Your child, our future | Sunday Observer

Your child, our future

5 June, 2022

The recent abduction and murder of a nine-year-old girl in Atalugama, Bandaragama has shocked the entire Nation, even as it grapples with a myriad of other socio-economic problems. But child murder is always revolting, no matter where in the world it happens. It sends a shiver down our spine, for how can anyone even imagine killing a child, leave alone doing it for real?

Of course, however, abhorrent this may be, it is not the first time that such a horrible incident has taken place in our country. Just one year or so ago, a 16-year-old girl who was employed as a domestic aide in a Colombo home of a prominent politician died of burn injuries.

We can also recall the rape and murder of Seya in Kotadeniyawa and Vidya in Jaffna.

But it is not only girls who have become victims in this manner. Many boys too have been subject to physical or sexual abuse and killed over the years, the most prominent case being that of Saman Kumara, a Grade 10 student from Matugama who was found dead in his school uniform of blue shorts and white shirt.

These dreadful killings no doubt lead to sensational headlines in newspapers, but thousands of incidents of verbal, physical and sexual abuse of both boys and girls go unreported every year. Girls are especially vulnerable to the latter form of abuse and exploitation. These may not end in injuries or murder, but often leave deep psychological scars in children, which may well last into their adulthood.

Responsibility of parents

It has been shown that children are often physically or sexually abused by those close or known to them. This could mean a relative or friend of the family who is well- known to the child. This is a worldwide phenomenon well-documented by child psychologists.

This brings into focus the responsibility of parents and guardians for protecting children. In the Atalugama incident, the parents have allegedly sent the girl alone to the meat shop just 500 metres away from their home.

They may have done this hundreds of times previously without any untoward incident happening and the girl too probably would not have thought twice about it.

We cannot comment any further on this without knowing more details, but suffice to say that sending a small girl (or even a boy) alone to the junction is not a good idea in these times, when depraved persons could be on the lookout for such prey. Even though the post-mortem examination of her body revealed no signs of rape per se, there is no greater form of abuse than physical torture and murder itself. It is a heinous crime in every sense of the word.

Evasive manoeuvers

In the aftermath of this terrible tragedy, all parents and guardians must now be determined to protect their children at all costs. A child should always be accompanied by a responsible adult (no, it is not a wise idea to send a brother or sister below 18 either) wherever they go.

The only exception is going to school and coming back by school bus or van, which usually have a responsible adult looking after all the children. School trips too are another exception, as teachers and some parents accompany the children.

In case a child has to be alone out on the streets or in public transport perhaps under unavoidable circumstances, parents must teach them evasive manoeuvers for dealing with strangers. They must be told to never ever accept sweets or rides with strangers.

If the children do have a phone (which some parents provide to children for safety reasons), the parents should program emergency numbers for Police, so that the child can summon help with just the press of a button.

The parents must also necessarily keep a tab on any visitors, friends and relatives of the family included, who frequently visit the house and forge a close bond with the children.

They could genuinely be fond of the children, but chances are that they could also turn out be sexual deviants. In any case, it is best not to let them come into physical contact with the children (touching, kissing) at any time.

Some of those persons could be offended, but that is an acceptable price to pay to ensure your child’s safety. And parents must never leave the children alone with such persons and go on their errands, even for half an hour.

It is also vital that children are taught from a relatively young age about their private parts and certain other parts of the body which they should never let a stranger or even a closely known person touch. Sex education should not be a taboo subject, say for children above 12-13. There was an unnecessary controversy over a sex education book for Grade 7 children, but such knowledge is necessary for schoolchildren to avoid any sexual pitfalls.

Beware of online stalkers

For the past two years, schools have been held in person only erratically due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Even the GCE O/L examination was held only recently after almost 18 months.

However, to avoid the total disruption of children’s education, many Government, private and international schools opted to provide online lessons for children. Granted, only a certain number of families could afford the devices that facilitated online lessons, but now these children had an Internet-connected device in their hands 24/7.

Once online, it was not too difficult for them to fall into the rabbit hole of the dark web where anything goes, including child porn. In fact, many children here in Sri Lanka and in other parts of the world have been lured by stalkers on the Web.

Onerous responsibility

Parents thus have an onerous responsibility to ensure the online safety and security of their children. They should keep an eye on their children’s online activity without perhaps being overtly obtrusive. Many Internet devices can be configured with a software parental lock which bars access to certain websites or keywords. Some remote software also enables parents to monitor the websites accessed by children.

Online child abuse and exploitation is rampant on the Internet, so parents have to take all precautions in this regard. The parents must also be on guard against some of the extremely violent video games played by children, which may affect their psychological profile and studies.

They must also monitor the TV watching habits of children, though this is not as harmful as the Web or violent video games.

Away from the make-believe world of TV and video games, children have to live in the real world with all its shortcomings and problems. Today, many children are killed in road accidents, sometimes due to their lack of knowledge on road rules. Parents should teach them all about road rules – especially how to walk on and cross roads.

They should be taught to cross the road only where a zebra crossing is available and wait for the ‘green man’ before crossing if such lights are available.

They should be taught to walk on the right side of the road, where they can see incoming vehicles more easily and they are also more visible to the drivers. If you buy your son or daughter a bicycle and even if they ride it in a fairly limited radius, a bicycle helmet is a good investment.

Safety measures

And in a vehicle, the children should always take the back seat – literally. This is because if a child is seated in the front seat of a vehicle equipped with front airbags, the deployment of the airbag, designed primarily for adults, could seriously injure or even kill the child. Even if a vehicle has no airbags, a child seated in the back has a better chance of survival in a head-on collision with another vehicle. The smallest children must be seated on proper ISOFIX child seats.

Moreover, all children who are taken to school and other journeys by motorcycle should necessarily be wearing child-size helmets. Some parents skimp on this important detail, often with fatal consequences for the child, if not for the parents who always wear helmets in any case.

Then there are little details that parents sometimes forget. All medicine packs have a warning label – “keep medicines out of the reach of children”. This is because some medicines, if taken in excess quantities, could be fatal for children. Parents must also keep any other poisonous or toxic substances out of the reach of children.

The same goes for sili-sili or plastic bags, which could suffocate toddlers if used as a toy.

In fact, parents should closely supervise playtime for very young children, because they could inadvertently put tiny plastic parts of toys into their mouths. Many children have been hospitalised following such incidents.

Yes, children are individual beings and may not like being supervised all the time, especially as they reach the rebellious teenage years. But parents have to strike a balance somewhere, between protecting their children from all dangers 24/7 and giving them full freedom within certain limits.

This is a challenging task for which parents have to find innovative solutions.