Addressing gender inequalities is key to promoting mother and child wellbeing | Sunday Observer

Addressing gender inequalities is key to promoting mother and child wellbeing

22 May, 2022

The unfortunate plight of women caught up in violence has escalated in recent years following the Covid-19 pandemic, natural disasters, wars, poverty, and malnutrition arising from the lack of or unequal distribution of food. Recent studies both here and abroad have shown that among those who have suffered most are women prisoners, many of whom are forced to bear the pain of mind of being separated from their loved ones imprisoned for often trivial reasons such as petty thefts, prostitution or verbal abuse.

Worse still is the disturbing and troubling fact that along with them, infants, toddlers and pre-schoolers who social service workers considered too young to be separated from their mothers , have also been forced to grow up in a prison environment until they reach the age of maturity.

The result? With no one, or very few willing to give them a listening ear to their woes, both mother and child face tremendous difficulties, inconveniences and heart break – which collectively lead to psychological and psychiatric problems that leave lasting mental and physical scars .

All this has raised concerns among specialists involved in promoting child protection and child development who following daily reports in the media of child battering, child abuse ,child trafficking, and recent visits to some of the leading prisons including the Welikada prison, have opined that the welfare of children currently living in prisons across the country with their mothers while serving prison sentences is a long neglected area that needs urgent remedial action.

It is the only or main door to preventing or minimising the many mental problems that both mother and child face.

The Sunday Observer spoke to Consultant Paediatric Neurologist and immediate Past President SLACD ( Sri Lanka Association for Child Development) Dr. Saraji Wijesekara to share her wide expertise on the subject on this long neglected and side lined health issue


Q: The plight of Lankan female prisoners has been a focus of recent discussions conducted by the social media. The discussions especially those aired over the television highlighted the sad plight of women prisoners even in urban based prisons who reportedly were currently living in conditions that were far from satisfactory, lacking in basic amenities which every woman whether prisoner or not is entitled to. Do you agree?

A. Yes certainly. To add to their misery, most of these women are either pregnant or lactating which endorses the fact that many basic facilities that a woman would need to keep up their feminine health needs are lacking in these institutions.

Q: When the members of the National Committee on Women paid an observation visit to the Welikada Prison recently, they reportedly observed that at the time of the visit there were 477 detainees and 16 children below the age of 16. The reason? Unable to pay the fine, unable to give correct evidence. No proper relationship between the prison and the Judiciary. Undue delay in hearing cases. Inability of the poor inmates to obtain legal assistance. Necessary background is not available to appeal.

Q: As a Paediatric Nuerologist could you comment on each of these specific issues separately to give us a better understanding of the health impacts of each.

A. As most of these inmates are suspects or have only pledged guilty, the above reasons mentioned play a role for the delay in seeking justice for them. That said, the fact that many infants are being imprisoned with their mothers as they were breastfeeding or no one to care for them at their young age when their sole caretaker is taken into custody or some of the children are born inside the prison, brought up in the same prison environment where there is no room or provision for stimulating their growth and development, makes early settlement of these cases imperative, without unnecessary delays. I must reiterate that any delay in legal procedures will make these innocent children victims of what they did not do - a heavy price to pay for the behaviors of their parents.

Q: I understand that a training Module is being prepared on the Act with emphasis on gender, legal provisions and the role of the Police Officers to be used in the Police training and that Cabinet approval has been obtained for the draft Bill on Establishing the National Commission Women. Your comments?

A. I think it is a good initiative by the government. The police officers in their training itself will be aware of the requirements on gender and react based on the knowledge imparted to them. As such, at present they may not be aware that these special provisions are really important and are ultimately useful in the innocent children who have no clue and have become victims unnecessarily for the deeds of their parents.

Q: To draw your attention once again to the fact that they lack basic sanitary facilities. Can you elaborate on this and how it affects their health ?

A. As I have mentioned above, access to basic sanitary facilities in an institution is a basic right.

Women have more physiological needs compared to men. Therefore the basic washing/bathing facilities with shelter apart from the clean toilets with basic facilities are a compulsorily need for them.

