Child labour raises psychological risks leaving permanent scars | Page 3 | Sunday Observer
Safer work spaces for children in domestic work, the need of the hour

Child labour raises psychological risks leaving permanent scars

15 August, 2021

The recent spike in child abuse cases reported among domestic workers in the past few months of this year has become a public health problem of national scale. The horrifying experiences perpetrated in strange unfamiliar surroundings far away from their own homes, with no one to help them , have scarred these young domestic aides for life both physically and psychologically.

The Sunday Observer spoke to Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, Colombo South Teaching Hospital & Senior Lecturer, Department of Psychiatry, University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Dr Yasodha Rohanachandra, to find out what caused this sudden surge in child abuse , and the impacts these traumatic experiences can have on the young, still developing victims.


Q: The surge in the number of child abuse cases in the past few months has drawn shocked reactions from across the country. This month (July) alone has reported a staggering eleven cases of child abuse starting from July 7 with the shocking news of a 15-year-old girl sold on line by her own family with others following in rapid succession.. Why do you think these acts of violence against children have suddenly taken an upward thrust in our country?

A: Child abuse has been problem in Sri Lanka for decades. For example, studies among schoolchildren in 2004 and 2009 show a prevalence of sexual abuse as high as 14-21 percent. This high prevalence of child abuse is due to an interplay between multiple factors. Studies show Child abuse is more prevalent in communities with high rates of violence and crime. For example, along with the rise of crime rates in Sri Lanka over the years, the rates of child abuse also have risen in parallel. Parental alcohol and substance use is a well-known risk factor for child abuse and the rise in alcohol and other substance use in the country is also one of the reasons for the upward trend in child abuse.””

Q: Is poor law enforcement against perpetrators a contributory factor?

A: Yes. Although laws to punish perpetrators do exist in Sri Lanka, reports suggest that most perpetrators never face penalties; and those who do are generally condemned to sentences below the legal minimum. Majority of suspects are usually released on bail due to the backlog in the justice system. Sri Lanka does not have a sex offender registry – hence there is no mechanism of identifying known perpetrators that could help preventing repeated offences.

Q: Many children and adolescents are still ignorant or misled about reproductive health. Has this too led to the increase in child abuse?

A: Yes. Awareness among children and adolescents about child abuse is limited. In a community study in Sri Lanka it was revealed that among schoolboys between 14-19 years old, 31% were aware what sexual abuse meant and only 30.7% were aware about the legal age for consent for sexual activities. Lack of awareness also contributes to high risk of abuse and needs to be addressed through age appropriate, culturally sensitive sex education.

Q: It has been reported that the long lockdown due to Covid-19 has also led to increased child abuse. How? Why?

A: A rise in child abuse has been reported globally since the pandemic. One reason for this is the high stress experienced by caregivers during the pandemic due to job loss and financial constraints. Caregivers who are highly stressed are more likely to be less tolerant of their children’s minor misbehaviour, leading to an increase in harsh punishment and physical abuse.

Lockdown measures enforced to control the pandemic have also contributed to the increased risk. With the lockdown measures, children are kept away from school and from other supportive relationships. Therefore, they are not able to disclose about ongoing abuse at home to other supportive adults like teachers of relatives. The social services have also become less available during the pandemic, making it difficult for families to seek help about violence. With the pandemic, children have had unsupervised access to the internet, making them especially vulnerable to exploitation and abuse online.

Q: A statement by the Central Province Governor reported in the media says that one of the main reasons for estate workers children being deployed in domestic service was that 18 percent of them left school at a very early age, noting that although the national rate of underage children dropping out of school stands at six percent the rate of estate school drop outs below 18 years was three times higher. A recent Education Ministry performance report has also stated that fifty-thousand students drop out of national schools after grade five. How does dropping out of school early and sent as domestic workers far away from home to unfamiliar unsafe settings affect these girls 1) physically 2) psychologically and mentally?

A: The work that is needed to be performed as a domestic helper is not clearly defined and varies within households. There are often no clear limits on working hours and, types of work that is needed to be done and no monitoring by labour organisations. During domestic work a child may have to face many hazards including carrying heavy objects, exposure to chemicals and use of sharp weapons such as knives. In addition, domestic work takes the child’s right to education, rest, play and the right to have regular contact with their parents and peers, all of which can negatively impact both physical and mental health.

