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War-torn North and East tackle child labor

2013 Nov 28

 By  Sajitha Prematunge and Arthur Wamanan


War-torn North and East tackle child labor

Despite the country’s laws specifying that those employing children can be sentenced to one year in prison and fined Rs. 10, 000,  minors are employed by parents who are uneducated and don’t feel the need to educate their children


It has been three years since the war ended, but child labor still runs the gamut from unskilled labor, construction and agricultural work to commercial trade. An in-depth study of children of Northern and Eastern provinces has not yet been conducted. While some child labor cases are reported to authorities, most fall through the cracks.

According to ILO (International Labour Organization) Conventions 138 and 182, ratified by Sri Lanka, employing persons below 14 and worst forms of labor for those under 18 is prohibited. In 2009 and 2010 the Ministry of Labour introduced Decent Work Policy and a Road Map to eliminate the worst forms of child labor by 2016.

Interior villages

Despite these steps, child labor is still prevalent in interior villages of war-affected areas. While the situation has improved in residential areas and towns, the issue persists in interior villages where development is slow. Children living in these villages continue to support their families, doing odd jobs, due to financial constraints.
Child labor is practiced by low-income families to encourage children to supplement for household income by engaging in alternate economic activities. It denies children their right to education, a right their under-educated parents are oblivious to. Lack of education renders children susceptible to exploitation and abuse.

Speaking to The Nation, Kilinochchi Government Agent Roopavathi Ketheeswaran pointed out that the situation was worse soon after the war concluded owing to the difficulties faced by families. “Most of these families don’t have a breadwinner or are female headed homes. Consequently there is no stable income. Therefore, they send their children to do odd jobs to earn money,” she said.

Dual role

“Most of the men have either been killed or disabled at war or separated in its aftermath,” said National Project Coordinator for ILO project Empowering Conflict Affected Communities (ECAC), R Sivapragasam. Consequently women have been forced to play a dual role – that of the income earner and single parent. “There are protection issues as well. When children are left alone while the mother is at work, children are subject to neglect and susceptible to abuse,” said Sivapragasam.
He explained that, compared to the rest of the country children of the North are vulnerable to child labor because of the socio-economic repercussions of the three decade long war.
Northern Provincial Probation and Childcare Services Commissioner T Viswarupan identified the abject poverty of interior village inhabitants of the North and low education levels as the two major reasons for child labor. “Most children work as street side vendors and fishermen because of this poverty.”

Unreported

Although reported child labor cases have reduced this year to 24 from last year’s 148, he complained that there are those who fall through the cracks. “We only have statistics of those who sought legal assistance regarding child labor issues,” informed Viswarupan.
Jaffna Labor Department Commissioner K Kanageswaran said that many such cases are not reported to the authorities due to several practical issues. “There are many unreported cases. These take place mostly in interior villages where families do not have access to even basic facilities,” he added.

Kanageswaran said that those between 14 to 18 years of age could work, but not involve in dangerous jobs. “They cannot go deep sea fishing, work on high rise buildings and jobs that require them to handle complicated machinery,” he said. He further said that those who are found guilty of employing minors can be sentenced to one year in prison, fined Rs. 10, 000 and would also have to pay compensation to the child.
Forms of child labor run the gamut of unskilled labor, construction and agricultural work and commercial trade, explained ECAC Project Coordinator Sivapragasam. “Children are impressionable and therefore lured by the possibility of additional income. This is why they drop out of school to work. Their parents are equally under educated; therefore don’t feel the need to educate their children,” he said.

Dropouts

According to UNICEF ‘Out of School Children’ study report the percentage of out of school children is relatively higher among the Sri Lankan Tamil children of the Northern and Eastern provinces as a result of the closure of schools during the armed conflict.
However, the government has devised a mechanism to address the issue. Kilinochchi Government Agent, Ketheeswaran said that a program has been launched through Divisional Secretariats where such families are identified. “These families, once identified, will be provided assistance by the government. The kids will be allowed to go back to school. In certain cases, we have provided vocational training to some of them, so they could approach other organizations for job opportunities,” she said.
Probation and Childcare Services Commissioner, Viswarupan informed that the Probation Department in the North is collaborating with the Provincial Council to conduct awareness programs. “Once such families are identified they are provided with microfinance loans by organizations such as UNICEF to get them on their feet,” Viswarupan said. The probation Department also arranges for foster parenting through courts.

Ministry oblivious

When contacted, Child Development and Women’s Affairs Minister Tissa Karaliyadda seemed oblivious to the situation. “We have received no information that there is a child labor issue in the North,” said Minister Karaliyadda. When asked why no study has been conducted on the children of the North since the end of the war, he said, “By the time the war ended the environment was not conducive to conduct studies. Roads and infrastructure had to be developed, electricity, health and education facilities had to be provided first, along which the economy had to also be enhanced. These things take time.”
Minister Karaliyadda added that the Child Development and Women’s Affairs Ministry is in the process of filling ministry level women and child councilor vacancies in the North.
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