In the Best Interest of Every Child -Hiranthi Wijemanne | Sunday Observer

In the Best Interest of Every Child -Hiranthi Wijemanne

21 November, 2021
Public health veteran Dr. Hiranthi Wijemanne presenting her autobiography to the UNICEF country Representative to Sri Lanka Christian Skoog
Public health veteran Dr. Hiranthi Wijemanne presenting her autobiography to the UNICEF country Representative to Sri Lanka Christian Skoog

Public health veteran Dr. Hiranthi Wijemanne launches her autobiography “In the Best Interest of Every Child” reflecting her remarkable journey in the public health sector of Sri Lanka.

Dr. Hiranthi Wijemanne is a renowned veteran in the public health sector of Sri Lanka who holds a medical degree from the Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo and a Master’s Degree in Public Health from the Harvard School of Public Health in the USA.

She is well known for her role at UNICEF Sri Lanka as a national professional for 27 years and has contributed her expertise to many children related projects pre/post and during the civil war of Sri Lanka.

Dr. Hiranthi Wijemanne with her autobiography “In the Best Interest of Every Child”.

During her remarkable career, she has worked with the Sri Lanka Peace Secretariat, the National Child Protection Authority and the Department of Probation and Child Care. She was also one of the nine candidates elected to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 2010 to serve in Geneva.

She’s a dedicated wife, mother and a lovely grandmother apart from the many roles she’s played during her career nationally and internationally.

“In the Best Interest of Every Child” an autobiography written by her tells us about the relentless pursuit of her journey to give every child the best possible healthcare in Sri Lanka, how they achieved remarkable healthcare milestones during the peak of the war, her international experience serving at the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in Geneva and many inspiring real-life stories.

Here’s a brief from the interview we had with her recently.

Q: What inspired you to write this book?

A: In today’s world, particularly in the international sphere, there appear to be subtle efforts to bully poorer and less developed countries like Sri Lanka, by some well to do Western nations. This is a growing phenomenon of people passing judgment on countries like Sri Lanka with no real knowledge of the country or its people. This is why I decided that the truth must prevail.

The fact that Sri Lanka successfully won a brutal battle against one of the most dreaded terrorist organisations is a victory of no mean proportion. In addition, as I have articulated, amid a battle priority was given to help and support the people of the country, especially families and children, and uphold their best interest. Focused in this book, are my experiences of working in the midst of a conflict.

Q: Could you briefly tell us about the work that was done during your time with UNICEF?

A: Sri Lanka was a peaceful nation when I started at UNICEF. Initially, the scope of work involved responsibility for the promotion of primary health care focused on children, defined as all those under the age of 18.

Later, for several reasons, I was also given additional responsibilities relating to the promotion of early childhood development as well as maternal health and child nutrition. These responsibilities subsequently expanded to include responding to a growing awareness of child abuse and the commercial exploitation of children. In addition to this, I was also given the authority to handle UNICEF’s Primary Education Program.

The conflict in Sri Lanka which began in 1983 caused widespread violence, beginning in Colombo and extending to other areas of the island. Ensuring the uninterrupted provision of maternal and child health services in this context became a great challenge.

But all of those working both at UNICEF and in the Government were determined not to allow an interruption of services for mothers and children in any way. This also included ensuring continued access to education and healthcare for children. I am proud to declare that none of the barriers we faced succeeded in preventing us from providing essential services to the children of our country.

Amazingly, much to our delight, both Government security forces as well as the terrorist groups did not interrupt ongoing health programs, essential for the wellbeing of women and children. The State forces even provided air space for the transport of essential drugs and dressings which we were able to obtain through the Ministry of Health.

Supplies of these items were essential for health care services reaching out to some of the remotest areas, where access to hospitals was difficult because of landmines and terrorist activity. The Ministry of Health supported the organisation of many health camps for people living in those areas. Health camps were very popular as people could not attend clinics or access hospitals due to frequent terrorist activities, including landmines on certain routes. Our coordinated efforts yielded a positive outcome.

Sri Lanka was able to eradicate polio, measles, mumps and whooping cough, reduce respiratory infections, and conduct regular growth monitoring of every child based on growth charts during a battle. The screening and monitoring of all pregnant mothers were also regularly undertaken. Growth charts were provided for every preschool child by UNICEF.

New initiatives were also undertaken to conduct maternal death audits to identify and remedy weaknesses in the system and rectify gaps. During this same time, efforts were also taken to prevent child labour, despite difficulties to address this age-old practice.

Q: You served at the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) from 2011 to 2015. Tell us a bit about your work there.

A: In 1989, world leaders made a historic commitment to the world’s children by adopting the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) at the General Assembly of the UNICEF on November, 20th 1989.

