“Are We Meeting Our Responsibility to Children?”

I welcome the decision of the InterAction Council to hold this meeting specifically on the Theme, ‘Our Responsibility to Children.’ It is my belief that the current meeting in Tokyo as well as the meeting to be held in Salzburg next July will give a strong message and a concrete action plan to the governments and the citizens’ groups in the world to discharge their duties by our children. In this paper I am going to describe very briefly some thoughts based on my experience for the last 45 years and what the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement of Sri Lanka is doing in this regard.

As an individual as well as a member of the Sarvodaya Movement I cannot but recollect with gratitude and admiration the unique services rendered by Dr. James P Grant, the third Executive Director of UNICEF, who put the rights of the children of the world on the top of the UN agenda. From mid seventies up to his demise in 1995 I worked very closely with him in a voluntary capacity and hence I consider him to be the architect of today’s programmes for protection, survival and development of children. He not only brought this issue to the attention of governments, UN bodies, foundations, corporations and top religious organizations in the world but also visited numerous people based organizations around the world and got them to commit and join hands to tackle this problem. I consider him to be the visionary who got the year 1979 declared as the International Year of the Child and mobilized his own dedicated team of UNICEF experts and other UN agencies to make the 1989 Convention On the Rights of Children a reality. Not only the UN unanimously adopted this convention but also in the quickest ever time period governments ratified the convention. So much so today most countries have legislated on the rights of the child taking this document as the source of International Law pertaining to children.

Looking at the present situation in spite of 192 governments ratifying the Charter the children’s conditions have deteriorated much more than at the time this was passed. According to the ILO estimates ‘around the world some 250 million children between the ages of 5-14 work for a living. 120 million work full time every day all year around. As many as 70% toil in dangerous environments.’ On 17th June 1999, a global consensus was reached by the ILO to tackle and eliminate the worse forms of child labour. A new International Human Rights Instrument “the worst form of child labour convention – 182’ was adopted by the International Labour Organization in Geneva.

Numerous statistics both global and country wise are published today pertaining to various forms of neglect, harassment, orphaned, abandoned, disabled, etc. of children where neither the basic needs of children nor the basic rights of children are satisfied. We have to consider how the enthusiasm that was created in 1970s and 1980s withered away and finally was lost altogether. This is true particularly of the governmental, inter-governmental and large philanthropic agencies and corporations. If at all any significant interest is taken and programmes beneficial to children are implemented today these are carried out mainly by non-official organizations. For example the Arigatou Foundation in Japan has taken a global interest on children in promoting what is known as the Global Network of Religions for Children. To me the success of the 70s and 80s were due to the full involvement and commitment of grassroots organizations by governments and intergovernmental organizations like UNICEF and the recognition and support given to them under the very dedicated and able leadership of then UNICEF Executive Director, Dr. James P Grant.

Today with responsibility I can say that this kind of global leadership is lacking both from UNICEF and other UN organizations. They operate through governments and hardly reach the people. Doing a bureaucratic job is one thing and leading people with a vision and mission is another thing. When Dr. Grant died in 1995 in his purse was found a note, which read, “ I am suffering from cancer, but I would not let it conquer me.”

Here is a leadership gap at the global level, which can be filled by the honourable members of the InterAction Council who were Heads of States in their days. They can initiate a programme to identify globally national and community level leaders and groups, first those who are already committed to serve children and then others, who can become a dynamic force to implement the children’s rights at every level.

First and foremost children need affection and attention. These can come only from parents and family members and in their absence from individuals and community organizations, which are motivated by noble spiritual values. ‘ In the same way that a mother protects at the risk of her life, her one and only child, protect all living beings with all your loving kindness.’ This is the advice of the Buddha. It is in this spirit that we have to take up this challenge to save and protect our children wherever they may be. Such committed leadership is found in all communities and it is by identifying, educating, training and supporting such leadership and their grassroots organizations that we can successfully discharge our responsibilities to the children at risk.

The problem of children is not an isolated one. Their problems are an integral part of a larger problem where all aspects of our society are involved. Therefore, along with the urgency with which children’s problems are addressed we should also have a total approach where society as a whole could be transformed and made healthier. This holistic approach should include spiritual, moral, cultural, social, economic and political dimensions of the society in which we live.

As an illustration of a people’s organization taking upon itself the problem of children, I would like to very briefly describe how we in Sarvodaya are setting about this work in our country.

In Sri Lanka, at the beginning of the 20th century the children were treasured in our society. They lived in extended families with strong family bonds and their basic needs were met and their basic human rights were protected. They were the main focus in the family and priority was given to their nutrition, psychosocial and educational development. In general the society was neither poor nor affluent at that time. It was more or less a no-poverty no-affluent society. Most people lived in village communities where agriculture, fisheries (in coastal areas), cottage and small industries and essential community services, kept everybody engaged in constructive work. Their basic minimum needs were satisfied. Problem of unemployment was not there and it was what may be called ‘a full engagement society.’

During the second half of the century in spite of the advances in education, health, public services, civil administration and growth of cities, family life and the conditions of children started deteriorating. The conditions became worse during the last three decades with the introduction of globalization and new economic systems where money incomes were given priority over physical qualities of life, spiritual and moral values being replaced by materialistic considerations, mothers leaving homes, their husbands and children to the Middle East to serve as domestic servants and earn higher wages. Added to this was an unnecessary civil war resulting in thousands of widows, orphans and disabled and homeless refugees, most being children and women.

