The ancient city of Anuradhapura, situated in Sri Lanka’s North Central Province has a population of over 50,000. Anuradhapura thrives agriculturally, despite being known as the “dry zone” of Sri Lanka – this is due to irrigation reservoirs. The region is a sacred destination for Buddhists, visited by thousands of pilgrims every year.
Anuradhapura Province has one of the highest rates of unemployment in the country: only 11.6% of the population are in regular salaried employment, while 20% are self-employed and 11.1% are unpaid family workers.
Rural teacher shortages
Although enrolment rates in primary schools have vastly improved in the last few years, (93.2% of children aged five to 17 now attend school), in rural areas there is a shortage of teachers and the quality of the education on offer is questionable. What's more, although there are no tuition fees, many parents cannot afford the extra costs sending their children to school entails, such as purchasing books, stationery and shoes.
The poverty of many families is so great that children are forced to work: it is estimated that in total, almost 34,000 children in the province are working, over 4,000 of them in hazardous environments. Of these child labourers, 15.8% do not attend school at all, and those who do are often absent.
Girls suffer trafficking and exploitation
In the Anuradhapura Province child-trafficking and the prostitution of girls is still rife. In some cases, extreme poverty leaves parents no option but to sell their children. In others, children who are left behind when their mothers have to work abroad or away from home become easy targets for traffickers. Girls are often trafficked into Anuradhapura Province, with the promise of employment, only to be forced into prostitution. If the children manage to escape they find themselves and ostracised from their community and are often left to face the threat of destitution completely alone.
What is SOS Children doing to help?
We began our work in Anuradhapura in 1994. Today, SOS families provide a loving home for up to lone children from the region. In each family, children live with their SOS brothers and sisters, cared for by their SOS mother.
The children go to the SOS nursery together with children from the neighbourhood, helping them to make friends and integrate into the local community. They then go on to attend local schools together.
When children become adolescents, they usually move on to the SOS youth programme. Here, they attend higher education or vocational training, and live in shared houses, and are supervised and guided by a qualified counsellor, giving them the support needed to learn to live independently, take responsibility and make their own decisions.
The SOS vocational training centre in Anuradhapura gives young people the opportunity to gain training in a variety of skills including business, IT and office skills, as well as motor mechanics and welding. The qualifications gained by young adults through this programme should help them to find work and to build a life for themselves.
Emergency relief and lasting support
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. We made sure the children who had been orphaned and abandoned during the decades of civil war received medical and psychological attention and we helped to reunite them with their families.
The SOS social centre in Anuradhapura works closely with the local community; including local authorities, Buddhist monks and other organisations so as many families as possible can be reached and can benefit from our family strengthening programme. This programme aims to support vulnerable families so that children can grow up in a safe and stable home. We make sure 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 them guidance on ways to generate income and we offer classes in home economics and crafts so that families can become financially independent. We also provide counselling and psychological support to over 300 children and their adult carers. SOS Children has laid the foundations for a sustainable support system for children in Anuradhapura.
SOS Children provides a caring environment for the most vulnerable children in Anuradhapura. Through healthcare, education and ongoing support, we give these children the chance to thrive.