(Mirror) - Special interview for mirror.lk with Sajeewa Samaranayake , former State Counsel, Child protection specialist to Unicef and govt.
Interviewed by Harasha Gunewardene.
You began your career as a lawyer, but now you are a full time child protection practitioner...why the switch?
In the late 90s, when child abuse became a public was involved with the issue as a state counsel. At first, we all worked with the idea of child abuse as a crime – and crime only and this is how the Attorney General was considered an important functionary.
We started prosecuting abusers, sought to implement changes to offences and procedure that became law in 1995 and also took an active part in collaborating with other professionals – like police, probation, doctors and prison officers. However our discussions were framed in terms of enforcing the law which meant prosecuting and punishing abusers.
In short, we worked within the framework of the criminal justice system. A lot of people still believe that this is the dominant response to child abuse.
My journey has taken me out of criminal justice and into the development side with a view to creating a genuine child protection mechanism.
The criminal justice system is focused on the offender. While this is important it has overshadowed some critical and immediate actions that should be taken for the child. From treating injuries and finding a safe and suitable custodian or helping the parents to support the child we must also ensure normalcy by getting the child back in school or in some form of training without keeping the child inside an institution indefinitely. This needs the commitment of officers and resources so that these children receive the priority they deserve.
My constant complaint against the government, society and the media is that they have all run behind offenders and given first place to the criminal process. As a result that process is now clogged and stuck. We need to knock some sense into each other and join hands to give first place to the child.
In your work as a prosecutor were you ever emotionally moved by the treatment meted out to children by the system?
The criminal justice system – police, courts, prisons, probation, doctors etc have been collectively responsible for what we term the secondary victimization of the child victim. In short they are passive perpetrators – however unintentional in working a system that is not designed to help victims but simply punish criminals. It is only now that professionals are coming together in a significant way to change this trend .
I witnessed a 14 year old girl who made an accusation against a powerful individual, being separated from her family and kept in the Ranmuthugala Remand Home breaking down time and again in tears when she was brought to give evidence to the Magistrate’s Court. Quite frankly none of the legal professionals (including myself) knew what we were doing. We did not appreciate the significance of the experience this girl was going through.
To this day I have been motivated by this feeling of inadequacy and also shame. We had a lot of power – but this power was futile in helping the child. I started reading up and studying and began to play an active part in workshops and conferences on the subject.
Subsequently I got this wonderful break through the British Council in 2001 to go to UK and do a Masters in family justice studies, at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. This was a joint law and social work masters programme.
Can you give us some details of the course, how it impressed and affected you?
I learnt that child protection is founded on social work and that the role of law is to enable professional social work with children and families. The child protection system in UK was established as part of the social welfare state that emerged with the socialist government of Clement Attlee in 1945. I studied the background to these developments and found that this change was spearheaded by decades of work prior to 1945 by people who turned both social work and psychology into fully fledged professions. As I walked through the library at East Anglia, I was amazed at the depth of social work knowledge, social care planning and social policy in UK. The professors who taught in the School of Social Work for example, people like David Howe and June Thoburn had been professional social workers in the 1960’s. I even met Prof Martin Davies (author of Essential Social Worker) who was kind enough to give me a copy of the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social Work he edits. These people were remarkable human beings who exemplified the values of the social work profession.
Once I returned there was no question of staying on at the Attorney General’s Department. I remember going to the Court of Appeal to do liquor licence cases. The government had changed and the licensees of the previous government were challenging cancellations. Luckily for me a vacancy opened up at unicef Sri Lanka and I joined as a child protection specialist.
What were your main areas of focus at unicef?
From 2003 to the end of the war in 2009 , unicef Sri Lanka deployed about 20 child protection officers with some in Colombo and the rest in the North and East. After the tsunami there was a team in the South as well. While there was a strong focus on child soldiers there was also a well funded programme that looked at building systems for both social protection or prevention and legal protection or protection. My work as the senior national child protection officer was to build relationships and a network for this and support the government to take ownership of this work. Strong links were established with the police, probation and Magistrates also. Because the work of systems and capacity building is long term trust, credibility, goodwill and local ownership are key factors.
What were the positives and any frustrations in unicef?
Personally I grew because I worked under two really good heads of Child Protection. They helped me to think through issues like developing baselines with indicators, maintaining an evidence base and promoting a consensus towards policy changes and reform. These years were critical for me as I learned all my development practice and training skills there. I was very enthusiastic about training but my only experience was in lecturing. The workshop culture of generating discussions, using games for experiential learning and working on visual and audio materials was something I picked up at unicef. My colleagues were mostly brilliant in the supportive energy they gave me and the team.
