By Fathima Riznaz Hafi
Voice Walk 2016 was successfully carried out for the fourth consecutive year to raise awareness on child abuse. Organised by Voice Foundation, the walk took place from Independence Square to Vihara Maha Devi Park recently, with 38 organisations participating.
In addition to raising awareness the aim of the walk was also to network people together, guide the public on how they can help and obtain 5,000 signatures for a petition. Following the walk Voice Foundation is gearing up with fresh initiatives to drive their cause of protecting children and preventing child abuse.
The Daily FT met up with Voice Foundation Director Moses Akash who briefed us on the event and then filled us in on their latest plans.
“We did things with a different strategy this time,” said Moses. “Rather than gathering 5,000 people to walk with us with nothing achieved, we gathered organisations that are actively involved with schools, teens and youth – like lawyers, psychologists, Leo Club, Lions Club, Rotaract Club and Peace Foundation – people who can make a change and who would take the message back with them; we gathered less people but effective people. The National Child Protection Authority, World Vision, Government and private sector supported us a lot. We also had leading figures and religious leaders from various faiths. This is a plus point because one of the main objectives we had for the walk was to form a network!”
Another objective of the walk was to erase the misconception that when it comes to child abuse, it’s something that only certain organisations like NCPA deal with and we have no role in preventing it. “We are trying to say that it’s not like that and all of us, including children need to be aware. When people hear ‘child abuse’ many of them think sexual abuse but there are a lot of other ways children get abused like emotionally and physically.
“Through this walk we wanted to get engaged with these people, to raise awareness and tell them that in our day-to-day life we can do things to prevent. For example, say a mother and her young child or baby, are travelling in a bus and someone who is seated offers to hold her child. The mother may think he’s being kind (and maybe it could be true sometimes) and the child is on the man’s lap throughout the journey. He may try things and the mother may not know what is happening. If the man was genuinely concerned he would have stood up and given his seat to the mother and child. This is the kind of awareness we want to bring,” he said.
“Through the walk we also invited people to sign a petition to reinforce the ‘Child Protection Societies in schools’, which had been initiated in 2011 by the Education Department to be set up in every school. As of now only Kandy District is actively involved in setting up such societies and five years down the line in 2016 we haven’t seen this happen anywhere else. NCPA told us principals and teachers are against the policy. At the walk we brought to the attention of the public the fact that there is such a policy but it is not implemented so they would ask their principals and teachers why it is not happening in their school. The Government has done their part, now we must approach and question,” he said.
“NCPA also told us there are ‘Happy Boxes’ and ‘Sad Boxes’ placed in schools, where children can put their complaints in that but the contradicting factor here is the Principal has the key and therefore has access to these boxes; so what if there is a complaint on the Principal – will that go to the relevant authority? This aspect needs to be looked into. These boxes have been suggested but I have yet to see them in any school. It is not NCPA’s fault – they implemented it but the schools have to start practising it.” It is the foundation’s hope that the parents are made aware of such steps and question the schools to ensure that the ideas are put into practice.”
Following the walk and after successfully implementing their plans from last year, Voice Foundation is busy with fresh initiatives in their fight for the voiceless. They have placed their focus on four main initiatives: To set up a helpline, launch TTT (Train The Trainer), set up the next safe house and implement an aftercare system.
The ‘Voice Helpline’ would serve as a ‘mediator’ for helping others. It’s a national helpline, similar to ‘1929’ which has all the details of police stations, lawyers and relevant authorities in a particular area.
“If someone calls us from Jaffna saying domestic violence has taken place; ‘what should I do?’, we then give the number of the nearest police station and the particular person (such as a lawyer), that they need to contact; we tell them to call the person and explain the situation and that they would assist. That’s all we do – we don’t go to Jaffna to help – we make the connections.
“If a child calls us from Batticaloa needing help, we may not be able to go to Batticaloa but the Peace Foundation is involved in Batticaloa so we would connect this child and the foundation.We will call the Peace Foundation as well and tell them there is this child who needs help and to assist them. After that we get feedback,” he explained.
This requires trained professionals. Voice is collaborating with the Australian Embassy seeking their assistance with the training so they would have qualified, skilled people to handle the calls.
