Addressing early marriage as a Human Rights violation in war affected districts in Sri Lanka.

On 22nd February, 2019 at Lavender Room, BMICH.

 Caritas Sri Lanka-SEDEC was represented by Rev. Fr. Mahendra Gunatilleke & Upatissa Tennakoon

Child marriage in war-affected districts in Sri Lanka has never been documented systematically in order to have baseline data for targeted interventions. This phenomenon must be understood and taken into consideration by the government in the implementation of national policies and plans and by policy makers and local government officials. The challenge is also to address the lack of awareness among war-affected communities, civil society organizations and women leaders with regard to child marriage as a violation of the rights of the girl child and young women.

Centre for Equality and Justice conducted a baseline study on the prevalence of child marriage in Sinhala and Tamil communities in post war districts in Sri Lanka. The launch of this baseline study will bring together different stakeholders working on child marriage, including the donor community, UN agencies, government officers, policy makers and agencies working with children and youth. Objectives of this meeting, as described by Ms. Shyamala Gomez, Executive Director, Centre for Equality and Justice were strategies on how to address early marriage in the rolling out of the National Human Rights Action Plan, the Sexual and Gender-based Violence National Action Plan and examine the roles and responsibilities of civil society organizations and relevant government ministries in addressing child marriage and early cohabitation.

Earlier, H.E. David McKinnon, Canadian High Commissioner in Sri Lanka welcomed the guests for the session and outlined the day’s proceedings. As the sponsor of this meeting, he thanked all participants, the guest speakers and Centre for Equality and Justice for organizing this important event.

Ms. Shermila Antony Perera, Visiting Lecturer, Faculty of Law and Consultant at Ministry of Foreign Affairs delivered the speech on ‘Lost Childhoods in War: Addressing early marriage as a Human Rights violation in war affected districts in Sri Lanka’. She explained the main causes for child marriage as follows:

– Poverty and economic hardships

– Illiteracy and lack of opportunities and facilities

– Love affairs and teenage pregnancies

– Deprivation of love and attention and peer pressure

– Ignorance of the law

– Lack of serious legal consequences

– Consent of elders in the community

– Customary laws and harmful religious practices

– Gender inequality

The eminent lawyer gave following points as to how the 30 year war contributed to early marriage.

– Exacerbates poverty.

– Deprived education and employment opportunities for the young.

– Stifled economic, social and cultural growth.

– It created conditions that aggravated physical insecurity, especially for the girl child and a sense of purposelessness that drive parents to give their children in marriage.

As child marriage is against human rights laws, following recommendations were put forward:

– Steps should be taken to fully implement the current laws on marriage and statutory rape.

– Registration services should be more accessible.

– Campaign to create awareness on underage marriage and its consequences in order to create social change.

– Provide training for government offices linked to child protection.

– Provide sexual and reproductive education to children through the school curriculum to prevent early sexual engagement, teenage pregnancies and cohabitations and child marriage.

– Steps should be taken to improve social and cultural activities of children to encourage healthy social relationships.

– Mobile visits by Child Development Committee and Child and Women’s division could be utilized to provide advice.

– Counselling ought to be given to the parties.

Dr. Hemamal Jayawardena, Child Protection Specialist at UNICEF lectured on ‘Child marriage as a form of Gender-based Violence (GBV) in Conflict-affected Areas (CAA)’. Dr. Mahesan Ganesan, Consultant Psychiatrist who has worked in Batticaloa for more than two decades including during war era talked about the ‘Mental health and child marriage’. He mentioned that depression is at an alarming rate in couples engaged in child marriages.

Following the conclusion of speeches a panel discussion was moderated by the Executive Director of Centre for Equality and Justice where many questions were raised by the participants and answers were given by the elusive panel consisted of above mentioned speakers.

The session was wrapped-up after launching the website of ‘Centre for Equality and Justice’.