However I was spending 90% of my time on office priorities and the balance 10% for technical work.
I also found that beneficiaries were not real partners and that they had no voice or say in conventional programming. This was very frustrating.
Having got out I have been doing research, training, networking and advising the Government, the UN and INGO’s and NGO’s for 4 years now and these have been the most productive years of my 20 plus years as a professional. My work breaks new ground in terms of knowledge all the time. At the same time I can stay focused on the long terms goals while institutions fight their own battles with internal processes. About 40-50% of my time is devoted to voluntary work and this has been mostly focused on transforming the 2 Remand Homes at Makola and Ranmuthugala as the coordinator of a Supreme Court directed action plan. The visits to these Homes help me relate directly to the problems of children in detention as well as the pressures that the staff deal with on a daily basis. I also help out in individual cases when I can. This is somewhat time-consuming but they are also rewarding in terms of results and also learning the blocks in the system.
So you have viewed this problem facing our children from several angles?
Yes ... but the one angle that matters most is the view points of children, their families and the communities they grow in....Governance in Sri Lanka is profoundly top down. And it is very controlling. The heart of the problem is that the poor and the weak have no voice. They have many agents and champions – but we keep re-enacting the same cycles of dependency and charity.
We use the criminal justice system to deal with a multi-faceted social problem. Even in those few cases where the system works we may put the abuser behind bars but the abusive environment continues – in families, schools and residential institutions.
The children who get entangled in the criminal justice system are victimized more or less. Their lives and needs take second place while police, doctors, lawyers and judges go through their own rituals. I worked with unicef and the Government social sector to see how a support system can be organized. Here again I could see how ‘justice’ related ministries and institutions had a lot of power but the ‘social sector’ ministries and institutions like the ministries of child development, social services, NCPA and Probation – all had limited powers, recognition and budgets within the Government system. Some limited gains were made in this sector but we continue to face huge structural barriers.
What are these?
First and foremost there is an actual and also perceived lack of professionalism in the way social services are administered, managed and delivered in this country. The reasons are deep rooted.
When our social welfare state was being set up in the 1940’s both health and education sectors were developed and ready to go universal. So they were established as a single service for all citizens. Of course this consensus has now been stolen away from our hands by weak governance and globalization; but we still retain the old structures in health and education – the latter probably more damaged than the latter. What people overlook is that the social welfare sector which was given the responsibility for the most vulnerable in society was given a very limited role. The two departments set up to address socio-economic and behavioural issues of children, elderly, disabled etc – Social Services and Probation were office based services with limited outreach capacity.
Our social work was not developed at that time to win a budget allocation for a social work system. In UK on the other hand the socialists had worked for decades and both the mental health (psychiatrists and psychologists) and social work professions had matured for them to establish a social work system. Clement Attlee who was an East End Social Worker at the end of the First World War was able to show the door to Churchill in the 1945 elections. That was how strong socialism had become at the end of the Second World War. In Sri Lanka on the other hand we had no social work champions (like Kannangara in education) and so we entrusted social policy to Sir Ivor Jennings who wrote the report that founded social welfare for Ceylon in 1947. In the turbulent 4 decades that commenced with the JVP insurgency in 1971 our social problems grew by leaps and bounds but the capacity of social services and probation remained the same. Most of us agree that these two departments have actually declined and become less professional than they were in the 50’s and 60’s.
Can you elaborate on 'social work' and 'social work systems'? What's missing here in Sri Lanka?
There are times in the life of each and every one of us where we become helpless and reliant on the care and assistance of others.
When we are infants or sick or become bedridden or immobilized due to illness or injury or old age and also when we face unexpected deaths, separations and other losses in life we look up to close family members or relatives and friends to support us through our need.
Sometimes family and friends are simply not available and we have to look to wider society for help. This can happen to any one of us.
We have developed this blind attitude of forgetting how we have personally benefited and look at those who are in difficulty as if they are different human beings. This stigmatizing attitude is seen most in respect of the disabled, mentally challenged , street people and poor. The other factor is money. Those who have come upon money in whatever way may then feel that they can buy these services. They forget that real human caring and love is beyond the confines of a money transaction. Real care is priceless. It cannot be bought.
All of us in society need social work at some time or other. If we truly value this we must have a consensus that having reasonable access to such services in times of need must be a right for all members of society.