Q: Domestic Violence has a long history in Sri Lanka’s partiachal state. Not a day passes without a woman getting battered, bruised and even driven to suicide within the four walls of her house, without the outside world knowing the real causes for her death. Considering a surge in Domestic violence attention in recent years, do you think that the recommendation following the recent discussions held with the participation of both the government and non-governmental Organizations to amend the Act on Prevention of Domestic Violence, and update the Action plan of prevention of domestic Violence Act comes at the right time?

A. Yes definitely. Many women who suffer from Domestic Violence(DMV) are reluctant to divulge the information to the legal bodies as they have threats from their partners and for the sake of their children.

That said, as women were made aware of the legal provision to complain of such convictions it has increased the complaints of domestic violence.

Q: The discussions also highlighted the responsibility of the relevant Ministries to take necessary action regarding the areas coming under their purview. Is this a step in the right direction?

A. Yes, of course The Ministry of Women’s Affairs and their statutory bodies, Sri Lanka Women’s Bureau, National Committee on Women, Department of Probation and Child Care Services, National Child Protection Authority and Children’s Secretariat are working towards the betterment of women and children.

Q: Since gender played an important role in undermining women’s rights and status, a recommendation was also made by the members of the national Committee to introduce a Gender Analysis segment in school text books. Your comments?

A. It would be a good move as the children from their school age learn to identify the needs and be sensitive towards the needs of female and male genders. Also they would respect each other and resist illegal harassment.

Q: Difficulties faced by parents over obtaining birth certificates in order to have their child admitted to a school was also brought to the notice of the government. It was suggested that the column 6 of the Birth Certificate on whether parents are married be removed due to issues faced by the child as well as the mother such as parents not being legally married, as well as difficulties confronted by mothers who were subjected to rape in registering the child birth,social stigma faced both by the mother and the child. Your comments?

A. At times the poor mother, especially as mentioned in case of rape or on some occasions where the biological father refuses to give his name to the child, faces a difficult situation and ultimately it is marked as unmarried will cause stigma to the child specially at the school admission and later at other occasions. Therefore, in fairness to all it is a timely decision taken by the government to remove column no 6.

Q: I understand that a research study on Social Protection Measures for the Females of the Informal Sector is to be introduced to compare the social protection policies available both for the formal and informal sectors with more emphasis for the Districts, where a highest percentage of women contributing to the informal sector economy. Elaborate please?

A. This is a good step forward as the contribution to the informal sector economy is mostly by women such as the tea pluckers, rubber tappers and seamstresses in small scale businesses.

These women are vulnerable to physical, mental and sexual harassment at their respective workplaces. As mentioned they are clustered in some districts. Therefore, the health and legal aspects towards these women should be strengthened in these districts as a priority.

Q: As you are a prominent member of the SLACD, tell us more about it and what has been to correct these gaps so far?

A. The Sri Lanka Association for Child development (SLACD) is an organisation caring for children with normal development and supporting children who are developmentally challenged. SLACD provides advocacy and capacity building of individuals to care for these children. As an association it raises awareness among the general public with regard to the identification, intervention and institutions that care for the children needing care islandwide. SLACD in its mission identifies that empowering women/mother as an important aspect in managing the gaps in the society in caring for the children needing special attention.

Q: Your message to all social workers, child care activists and stakeholders?

A. The widening gaps between the rich and poor in our country, has made it imperative and urgent for all those involved in women and child welfare to identify the gaps exist socially and economically in the society in different sectors including domestic labour. Gender based inequalities need to be addressed.

We must be mindful that if a woman is being deprived of these necessities it is not only the woman who suffers but also the innocent children, with serious mental health repercussions.

Hence it is important for us to facilitate awareness and empower the stakeholders to make decisions with regard to maintaining the basic rights and healthy environment.

It is imperative that the concept is incorporated into school curriculum so that the children become aware and behave as socially responsible persons in future.