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A national network of State authorities was setup last week to tackle the growing issue of street children in Kataragama and Lungamvehera, where the number currently exceeds well over 100 children, ranging from weaning infants to those who are 17-years-old.

The Ministry of Women and Child Affairs acknowledged that the issue was a big problem as there were about 175 such children in the Kataragama area.

Recently, in a raid supervised by the Provincial Commissioner of Probation, the Uva Provincial Department of Probation and Child Care Services took into their custody, 48 street children including those between the ages of two and 17 years, who were engaged in begging near the Kataragama Kiri Vehera, a site of worship. A tense situation had ensued between the parents of the said children and the Police when the children were being taken into protection.

The Ministry of Social Empowerment, Welfare explained that the majority of the said children were from the Gothamigama Kanishta Vidyalaya and from Nagahaweediya, both in the vicinity of the Kiri Vehera.

The network for child protection includes the Department of Social Services of the Ministry of Social Empowerment, Welfare, the Department of Probation and Child Care Services of the Ministry of Women and Child Affairs, the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) and the Presidential Secretariat.

Both, Social Services Officer of the Moneragala District of the Uva Province of the Department of Social Services, T.K. Bandulasena and Secretary to the Ministry, Chandrani Senaratna pointed out that the children in Kataragama was begging out of habit and not necessity or dire poverty, with the children having followed either of their parents when they did the rounds, begging from those coming on pilgrimages to the area.

Bandulasena and Senaratna explained that there were groups of racketeers masterminding the rackets revolving around directing the beggars, adults, the elderly, and children, in begging.

Addressing the issue of the violation of child rights, Bandulasena further added that the children in question were accustomed to spreading a plastic sheet on the street, below the shade of a tree and sleeping.

“We have built a library at the said Vidyalaya where most of them learn. We got a non-governmental organization (NGO) to give five scholarships recently. We provide educational assistance. We build houses. We provide financial assistance. We conduct counseling,” he added.

Senaratna said that elsewhere in Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu, there were approximately 500 children who were street children, the result in this instance of being victims of poverty. She added that there were at present major programmes even at the village level where children were being rehabilitated secretively.

She advised pilgrims to refrain from giving money to those engaging in begging, especially children, during the festival period, on poya days and other days.

“The children are not continuous beggars. They beg because it is a source of income and it is easy money. We want to help them with their education. We want the children sent back to school. The families have a role to play in this regard. We are distributing leaflets, putting up billboards and notices and deploying our officers and those from NGOs to make the public aware of this matter. The Divisional Secretariats, the District Secretariats, Government Agents and the Police must prevent children begging. Members of the public must not encourage begging,” she further said.