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LEADS: Leading the way in protecting our children


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By Ruwandi Gamage

LEADS is a faith-based organisation, with an evangelical fellowship at inception. With the acronym standing for ‘Lanka Evangelical Alliance Development Service,’ it is a child-focused National NGO, which has been responding to the needs of Sri Lankan communities since 1984. 

This year LEADS marks 35 years in service as a registered social service organisation and a local NGO. To talk about the history, the 35 years of service, and the vision for the future, Weekend FT met LEADS CEO Roshan Mendis for an exclusive interview.

Deciding to serve in rural villages rather than continue in the line of family business in the hospitality industry, Roshan joined LEADS, combining his unique and wide experience in community work with a strong blend of administrative and organisational management aptitude, development thinking, together with his deep passion for communities.

The stepping stones of LEADS

In 1978, seven local individuals who had decided to support and respond to the eastern cyclone got together with churches and others who were willing to help and started helping out the communities in the Eastern Province. After continuing this work for a year, they decide to formalise and began setting up the organisation by the name of LEADS, during which time, the ethnic conflict was also beginning in the north. Hence, they begin to get involved in aiding north-eastern resettlement, working along with RADA, the Rehabilitation and Development Agencies, in connection with the Government.

By 1983, they decide and work towards formally registering the organisation. “At that time, none of the social services acts were finalised, so the only registration possible to become a legal entity was a company,” Mendis explained.  

I want to see a nation where children can walk freely, live freely and reach the best of their potential in a country that allows them to do that

Primarily responding to disaster and conflict, given the nature of the need in the country, LEADS gets misunderstood as a pro-Tamil organisation for their work in the Eastern Province. Consequently, in 1983, as the riots start in Colombo, mobs attack their offices and the staff, causing serious injuries to one staff member. Nearly four months after their legal registration as a company, on 29 July 1983, LEADS gets destroyed. “We were registered on 24 March and on 29 July we were brought down, but we continued the work despite that,” said Mendis. 

However, in 1984, by act of Parliament, charity status is granted to LEADS, by which time the organisation has had almost five years of recorded work. At the same time, the Social Services Act was being formulated and LEADS became a registered social service agency. In the ’90s when the NGO act is passed in Parliament, this status is also granted to LEADS. “We still maintain the company status, filing our returns annually and auditing accounts, but by nature we are a charity organisation and an NGO,” the CEO said. 

The organisation began to work in the economic empowerment of families in the country, beginning its work in Jaffna, Trinco, Avissawella and in the Colombo District. 

Working with families to working with communities

When the war ended in 2005, LEADS found itself strategically placed at the centre of the war zone. “We were where the Manik Farm was set up.”

Therefore, the Government requested LEADS to support in the caring for the displaced families. Thus, starting with 6,000 people who came to settle on the first day, from Mullivaikkal, LEADS ended up feeding some 60,000 families on a daily basis. LEADS also became the only NGO invited to serve on the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process. 

“There was no other NGO on the table except for us when we were picked up. Given that we were working towards peace building at grassroots level, we got to closely work with the Government and the LTTE,” Mendis added. 

Working to bring communities together, LEADS worked as peace ambassadors, employing people below the age of 30 from within the communities, and training them as mobilisers and mediators in building peace. 

LEADS also played a crucial part in bringing perspective to the table with regard to conflict, as they brought in negotiators from Ireland and Rwanda, who shared how they came through conflict with the Government, including the Prime Minister and key authorities.

LEADS become child-focussed

The tourist boom in the ’90s gave life to the claim that child abuse was taking place along the coastal lines in Sri Lanka. In response to this claim, in 1995, along with the support of a US-based agency and the help of Scotland Yard, LEADS carried out a survey about child prostitution; which to date happens to be the only survey regarding the topic in the country. 

“We primarily did the survey along the coastal line from Negombo down to Galle and realised it’s not only a tourist problem, but also stemming from within the families. It came to light that the families were servicing this. There was a certain ethos in the family where parents believed boy prostitution was okay because there’s no damage that’s done, and it was also an economic benefit, so that doesn’t hurt,” Mendis explained.   



As the critical need for awareness about the physical and mental impact of child abuse was recognised by LEADS, it undertook a program of awareness and conducted it in various schools in Colombo. Creating a space for children to open up about abuse in their own context, the organisation realises that awareness alone isn’t enough, thus it starts counselling services. In addition, the understanding that the children who have faced abuse can’t be sent back home facilitates its residential therapy work. Hence, LEADS, as a community-based organisation that focused on disaster relief at inception, continues to work towards child protection.

“We are a child-focused national agency working with communities for the protection of children and for child survivors. We also push for change at national policy levels and at the same time advocate for change. Currently we are also recognised as a responder for disasters,” the CEO added. 