In Sri Lanka we have yet to agree at this level of thinking. What we have done is to maintain the colonial poor law system – which is to maintain the poor and vulnerable at the least expense and inconvenience to the rich and middle classes (the true beneficiaries of free health and education). In short whatever social work and services we as the state have committed to is based on the idea of charity – not rights.
Social work cannot be done by everyone. It requires a high degree of interest in and commitment towards your fellow human beings. This means that professional social workers should be specially selected and trained up to diploma and degree levels. Moreover when the government recruits people to do social work related jobs much greater care has to be taken in both creating the relevant jobs and in recruitment. Right now the attitude is that anyone with any degree can be recruited for a social work job. Other professions do not recruit people like this. Another important source of social workers is career changers who switch from their first job – and move into social work, typically in their mid thirties. Such professionals are experienced and can bring a wider range of skills and aptitudes to their practice.
A social work system enables the effective and efficient delivery of social work services. This requires a societal commitment to dedicate the resources as a matter of principle. Once there is a policy there can be social work planning and the deployment of competent social workers who are supported with the resources they need to care for and protect their clients – the people who need social work. Elements like professional supervision, education and practice teaching and also clear procedures make the task of social work possible.
What is happening in Sri Lanka today is that administrators are dominating social work services.
The administrative approach is very managerial and is driven more by common categories and common solutions rather than personalized services. For example if there are 500 orphans after a natural disaster they will think more in terms of building an orphanage to place the children to ‘manage’ the issue rather than support a more humane and painstaking process of finding personalized solutions for each child. Of course in modern governance there is always a tension between administrative and human needs. But in our case both the people and the social work officers who serve them are disempowered through administrative dominance.
Every time we look at the diverse human and social problems in this country facing the weak and the helpless – like children, women, disabled, elderly and others who need special care – we come up against the tough reality that we have not recognized the value of social work in this country.
So you feel Sri Lanka particularly weak in its social capital? Is there a historical reason for this?
Up to the Colebrooke Cameron Reforms of 1833 we were a nation of peasant cultivators. We may have had a commercial tradition up to Polonnaruwa but thereafter our trade was dominated by Muslims and the western powers. The agrarian society had a strong ethical foundation. However this natural economy was broken up by the British to establish the plantation economy. We are still in the transition phase from a feudal to a modern economy.
We have been unable to build on the strong ethical agrarian base when moving into the era of trade and competition. On the contrary it seems that the ancient Sinhala and Tamil social systems were deliberately undermined to pave the way for a new colonial economy. The emergent English educated Sinhala and Tamil middle classes were active collaborators with the British in digging the grave of our social systems and depriving the rural peasantry of whatever land they owned. Uninhibited greed and ostentatious consumption became legitimized in the new westernized social order. The present set of leaders (both English and vernacular speaking) have now slipped effortlessly into this predatory role.
Technology and the market have now become the decisive forces in our society. Politics and religion have succumbed to these forces. Essentially the idea is to accumulate more and more power and more followers. Both politicians and priests exploit the masses to manipulate their allegiance and consent. Material technology and the competitive instinct man is a powerful combination. When they are not restrained by an ethical system they can go berserk and eventually destroy society. This is happening in Sri Lanka now.
The economy has swallowed everything else?
Quite so. It has swallowed not just the Government and private sectors but also the NGO’s, the UN and everything else. Money rules; there is no rule of law but the rule of money. And this is the global situation, not just in little Sri Lanka...
I referred to technology. That is how we apply science to everyday life. From the time we wake up in the morning we use mobile phones, refrigerators, gas cookers, washing machines, motor vehicles, elevators and computers. This has become so commonplace we hardly notice the amount of scientific technology we use every day. We have found answers to the problem of living and have learnt to make our lives more convenient and comfortable.
Yet we have not found the answers to the problem of life and understood who we are. This is because we have not found a way of applying spirituality into our everyday lives. Lacking the spiritual technology and know how we have crashed against the rock of materialism. And we are in pieces. Child abuse and domestic violence are simply two of the symptoms of this general condition. In applying spirituality we can go as ‘high tech’ or ‘low tech’ as we wish. Unless we create some space in our lives to regain perspective, to calm our minds and relate to our own feelings and emotions peacefully we can just go through life like loose canons – a danger to ourselves and others.
As Sri Lankans we need to investigate a time in our history where a good balance between material and spiritual technology was struck to produce a balanced society that was both strong and self sufficient. I do feel that the combined Anuradhapura and Polonnaruva periods were based on this harmony of science and spirituality. But from Dambadeniya onwards we lost both technologies – scientific and spiritual.
