Democracy & Human Rights | Speeches

The Status of Children in Sri Lanka

United Nations Special Session on Children

New York, USA

May 8, 2002

Mr. President,


Ladies and Gentlemen,

Today as the United Nations General Assembly hosts this Special Session on Children, I am honoured to be part of a renewed world leadership movement to make choices for children, with children, to give fresh vitality to our belief that they alone are the bearers of our future, and a nation’s most valuable asset.

Mr. President, let me begin by quoting Lord Buddha who said, “Kinsu vattu manussanang, putta vattu manussanang” - What is mankind’s treasure? Children are mankind’s treasure.

The age we live in has been called “The Age of Extremes”.

The 20th century has seen the marvels of a rapid development of science and technology on one hand, whilst it has also engendered dangers arising from the excessive use of these great innovations. To quote a few examples, the discovery of nuclear and atomic fissure, which on one hand led to revolutionary scientific inventions whilst on the other, it led to the manufacturing of nuclear weaponry. I can also mention, the abuse of chemical drugs leading to drug addiction and many other such examples.
Politically, the emergence of independent Nation-States, as a result of de-colonization has given rise to the phenomenon of communities within States, rising up to demand recognition and separate States, resulting in a large number of armed conflicts, mainly in the de-colonized regions of the world, which unfortunately happen to be the poorest regions.

All of this impacts directly and mostly on children. There are millions of children who suffer today

physically, psychologically and emotionally from effects of war,
it is young people who are most affected by alcohol, tobacco and drug abuse,
and are the largest number of HIV/AIDS victims,
they also suffer the most horrendous consequences of poverty.

It is therefore most apt that we adults, who have the responsibility of ensuring a conducive environment for our children to grow and blossom freely, meet here today under the auspices of the UNO to discuss and make decisions, as to the solutions required to ensure this. The responsibility to guarantee this lies with us adults, who are Leaders of Governments, as well as, the private and non-governmental sectors. Each one of us here has a sacred obligation towards our children to change our dreams for them, into reality. Let us commit ourselves fully and honestly to build, together with our children, a world fit for children.

Mr. President, we in Sri Lanka have made many endeavours to keep our promise to children, in placing their needs high on the country’s political agenda. We believe that children have rights and are not mere appendages of adults.

Several decades of sustained commitment to develop health and education services has led to declines in infant, child and maternal mortality rates, high literacy and school enrolment.

We have free school as well as university education. Assistance such as free books and uniforms, scholarships and bursaries, is provided so that the poorest of our children would not be left out. Today’s high literacy rates of over 90% for men and also for women bear testimony to Sri Lanka’s commitment to education without gender disparity. We introduced compulsory education legislation in 1997, in order to ensure education for all children as well as to reduce the scourge of child labour.

Mr. President, my government introduced, four years ago, an extensive education reforms programme aiming at qualitative development, as well as quantitative coverage. This programme includes early childhood development, a pupil based teaching system, extensive development of facilities for teaching science and Information Technology, in order to equip children to access information and to face the challenges of the new age. For several decades, health also has been accorded the same level of high political priority, as education. We provide free health-care services for all, with the accent on primary health-care and a special focus on pregnant mothers, infants and pre-school children.

We have achieved

very low rates of infant, child, and maternal mortality
low birth rates
considerable reduction in low birth weight rate
accorded high priority to promoting breast feeding
eliminated nearly all immunizable diseases, with the last case of polio reported in 1993
we have programmes for providing better sanitation and safe drinking water.

However, we still face the challenges of malnutrition and an emerging threat of HIV/AIDS, although Sri Lanka is still a low prevalence country for this disease. We join global concern for greater attention for HIV/AIDS prevention and control, especially among youth.

Mr. President, I was deeply conscious that children were silently being abused and victimised, most often by adults, in families, communities and even in the so-called “safe zones” of childcare institutions and schools. It was an issue, which had hitherto not been addressed, due to its sensitive and controversial nature. I decided that a bold step was needed and appointed a Presidential Task Force on Child Protection in 1996, followed by enacting legislation to establish a National Child Protection Authority in 1998. The concept of such an Authority with responsibilities to develop, coordinate and monitor programmes on child abuse and exploitation is relatively new and unique in our region. It functions with the support of a wide range of professionals, officials and child activists.

The achievements of the Child Protection Authority include:\

Legal amendments targeting sexual exploitation and trafficking, child abuse, juvenile justice, obscene publications especially child pornography and child-friendly court procedures,
Campaigns against corporal punishment both in schools and homes,
School based programmes to promote awareness of Child Rights and children’s rights to free expression and participation.

Following ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991, we have developed our own Sri Lankan Charter, which provides a mechanism to monitor Child Rights.

Mr. President, one of Sri Lanka’s greatest challenges in recent times has been the protection of children from the impact of an 18-year civil conflict. We provide all children living in war-torn areas, with free food, health- care and schooling including the areas under the control of the rebels. This was done at great cost to the government. We also face the problem of recruitment of children aged 10/11 years as combatants, by the rebels.

We have collaborated with international agencies, including UNICEF, to advocate against the conscription of children. Children Zones of Peace (CZOP) is a programme, which was promoted as part of an effort to mitigate the impact of the conflict on children. Efforts for a negotiated Peace, which we re-commenced recently, offer fresh opportunities for our attempts to protect children in conflict areas.

We have signed and ratified all ILO Protocols and Conventions relating to child labour. Child labour in Sri Lanka mainly occurs in the non-formal sector, particularly in the form of domestic labour. We have increased the minimum age of employment in domestic service.

My government has accorded priority to the prevention of the misuse of tobacco, alcohol and drugs, particularly by adolescents and youth. We have had success in reducing the use of these harmful substances by young people and in the promotion of healthy life styles, free from substance abuse.

The developing world, faces new challenges, many of which impact on children. If we are to seriously bring to centre-stage, the rights and well-being of our children,

investing in resources, is an imperative,
a root cause for many child rights violations lies in poverty. Poverty reduction must also be made an integral part of our commitment for children.

It has been my special privilege to join you in a leadership endeavour which has no parallel, to place children at the heart of all our development efforts.

In conclusion, Mr. President, I wish to express my gratitude to all those who worked hard to make this Summit possible, and for the opportunity afforded me to make this opening statement.

I wish the Summit all success and would like to end with a note of hope, that I know that together we can and we must make the world a better place for our children.