Children aged 10-19 experience rapid physical, emotional, social, sexual and psychological development. Adolescence can be an exciting time filled with opportunities for social, economic and personal independence. Yet, these freedoms can also bring a host of dangers if children are not prepared.
As many as one-third of all legal trials pending nationwide involve some sort of violence against a child. Corporal punishment is widespread and generally accepted in homes and schools. Other children, who may still be feeling the residual effects of conflict, are at risk of getting involved in violent actions or serious crimes. In Sri Lanka, the age for criminal responsibility is 12. This contributes to the unnecessary and unfair institutionalization of children. Youth who have been institutionalized for care-specific reasons often find themselves housed with convicted offenders. No formal mechanism exists to divert children away from the justice system and towards more humane alternatives for support and rehabilitation. Adolescents aged 16-18 are not recognized as children by criminal legislation and are subject to justice procedures designed for adults.
The digital age has also brought in new challenges. Adolescents, particularly girls, can be subjected to online exploitation, abuse and blackmail The government has limited resources to handle such cases. The Cyber Watch Unit, formed under the National Child Protection Authority, has identified over 300 potential sex offenders who have lured children using social media and, in 2014, there were 2,368 complaints of online incidents. While data on this issue is not readily available, it is clear that as smart-phone and internet penetration rises rapidly across Sri Lanka online exploitation and abuse needs to be tackled. .
Adolescence is also a critical age for children to get involved with national development as agents of change. Unfortunately they lack the knowledge, the skill or the opportunity to share their voice and participate in the discussions and the decisions that affect them most. Schools, which are sometimes segregated along ethnic, linguistic or religious lines, do not provide the type of social and cultural exchange that can positively contribute to social cohesion. Adolescents lack the knowledge and skills to analyze the root cause of conflict and are not equipped to take positive steps towards reconciliation and peace building.
Gender sensitive education is also lacking on topics such as social norms, gender stereotypes and sexual and reproductive health.