Children before Everything Else
Interview with Hon. State Minister, Dr. Sudarshini Fernandopulle in celebration of Children’s Day
A study reveals that only 30% of the children in Sri Lanka have access to online education. Considering the importance of education in Sri Lanka and given our longstanding history of providing free-education to all children equally, what can we do to rectify this situation?
Education is of utmost importance. In view of the problems concerning access to education, the Ministry of Education was planning on introducing new TV channels specifically focusing on providing education to children. I’m not in a position to talk about the details of the programme as I am not part of the Ministry of Education. But I know that they have a very good plan for it. Personally, I believe that online education is something which the majority of children should have access to. As the majority of people have access to TV rather than internet devices, it would be more useful to do something on TV.
Anyway, online education should only be a temporary measure because online education only focuses on providing knowledge. Social and life skills that children develop through attending schools physically and doing extra-curricular activities cannot be gained through online education. Therefore, online education is only a temporary measure which should be conducted until a conducive environment is created to start schools again. The Government is very keen to open schools and is expecting to open small school less than 200 students. Thereafter, measures such as opening schools with a limited number children per classroom can be taken thereby gradually opening schools for our children.
What can we do to ensure that even in a setting where children are confined to their homes due to lockdowns and movement restrictions, children receive the social skills that are vital to succeed in life through their education?
Until herd immunity is achieved, socialization in the traditional sense is going to be very difficult to achieve amidst this pandemic. Due to the risk of COVID, socialization of everyone is curtailed. Within the space of the family, parents should try engage their children in diverse activities in order ease the pressures on the children. Parents can also encourage their children to interact with similar-aged extended family members, given that such relatives live close by, practice social distancing rules and are fully vaccinated. Parents must overall communication well with their children and must create a stimulating environment for the child so that they realize the importance of developing social skills.
Could we use online education as an opportunity to move away from traditional teaching techniques to more analytical and discussion-based teaching techniques which encourages critical thinking and problem-solving skills in students?
Of course, learning is beyond note-taking which is prevalent in Sri Lanka. Through online education, children can develop new skills such as researching, gathering information on their own, looking for learning material etc. In some ways, it is a good opportunity for some children. But of course, there are limitation as a lot children do not have access to online education.
How has Covid-19 impacted on children’s health?
Children are affected physically and mentally. Being confined to homes and being seated for long hours due to online classes, and due to the restriction of movement in general, some children may face the risk of obesity and other related health problems. Children might also be exposed to behavioral problems as well, because they do not get the opportunity to interact with other children of similar age. They interact with people much older than them like parents and grandparents. They do not have playtime or time to share their ideas with similar age children.
Then on a much more serious level, they might also become vulnerable and fall prey to cybercrimes and abuse as they spend a lot of time online. This might result in physical, sexual, psychological and verbal abuse. So, parents must carefully monitor such situations.
Additionally, as parents are also going through a very tough time, parents might also release their anger on their dependents. So, there is a possibility of children undergoing physical abuse due to the frustrations faced by the parents consequent to the pandemic.
Should teachers and parents be more aware and understanding of mental health issues that children could likely suffer from due to the pandemic, even in the post-pandemic society?
Of course, definitely. Due to the movement restrictions that they faced for long period of time, children will suffer from anxiety, stress and behavioural problems. This will have an impact on children, even after they start attending schools physically. Some children might even become more aggressive due to negative experiences and trauma they witnessed, if they are coming from abusive homes.
What kind an action plan should our schools have to address such issues in the post-pandemic society?
Once schools reopen, I think it is very important for teachers to become very close their students to identify the changes in behaviour of their students. Some children might become more destructive class. Some may not be able to concentrate and focus for a long period. So, teachers will have to play a major role in identifying such issues.
We must however acknowledge there are some children in Grade 1 and 2 who have not really spent much time in school. So, in such cases, as teachers have not had the opportunity to interact with and assess such children at all prior to the pandemic, it will be very difficult for them to detect any changes.
In those cases, with the help of psychologists and psychiatrists, we might be able to develop tools like a checklist enabling the identification of behavioural problems of school children in a post pandemic society.
With the income of families being affected due to the pandemic, many families are finding it difficult to meet with their daily food requirements. What kind of steps can we take to ensure that the pandemic does not result in an increase of malnutrition among children?
