Interview with Hon. Dr. Harini Amarasuriya
in celebration of the International Day of the Girl Child,
International Day of the Elderly
and International Day of Rural Women
How has the pandemic impacted on the safety, rights and opportunities of the girl child?
Globally, they are talking about a shadow pandemic where domestic violence cases have increased drastically. This has a major impact on the Girl Child. Other than that, disruption to education for over one and a half years due to the pandemic is also one of the major concerns affecting the lives of not just Girl children but of children in general.
What can the State do in this regard?
The State has to first acknowledge that there is a problem, and that there is such a category as a Girl Child and that such Girl children require special measures of protection and care.
With children being confined to homes due to the pandemic, is there a risk of girls being compelled to undertake care work jeopardizing their education?
In the pandemic situation, with children being confined to homes, then Girl children were probably expected to pick up on a lot of care work as a matter of course. That reinforcement of gender-roles and stereotypes, especially when mothers are harassed and under a lot of stress, that burden would pass on to Girl children.
However, I don’t think they will drop out of schools immediately. Historically, in our community, we have not made a distinction between the Girl child and the Boy child, when it comes to education. That is because of free education, and accordingly, parents did not have to choose which child to educate. The cost of education was borne by the State. Now of course, with the steady cuts on education, parents may be forced to make such difficult choices. But I still think that in our context parents are not going to simply put barriers on a girl child to access education if the Girl child is academically-inclined.
However, due to the current system, I think children who fall behind schools, girl or boy, will be given less attention to by parents, if they have to make a choice.
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?
We have to make sure that there are targeted programs that focus on the vulnerable. For that we need public health systems to be fully supported. I noticed that this time, our health budget has reduced overall, and that is worrying. The Appropriation Bill shows that there is a reduction in the health budget and the pandemic is not even over by any stretch of the imagination. It is hard to understand why there has been a cut.
Further, with the rising cost of living, inevitably nutrition will take a hit, so you would assume that there would be more attention to primary health care.
What kind of challenges are faced by single-women headed families in the rural area due to the pandemic?
Not just women headed-families, rural women in general are having a terrible time. Rural women in Sri Lanka carry a lot of the economic burden, the unpaid care burden and are also at the receiving end of violence. This notion that our rural areas are scenic, romantic places is misplaced, especially when it comes to the experience of rural women.
One major challenge faced by many rural women is that most of them are in debt as a result of falling victim to micro credit finance schemes.
Further, over the pandemic time, we have another crisis looming due to the Government’s overnight decision to switch to organic fertilizer. This has a huge impact on the farming community and rural women play an important role in such communities. The farming community was already having a lot of issues, the rural women in such communities were already under severe debt, and now with the fertilizer or agriculture crisis, they are forced even further into debt.
What are your recommendations to improve the condition of such women and their families? Especially considering that we have a considerable number of women contributing to the rural economy?
There needs to a shift of focus to develop the rural economy. Currently, we are merely extracting resources from the rural economy and exploiting the rural community to maintain the urban economy. So, we need to change the current model of development. We have been following the same economic model for several decades now. We need to start focusing on the rural economy. For example, infrastructure needs to be improved in rural areas and we need to develop agriculture in such areas as well. Agriculture is one of the most primary ways of earning a living in rural economy and it is tied very much to their life style as well.
Furthermore, the small and medium entrepreneurs should also be focused when developing economic policies focusing the rural areas. We need to establish a collaborative system rather than a highly competitive system which disrupts the social network in such communities.
We need a shift our focus from urban economy to rural economy and think of ways to retain rural resources within rural communities, rather than extracting such resources from rural areas which leads to impoverished rural communities.
It is common knowledge that women living in rural areas are adversely affected by the micro credit crisis that is prevailing in the country. What has the State done (or can the State do) to mitigate the plight of such women and provide relief?
The State has done nothing. They created the problem and now they are doing nothing. In terms of what can the State do, they need to fulfill their promises. They gave a promise during the election that they will abolish micro credit debt which has not yet been fulfilled. This has made many rural women extremely helpless. Many of them believed in the promise and held back on their repayments, so that now they are in even more debt. The State has not taken any effort to give any kind of relief to such women.
There needs to be a complete recalling of the micro credit system in Sri Lanka, along with an acknowledgment that this is a predatory scheme rather than helping the poor. We need strong regulations to regulate the area and we have offered no solution to those who are currently in debt to these companies, largely as a result of the unethical practices these companies have undertaken.
