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Governtment of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 47 - The Rights of Elders

( Created date: 14-Nov-2012 )

I was surprised to be invited last week to a consultation on the Rights of Elders organized by the Human Rights Commission, since this was not an area I knew about. In fact the Rights of Elders do not figure in the Human Rights Action Plan, which led to questions as to whether the latter should not be amended, to include these as well.
I was wondering why the topic had not been introduced, during the initial consultations about the Plan when we first began preparing it in 2008, but the reason became apparent when Mrs Jegarajasingham, who had been Secretary to the Ministry of Social Services under whom the subject comes, noted that a National Policy on Elders had in fact been adopted by Cabinet. That covered a lot of ground, and it clearly made no sense for the Human Rights Action Plan to duplicate what had already been agreed. However it would seem that that Policy had not been implemented, which seems to be the fate of many good intentions in Sri Lanka.
I don’t think this is intentional, but it certainly is a national hazard, given the large number of institutions owing allegiance to different authorities that have to be coordinated to give effect to policy – and our general failure to set up effective coordinating mechanisms. I could understand then why Minister Samarasinghe, having been asked to chair the Inter-Ministerial Committee, appointed me to convene the Task Force to promote implementation, because in addition to having worked with a number of the relevant agencies previously, I did not represent any institution that could be seen as invading the space of other institutions that fiercely guarded their own turf. This has enabled the Task Force to develop coordinating mechanisms in a number of areas, where we make it clear that there is no lead agency, it is simply that one must take the lead to ensure action.
Though I could not attend the meetings in the morning, I was able to contribute to the workshop session, where a number of experienced workers in the field supplemented the very thorough working paper the organizers had provided. We also benefited from the presence of Mrs Jegarajasingham at our table, since she had very practical experience of policy aims, as well as difficulties in implementation.
The suggestions for a policy framework that we presented was as follows: 
1. The state should institute
a) mandatory contributory pensions schemes, state or private, for employees
b) a state pension for all elders, increased for those who make     voluntary contributions 
Private pension schemes should be monitored by the state.
2. The age of retirement should be revised to 65. Voluntary retirement may be taken earlier with lower pension provision.
3. It should be a state responsibility to ensure care for the elderly, though where possible this can be provided by families. There should be monitoring, with provision for intervention to 
a) Assist with companionship
b) Medical support including psycho-social support
c) Commit to institutional care
4. Grama Niladhari Divisions should maintain vulnerability indices to monitor the situation of vulnerable including elders (plus women, children, the disabled etc who need support). These indices should be shared with government officials responsible for services to such persons, including the MOH, and officials concerned with women and children and elders and social services and counselling.
5. The state must ensure one such official in each Divisional Secretariat, responsible for coordinating information and action as required. They should monitor support schemes to ensure that duplication is avoided, and gaps are covered. Provision for maintenance should be available in each District.
6. More and better training of counsellors and deployment nationwide is needed. 
7. Provision should be made to ensure that all elders obtain required documentation as a matter of urgency, including identity cards. Separate identity cards for elders should be accompanied by a campaign to obtain benefits based on the card.
8. Provision should also be made for elders to be provided with legal assistance and advice as needed.
9. Awareness raising campaigns should be engaged in to draw attention to the rights and needs of elders. The involvement of volunteers for support for elders should be encouraged.
A question was raised about the number of social service officials nationwide, and it seemed that there were only about 100 nationwide for elders. I had indeed noticed even greater limitations in this respect than in others in my regular visits to Divisional Secretariats for Reconciliation Committee meetings. While over half have Women Development Officers, there are far fewer Child Rights Protection Officers, and Elders fare even worse.
One of the more committed youngsters at our table asked about deployment of the graduates who have been provided recently with employment, and indeed I was able to report that a number of Divisional Secretaries had allocated the work of Child Protection Officers to some of these graduates. This had happened in places where there had been CRPOs who had then been moved, but it would clearly make sense for government to use these youngsters who otherwise might have no clear responsibilities to fill up gaps in the provision and monitoring of social services. 
They could also be used for counselling, which is an area in which there are severe shortages. I had indeed written some time back to the President about using graduates, if there were another mass employment project, as counsellors after proper training, given the grave needs in the North. Unfortunately I don’t suppose this idea was brought to the notice of those planning the graduate employment scheme, but since it has now been repeated by others concerned with counselling at all levels, and in particular for children and women and elders, I hope that some practical and long-term use will be made of those for whom the state is now paying salaries because clearly the education they received has not made it easy for them to find other employment. 


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