SRI LANKAN orphanages are not really for orphans. An orphan by definition is a child without both parents. But the large majority of children locked away in our 'orphanages' have both or at least one parent. This was a startling piece in a Sunday newspaper a few weeks ago.
Although they have parents and family back in their 'village' these 'institutionalised' languish in regimented, loveless conditions in a less-than-healthy environment.
Many of us who have seen the inside working of State or private trust-run large orphanages have come away with a huge feeling of sadness and helplessness-believing that these children have no better option but to grow up in this crowded, cramped, unhealthy fashion since they are without family. It was shocking indeed to find out that this notion fell far short of the truth.
The secret of this country's orphanages came out when Save the Children commissioned a study to find out the status of Sri Lankan orphanages and the manner in which they are run. Over 300 institutions were included in the study and 84 such institutions were studied in-depth.
Astonishingly, over 50% of the children in the care of these institutions have both parents. Only less than 10% claimed to have lost both parents.
There is little need to elaborate upon the conditions of orphanages. But the study had come upon some ground truths-It says that a number of these institutions lacked water and sanitation. Some did not have proper transportation or sick room facilities.
Many of the employed staff had no knowledge of child rights- nor did they appear to care about such lofty ideals- also they were not trained to be caregivers.
Although the institutions allowed parents to visit- these visits were deliberately kept brief, supervised, and limited. Overnight facilities were not offered for parents and family who often travelled long distances to see their child(ren). Letters written home were read by the people in-charge before posting, letters received were also scrutinized.
In effect the children were imprisoned in these institutions- away from their parents, their families and cared for by impersonal, often unfriendly and strict staff who give the children little care and very little respect.
Although the report does not address abuse, it is a well-known fact that sexual and physical harassment occurs frequently in many such homes, especially because the controls over them are lax and supervision of the Social Services officers is very marginal.
The report states: "The children lacked most was emotional support and the space to grow as individuals. This is a serious drawback since the lack of emotional support during childhood can cause irreparable consequences to a child's healthy development in the long run."
So why do people put their children in institutions? Poverty was cited as the main reason for many. Others felt that putting a child in an orphanage would enable him or her to receive proper education and care. This was especially so in the North and East where decades of civil war had eroded the social fabric of many communities.
Many a single parent finds it difficult to cope with responsibilities of child rearing, earning a living etc, and takes up on the option of institutionalizing one child of a family or all of them.
Parents with children who are mentally or physically disabled also take upon the option of institutionalizing since the support and care from the State and community is very minimal.
This is a very sad state of affairs. For a child being with family under the care of one's own parents is the most important aspect of development. However poor, the emotional ties with parents cannot be replaced with the cold impersonality of an institution- however well run.
This report has to serve as an eye opener for a number of Ministries and programmes. If poverty is driving people to send their children into orphanages- it is a very harsh statement upon the failure of our systems and programmes to address abject poverty. Single parents and parents with disabled children could cope better if their specific needs were addressed.
There are many successful micro-level grass roots programmes supporting single parents (especially women) and households with disabled young. But these efforts have to be encouraged and 'mainstreamed'.
Otherwise, this despicable situation will continue- where parents opt to send their children off to virtual imprisonment under the delusion that they would grow up better.