Photo courtesy of Compassion

Child abandonment, a distressing issue with far reaching consequences, has reached alarming proportions in Sri Lanka. Within this year, ECPAT Sri Lanka’s media monitoring team has recorded 10 incidents of child abandonment where most children were newborns.

In Ambalangoda, a six month old infant and a nine year old boy discovered abandoned by their mother were rescued by a compassionate trishaw driver. The driver recounted that a distressed woman had approached him asking him to care for the children temporarily. However, with the mother failing to return for her children, the driver decided to hand them over to the police. The children were in a state of acute hunger with the infant requiring special efforts to be soothed.

In another incident, a couple addicted to crystal meth abandoned their newborn on the streets of Mulleriyawa, resulting in the death of the infant. These disturbing occurrences underscore the need for robust social protection measures, raising questions about the adequacy of existing safeguards intended to shield and preserve the wellbeing of children.

The factors that contribute to child abandonment include poverty, social stigma and cultural practices. Child abandonment poses a complex challenge that necessitates comprehensive approaches to find effective solutions. One challenge is the absence of a comprehensive national alternative care policy and services system. As a result, approximately 15,000 children are growing up in 414 government and private residential institutions. These institutions often lack the necessary resources and infrastructure to provide proper nurturing care for vulnerable children. There is also a risk of children being forced to share living space with juveniles who have a history of abuse or criminal convictions, putting them at further risk.

Children with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to the consequences of child abandonment. Many essential services for children with disabilities are either too expensive or non-existent, leaving them without the necessary support. Another concerning aspect is the lack of national registration for children with disabilities under the age of five, which excludes them from accessing social protection mechanisms designed to assist them. Strengthening the capacity to identify and respond to issues specifically related to children with disabilities is crucial at every level of society and government.

To address child abandonment, a comprehensive approach encompassing various strategies is crucial. One key aspect is the implementation of poverty reduction programmes and the creation of economic opportunities for families. Poverty is a significant factor contributing to child abandonment as families struggle to meet the basic needs of their children. By addressing the root causes of poverty and providing families with the means to improve their economic situation, such initiatives can reduce the likelihood of abandonment.

There are several ways that poverty affects the abandonment of children. Women’s migration to the Middle East to earn a living and sustain the welfare of their children is one such factor and may account for the majority of abandonment. Women from low income households or those with less education pick Middle Eastern nations for employment. When the mothers come back a few years later, they find that the children have undergone various difficulties including dropping out of school, addiction to drugs and sexual abuse by their temporary guardians.

By fostering employment opportunities and avenues for self-employment, the state must ensure solutions to this situation. This can be achieved through job creation, vocational training, microfinance programmes and social safety nets that provide financial support to struggling families.

Children born to unwed couples, teen pregnancies and early or forced marriages face significant challenges in providing a stable family environment for raising their children. A child born to an unmarried couple will be forever labelled as an illegitimate child because social and cultural norms are not ready to accept such a child. The couple and their family may have to experience social exclusion. Due to this stigma, young women are abandoning their children. Teenage mothers, due to limited financial resources and social support, find it difficult to meet the basic needs of their children, leading to situations of neglect and abandonment.

Unwanted pregnancies and unsafe sexual practices among teenagers further exacerbate the issue. Inadequate knowledge of family planning methods and a lack of access to proper reproductive health services contribute to unplanned pregnancies and the inability to provide adequate care for the children. The absence of robust social security systems targeted at assisting vulnerable families in raising children compounds these challenges. As a result many families find themselves unable to cope with the financial and emotional demands of parenthood, leading to child abandonment.

Challenging social stigma is another critical component in the fight against child abandonment. Deep seated societal beliefs and prejudices surrounding abandonment often stigmatise children and their families. To address this, educational programmes should be implemented to raise awareness and debunk myths and misconceptions associated with abandonment. Public awareness campaigns can play a vital role in shifting public perceptions, promoting acceptance, understanding and empathy towards children who are been abandoned. Engaging in community dialogues and fostering inclusive environments where open discussions take place can help break down barriers and encourage support for families and children in need.

Transforming cultural practices is paramount in reshaping the norms that contribute to child abandonment. In many societies, traditional gender roles and biases perpetuate the idea that male children are more valuable than females. This mindset can lead to the abandonment of female infants and girls. Promoting gender equality and empowering women are essential steps to challenge such norms. This can be achieved through initiatives that provide equal educational opportunities, economic empowerment and legal protection for women and girls. Promoting progressive family structures that prioritise the wellbeing and rights of children over rigid expectations is vital. This includes fostering an environment where children are valued members of the family regardless of their gender or other societal factors. Encouraging positive parenting practices, nurturing relationships, and supportive family dynamics can contribute to reducing child abandonment.

It is important to strengthen the social support systems to prevent child abandonment. This involves establishing accessible and affordable healthcare services, counselling programs and foster care systems. Providing families with the necessary resources, guidance and assistance during challenging times can significantly reduce the instances of abandonment. Collaboration between government agencies, non-governmental organisations and community based initiatives is essential to build a comprehensive support network that addresses the diverse needs of families and children. By providing families with the support they need, Sri Lanka can significantly reduce the occurrence of child abandonment and help maintain children within their family units.

Raising awareness and advocacy are essential components of addressing child abandonment. Collaborative efforts involving the government, civil society organisations and the media play a crucial role in raising awareness about the issue, inspiring public action and advocating for policy reforms and interventions. Through effective communication strategies, public campaigns and partnerships, the message of child protection and the urgency to address child abandonment can reach a wider audience, mobilising collective efforts towards finding sustainable solutions.

Child abandonment is a distressing issue that requires complete strategies and concerted efforts to address. By implementing poverty reduction programmes, challenging social stigma, transforming cultural practices, strengthening support systems and raising awareness, Sri Lanka can create a society that values and protects its children.