By Rajat Madhok
COLOMBO/JAFFNA, Sri Lanka, 12 March 2012 – Families of children who disappeared during Sri Lanka’s 27-year-long conflict wait for news of their lost ones outside a UNICEF-funded Family Tracing and Reunification Centre (FTR) in the northern town of Mullaitivu.
Until UNICEF and its government partners established this office, these families had no place to report their losses. Since its opening, the centre has registered 707 children as missing and has helped reunite 32 children with their families.
Assessing work on the ground
Members of the Bureau of UNICEF’s Executive Board – UNICEF’s governing body – visited the centre and spoke to family members, offering support and continued assistance. They were on a week-long mission to Sri Lanka with the aim of assessing UNICEF’s work in the field with government agencies and development partners.
Headed by Permanent Representative of the Republic of Kenya to the United Nations Macharia Kamau, the visiting team included Deputy Permanent Representative of the Permanent Mission of Antigua and Barbuda to the United Nations Conrod Cecil Hunte, Minister Counsellor of the Permanent Mission of Finland to the United Nations Nina Nordström, Second Secretary of the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Estonia to the United Nations Karin Kaup, Second Secretary of the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Kazakhstan to the United Nations Askar Zhumabayev, and Secretary of the UNICEF Executive Board Nicolas Pron. UNICEF Representative in Sri Lanka Reza Hossaini escorted the high-level delegation. The delegation met senior government officials and members of the community in the north. They were also briefed on the country’s latest developments and security-related issues.
The delegation visited a variety of UNICEF-supported programmes throughout the country. Among these was a children’s magistrate court in Jaffna where court staff are trained to sensitively handle children’s issues using child-friendly procedures – processes that address the needs of vulnerable children and take into account the best interest of the child.
Bureau members also visited schools that were severely damaged during the conflict, touring facilities that are being rebuilt with UNICEF support and the help of generous donors. Temporary learning spaces have been set up to accommodate students whose classrooms are still under construction. Special emphasis has been given to ensure that these schools are child-friendly, meaning they provide a safe, encouraging and inclusive place for children to learn.
Bureau members also witnessed the construction of a new maternal and children’s ward at a hospital in Mullaittivu, which will provide critical health services to children and their mothers.
The central district of Nuwara Eliya is a haven for tourism and tea planters, but behind its pristine beauty lurks a persistent malnutrition problem. UNICEF and its partners are working to improve the nutrition of children and women in the district, adopting a multi-sectoral approach. The delegation was impressed by these efforts, which are necessary to tackle social disparities and inequity in the country.
On the path to recovery
After spending four days in the field, the delegation returned to Colombo to meet with the country’s Ministers for Education, Health and Economic Development. Ambassador Kamau also jointly launched UNICEF’s flagship report, ‘The State of the World’s Children 2012’, in the Presidential Secretariat with Dr. Sarath Amunugama, Sri Lanka’s Senior Minister of International Monetary Cooperation.
As the Bureau’s visit drew to a close, members reflected on the fact that Sri Lanka has moved from a state affected by conflict to a state deeply committed to reconstruction, reconciliation and dev. UNICEF is responding to this shift by moving to mainstream development work while still addressing the lingering needs of those affected by the conflict.
“A lot of times we find that countries that have a middle income status tend to drop off the priority list of UNICEF. In fact Sri Lanka illustrates why UNICEF needs to remain engaged… It is in these countries that lessons can be learnt in ways in which can be transferred to other, less developed, countries much more rapidly,” Ambassador Kamau said.