistics show that under-nutrition starts to increase after the period of exclusive breast feeding, especially after the age of around seven months, with the commencement of complementary feeding. The problem of under-nutrition needs the continuous attention of the health authorities, as it is a major health concern for children.

Protection

It is the responsibility of all adults to protect children from any form of violence or maltreatment. Child maltreatment includes physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse and neglect. Parents need to ensure their children are protected from any form of violence or abuse.

Media reports show that in Sri Lanka, the number of reported cases of sexual abuse of children is increasing, which needs the attention of everyone, especially that of the parents, to take preventive measures.

It is always better to take measures in advance to prevent any form of abuse, rather than taking action after the abuse.

The National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) was set up in 1998 for the prevention of child abuse and the protection and treatment of victims of such abuse.

It is also mandatory for the NCPA to co-ordinate and monitor action taken by the law enforcement authorities, on all forms of child abuse.

Any parent could contact the authority if they feel any of their children are being abused or has been abused by anyone.

Children themselves could also contact the authority, if they need to talk to any official, regarding any form of abuse they may be experiencing.

The writer is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka. To view this article online and to share comments, visit 'Talking Economics' - ips.lk/talkingeconomics

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