Separation from parents, family members and their peers in order to engage in domestic work, disrupts a child’s social status, making them feel insecure. They will also need to adjust to new cultural routines, new daily patterns and work demands. All this can be emotional exhausting for a child. During domestic work, usually children are expected to perform routine monotonous and repetitive tasks, which deprive them of opportunities and key experiences needed to develop cognitive skills, social relationships and self-esteem. Within the household where they work, they may be exposed to substance abuse, violence and illicit activities, and there is also a higher risk of being physically, emotionally and sexually abused.

Children also need 8-10 hours of sleep daily for optimal growth and development. However, children engaged in domestic work are often not able to meet these sleep requirements. Physical strain from lifting heavy weights and repetitive movements can cause impact on growing bones and joints can cause stunting, spinal injury and other lifelong deformities and disabilities, which may not manifest till much later.

Q: Following these incidents of child abuse and exploitation among young domestic aides has prompted the government to introduce several new laws and raise the minimum age of employment to 18 years. Your comments?

A: Improving the legislature is only one mechanism of combatting child labour. Elimination child labour requires a holistic approach which address the root causes for this problem. Majority of the children engage in labour due to financial constraints faced by their families. Therefore, eliminating child labour requires interventions targeted at improving poverty among families in low socio-economic status.

Parents of children who are engaging labour often low educational attainment themselves. Thus, they have limited understanding of the value of education. Hence, interventions should target educating parents of vulnerable families about the value and the long-term benefits of education. In Sri Lanka, there is widespread acceptance among parents from low socio-economic states that domestic labour provides a safe and secure environment for the child. These beliefs should be changed through widespread awareness programs.

Q: Additionally, The National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) chairman was quoted as saying that it had been proposed to increase the jobs coming under the hazardous category from 52 to 76 to protect children further, such as gem and mining, deep sea diving, spear fishing, working in chemical factories etc. Is this a step forward?

A: It is definitely a step in the right direction. Children are especially vulnerable to dangers at work due to their limited capacity to recognise and assess potential safety risks at work. Their cognitive capacity is not developed to a level where they are able to weigh pros and cons of a situation and make an informed decision.

Adolescent psychological development is characterised by proneness to take risks due to poor judgement and a sense of invulnerability. This may make young adolescents take unnecessary risks during work, exposing them to greater dangers. In addition, small stature and a growing body may make them additionally vulnerable to develop negative physical effects while engaging in labour.

Q: The recent death of a 16-year-old domestic worker who had allegedly committed suicide by burning herself in the home of a former MP and minister uncovered a gory trail of offences of human trafficking right in the heart of Colombo. When World Day Against Trafficking in Persons was observed a few days ago, Sri Lanka was identified as a country of origin, transit and destination for human trafficking, with female victims continuing to be the primary targets and girls making up 19 percent of the victims. Your comments?

A: Many people are unaware of what is meant by forced labour and human trafficking. Therefore, creating awareness about what is considered as forced labour and trafficking is the first step in stopping human trafficking. This would enable those at risk from protecting themselves from victimisation as well as making the general public more capable of identifying and reporting such incidents.

Q: Survivors of these forced trafficking have confessed they had post traumatic post rescue experiences during identification interview and legal proceedings with some facing re-traumatisation and punishment for crimes they were forced to commit by their traffickers. As a psychiatrist what would you see as the most damaging impact of post rescue experiences?

A: The “blaming the victim” attitude held by many Sri Lankans often lead to re-truamatisation of the victims during the legal procedures.. This attitude is a major cause for re-traumatisation. In addition, within the Sri Lankan legal system, a victim has to give an account of the abuse to many personnel, making the victim relive the experience all over again. This can worsen the mental health impact of the trauma. Video recording of the child’s statement is possible in some centers but is not commonly practiced. There are also no child friendly rooms in courts which can cause further distress to the child. The media also plays a huge role in re-traumatisation of the victim when personal details of the victims are released. This leads to stigmatisation of the child and the family within the community and re integration especially difficult.

Q: Is a more victim –centered and positive approach to combat human trafficking the answer?

A: Victim-Centered approach to victims of human trafficking has recently been promoted as best practice to deal with victims of trafficking. In this approach, the victim’s wishes, safety and well-being takes priority in all matters and requires partnerships between legal services and other service providers.

Q: Hot lines where victims or outsider scan lodge complaints?

A: Any complaints related to child abuse, child labour or child trafficking can be made to the National Child Protection Authority through their hotline 1929 or through their 1929 mobile app.