Child abuse brings lifelong scars, lasting health impacts | Sunday Observer

Child abuse brings lifelong scars, lasting health impacts

Generation Safe and Healthy was the slogan that marked World Day Against Child Labour, observed recently. While the International Labour Organization (ILO) hailed Sri Lanka for its progress in bringing labour prevalence numbers down to 1% of the child population, there is still however concern over child workers ( mostly boys) who continue to engage in hazardous forms of labour. Such work has damaging lifelong adverse effects on children making them emotional, physical and mental cripples. Robbed of their education, and engaged in extreme forms of labour, separated from their families for long periods, they are in danger of mental, physical and moral harm that could leave lasting scars on their lives, an eminent Paediatrician told the Sunday Observer.

The Sunday Observer spoke to Associate Prof in Paediatrics, Faculty of Medicine, University of Kelaniya, and Consultant Paediatrician, Colombo North Teaching Hospital, Ragama, Prof. Asvini D Fernando who is also Chairperson, Child Protection Committee, Sri Lanka College of Paediatricians, to share her views on a subject close to her heart.


Q. June 12 World Day Against Child Labour and World Day for Safety and Health at Work shone its spotlight on the global need to improve safety and health of young workers and end child labour. Could you expand on this problem?

A. Child labour is defined as work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential, their dignity, and that is harmful to their physical and mental development.

The work they do could be mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful and interfere with their education. In its extreme forms child labour involves children being enslaved, separated from their families, exposed to serious hazards and illnesses and/or left to fend for themselves on the streets. Children may be employed in different sectors: Agriculture, fishing, mining and quarrying, manufacturing, construction and work in restaurants.

Q. What are the worst forms of labour?

A. All forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery, such as the sale and trafficking, forced or compulsory labour, including forced or compulsory recruitment for armed conflict, the use, procuring or offering of a child for prostitution, for the production of pornography or for pornographic performances, the use, procuring or offering of a child for illicit activities, in particular for the production and trafficking of drugs likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children.

Q. Where do Lankan children stand under the ILO terms? Do we have a national policy on this?

A. Sri Lanka has ratified all key international conventions concerning child labour. According to the ILO the minimum age at which a child is allowed to work is 16, in Sri Lanka the minimum age is 14, which does not meet the expected international standards. However, in 2016 Sri Lanka increased the compulsory age of education to 16 and it is anticipated that the minimum age for employment will be increased to 16 in the near future

Q. How many children are estimated to be working in Sri Lanka?

A. Sri Lanka has made substantial improvements in child labour trends. In 1999, there were 926,037 working children. This reduced to 556,599 in 2008/2009, and 103,704 in 2016.

A sizeable decline has also occurred in hazardous forms of child labour. Figures 1 & 2 depict these trends (ILO CHILD LABOUR in Sri Lanka-at a glance) .

Figure 1: Population trend of working children (1999—2016)

Figure 2: Subgroups of working children 2008/2009—2016

Q. What are the long term effects of exposure to adverse working conditions on a child? How does it affect his mind, brain, IQ and growth. Explain what the health effects are.

A. Let me illustrate this with some real examples of children we have dealt with in our ward to highlight this problem. C was a little girl aged 7. When her mother (a single parent) decided to go abroad for employment she rented her house to a family requesting them to take care of her 7 year old daughter and to send her to school. Several months later neighbours complained to the police that they heard C screaming on several occasions. The police brought the child to hospital and it was revealed that little C went to school only occasionally. Instead she was given household chores, which included washing the clothes of the family members and washing of pots and pans. When C did not perform the work entrusted to her satisfactorily she received corporal punishment from all three members of the household. In addition to hitting she was burnt with cigarette butts. She was malnourished, neglected and had wounds all over her little body following the punishments inflicted. The physical scars on her body will heal satisfactorily. However, her mental scars will remain with her a lifetime. We were able to help her with a safe placement and she is back in school. With the psychosocial rehabilitation and reintegration she received we hope she would be able to achieve her full developmental potential.

Q. What about Adolescent girls from the estate sector brought to Colombo and other urban cities for domestic labour?

A. We have also managed adolescent girls from the estate sector brought to Colombo and other urban cities for domestic labour. They are sent by their parents due to socio-economic difficulties and poor living conditions. They hope for a better future for their children. There are touts who make this a business and bring children away from homes on the estates for domestic labour promising the parents good prospects. These girls are deprived of their education, work long hours and some had been subjected to sexual, physical and emotional abuse by their employers. Often they had not received a salary and they did not know how much they were supposed to be paid.

