Colombo (AsiaNews) – Muththaiyah Dharshan, a 17-year-old teenager from Jaffna, has not been able to go school since the end of the civil war in 2009. For years, he has worked as a labourer on construction sites in order to provide for his family. With ten mouths to feed, his wages are all that keeps them away from hunger.
Dharshan is not alone. He is one of the more than 107,000 children and teenagers forced to work in Sri Lanka, at least according to official data provided by the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA). According to human rights activists, the actual figure is probably much higher.
On World Day against Child Labour (12 June), Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said that the government plans to introduce measures to help the poorest families so that their children might also receive a quality education.
In Sri Lanka, the school is compulsory up to the age 18 years. However, it is not uncommon in poor communities for children to quit to help their parents.
As Darshan’s case shows, the situation is especially widespread in north-eastern Sri Lanka, where the civil war was the most intense.
In addition, female-headed households tend to be disproportionately affected by child labour because of the loss of fathers, husbands and older brothers in the civil war.
"I can only speak for the five northern districts where we work,” said Lavina Hashanti, coordinator of the women's section for the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (NAFSO), “but I see many children forced to work because they need money as a result of the death of their fathers or brothers in the war. It is sad.”
“It is unusual to see families where all the children go to school,” she told AsiaNews. “If there are four children, only two or three will receive an education. Inevitably, one will have to go to work to support his family."
"Most stop when they are 13 or 14 years old,” added the activist. “Typically, they find employment in fishing or farming. And what they earn goes to support their family.”
“I remember one kid in Kopaweli, Batticaloa. He was 14 years -old and had to give up school to allow his older brother to study. He now looks after cattle.”