ASIA-PACIFIC feature story for Sri Lanka
© UNICEF Sri Lanka/2009
Children work on a drawing at the UNICEF-supported Ambepussa Rehabilitation Centre for former child soldiers recruited by the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE). In May 2009, government forces defeated the LTTE, ending decades of conflict.
HELPING CHILDREN FORMERLY ASSOCIATED WITH ARMED CONFLICT IN SRI LANKA FIND A NEW LIFE
Sri Lanka, September 2009 - As a 14-year-old, Amutha spent two long years training with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), an armed group. In 2006, when Sri Lanka’s conflict further erupted, she found herself fighting on the front line. She lasted just 24 hours in battle before shrapnel ripped through her arm.
“I felt terrified and tormented,” she said. “But I was told to hold my gun and keep fighting.” Eventually, Amutha received treatment at a LTTE hospital. She escaped a week later but the LTTE re-captured her. It would be another three years, in March 2009, when Government forces broke through LTTE lines, before Amutha would have the chance to surrender.
Amutha is one of thousands of children who were forcibly recruited during the conflict in Sri Lanka. Some served as runners, cooks, or cleaners; however, the majority fought on the frontlines.
Reintegration of a child formerly associated with armed conflict into civilian life requires special care and protection. Children associated with armed groups or forces face death and suffer physical abuse often leading to serious emotional problems and depression. Before 2008, in Sri Lanka a newly freed child associated with armed conflict would be housed in an open remand prison alongside adults. Today, however, there are special protection and counseling centres for children formerly associated with armed groups like Amutha.
These centres, supported by UNICEF and Sri Lanka’s Office of the Commissioner General for Rehabilitation, continue to help hundreds of children like Amutha, the majority of whom who surrendered to government forces in May 2009, when Sri Lanka’s conflict officially ended.
One such centre is the Ambepussa Rehabilitation Centre, which opened in April 2008. The Ambepussa centre provides vocational training, psychosocial counseling, as well as cultural and sports activities. It not only provides a ‘time out’ for the children; it gives them critical skills which will help in reintegrating into society. Amutha said she is very happy to be at the centre: “I thought my life had been wasted, but now I have hope for the future. I love my courses on plumbing and cookery.”
Children at these rehabilitation centres come under the jurisdiction of the country’s magistrate, who monitors their progress. The goal is for the children to return to their homes and communities with skill sets for a livelihood.
UNICEF and the Sri Lankan government have also worked closely to develop legislation that ends the recruitment and use of children in armed conflict:
- Sri Lanka became one of the first countries to ratify the international United Nations Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict. With this action, Sri Lanka committed to take action against the recruitment of children and provide rehabilitation support to children released from armed groups.
- In December 2008, an action plan signed by the government – with UNICEF advocacy - states that all children coming out of armed groups will be treated as victims, not as criminals. Further, each child will be entitled to rehabilitation support. This became a particularly important piece of legislation as hundreds of children have been identified as children associated with armed conflict and recruited by the LTTE.
- In December 2008, the Commisioner General of Rehabilitation, UNICEF and one of the country’s remaining armed groups, the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal, signed an agreement to bring the recruitment and use of children in armed conflict to an end. This includes the call for immediate release of any remaining children associated with armed groups or forces and for them to be provided with reintegration assistance. As of September 2009, the number of children serving with this armed group has fallen from 200 to 16. It is expected that the remaining 16 cases will be solved shortly.
- In February 2009, the President of Sri Lanka launched a joint campaign with UNICEF to stop all recruitment of children. The ‘Bring Back the Child’ Campaign targets armed groups, vulnerable communities and conflict-affected children. The Campaign reminds the public of the Government’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy on child recruitment. ‘Bring back the Child’ aired on television, radio and through newspapers, billboards and posters across the country, with a focus on the key areas in the north and east of the country. It was broadcast in the country’s three main languages – Sinhalese, Tamil and English.
As for Amutha, she says she is getting opportunities she only once dreamed possible. She believes she is closer to putting her nightmare years as a child associated with armed conflict behind her, and is now looking forward to returning to her parents and community. Once home, she plans to participate in UNICEF-funded ‘children’s clubs’, where she will have the opportunity to play and carry out cultural activities, meet other children and feel part of her community again.