Presently, LEADS specialises in protecting children in disaster situations, an area it did not specifically work in, but has come to understand as critical in the country. With a child-focus LEADS extend its services to disaster and crisis, as “children become vulnerable in disaster contexts”. 

ESCAPE from abuse

At the end of 1997, the National Child Protection Authority, by the name ESCAPE (Eradication of Sexual Child Abuse, Prostitution and Exploitation), was set up. To support the work carried out by the authority, the Deputy Chair of the authority as well as support services and staff are found from LEADS in the initial two years. “We were very much a part of the National Child Protection Authority’s beginning.”

Since 1998, the three core areas of work for LEADS became children, community and crisis. “We have not really been an agency that has bragged about our work, therefore people don’t know much about us, but our volume of work has been fairly extensive,” Mendis noted.

Peace and reconciliation

The continued work towards peace and reconciliation with the Government during the civil war, gave LEADS the much-needed credibility and reputation; and it was granted access permission within Manik Farm. LEADS tackled the heavy task of facilitating meals for families, using its expertise in community service through a special system it designed, grouping 25 families into one commune with a kitchen; training 25 individuals from each commune to run the kitchen, with materials provided. “Community kitchens, that was the model we introduced to the whole camp,” Mendis added. 

The sense of ownership became a therapeutic factor for the displaced people, and they were given a sense of control for their livelihood after experiencing a crisis that they didn’t have control over.

We are a child-focused national agency working with communities for the protection of children and for child survivors. We also push for change at national policy levels and at the same time advocate for change. Currently we are also recognised as a responder for disasters

LEADS was also entrusted with the task of rehabilitation of Tamil child soldiers, and entrusted with 273 kids from a total of over 500 child soldiers. Working alongside the military and the UNHCR, LEADS worked with them for a year, providing them meals and psychosocial care. “All of this work had to be done very sensitively,” Mendis noted. 

At the same time, LEADS was invited by the Government to provide advance psychosocial skills training for the tri-forces and the Police, for a batch of 25 officials at officer level, for over three years, to help with the trauma of fighting in the war. “This was our peace and reconciliation work, which was a significant achievement for us.”

The soil-brick is introduced

Unknown to many, LEADS was the pioneer in introducing an alternative housing methodology, known as stabilised soil bricks. Dr. Asoka De Silva had been the strength behind the initial research in designing the brick, collaborating with LEADS to help with resettlement and housing. In 1984, at the Housing Symposium held at the BMICH, LEADS received a National award for alternative housing using the stabilised soil-brick. 

The soil-brick which is environmentally friendly and helps keep the indoors cool is not only one of the milestone projects of LEADS, but is also its legacy, that it leaves a better world for the next generation. 

Responding to the tsunami

In 2004, LEADS responded to the tsunami and was one of the agencies that received the largest funding from a UK agency, for work given by the Government of UK, by the Department of International Development. 

“My plan was for five years, and though it was dismissed at first, it actually took that much time to do complete relief work after the tsunami,” Mendis said. For the work that LEADS did during the tsunami, for the completion of over 5,000 housing units, it received an award from the President; one of the only three awarded. “We worked in five of the districts, from Hambantota towards Jaffna. We went from a small budget to almost Rs. 1 billion in turnover in those couple of years.”

At a UN Symposium for Disaster, Mendis had delivered a speech about ‘Lessons Learnt in the Tsunami’ and mentioned the importance of going into aid and relief of disaster with an exit strategy, adding that taking growth during disaster for granted can result in the end of organisations. Mendis said that they sustained because they went in with an exit plan. He explained how though the organisation expanded in numbers with staff and budget, the organisation shrunk back to its previous set up, which helped in sustain itself.

Working for policy-level change

One of the other achievements Mendis mentions is at a national policy level, which is the lobbying for change in the national laws for crimes against children in the country. As a result of child abuse cases being filed under the Penal Code, the time it takes until completion happens to be over 10 years. “We have some of them still open and the victims are no longer children and are even married with children of their own,” Mendis claimed. He said that the Children’s Judicial Bill was currently being processed. 

For the rights of the child, with de-institutionalisation as the end goal, LEADS has been drafting what is called the Alternative-Care Policy, which is currently being finalised. “This is another important achievement for us.” 

It is my dream that one day, we will work ourselves out of a job!

Mendis explained how in other countries 18 months is the maximum time used to settle a child’s case, but in Sri Lanka, it goes on until even after the child is 18 because it drags for over 10 years. “We proposed that in the bill, but the Attorney General stated how there’s still 18,000 backed up cases of child abuse, and how it would be impossible to settle all those cases in 18 months. That’s not what we ask for. If there’s a definitive process, then there’s a guarantee that in future it will not drag and enables working towards a target,” he said.

