The Situation of Children and Women
Sri Lanka has made tremendous gains in reducing the number of children who die from preventable causes, with the country on track to achieve Millennium Development Goals related to child mortality, maternal health and HIV and AIDS. Under five mortality currently stands at 15 deaths per 1,000 live births (2009), almost all children are immunized, HIV prevalence is under 0.1% and the maternal mortality ratio is 33.4 per 100,000 births (2008). Challenges relating to quality and the equitable distribution of human resources and services between districts still exist, however, and need to be addressed.
In addition, although the number of underweight children under the age of five has decreased from 34% in 1987 to 13% in 2012, malnutrition continues to be a cause for concern, with one out of seven children below the age of five stunted and five children out of 100 at risk of acute malnutrition. In addition, 17 in 100 babies born in the country have low birth weight, and out of these, 50% are underweight.
Nutrition indicators vary by region with 16% of underweight under-fives in Kalutara (Western Province), compared to 41% of under-fives in Killinochchi (Northern Province); in addition, the estate areas report a high prevalence of malnutrition.
In terms of water, sanitation and hygiene, over 90% of the country’s households have access to water and 91% to adequate sanitation, but these figures mark disparities between regions and urban /rural areas. Universal hygiene education and access to water and separate toilets for boys and girls in schools is also an issue, along with the quality of water.
On the education front, while the country has achieved impressive near-universal primary school enrolment of 99% and completion of 98%, some 60,000 children are out of school. Data also indicate that school drop-out rates are higher amongst lower income groups and between regions, and that the quality of education remains an issue: Nationally, of all the students who sit for Grade 11 exams, only 58% passed last year (Census 2012).
In terms of protecting children’s rights, Sri Lanka was one of the first countries in the world to sign the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. However, mechanisms to ensure justice for children, prevention of child sexual abuse (and violence against children); along with building a systemic approach to child protection, need to be strengthened. For instance, the low age (8 years) of criminal responsibility means that children are often caught in a justice system that has limited diversion programmes for minor offences and makes them wait (on average six years) before their cases are heard.
Children, growing up without parental care, is also an emerging issue of concern. Estimates indicate that there are also over 12,000 children who are in institutional care. A study in 2008 also revealed that nearly 48% of women who migrate abroad in search of jobs, leave behind children under the age of six.
Major efforts have been made to clear landmines since Sri Lanka’s civil war ended in 2009, with mine risk education playing a key role in saving lives, but the prevention of childhood injuries and accidents, remains a key issue, along disaster risk reduction, as vulnerable children and their families remain affected by climate change and natural disasters. In late 2010, heavy rainfall – the worst in 100 years – caused floods and landslides that affected more than 1.2 million people across the country.