Democracy & Human Rights | Speeches

The Convention on the Rights of the Child

Universal Children's Day Celebrations

Sri Lanka Foundation Institute, Colombo, Sri Lanka

October 1, 2002


Principals and Teachers,

Chairman, National Child Protection Authority and the
Representatives of UNICEF

Let me begin by expressing my warm appreciation to the children who’ve organized this function. I am happy to be here today as ‘a participant’ in your event to mark this Universal Children’s Day,

I am delighted to learn the entire proceedings today are being conducted by you.

Children have always been closest to my heart. Naturally, everything about children and their welfare, occupies a special place in my heart and mind. When children are hurt or deprived, or when their fundamental rights are taken away, it hurts me, not just as Head of State or politician, but also as a woman and a mother. I care for children – deeply and passionately.

Whenever I see, hear or read about children being traumatized or abused, my attention is completely captured by such news items or events. It was one such event, many years ago that triggered the series of initiatives I took to counter Child Abuse. I was then Chief Minister of the Western Provincial Council. Many people brought to my notice the plight of children here in Sri Lanka, children being kept as sex-slaves and used in pornographic material. I heard sordid stories of how sometimes due to poverty, parents choose to ignore the horrific crimes that were being committed against their children. These stories moved me a great deal.

One of my first tasks as President was to appoint a Presidential Task Force on Child Protection. Very quickly the Task Force introduced some ground breaking measures on this subject, which eventually led to the formation of the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) – the first of its kind, in this part of the world. Today we have an effective way of addressing these grave problems of child abuse through the NCPA and its regional outreach. Still we have much more to do – but we are getting there, steadily.

Education is another area, so central to the well-being and development of a child – which I concentrated on fully, in the past 6 years. The Convention on the Rights of the Child guides us towards a more child-centered model of teaching and learning – one in which students participate actively - thinking and solving problems for themselves. This was the philosophy of the new education system my Government introduced a few years ago.

We recognize and understand that a Child’s right to education, growth and development (i.e. – physical, cognitive, social, emotional and moral –) cannot be met without a COMPREHENSIVE approach to serving their needs from birth. Hence our efforts at Early Childhood Care and Development, Nutrition Intervention starting from grade 1, promoting primary school enrollment vigorously, by enacting legislation to ensure Compulsory Education for all. These were a few of the major interventions we made.

Sill we haven’t achieved complete success. There are many children who are still out of school. Street children, deprived of the love and comfort of a cozy home engage in many crimes to overcome their poverty. Under nutrition and other health problems connected to homeless children are big problems we face.

I am a strong opponent of “ punishing” children, in order to correct them. I am well aware of the age-old traditions of caning, instilling physical and psychological harm, special punishments meted out by Prefects and senior students in addition to those by teachers. Some of these traditions were imported by our colonial masters – where ragging and bullying were an accepted norm and culture passed down from the British public schools and the like. Today in this country this has gone to an extreme – often resulting in grave physical injury (and even death) to young children, in addition to considerable psychological harm.

Recently we introduced measures to ban corporal punishment in schools. But I still find many teachers and principals believing in such punishment and using it in trying to bring discipline to the child. Discipline of a child, both in and out of school, is critical. We all know that. Today we read of so many instances of serious break down in law and order within the school system. This is most unacceptable. Principals and teachers must take significant note of this and make sure that these types of terrible incidents never take place within school premises. Special attention must be paid to the Life Skills Component in the secondary school curriculum – one which addresses these issues comprehensively. One, which teaches the child on how to combine “ rights with responsibilities “. Responsibilities towards your school, home, your environment and your country.

Special efforts must also be taken to formally introduce counseling and guidance into the school system. Children must have a ready system existing within the school to discuss their problems. Particularly adolescents and all teenagers have huge issues confronting them. These may be related to schoolwork and exams, love affairs and other personal relationships or maybe the turbulence in their minds of just “ growing up “ itself – needs a lot of support and help. As a mother I have experienced this very well and I know how much a child expects from parents and teachers alike, during such a periods of your life.

We also introduced measures to curb the spread of drugs, tobacco and alcohol habits creeping into school systems and making addicts out of vulnerable children. Children are highly susceptible to these dangerous habit forming vices. Therefore it is extremely important to be thoroughly educated on the harm that such substances can cause. The support of the school system is essential for this.

As I speak today, a sad spectacle continues to unfold in some parts of our country. Young children, some as young as 8 or 9 years, are still being forcibly recruited or strongly enticed into joining a rebel army. It is not just children who are out of school or those who have dropped out due to poverty and other reasons that are being targeted. Even children attending school are abducted, sometimes on their way home.

A recent study done on child soldiers has shown the large number of psychosomatic disturbances such children suffer. Sleep disturbances, separation anxiety, sadness, hyper alertness, decline in school performance, withdrawal, aggressiveness – are just some.

This is the grimmest spectacle facing our children today. Quick measures must be taken in this context, with help from international agencies, if we are serious about remedying the situation. It is already too late and too far-gone.

Many great leaders around the world have repeatedly voiced their concern about children. I can only do the same. I do so because children are the single, greatest national asset we possess. They form the bedrock of the growth and development of our nation. Therefore no investment is too big. No effort is too great – No opportunity, however slight, should be missed in our attempt to do what is correct and what is necessary for our children.

Finally in winding up I pay a warm tribute to all the children who participated in these enlightening proceedings. Your talents and skills are remarkable. Your concept of a child friendly school is so illuminating.

I thank UNICEF for joining up with the National Child Protection Authority in making this event possible.