As a lawyer and citizen, your views on the recent impeachment and dismissal of the Chief Justice?
The process was well supported by scientific technology. Right up to the point where the Chief Justice walked into the committee room in Parliament both sides to the dispute were well served by science – They could communicate, they could make press releases and they could get about Colombo with great ease.
But when it came to face to face communication and dispute resolution they failed miserably. There are still people who believe that the impeachment was about the constitution and laws. I beg to differ. It was a failure on the part of those wielding power in the executive and judiciary to co- exist with mutual tolerance and respect. It was a failure of a relationship. And when this happens it is pointless to ask who was at fault. Both sides are responsible and the result is a collective failure.
Our leaders are a clear manifestation of an interpersonal crisis at the heart of our society and our families. For most nationalists in 1956 the independence that D.S. Senanayake won was not good enough. They wanted an “apey anduwa”. The culmination of the chain of institutional destruction set in after 1956 today is the “apey usaviya”. And now having got everything the ‘nationalists’ wanted nobody is at ease in this society. Even the leaders are not free. They must protect themselves with a lot of armed guards when appearing in public. The soldiers are still looking for bombs in the beautiful pavements of Sri Jayawardenapura. This is so very sad. There must be a closure to this hyped us state of siege – this fortress mentality. We are our worst enemies. We have undermined everything the British gave without replacing them with any values and principles.
Any positives you see in this society, and what would you tell young people?
Every individual must see with his or her own eyes and come to necessary conclusions. Collectively we must face up to some historical facts. If we see things in a broader perspective there is room for a lot of hope.
The Sinhalese or Lankans (however we prefer to call our ancestors) were driven out of all their major capitals by foreign invasions. They were driven out of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruva, Kotte and Kandy. They were a peace-loving people but the South Indians and Westerners wanted to colonize the island. On the other hand we cannot be like frogs in the well. Unless we move with the times, settle our differences and interact positively with global forces they will simply overtake us. This is what has happened. When advanced societies are planning for global warming we are still in the stone age fighting each other.
There were 4 main tribes in the island when Buddhism arrived – Sakya, Deva, Yaksha and Naga. Buddhism unified them and this is how the Sinhalese originated. So the people in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruva kingdoms shared a deep allegiance to Buddhism. After the Kalinga Magha invasion of 1215 devastated the rajarata the people who re-grouped had a stronger ‘Sinhalese’ identification. This is how race became politically more significant than religion. The spirit of Buddhism waned. Whereas in the 3rd century BC Buddhism was a force for unity in the present context the Sinhalese have turned it into a divisive force. Buddhism has not changed but circumstances have changed the outlook of the people making them more narrow and fearful.
My message to young people is that we must review the ideas that our fathers and grandfathers followed in building the post – colonial society. We are yet to meet the first challenge of a human society – learning to live in peace with each other. Non violence is the challenge of decolonization. The life of Gandhi must be studied as he has now become more relevant for us than for India. The Mahatma understood violence within and violence without and he came up with a deep response that engaged violence within his own heart. Today you can see how the issue of violence has been hopelessly fragmented by human rights activists. They will say violence against children, violence against women etc, etc without ever getting to the root of the problem. Gandhi was pro-human and anti structural. Most modern approaches on the other hand are pro structural and anti-human. They see solutions in chasing individual perpetrators. This is just an ego trip. It is playing to the media and to the gallery.
There is far too much aggression in our public and private lives. We need to realize freedom within before expressing it outwardly. Most of all we must focus on doing things with people and for people. We may be working with laws, systems, machines, procedures, computers and other tools. If we allow those things to steal our attention away from the human beings we lose the plot.
What have been your greatest influences? school, teachers, family?
My family has been a powerful influence – especially my mother and father and my wife; my teachers at Trinity – especially Mr.Paul Jeyraj who taught us to be hard on ourselves and not to slink into the dormitory (when we were monitors) for afternoon naps! As a lawyer and development practitioner I have been fortunate to learn from some great individuals – former Attorney General Mr. CR De Silva PC, Justice Shiranee Thilakawardena, Ted Chaiban, Dr. Hiranthi Wijemanne and Andy Brooks from unicef and finally two solid development practitioners – Mr. Susil Sirivardana and Dr. Sunil Wijesiriwardena. The British Chevening Scholarship I received in 2001 was instrumental in changing me from a lawyer to a development worker. This scheme is so structured that emerging young professionals are helped to master their area of work academically in the UK subject to a promise to return to Sri Lanka and serve this country. This is a promise I take very seriously.