“Training the Trainer (TTT) is a simple concept where we train our trainees to train others. We are focussing on training children in 8-12 lessons on what child abuse is, preventive measures and responsibilities. We issue a six-month validation card whereby they can go back and teach another three children.
“We are taking it on grassroots level because we realise children sometimes don’t come home and share things with their parents – for some reason that connection is decreasing; most of the time they share things with their peer groups. For example a girl tells her friend she likes a boy and says ‘He’s asking for my number, what shall I do?’ Unfortunately the friends won’t know the right thing to do – they would say ‘Go ahead; I’ll help’. They would help each other to cut school and meet the boyfriend or girlfriend.
“If we educate them on what not to do and what needs to happen, they would be better equipped to deal with the situation and advise their friends saying ‘That’s not good – don’t do it’. We may not be able to stop it altogether but to a certain extent we will be able to prevent unfortunate consequences,” he said, mentioning cases that took place on social media where boys misused pictures that girls have given them, trusting them. The age group for TTT is 12-18 because teenagers are more vulnerable to this scenario.
When we met the Voice team last year they told us that one of their goals was to set up a Safe House for children who come from troubled homes. Parents who have nowhere safe to keep their children would leave them in their care and go to work, picking them up at 6 p.m. on their way home. That safe house has been established and has 31 children from different backgrounds and ethnic groups.
“We have an agreement with the parents. We will keep their kids safely but in return for that they have to look for a sustainable job to improve their lives. It’s a sustainable way of tackling thisbecause we can’t help them forever. “We don’t take any money from the parents but urge them to use that time to look for jobs and if they find it difficult to get jobs, we use our network to help them get jobs. Voice analyses the families of all 31 children every month – to see what the progress is,” he said.
We had a look at the safe house before we left – the little kids were just settling down for their afternoon naps. The youngest one was a tiny, cute little girl who is only 11 months old.
They were adorable to look at but it was saddening that they were all from troubled homes (all 31 of them) and Moses told us that sometimes parents send them without even washing them and in the same clothes they were wearing the previous day – some with the same pampers. It was reassuring though that these children are being helped and well provided for by the Foundation. They wash them, feed them and treat them with kindness – all for free. When asked how they manage the costs, Moses said it’s mostly from funds that they raise every now and then and the church helps too. It comes up to around Rs. 150,000 per month, he said.
Plans are underway to open their next safe house soon. This one will be at a different location to cater to children in that area, using the same concepts. They also run a pre-school, which was functioning long before they opened the first safe house.
Moses brought up the fate of care leavers. When children leave orphanages, residential institutions and probation centres at the age of 18, they are often not equipped to face the outside world alone. “We are questioning what sort of training they are getting while in the institutions. The other day I got a call from one of the 12 girls that we help in Kandy; they told me they just received their electricity bill and wanted to know the procedure in making the payment. When I asked if it was a ‘red bill’ they asked me what that was!”
“This is because they haven’t been exposed to these activities. Our questions are do they have a proper training system, do they know how to take a bus, pay bills, cook or go for an interview? In the institutions their basic needs such as meals and accommodation were taken care of and bills were also handled by other people. This is really good but they have not been exposed to the outside world. They don’t know how to recognise bad people.
“We need a concrete plan of two to three years where these kids are trained before they reach 18. We are trying to implement a holistic system where children are trained before they leave and when they leave they are prepared to face the society with confidence.”
He added that follow-up is also essential; after they leave the residential care, what happens to them? They don’t know where to go. Some of them don’t have family or relatives to go to. They are alone – this makes them vulnerable to predators and they can easily become victims of abuse. We need a solid aftercare system – and that’s not by just helping them find jobs and letting go! We need to re-integrate care leavers into mainstream society.
Play our part
Wrapping up, Moses reiterated the need for the public to be more involved and take responsibility for the protection of children. Voice Foundation has always stressed the need for ‘Better Sri Lankans for a better Sri Lanka’. “You can point your finger at the Government or say this is not happening but people fail to see that we all have a part to play in this. We all have the responsibility – not just the Government and NCPA, in helping to protect our children,” he said.
Pix by Sameera Wijesinghe