Of course, that again is a great risk. There are people who have lost their livelihood. Especially, the ones who depended on the tourism industry and who were small scale entrepreneurs. Some companies have reduced their cadre. So, there are real issues. The children of such families whose incomes and livelihoods are affected due to the pandemic are likely to have a negative impact on their nutritional status.
The government’s ‘Samurdhi’ program continues to support low-income families and is trying its best to support people by adopting measures such as providing moratoriums on repayment of loans etc. For schools with children less than 200, they already receive a free meal. We hope that it will improve school attendance as well.
This is global pandemic and our economy depends on the global economy. Therefore, even the Government’s income is significantly reduced due to the pandemic. It is a difficult situation as there is a limit as to what the Government can do as well.
With the drastic increase of domestic abuse cases being reported during the pandemic, what kind of impact has it made on children of such families? Are there measures available to protect such affected children?
There is definitely an increase in domestic violence cases and that does have a negative impact on children. There are some preventive measures established. For example, having a helpline, a designated complaint desk in police stations, counsellors at the divisional level. We also have children’s desk but whether these officers have the necessary skills to manage such situations is doubtful. We also don’t have formal safe houses for victims. We have mithuru piyasa at major hospitals where victims of violence can go for treatment. But not safe houses where victims can seek shelter temporarily and remove themselves from abusive homes.
As there is a risk of abused children becoming abusers when they become adults, we need to focus more on developing and enforcing an effective system, in this regard.
How has the pandemic impacted on the safety, rights and opportunities of differently abled children and children from minority groups such as the plantation community?
Children from minority groups such as the plantation community are affected by loss of family income, domestic abuse and substance abuse.
Differently abled children are heavily affected due to the loss of access to services. COVID and long periods of lockdown have hindered the effective functioning of supportive services. This would have had a greater negative impact on the differently abled community. For example, the accessibility of medical services must have severely been curtailed because we had to give priority to COVID treatment and management.
I think even in situations where low-income families were distributed money, differently abled people may have been practically refrained from obtaining them because their mobility is restricted and they cannot wait in long queues. We used to have social values we give priority to pregnant mothers and differently abled people. But society seems to move away from them. I do not have evidence to back these claims but these are real possibilities.
What can we do to rectify this situation?
It is a very difficult question to give a simple answer. Maybe the Government can provide supportive services to the family like counselling services and also visits by social workers to support the family. I think the majority of such families should be supported economically. We have the samurdhi program for low-income families. Under the 2022 budget, the Government is planning to focus on Small and Medium Entrepreneurs at village level and has allocated 3 million for each Grama Niladhari division, of which 40% have been definitely allocated for supporting SMEs. That would also immensely assist such families.
With regards to children specifically, there are officers in the divisional secretariat with the specific mandate to address child safety issues. These officers should be able to identify vulnerable families and provide supporting services. We do have officers. But whether we have an effective system to identify these families is doubtful. In the health system, the public health mid-wife visits such families until five years after the child’s birth. But we don’t have a similar system for older but vulnerable children, particularly differently abled children. So maybe we can implement a system using the officers in the divisional secretariat system to develop a more comprehensive database that would allow us to identify such families thereby, monitor and support them.
How could we take this opportunity to support strengthening and appreciation of diversity amongst children to promote social inclusion through the next generation? Should we take measures to review our school curriculums in order to foster an environment which is more inclusive?
Definitely, we should review our school curriculums. We need to promote inclusive education. We need to re-evaluate our components in the school curriculum on gender equality, inclusiveness etc. The pandemic is a very good opportunity to review and revise our curriculum, and change the values and attitudes of the children. We have enough officers in the system. But our system is not working properly. We have to identify the weaknesses in our system. Our education system is heavily knowledge based and do not focus on skills. We want a wholistically developed child. Our children are knowledgeable but not skillful. They do not know how to resolve conflict, help each other, be empathetic, how to face a problem and come out of it. So, our education system needs to be reformed.
Has the Women’s Caucus been able to bring up these issues in Parliament?
The Caucus mainly focuses on issues faced by women. We hardly have any time to talk about other issues. The responsibility of bringing up and addressing these issues pertaining to children is anyway not solely on female representatives. It should be a responsibility of all 225 members, regardless of their gender. Every Member of Parliament should be responsible to resolve children’s issues in our country. They are our future.