Girls are vulnerable to trafficking and sexual exploitation

Children without parental care can find a loving home in SOS Children’s Village Anuradhapura (photo: SOS archives)
The ancient city of Anuradhapura is located in Sri Lanka’s North Central Province and has a population of over 50,000. It is an important sacred Buddhist site, visited by thousands of pilgrims each year. Although it is known as the “dry zone” of Sri Lanka, thanks to irrigation reservoirs the region has a thriving agriculture. However, Anuradhapura Province has one of the lowest rates of employment in the country: only 11.6 per cent of the population are regular salaried employees, 20 per cent work on their own account and 11.1 per cent are unpaid family workers.

Primary school enrolment rates have seen great improvements in the country in recent years: 93.2 per cent of children aged five to 17 attend school. However, particularly in rural areas there is a shortage of teachers and the quality of the education received has been questioned. In addition, although there are no tuition fees, many parents cannot afford the extra costs associated with sending their children to school such as books, stationary or shoes. 

In many cases, the poverty of families leads to child labour: in total, almost 34,000 children in the province are estimated to be working, over 4,000 of them in hazardous environments. 15.8 per cent of them do not attend school at all, and amongst those who do absenteeism is common.

Sadly, Anuradhapura Province continues to be one of the regions where the trafficking of children and the commercial sexual exploitation of girls remains very widespread. Once of the causes is the severe poverty many families live in, which sometimes leads to parents selling their child.

Especially when the mother goes to work abroad or in a different part of the country, the children left behind become incredibly vulnerable. Girls are often trafficked into Anuradhapura Province, lured by false promises of employment, and are forced into prostitution. Even when children manage to escape, when they return to their villages they are not received kindly; they are ostracised and isolated from the community, and the threat of falling into destitution is very great.

Emergency relief and sustainable, holistic support for the community

The SOS Social Centre in Anuradhapura provides a family strengthening programme to the local community, which aims to support vulnerable families so that children can grow up in a safe and stable home. We work closely with local authorities, Buddhist monks and other organisations in order to reach out to as many families as possible. We ensure that children have access to basic nutrition, health services and education, and we provide basic medical care. To help parents improve their situation, we give guidance on income-generating skills and offer classes in home economics and crafts so that families can become financially independent. We also provide counselling and psychological support to children and their adult caregivers.

In 2009 we started an SOS Emergency Relief Programme in the north of the country in order to support the refugees living in Chettikulam Camp. Due to the decades of civil war, there were a great number of children who had been orphaned or were unaccompanied. We made sure these children received medical and psychological attention and helped to reunite them with their families.

What we do in Anuradhapura

Girls practising a traditional dance in the SOS Children’s Village (photo: SOS archives)

Due to the violent clashes between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority that frequently affected the population, many children here in the north of the country were orphaned or separated from their parents. SOS Children’s Villages began its work in the ancient royal city of the Singhalese, Anuradhapura, in 1994. Today, 14 SOS families can provide a loving home for up to 140 children from the region. In each family, the children live with their brothers and sisters, affectionately cared for by their SOS mother.

The children go to the SOS Kindergarten together with children from the neighbourhood, ensuring that they make friends and are integrated into their local community. They then go on to attend local schools together.

Once the children reach adolescence they usually move on to the SOS Youth Programme. While they attend higher education or vocational training, they live in shared houses, and are supervised and guided by a qualified SOS counsellor as they learn to live independently, take responsibility and increasingly make their own decisions.

The SOS Vocational Training Centre in Anuradhapura gives young people the opportunity to complete training in business, IT and office skills, motor mechanics and welding, amongst others. The qualifications gained should help the young adults find work and build a life for themselves.