So better regulation of such companies alone is not sufficient?
I think the whole concept of micro credit finance needs to be thoroughly reviewed. The whole purpose of it was to help the impoverished by giving them financial access. We need to examine and evaluate if the current scheme serves that purpose. Further, the State has to take more responsibility here. The State could have provided such access to financing rather than leaving it to private financial institutions who then tried to make it a profit-making venture.
Regulation is required. But the whole model also has to be reviewed.
It is estimated that the elderly population (60 and above) will increase from 2.5 million in 2010 to 5.3 million in 2041 (an increase of over 100 %, or a doubling of the elderly population). Accordingly, should we re-evaluate the potential contribution the elderly population can make to the economy of the country, especially considering the economic crisis that the entire country is facing due to the pandemic?
It is about what a country considers good and positive. Seniors have contributed a lot to the economy already. There is this notion that there is value to people only until they have economical value. I disagree with that notion. There is more to life and more to a person’s worth than simply their economic value. Most of our elderly population has contributed to the economy significantly and even after retiring from the workforce, they still do by contributing through unpaid care work. A lot of elderly people are providing child care. The whole point of being a human being is to enjoy life. You work in order to be able to save so that you can enjoy your retirement life. Society has to be reorganized so that the meaning of life is not solely surrounded around work. Most of these western countries are withdrawing from that notion whereas we are trying to embrace it by asking seniors to continue working.
Now if we take a look at these cleaning services, the majority of employees in such organizations are over the age of 60. They have to mop floors when they have reached a time in their life where they have to be looked after. We need to value people as a society. What do we as a society think is a good life for our elderly? Are we going to measure the value of human beings based on their economic value as a society?
Could online education which has become the new normalcy due to the pandemic be used to change the traditional teaching methods in Sri Lanka? Could we use this as an opportunity to move away from the traditional rote learning technique of ‘teacher dictating the note, while students copy’ employed in schools, to a more analytical and discussion-based teaching technique which encourages critical thinking and problem-solving skills in students?
Online learning is a technology. Teaching technique and method have to do with pedagogy. Unless there is a reform or transformation of the teaching pedagogy, just shifting technologies is not going to help. Online learning would be the same as face-to-face learning if the pedagogy is not changed. This idea that technology means something that is more modern and student-centered really has no merit. The pedagogical aspect to teaching needs to revised if we are to transform ‘rote learning’ teaching methods.
In any case, online teaching is a misnomer. Even in other countries, what more education specialists advocate is to use technology as part of the process, rather than replacing one with the other. What we are doing is focusing on the technology, rather than the concept. We think that the technology is going to be the fix. The attraction is the fact that teaching is cheaper using online technology. But cheaper does not mean better quality.
Not to mention the problems associated with access to online education, and the costs associated with online learning…
Of course. But, even in a situation where every child has access to online education, if we are to transform the teaching system and change from a rote learning system to one that fosters critical thinking, we need to review the pedagogy, not the technology.
First, we need to have a sense of what we mean by education, then what do we need to do to achieve that? More interactive-teaching and learning environment etc. The pedagogical or philosophical aspect of education has to be considered. That is why education specialists are there for. They are the people who should make decisions on such kind of issues, rather than people who do not have in expertise in the area.
What kind of challenges do you think the elderly population would face in a post-pandemic society? How should we as a country prepare ourselves for that?
It depends on the state of the post-pandemic society, really. Are we going to learn the lessons that the pandemic has taught us and make sure that our post-pandemic society is significantly improved than our pre-pandemic society, or are we going to return to exactly how it was?
If we are going to return to “normal”, then the elderly population is going to have huge problems. The pandemic exposed the weaknesses in our systems, and those structural weaknesses will continue. Such weaknesses will always affect the vulnerable communities more than others. The elderly and children are such vulnerable communities. For an example, with the rising cost of living, people who have fixed incomes, the pensioners, fixed-deposit holders are going to suffer just as much as those who are on a salary.
Further, with greater stress on families, there is more potential for elder violence, unfortunately. Usual care and protection systems are under stress due to the pandemic, and our elderly population will suffer the consequences of that as well.
We are no where close to a post-pandemic society. However, if we are learning from the pandemic hit society, then we need to transform that society and make sure that it is different to the pre-pandemic society which really caused the difficulties that we encountered during the pandemic.