BasicNeeds’ current project in Sri Lanka is an unusual one as it focuses primarily on children’s mental health and well-being. The 2004 tsunami and a long civil war which ended in 2009 had a devastating impact on Batticaloa in the Eastern region of Sri Lanka. Coping with the aftermath of both a conflict and a natural disaster is extremely difficult, and the children face family breakdown, alcohol and drug misuse, domestic violence and absent parents.
Now in its fourth year, the project which is implemented by BasicNeeds Sri Lanka in Batticaloa district, is carried out in partnership with the Eastern Self Reliant Community Awakening Organization (ESCO), and funded by The British Asian Trust. Children’s Clubs (CCs), established by BasicNeeds and our partners, were set up to provide children (aged 10 – 18) with a way of coping with those issues – helping them to manage mental distress and preventing them from under performing at school, where teachers are often not adequately trained or equipped to recognise or deal with mental health problems. The CCs improve their lives by providing a space where children can relax, play, be with others, make friends and learn new skills.
Through this project, 26 CCs have been established, the majority based in schools in very remote locations. They are run by children themselves. These clubs introduce a ‘child-to-child’ support approach within the school environment. Their main focus is to develop children’s mental resilience and build their self-confidence so they can learn better at school.
A programme of training for the children to enable them to run the Clubs themselves gives them skills such as handling money, keeping minutes and records and providing leadership. Club leaders are first trained by professionals and then cascade the knowledge down among the other children, training each other. Children learn about child rights and well-being, how to negotiate their rights with adults, how to recognise and deal with mental health problems, how to manage conflict and anger, and how to support each other and solve problems.
This final year of the project (ending March 2017) aims to make the Clubs sustainable, i.e. properly embedded in, and supported by, the local government authorities and their local community. As part of our exit strategy, the focus of the last six months has been on developing Action Plans for the CCs through a consultative process. 675 children from 26 Children Clubs participated in preparing their Club’s own Action Plan. The process demonstrated the values of participation and respecting the views and opinions of others. Executive members of the CCs presented a summary of the Action Plan to their respective Divisional Secretariat, seeking support and approval.
Children preparing their Action Plan
The state has recognized the Children’s Clubs, and the roles they will play in reducing challenges faced by children. Thus, 24 Memorandum of Understanding (MOUs) have been signed between the Divisional Secretary, ESCO and the CCs, mentioning the roles and responsibilities of the state, CCs and ESCO in implementing the Action Plans.
This is the first time an MOU has been signed between a CC and the state in Sri Lanka, thus recognising CCs as a Community Based Organisation (CBO). Child Rights Protection Officers (CRPOs) are now directly involved in supporting the efficient functioning of these clubs and have made arrangements for the children to handle bank transactions. CRPO officers will personally approve all transactions from the bank, which keeps them aware of all the activities happening in the CCs.
The CCs and the government stakeholders are now communicating directly to address various issues that affect children’s well-being and performance in school. Issues of early child marriages, child abuse and school dropouts are reported and addressed quickly. In addition the government stakeholders are gradually realising that they should have been doing work that project staff have been. Government staff are now making efforts to support the continued functioning of the CCs as part of their official role.
“The children have learnt to talk and share their own opinions, views and needs, without hurting the other person’s feelings, with great maturity. The listeners value the children’s views. This has come about because of the opportunities and trainings the children have received as members of Children’s Clubs, and how they are able to function now.” Mr V Kugathasan – District Child Rights Protection Officer.
Representatives of the Children’s Clubs signing an MOU with local government stakeholders
Equally crucial to the project’s success has been the training of teachers, head teachers, parents and government education officials. They learn how to recognise signs of unhappiness, under performance and mental stress in children and how best to support them at home or in a child-friendly way at school. In some schools teachers start the day with relaxation programmes. Some teachers have started art therapy programmes, enabling them to identify children with mental health problems. The school principals are also accommodating of changes to the school’s regular practices.
Both children and teachers have reported positive changes in the school environment. For example, punishments are reduced; the new found trust in their CC’s relationships has made it possible for the children to openly share their problems with each other; teachers are now taking interest in teaching different groups, such as slow learners and children with disabilities, and they pay more attention, listening and responding to children’s needs; and teachers make home visits to meet children’s parents where there are behavioural issues or low school performance.
“I am a teacher and used punishment as a way of disciplining students, but I have realised it is not the answer. The trainings made me realise that reasons for misbehaviour need understanding and / or compromising and I need to encourage students. Following this approach has given me a lot of happiness, not only at school and but in family life with my own children as well.” – Mr. K Vickneeshwaran, Teacher.
Open discussions between children and teachers
Although the parents would prefer BasicNeeds’ continued presence overseeing the CCs, they understand that the project has to come to an end and are happy with the exit strategy. Parents now support their children by carrying out activities in the Action Plans and ensuring the children’s safety while going to and from CC meetings. They also help identify children who have mental health issues within the community and make referrals to the relevant authorities. Parents and their children have found a way of communicating with each other and have learnt to express their opinions and needs. Punishing as a method of disciplining is decreasing and parents are using other encouraging methods. Relationships between parents and their children have improved and therefore support for the CCs’ functions has increased.
Parents involved in the Club meetings
Our aim of making the CCs locally sustainable is now being realised. The children themselves are able to access government funding to continue running their own Clubs, know how to support each other to become resilient and healthy members of the community; and the adults around them, parents and teachers, provide a safe and supportive environment for them at home and in school. This has taken four years of hard work, but will create long term change for the children and their local communities.