The members of this committee are elected by a secret ballot from candidates nominated by state parties. I was elected in this manner to the International Monitoring Committee on Child Rights by the General Assembly of the United Nations in December 2010 and functioned for four years.

Being a member of the Committee was an entirely new experience that gave me valuable insight into how child rights are addressed. Countries are represented in the context of the regions we belong to, so, I represented South Asia.

While the Committee undertook the challenging task of identifying unmet needs and issues related to countries about the implementation of the CRC, other issues were also identified and had to be solved. Some countries did not make much progress on particular issues, and such issues tended to remain stagnant. This was particularly when they had concerns with regard to changing the age of marriage for girls, age-old cultural and other traditional norms contrary to child rights.

Other areas we worked on included reducing infant and child mortality, developing primary health care, combatting diseases and malnutrition, promoting the consumption of nutritious foods by children, and enabling access to safe drinking water, pre-natal and post-natal care including a safe delivery for all mothers. Promotion of information related to child health and nutrition is a requirement as is access to family planning.

When assessing the situation of children, in comparison to many other developing countries in South Asia, I’m proud to say that Sri Lanka is regarded as a country that has achieved considerable progress in many areas of importance and concern related to children. Sri Lanka’s child mortality has steadily declined in the past few decades, despite a prolonged conflict.

Q: Undoubtedly you have had a remarkable career in the public health sector and also undertook several international assignments over the years. How was the experience?

A: While most of my working life was in Sri Lanka, I also travelled to a few other countries at the request of the UNICEF office in Colombo, and spent some time at UNICEF New York on an assignment related to child labour.

I spent time in Africa to support the UNICEF office in Tanzania in the preparation of a situation analysis, based on which a plan of action was formulated. I performed the same function at the UNICEF office in Riyadh, before the preparation of a plan of action to be funded by UNICEF, and also in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

During my early days with the UNICEF, I visited the Maldives frequently as the UNICEF office in Colombo was responsible for the Maldives. One of my earliest visits was when there was a huge cholera epidemic caused by polluted water. The deaths were drastically reduced when the use of oral rehydration was promoted, specifically for children, and large stocks of oral rehydration salts from Sri Lanka were airlifted to the Maldives.

I was particularly proud of this as I was directly involved with the local production of Jeevanee, Sri Lanka’s own locally produced oral rehydration salts. It was produced by the State Pharmaceutical Corporation of Sri Lanka.

My short assignment in Africa, in Tanzania, was challenging as educating the population on the principles of public health was very difficult. During my visits, in the early years of the 1970s and 1980s, I was often shocked at the high rate of maternal mortality there, which was very different to Sri Lanka.

Most African women during the 1970s delivered their babies at home and it was mostly local midwives who assisted them, as hospitals and delivery services were few and often very far away. One key issue during these times in the 1970s and 1980s was a traditional practice of female circumcision among nearly all the women, which led to obstructed labour, causing danger not only to the child but to the mother as well. The women suffered during delivery, and some died leaving behind their newborn children. I raised this issue at many forums related to women’s health in Africa.

In conclusion, all my international assignments only reinforced my perception that it is national Governments, which have to make the right choices for the children of their nations.

Attending meetings, discussions and media promotions are of no use unless the people and political leaders of a country are motivated by relevant State authorities to place a high priority on the implementation of the rights of their children - not for some - but for every child. They are the future of the nation.

Q: Any words of wisdom you would like to share with us?

A: I strongly believe that the best way to serve the nation is by serving children. The development of a country is not measured by its infrastructure but by how they look after the country’s people especially children. Give a voice to children, instill good values in them, and work towards bringing out their full potential.

Learned education is separate and teaching them true values based on real-life would solve a lot of issues they face from infants, kids, adolescence to adults. Sri Lanka definitely can achieve that by strengthening the family unit which must come from the policy level by introducing family-friendly programs.

I believe one’s childhood has a significant influence on who we become as adults, and what we finally make of our lives. Childhood is without any doubt, the foundation for the type of persons we eventually become and violence is not the way to raise children. For good adulthood, the foundation is a good childhood and I request all parents to treat their children well because one’s family is the very best part of one’s life, and nothing else can compare with it.

On a separate note, I need to express my heartfelt thanks to UNICEF Sri Lanka, all my Government colleagues, healthcare workers and security forces for supporting us in our endeavours, especially during the battle against terrorism. I must also thank the late Lieutenant General Denzil Lakshman Kobbekaduwa and former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga for their remarkable support during those times.

Last but by no means least, I would like to extend my deepest gratitude to my husband Narendra, who so willingly supported me at every step of my work and my son Dinal and my daughter Varuni, both of whom in so many different ways supported me as I juggled work and family responsibilities to the best of my ability.