In Sri Lanka, Dr Tush paves the way for safer schools

Dr Tush

For years, Dr Tush Wickramanayaka has been a passionate advocate for children’s safety. As a child, she experienced violence within her own classrooms – but only realized the devastating impact of these cultural norms when those experiences were mirrored by her 11-year-old daughter.

After 26 years as a general physician, Dr Wickramanayaka decided to take on a new challenge. She brought the abuse of her daughter to the Sri Lankan Supreme Court, and eventually, the United Nations Human Rights Commission. At the same time, she launched a national campaign to turn the tide on corporal punishment in Sri Lanka: the Stop Child Cruelty Trust. In the years since, the Trust has grown the movement against corporal punishment across Sri Lanka, engaging not just teachers, parents and government members, but children and young people themselves.

We know we have been able to change the mindset of people, and we think more change is coming

Dr Tush Wickramanayaka

End Violence spoke to Dr Wickramanayaka about her efforts against corporal punishment, and why she feels it is critical to keep children safe in the classroom.

How did you first become involved in ending corporal punishment in schools?

I grew up in Sri Lanka. Things were very different when I was a child, and domestic violence – and corporal punishment – was common in both my family and in families across our community. I went to an all girls’ school, and I was often punished inside my classroom. My older brothers were subject to even more severe forms of physical punishment. But unfortunately, it all felt very normal for us.

I didn’t think much about it until I had my own children many years later. Though I grew up in Sri Lanka, I spent the greater part of my adulthood in the United Kingdom. Eventually, I wanted my children to know my side of the family, along with my culture and my country. We moved to Sri Lanka and I enrolled them in an international school, but almost immediately, the problems began.

My daughter kept coming home with stories about being forced to kneel, being hit on her head, and having her ears pulled. I was shocked and concerned, and I began complaining to the school administration that this type of abuse was not just outdated, but unacceptable. I was especially bothered by the thought of my daughter and her female classmates being forced to kneel in front of her male teachers – it seemed to be forcing an age-old idea that women should be submissive to men. I continued to speak up to the school administration about establishing a transparent complaints mechanism and a safeguarding policy, and training all staff on child psychology, but nothing changed.

One day, my daughter came home after a particularly bad incident affecting her and eight other boys and girls. They were humiliated in front of their classmates with violence from their teacher, and my daughter – who was only 11 at the time – was completely shaken. She refused to go back to school. As she started to sink into a mental breakdown, I made my voice louder than it ever had been before. Clearly, the school wasn’t listening, and I needed to take more urgent action. That was the spark that changed everything and led me to become an activist against corporal punishment in Sri Lanka with everything I had.

So, you kept speaking up. How did other authorities respond to your complaints?

When I began complaining, I became an outcast. It was my fault, they said, because I was causing an issue within the school community. Even when I complained to the National Child Protection Authority, they treated my complaints with less significance. We have a proverb in Sri Lanka that goes something like: “a curry that is not stirred and a child that is not hit are both spoiled.” It’s written into our culture, and sometimes, it seems impossible to confront.

We have a proverb in Sri Lanka that goes something like: “a curry that is not stirred and a child that is not hit are both spoiled.” It’s written into our culture, and sometimes, it seems impossible to confront.

Those in power, like many others, feel that corporal punishment is an acceptable norm in society. Especially considering the fact that my daughter was enrolled in an international school – which is not governed or under authority by the state – everyone I approached kept dropping my complaints like a hot potato.

Left and right, I kept getting turned away. No one wanted to take responsibility for the abuse happening within my daughter’s school – not the school, not the State, and eventually, not even the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka. When I brought my case to the courts, I was met with an eruption of laughter. The judges were of the opinion that they were punished as children, and they turned out just fine. The court did not provide a legitimate reason for dismissing the case, and didn’t allow us to proceed. It was a dead end.

Over and over again, the systems kept failing. The education system. Law enforcement. The judiciary. The National Child Protection Authority. The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka. Every single one of those systems was failing my child, who was formerly diagnosed with severe mental abuse on three independent inquiries. I realized that they were failing other children as well.

Eventually, I took my daughter’s case to the United Nations Human Rights Commission. This is believed to be the very first case from Sri Lanka that the UNHRC accepted. They took our case on board, accepted it, and registered it. The state party had until 21st March 2021 to respond to the UN Committee. I fervently hope that the state party will honour its national and international commitments to child protection, and implement the recommendations made by the UN Committee.

The final decision by the UN Committee will be a public document relevant to all states, and with that, I hope our efforts will have a greater global influence in promoting the rights and protecting all children of the world.

