Photo courtesy of World Vision

On November 20 every year, the world celebrates World Children’s Day; it is the same day on which the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC) was established, leading the cause of ensuring protection of every child everywhere. In July 1991, the convention was ratified by Sri Lanka, committing to undertake “all appropriate legislative, administrative and other measures” for the full realization of the rights it contains. More than three decades into the establishment of the CRC, where are we, as a society, in protecting the rights of the child?

In the past, there was no standardized method of protecting children. They were raised in difficult and unsanitary living conditions and engaged in perilous labour alongside their adult caretakers. At the end of the First World War in 1918, the need for better mechanisms to protect children raised. It was children and women who were the most affected by war, residing in an unsafe environment, being subject to various precarious post-war complications such as slave trade, mining, trafficking of children and employment of children to dangerous labour. It was identified that children’s needs were much contrasting to those of adults, and that there needed to be a different set of mechanisms to ensure the safety of children.

For this reason in 1924, the Geneva declaration of the Rights of the Child was adopted by the League of Nations, making it the first international instrument acknowledging the rights of the child.

Three decades after the declaration of the rights of the child, on November 20, 1989, the Convention of the Rights of the Child was adopted by the UN General Assembly. This was a milestone by the international community in child protection, setting the minimum standards for protecting the rights of every child in all capacities.

Sri Lanka was one of the member states to sign the CRC as soon as it was adopted, becoming a signatory on January 26, 1990. It was ratified by the government on July 12, 1991 and following that the government formulated the Children’s Charter in 1992.

Within the three decades since the ratification of the CRC, the government has made a few significant improvements with regards to child protection. Under the recommendation of the Presidential Task force the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) was established in 1998 under the Presidential Secretariat. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs included Child Development into the Ministry’s legislation in 2006, and in 2015 the ministry was renamed as the Ministry of Women and Child Affairs, which is the government body responsible for implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Department of Probation and Child Care Services was  established in 1956 and has been functioning under the ministry of Women and Child Affairs since 2015. Sri Lanka also reports to the CRC committee, explaining measures taken by the government towards protecting the rights of the child every five years.

Currently there is a large number of NGOs that are committed to the protection of the rights of the child. The work of NGOs in this arena includes facilitating the promotion, implementation and monitoring of the Convention. NGOs also contribute in monitoring and reporting of a country’s implementation of the CRC along with their input to the government when developing the report.

It’s been more than three decades since the implementation of the CRC and although there have been significant actions taken by the government, not much could be said about the progress of the CRC, especially observing the current state of the rights of the child.

One of the major issues in the unsuccessful implementation of protecting children’s rights is the separation of government bodies that are responsible for the cause. There is the National Child Protection Authority, Department of Probation and Childcare Services, National Secretariat for Early Childhood Development coming under the Ministry of Women’s and Child Development and also the Bureau for the Prevention of Abuse of Children and Women affiliated to the Police, which were established for the cause of child protection. However, they function as independent bodies with no cooperation with one another, with different mandates and policies. The information on child abuse and exploitation collected by different bodies is often contradictory.

There is also the lack of understanding of what constitutes of the rights of the child, which was observed in how statutory rape is reported by the police as “women under the age of 16”. The age of consent to sexual relationships under the constitution is 16, however, as Sri Lanka has ratified the CRC, the constitution recognises the minimum age of a child as 18. The fact that a governing body committed to protecting the rights of the child identified a female child aged 16 as a woman questions the accountability of the Children and Women Bureau with this regard.

It is also questionable that the yearly reports of the NCPA and police on child abuse and exploitation are completely different from each other, and also that it includes one column as “Miscellaneous”. Although it is a vague term to report crimes against children, it is this column that reported the highest number of crimes. The number of cases reported under cybercrimes against children, incest and various other forms of abuse do not correspond to the number of these crimes being reported every day. For an instance, while more than 18,000 material of child sexual abuse have been located from Sri Lankan sources, the number of cybercrimes against children as reported in 2020 is recorded as none. There were also a number of incidents of incest against children reported on local media yet the NCPA reports of the year 2020 showed the recorded incidents as only two. There is a lack of sources for statistical information on child abuse and exploitation and if the only existing sources lack credibility as well, the efforts being put by the civil society organizations, non-governmental  organizations and various stakeholders working would be of little use as incidents of violating child rights would continue to rise and continue to be under reported.

Sri Lanka’s legal system is another one of the drawbacks in protecting the CRC. One of the major issues in the current legal system is the inconsistency in defining a child. The Age of Majority (Amendment) Act, No. 17 of 1989 places the age of majority at 18 as well as the penal code amendments of the years 1995, 1998 and 2006 under the offences Obscene Publications of a Child (Section 286A), Cruelty (Section 308A), Sexual Exploitation (Section 360B), Trafficking (Section 360C), and Grave Sexual Abuse (Section 365B). However, The Children and Young Persons Ordinance (CYPO) 1939 defines a child as being under 14 and a young person being between ages 14 and 16. The general marriage ordinance places 18 as the minimum age of marriage. In special laws related to marriage which differ for different communities, the minimum age of marriage may vary as well. As opposed to the minimum age of marriage, according to the Penal Code (Amendment) Act (PCA), No. 22 of 1995, the age of consent is 16 years. Therefore, consensual activity of children aged between 16 to 18 is not considered statutory rape. It is deemed as statutory rape only if the involved persons, despite being consensual, are under the age of 16. Under section 75 and 76 of the Penal Code, the minimum age of criminal responsibility is 12 years old.

Sometimes the best interests of the child may not be taken into account. Children are often pressured into education competition due to the different levels of the school system, and their ambitions and desires are ignored or overridden by the desires of their parents or the schools. Not enough mechanisms are put in place with regard to child mental health issues, especially those of boy children due to the society’s perception of the male child. This often forces male children to suppress their emotions, which is also a reason behind sexual abuse of boys remaining unreported as boys will be shamed and ostracized for expressing the abuses they have been subjected to. The rights of the child are not being protected by the society itself, which perceives children as objects owned by parents and therefore children are obliged to fulfil their parental expectations. It is perceived in the Sri Lankan society that adults are entitled to the ownership of their children.

That is not to say that rights of the child are always ignored and violated. Many NGOs and Civil Society Organizations have taken it as their sole responsibility to ensure that child rights are promoted and protected at all cost. The responsibility must be undertaken equally by everyone in the effort to ensure the protection of all the children.

The author is Communications Officer at PEaCE/ECPAT Sri Lanka