The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement which was started in mid-fifties was aimed at reawakening village communities based on the Teachings of the Buddha. Sarvodaya Shramadana means ‘awakening of all by sharing labour and other resources.’ The Movement transcended all man-made barriers such as caste, race, class, religion and language and appealed to communities to depend on their own self-reliance, local resources and know-how, and with community participation bring about an all round improvement to their quality of life. In forty five years the Movement succeeded in getting over 15000 village and urban communities comprising almost 50% of the rural people to follow the Sarvodaya path to self-development. During this period almost with foresight Sarvodaya developed one after the other an integrated programme aimed at Human Personality Awakening, Family Awakening, Village and Urban Community
Awakening and National Awakening all of which were satisfactorily functioning at the turn of the century.

With the dawn of the 21st century family life in Sri Lanka, both rural and urban, has changed in an alarming way. The growth of cities and increasing hardships experienced by many of its urban inhabitants forced families to seek out other ways of sustaining themselves. As the bond of family life weakened in economic desperation, children gravitated to lifestyles centered on the streets, taking residence in doorways or in railway stations. This new class of children known as “street children” did not exist earlier. The economic stresses of urban life necessitated child labour for the survival of households. Various anti-social elements in cities started using these children for prostitution, drug trafficking and other forms of crime. In traditional rural settings where children participated in daily agricultural or domestic activities, which contributed to their educational and social development, too changed. They became victims of child labour, sexual abuse and even of drugs and alcohol, as their mothers had left them and had gone to other countries to earn.

Trafficking in children is acknowledged as a serious problem in Sri Lanka although the magnitude of the problem is not known. Estimates vary widely as does the exact nature of trafficking, although it is certain that most trafficking is internal, mostly into commercial sex sector. In some areas such as the tea plantations there is a long tradition of the whole family being employed on the estate. Many children were sent away to work elsewhere often in domestic service in the city. These factors were aggravated by failures in education system for poor children. Almost two decades of conflict in the North and East of the island have fostered growth in the commercial sex rate in areas bordering the conflict zone. Children in these areas have been at risk of abduction into prostitution and or conscription as child soldiers. The numbers are quite large going into more than 250,000 even today after a two year ceasefire period.

Taking into consideration all these different aspects, developments and problems that children are facing the Sarvodaya Movement has drawn up a comprehensive and holistic programme that is operational in rural and urban communities, plantations, refugee camps, special homes for displaced children and in public awareness campaigns. This is a model which can be adapted to any situation. Its salient features can be outlined as follows:

1.Select communities for all round development. Educate and train leaders of the community how to design and implement Basic Human Needs and Basic Human Rights programmes with participation of men, women, youth and children of the village. These programmes are done with their own resources. Outside help when it comes will be supplementary to their own efforts. Simplify the essential elements of the UN Charter, Children’s Convention and other globally accepted norms of the international law and inculcate the spirit of these laws so that they will be aware of both their rights and responsibilities.

2. Formations of Chidren’s, Youth’s, Mothers, ’Farmers,’ and other Elders,’ Groups are established and these are related to programmes catering to their specific interests and needs; When they are functioning well they can form a community organization which can be legally recognized and registered by the government enabling them to receive official assistance.

3. When Savings and Credit programmes and village enterprises are started and they develop their own community development banks their general income as well as profits accrued to the society can be used to further improve the nutrition, health, educational and general welfare of the weakest sections of the community.

Sarvodaya Movement over a period of four decades has taken this integrated community self-development programme to more than 15,000 village communities in our country and it has survived many political onslaughts, governmental changes, two bloody insurgencies, and a twenty year civil war. Because of the continuity of our work and consistency of our principles of Non-violence and non-sectarianism we are able to work with the governments, the intergovernmental organisations and other philanthropic bodies to conduct the following services:

1. Training of a variety community leaders especially young women in Early Childhood Development Services. They have established over 6,000 ECDS centres where thousands of mothers co-operate to look after their young ones, protect them from the evils mentioned above and even educate the community in general to be responsible for our children.
2. Legal Services Movement. In every district and sub district trained young men and women educate village leaders, teachers and village level government servants to protect children’s rights and bring to the notice of the authorities any violations. The newly established Child Protection Authority of the government gives this programme full co-operation.
3. Community Health Movement has a similar training and extension programme pertaining to child and mother care. This includes adolescent Reproductive Health Training, Prevention of STDs and HIV/AIDS, in addition to the general health and nutrition training.
4. Rural Technical Services Movement undertakes self-help rural housing programmes and provision of water and sanitation services.
5. Suwa Setha Services is a vast chain of welfare institutions for the abandoned infants and children, disabled women and children, schools for children impaired of hearing, old and destitute men and women, sexually abused young mothers and so on. Nearly one thousand are residential in Sarvodaya Homes established for them with public donations. In addition to these, community based relief and rehabilitation programmes are conducted. For Example helping those in trauma after the bloody war, and Helping the refugees to resettle .
6. Peace Brigade consisting of youth between 14 and 28, numbering over 90,000, each unit consisting of a leader and 10 members organize peace camps, Interfaith camps, mass peace meditations, conflict resolution workshops, environmental conservation programmes, health clinics and health centres where the beneficiaries are mostly women and children.
7. There is a street children’s programme conducted in the city of Colombo.
8. Special classes and meditation programmes for pregnant women and their husbands.
9. Women’s Movement is mainly aimed at empowering women through Education, Training and Self-employment.

All the above activities are an integral part of a much larger non-violent social trans formation programme to build a more just and fair society for all. The greatest beneficiaries in such a society, of course, will be children and women

Delivered at the InterAction Council
High-Level Expert Group Meeting – Tokyo Japan 2004 May

A Community Approach to Child Survival and Development