Mendis further noted how reviving an old system called the ‘Village Child-Rights Monitoring Committees’ was an important milestone for their organisation. He stated that the revival of this system was because of their realisation that communities were the first line of defence for children. “This has been a very successful model and we’re replicating it in the communities we are working in for child protection,” he added.

LEADS is present in 11 districts of the country. Its key area is child protection with the focus of developing the child’s potential in order to make them productive citizens. The range of their work is anything that prevents a child reach their potential and harms their best interest. ‘Family strengthening’ which is economic empowerment of families; ‘disaster risk reduction’ which is child protection, training communities in search and rescue, first-aid, sanitation, health and risks and hazards in disasters during environmental risks – all contribute to the safer environment of the child. 

Plans for the future

Mendis explained that this year, the biggest challenge for them is raising funds locally. He says that local corporates are hesitant to partner with local agencies and would rather partner with an INGO because of the branding, the marketing and the gain. “For me I believe I was born Sri Lankan, for Sri Lanka, and I like to see that same philosophy in Sri Lankan corporates.”

It is his belief that Sri Lankan work that’s going on needs to be encouraged, because Sri Lanka is moving out of the map of international aid, despite the fact that every 90 minutes an incident of child abuse takes place in our country, despite high rates of child suicides, and despite 35% of children suffering from adverse mental health. “There is still a need to protect children.” 

The children’s Judicial Bill coming through is its next goal for the year. Mendis says the bill will support in controlling the mental trauma that children go through within the legal process. “It has come very far, it now needs a little more political will,” he said. The need to come up with an alternative policy that also provides children the freedom to enjoy family and able to enjoy their right to family as well, is what is lobbied by the Judicial Bill. 

The CEO mentioned that they were also working on gender-based violence, particularly against women. In 2015, according to a survey done by UNFPA, out of 2,500 women across all 25 districts, 90% women complained about sexual harassment in public transport. “This year we are working together with another agency in a campaign, trying to encourage reporting of harassment.”  

We are always audited externally by PricewaterhouseCoopers and internally by Ernst and Young, which again is an external entity. To ensure transparency and clarity we get our internal auditing, including funding, all systems and policies, also by external auditors. This cycle happens annually It is my dream that one day, we will work ourselves out of a job!

LEADS is also developing and adapting ILO’s score card for vulnerability of families in order to determine the vulnerability of children in our country that will be at risk. Along with that, it is hoping to do a family development plan, for each family, to help families take ownership for their development. 

Mendis told Weekend FT how there’s a need in the country for over 165,000 housing units, post-conflict, and how it has not yet been met. He said LEADS was linking up with other agencies which are doing housing and working with the Government to get the particular resources needed for the bricks. 

According to the CEO, the particular clay that is needed for the bricks has to be resourced from the tanks that are silted in the post-conflict areas. He said that the organisation had discussed with the Government to take three inches of clay from those tanks, which would in return help the water quality, providing a free service while they get their resources for the soil bricks free of charge. “We are starting up building 500 houses this year.”

A moving story of transformation

“In Trinco we were working with an outcaste Tamil community, which was a gypsy community, in an area called Thampalagamam. We resettled them and worked with them for over six years. We got them access to education, but we really didn’t see the community completely coming out of the level of poverty they were in. It was also because the conflict was still going on at that time,” Mendis said.

Mendis then said how in 2016, he visited Trinco to deliver a speech in Sinhala and met a young guy who had helped him in translating the speech to Tamil for the audience. He recalled how, when he got to talking with the young man, he learnt that he was studying law with the intention of becoming a lawyer. Curious, Mendis had asked the boy where he was from, to which the young man had replied he was from the Thampalagamam. 

“I was curious, so I asked if he had any recollection of LEADS, to which he relayed a story of how when he was seven years old, we had built his family a house and his father was the first community leader in the village after LEADS left. He then said how he was the first person from the village to attend university and study law.” 

Mendis said it moved him to tears and how surprised he was at the level of development the village had reached.

Mendis escapes death

“In 1983, when the riots hit, I went to guard one of my friend’s houses and I escaped death very narrowly one day. Previously day a mob approached the house and while we were escaping from the back of the house, we heard someone yelling ‘Police’ and the mob ran. The next Friday, which came to be known as Black Friday or ‘Koti’ Friday, because it was suspected that the LTTE came to Colombo, they set fire to the house and so we had to run away. 

“We then got caught to the Army and they almost shot us because they thought we were LTTE, the gun jammed when they tried to shoot us. The officer who had given the order to shoot us came to the site and he happened to be a schoolmate of mine, which helped them recognise that we were innocent. He said they were given orders to shoot on the sight and it was a miracle that we were alive. That gave a self-realisation that there’s something more to being alive.”