While all of that was happening, you were advocating against corporal punishment in many other ways. Can you tell us about the Stop Child Cruelty Trust?

We established the Stop Child Cruelty Trust in March of 2018. We have a group of advisors – we call them our Alliance of Professionals – that includes the very first Chairman of the National Child Protection Authority, along with many other experts who have been long-time campaigners of child protection.

Together, we formulated our Pentagon Proposal, which is our five-pronged approach to ending corporal punishment in schools. Sri Lanka’s president at that time came to our inaugural event, which gathered over 600 people from across the country. Once there, he accepted our proposal, along with a petition of over 3,000 people urging for action against corporal punishment. These signatures – and this buy-in from the president – proved that though corporal punishment was still socially and culturally accepted in Sri Lanka, many, many people wanted things to change.

The president invited us to work with his government to push such changes forward. And at first, everything was hunky-dory; we were marching along fine. But with political changes and, unfortunately, the terrible bomb blast in April 2019, things began to collapse. Even so, we kept pushing forward. We continue to advocate for changes in laws while also launching awareness-raising programmes about the impact of corporal punishment through both social and national media. We also often post videos advocating against this issue and promoting children’s rights. And, we’ve gotten children and young people involved themselves. Our latest month-long debate series just ended, where students from the top eight schools participated in a debate competition about the rejection of violence. Over 23,000 people watched the debate series during the semi-finals and finals, which was really trailblazing.

We also hold trainings for teachers, helping them to learn positive behaviour change methods and techniques as opposed to violent, abusive ones. We also educate teachers about the state of corporal punishment in this country and use mindfulness and empathetic understanding to help teachers better manage their stress levels. As part of this training, we also hold practical, hands-on sessions that help teachers react to specific scenarios, where they have to manage a child-teacher interaction without violence. We’ve trained hundreds of teachers, and though there has been many mixed reactions, I do feel hopeful that things are changing for the better.

We will also soon be releasing a book of ten case studies of survivors of abuse. These are real-life stories that will affect people’s perceptions, and showcase the impact of corporal punishment, violence and other forms of abuse in a way that will touch ordinary people.

Why do you feel hopeful, given that it’s been such an upward climb?

My mantra in life is equality, justice and hope. I always believe in hope. If not, why would we bother?

When we first started the Stop Child Cruelty Trust, 90 per cent of the comments and feedback we received were negative. People said that they supported corporal punishment, and that they were doing great now because they were hit as children. We also repeatedly heard that we were pushing a Western, Euro-Centric idea on Sri Lankan communities, or propping up foreign agendas with foreign funds branded as NGO. Of course, that is just wrong. No matter where you grow up, children have the right to a life free from violence, and study after study shows the impact violence and abuse has on children’s brain development.

I always believe in hope. If not, why would we bother?

A year or so down the road, those comments began to change. Now, our advocacy is met with more discussion; our comments are filled with people talking, and minds changing. Two years later, those negative comments have gone down by nearly half, as I’d say that today’s comments are split essentially 50-50. And though I still feel like no one knows us, that’s no longer true, either: We have been appointed to several committees on law reform through the Ministry of Justice.

Another positive piece of progress is that over the last year, many young people have gotten directly involved in the Trust. Last year, we started the Just Say No campaign, where we put children – the main stakeholders – in control. We began a huge online forum that included representatives from not just the child protection community, but those from the National Child Protection Authority and the Sri Lanka Police. We have young lawyers on board, along with medical students, young teachers and youth activists. And though much more still needs to be done, I am very happy with the changing of attitudes from the ground level up. Our activism is working.

On top of that, it does seem like our island paradise is changing. In February 2021, the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka made a historic decision: after a 15-year-old child was hit by his teacher so hard he was left with a permanent hearing impairment, the Court condemned the use of corporal punishment in Sri Lankan schools. Though this decision won’t outlaw corporal punishment in schools completely, it does mark an important change of tone on the highest levels. It was also the first time the Supreme Court took international norms on children into consideration and used the definition of corporal punishment quoting verbatim from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

So yes, I think there is great hope in the future. We know we have been able to change the mindset of people, and we think more change is coming. It might not come as quickly as we hope, but I know that it will come. That won’t just happen because of my activism either – it will come because it’s a growing call from the people.

The strength of any activism lies in the support received from the community; being vocal, sharing a post, commenting on the discussion, volunteering, or action on the grassroots level. I earnestly encourage every citizen to step up to protect not just your own child – because looking away is contributing to the heinous crime of child abuse. Child protection is a collective social responsibility.

Learn more about corporal punishment in Sri Lanka through this study, which was published in May of 2017.