The traditional method of fish-smoking in Unnichchai, a small fishing community in the Batticaloa district sees women spending many hours tending to fish laid out on mesh over smoking coals. Health hazards from smoke inhalation are high, while the output from such intensive labour is often low. That is now changing with the introduction of […]
Village Child Rights Monitoring Committees are working to meet the holistic needs of the most vulnerable children
Puttalam, Sri Lanka, 24 July 2017 – “There is a difference in what we are doing. We are focused on prevention,” says Nimal Padmasiri of the Institute of Rural Social Development (IRSD). “This is not the norm, in fact, it’s the opposite. Most government institutions will try to deal with problems after they happen.” Padmasiri is talking about creating strong and effective local systems to prevent the neglect, abuse and exploitation of children – the sort of system he is helping to create in the Puttalam District in partnership with communities and local government.
IRSD is UNICEF’s local partner in the district, for the child protection sector of the European Union Support to District Development Programme (EU-SDDP). The project has achieved extraordinary success in forming and strengthening Village Child Rights Monitoring Committees (VCRMCs) that include both community members and local officials. “In Puttalam, EU-SDDP allocated funds to activate 20 VCRMCs,” says Abdul Zarook, Programme Officer Coordinating EU-SDDP activities “But the project succeeded in more than doubling this target. We are working with and enabling 48 VCRMCs, most of which we helped start from scratch, to protect children under various pressures. The commitment that IRSD has demonst rated is rare and remarkable.”
The government first introduced VCRMCs as a child protection mechanism several decades ago, but many of the committees became dysfunctional within a few years. EU-SDDP’s aim was to energize existing groups or form new ones, and in the process, spread wider awareness on child rights, convincing local communities and authorities about the urgent need to recognize the vulnerability of children and to prioritize their protection – both proactively and pre-emptively. Over 3,000 “at-risk” children and vulnerable families have been supported by 200 Village Child Rights Monitoring Committees (VCRMCs) established in seven districts with EU-SDDP support.
“We set up the VCRMC in Nelumwewa along with the IRDS,” says Neluka Ganegoda, Child Rights Protection Officer of the Puttalam Divisional Secretariat Office. “Even if we are not able to attend a meeting, the IRSD officers are always there and always active. We are able to identify children who are vulnerable in different ways. The poorest children were provided with some assistance and they started going to school again. For example, several children who had to walk long distances to school received bicycles. In Nelunwewa, six students who dropped out are back in school. We have done a lot, but we know there is more to be done.”
EU-SDDP’s work in the area has resulted in 50 children who had never been to school starting schooling and over 60 children who dropped out of school being reintegrated into schools. VCRMC members have begun holding parents accountable for the absence of their children from school. Many parents did not know that it is mandatory to send their children to school.
W. Priyanthi is Vice President of the VCRMC in Nelumwewa: “We knew very little about child abuse and protection. We went through a learning process. We took part in training workshops. It’s as if we were awakened. There were children without birth certificates and children at home instead of school. They couldn’t afford school uniforms. Some children were from single-parent families. We had no idea what to do about a lot of these things. We started looking for solutions. We counselled many families.”
VCMRCs support at-risk children and vulnerable families by providing “in-kind” and counselling support and also referring them to appropriate services. In-kind support is usually in the form of schoolbooks and stationery to send children back to school. Bicycles are also provided to children who are forced to walk long distances to school. However, the Nelumwewa VCMRC has expanded its scope by mobilising community stakeholders to even provide housing solutions. While the VCRMC contribution may be small, like the provision of roofing material, it mobilizes community resources to provide a complete house for families whose homes have been destroyed.
When an elephant attacked and injured a subsistence farmer and destroyed his makeshift home, Niresha, his teenaged daughter was taken under the care of her grandmother, who was a quarry worker. Niresha started spending more time at the quarry and gradually dropped out of school. The VCRMC got activated and began to build a new house for the family. It was a collective effort. Community members including the local Police Department provided material for the house construction.
The new house will make all the difference. “When the elephant attacked my father, I started living with my grandmother,” says Niresha Maduwanthi, 13, “I didn’t go to school for about two years. Now I will go back to school.” She is a little nervous because she knows she will have some catching up to do. But VCRMC members have given her confidence: they have promised to tutor her until she doesn’t need their help.
“We asked our police officers to work closely with IRSD and the VCRMCs and to create awareness on child protection among both parents and children,” says Anura Gunawardena, Chief Headquarters Inspector of Puttalam, “The link between the police department and the VCRMCs has grown stronger.” Police Constable Vasantha believes that this is a mutually beneficial partnership: “We have become more sensitive to issues related to children. The VCRMCs are usually the first to take the initiative. It’s a home-grown solution.” EU-SDDP has also conducted child protection related training for police officers attached to the Women and Child Desks of the police.
Another example of VCRMCs taking on housing solutions to the most needy families is the story of Balakrishnan Ushandini. After their house burnt down in an accident, Ushandini, her husband and their five small children were left with only the clothes they were wearing. Recognizing the implications of the disaster for the five children, EU-SDDP contributed to the cost of roofing materials of the new house they would build. Moreover, thanks to the VCRMC talking to the provincial correspondent of a newspaper and the article that followed, the family received both cash and building supplies as donations.
“We have been going door to door, taking the time to talk to people,” says Enoka Gamage from IRDS. We found children who were vulnerable to abuse, women who worked as domestic servants, children who were working in workshops and factories, and girls who had married very young.” EU-SDDP information material is used systematically to discuss child protection issues with parents.
Almost four hundred vulnerable children in the district received in-kind support through the project. “We had to ensure that the most deserving, the most vulnerable, people would benefit,” says Nimal Padmasiri. “We have also obtained the support of various local donors – from the government, the private sectors as well as individual benefactors. We were able to form a lot of contacts.” IRDS plans to continue its work in the area beyond the project timeframe in partnership with local individuals and organisations.
“The VCRMC has brought people together,” says Jeeva Peiris, a community member. ”It’s brought government officers closer to us. When we talk to VCRMC members we learn lots of things we should know about the wellbeing of children. And we are more aware of what government officials have to offer us. What their responsibilities are.”
VCRMCs have improved the documentation of their work
WHAT HAS CHANGED
- Village Child Rights Monitoring Committees (VCRMCs) improve their capacity to address child protection and wellbeing issues.
- Community members have a better understanding of child rights and abuse.
- VCRMCs work in partnerships with parents, schools and community members to prioritize issues and negotiate with local government for the resources that they need.
- “In-kind” assistance provided by EU-SDDP to the most vulnerable families ensures that children continue their education.
- VCRMCs have become advocates for child protection.
- VCRMC members have begun holding parents accountable for the absence of their children from school.
- VCRMCs succeed in improving the relationship between the police department and the public.
The European Union Support to District Development Programme (EU-SDDP) is a Euro 60 million partnership between the European Union, the Sri Lankan government, UNICEF and other UN agencies to create greater access to social infrastructure and services for vulnerable communities in the districts of Ampara, Batticaloa, Mannar, Vavuniya and border villages in the districts of Puttalam, Anuradhapura and Monaragala.