Q. Why and what are the reasons children are so vulnerable to exploitation and abuse?

A. Many working children are exploited by employers as they do not demand minimum wages or satisfactory working conditions. In short they have no rights. They are paid dismal rates and children who are employed in hazardous forms of labour are forced to work as domestic slaves, in drug trafficking and sometimes as prostitutes. They perform exhausting work for many hours in a row, often in unhealthy and hazardous conditions. The work is physically, psychologically and/or morally harmful for children. The working environments often pose health hazards as the places of work are dingy and have very little ventilation and expose them to toxic fumes, etc. They do not get breaks as would adult employees who are aware of the right to a break during working hours. They work long hours and do not get a chance to attend school or to play with other children. For a child to grow and develop and achieve his/her true potential they need tender love of their caretakers, access to education, safeguarding from injury and abuse and the freedom to play with other children.

Q. What kind of interventions do you have in place for them? Who looks after them?

A. We manage these children in a special facility (Lama Piyasa) for children who have faced abuse and neglect, at the North Colombo Teaching Hospital Ragama. Our main aim in management is psycho-social rehabilitation and re-integration which we do with input from multiple sectors. The sectors involved are Health (Paediatricians, Psychiatrists, Judicial Medical Officers & their teams, Medical officer and nurses at the facility) Police Officers (of the Women’s and Children’s Desks), Officers of the Ministry of Women and Children’s Affairs (Probation Officers, Child Rights Promotion Officers and Officers of the National Child Protection Authority). In addition, when dealing with a child labourer the Department of Labour gets involved in the management in recent times. They have been able to get substantial compensation for these children from the employees. This is in addition to the legal proceedings of the cases. We have been able to send some children back to school and arrange vocational training for some, getting them away from the bondage of child labour.

Q. Does child labour interfere with the child’s rights and healthy development?

A. Yes indeed. Child labour does interfere with the child’s right to education and normal healthy development. If a child is working full time without attending school, he is not able to receive an education. Children are too young at the tender age of 14 to leave school and prepare for a stable adulthood. If after their OLs the child is not capable of continuing his/her education he/she should be offered vocational training so that he/she acquires a skill to ensure a productive mode of employment as an adult.

Q. Malnutrition, poverty and hunger are often said to be the underlying causes for child labour, especially, in developing countries. Does the same apply to Sri Lanka ?

A. Children from socio-economically deprived families are the ones who seem to end up in the child labour arena. The other factors are, children from dysfunctional (parental separation, divorce, death, employment abroad etc.) and non-cohesive families. The other main issue is children who are unable to cope with normal school work due to learning disorders, low IQ, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, etc. These children drop out of school and become vulnerable to all forms of abuse and exploitation. The education system should pick up such issues and refer them for assessment and remedial teaching. When necessary they should be sent for vocational training.

The Government of Sri Lanka also has programmes for nutritional supplementation and scholarships for education of children from socio-economically deprived families. However sometimes due to lack of knowledge these support systems do not reach the very children that are meant to receive them. The Government has established laws and regulations related to child labour, including its worst forms. However, gaps do exist in the legal framework to adequately protect children from child labour. These should be looked into and remedied.

While applauding the Department of Labour for commencing inspection of establishments with a high risk of hazardous child labour in 2016, I would urge for more vigilance.

Q. Have you any message for parents, counsellors, teachers in whose care children are, on how to reduce the adverse health impacts of child labour?

A. All those who work with children should ensure their childhood is spent in safe, secure environments where they can grow and achieve their full developmental potential. Investing in children will ensure the wellbeing of our future nation.

 ILO report

A majority of Sri Lanka’s working children work within the service sector. However, children engaged in child labour as well as its hazardous forms, most commonly work within the industry sector. Overall, most working children are engaged in elementary occupations (43.8); service and sales (23.0%), plant and machine operators and assemblers (14.5%), craft (12.5%), and others (6.1%). Among children engaged in child labour, the majority was in elementary occupations (42.2%). Among those who take up elementary occupations, many are involved in labour-intensive tasks like construction and manufacturing.