“You’re like us, like me”

During the conflict, when Mendis was visiting Madu, particularly a camp for the displaced near the church, a small boy had approached him and stared right at him for the longest time. He had asked the boy in Tamil what he was doing, to which he had not received any reply. Curious, Mendis had asked the boy to come to him and the boy as he approached had started to stroke his hand, touching his skin. 

When he questioned what he was doing, the boy had replied, ‘you’re like us, like me’. Unable to comprehend the meaning, Mendis had turned to the mother and had asked what he meant, to which the mother had replied that it was his first time seeing a Sinhalese person without a gun since all these stories they had heard were about how the Sinhalese people were horrid.

“All I could think was how this country is getting torn apart due to lies. This brought me towards working for reconciliation in the country,” Mendis said, in tears.

Joining LEADS

Mendis says that his experience during ‘Black Friday’ in 1983, where he narrowly escaped death, gave him the perspective that he was born Sri Lankan, for Sri Lanka, and that his life was not his own.

“I wanted to serve outside of Colombo. My heart has always been with the communities in the rural areas.”

He had joined LEADS in 1999, when he was invited to be a part of the team. He said that from 18 staff members working for the organisation, they have grown to around 200 to 300 staff members across 16 districts. 

He said his decision to join was because of the organisation’s focus, which has always been the children and the future generation which he said he personally believed was an investment in the country. The personal experience of how emotional trauma can affect a child towards their future family life and work life had made him want to work towards the betterment of vulnerable children, especially in the rural areas. 

A transparent funding process

Mendis said that LEADS has a very transparent funding process, where funding is always receipted, reported and reviewed. Upon receiving, the funds are receipted, and then reported against what the organisation does. Then it is reviewed so it is evaluated. 

“We are always audited externally by PricewaterhouseCoopers and internally by Ernst and Young, which again is an external entity. To ensure transparency and clarity we get our internal auditing, including funding, all systems and policies, also by external auditors. This cycle happens annually,” he explained.

Further, all projects done by the organisation get individually audited as well, by KPMG. He says that though this process is a cost, they do it as a commitment to ensure transparency and integrity of the organisation. He says the organisation has a zero tolerance for financial misappropriation and fraud, and that if anybody in the organisation is evidenced to have committed any fraud they are shown the door. 

How can you help LEADS?

Mendis says funding is important, but personally, even more valuable are the friends that they make. He says friends are important in terms of the recommendations they will give others about the work and the value of the work that they do. 

Sometime ago LEADS had produced a drama as an advocacy campaign for the Government, foreign embassies, Ministry of Education, and corporates. They had taken six stories of some of the children that they were working with and had dramatised and performed the true stories. Mendis revealed how some people in the audience couldn’t stay for the entire performance as it was too emotional for them. One such individual had been an artist who had come along with her husband who worked in the corporate field, and she had walked out promising that she had to do her bit to help these children. 

“She said how it was possible for her to walk out of that trauma, but how it was not a possibility for the children who had gone through it.” She had dedicated all proceeds of her last exhibition as funding for LEADS.

Inspired, a chain reaction had taken place, when the artist’s mother who happens to be a musician, had done a musical show on 17 March to raise funds for LEADS. “That’s the influence of friends, so I believe friends are more valuable than money,” Mendis exclaimed.

Mendis explained how friends are crucial in his fight against the perspective that all NGOs are fraudulent. “We get slandered for the things we have absolutely no connection with,” he said.

Mendis said how even though NGOs were labelled as the cause of the drug problem, by the President himself, LEADS was recognised as one of the leading agencies in substance abuse prevention, as it had supported in building 10 rehabilitation centres for the addicted.

“I’ve seen it and I know that fraud happens in NGOs, but I don’t advocate for it and I reject it. 

We are a national agency and we are patriotically national to the country. That would be the kind of mindset shift that I would personally like to see. This is why friends are important, to give that credibility to the agencies that are actually working on the ground,” Mendis explained.

Mendis also called for professionals who could help pro bono with legal support. He says that legal costs were high for the organisation as cases come from all over the country, because LEADS is the sole service provider to the State on particular therapeutic services. With referrals from different courts, Mendis said they sometimes had three to four cases on the same day and that it was difficult for one lawyer to tackle all that. 

“One of the things that I would seek is to dispel this myth of overheads, because in actual reality, if you look at our figures, we spend 95% on administrative fixed costs as an agency. Changing those perceptions would be definitely something friends and individual people could do.”

His dream for children in Sri Lanka

“It is my dream that one day, we will work ourselves out of a job!” 

Mendis said if the problems that they address were not present, their services would no longer be needed. 

In the context where an incident of child abuse takes place every 90 minutes, to see an end to that and not see it happen is his ultimate goal. “I want to see a nation where children can walk freely, live freely and reach the best of their potential in a country that allows them to do that.”

Pix by Lasantha Kumara


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