An island in distress: Supporting children and families in Sri Lanka

By Ashani Ratnayake | September 16, 2022 | Asia | Education, Youth Empowerment

Millions of children and families in Sri Lanka are going to bed hungry as the island nation grapples with its worst economic crisis in decades. GFC’s Ashani Ratnayake shares what it’s like to live amid the crisis and how GFC partners in Sri Lanka are supporting at-risk families.

Sri Lanka is a country that has endured a lot: a 26-year civil conflict, a devastating tsunami, and, like many others, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, as a Sri Lankan, this time I see the resilience of people waning as they struggle to adjust to yet another “new normal” during the unprecedented economic crisis.

Thousands wait day after day in the scorching sun in queues for rationed-out fuel, as the country does not have sufficient foreign exchange reserves to import fuel, food, medicine, and other essentials. Children struggle to sleep in the humid heat without fans and routines are overturned because of incessant power cuts. Sky-rocketing food prices – food inflation reached a record high of 90% in July 2022 – mean that many families are unable to afford even staples such as rice.

Vehicles lined up for miles in Sri Lanka.

Vehicles lined up for miles on the roads in Sri Lanka as people wait for fuel. © Pradeep Dambarage

The shock waves of this crisis have only just begun. According to the World Food Programme, more than 6 million people are already food insecure.

Nutritious food such as vegetables now costs two to five times more than before, making it prohibitively expensive for many families. I have met pregnant mothers from poor households who worry for the health of their unborn babies because they cannot afford milk, grains, or vegetables but survive on rice and gravy. This raises loud alarm bells on children’s health, with UNICEF placing Sri Lanka among the top six countries in the world and the second highest in South Asia for child malnutrition even before the crisis began.

The education of children and young people, already disrupted by the pandemic, continues to suffer with school closures, power cuts, and teachers’ inability to find transport. Rising household expenses due to inflation have forced some parents to pull their children out of school.

“My children haven’t gone to school these past two months,” said Lakindu, a tuk-tuk driver I know in Galle. “I lost my job as the crisis worsened and we don’t even have money to spend on food.”

It is critical that children and youth are placed at the heart of any short-term assistance and all long-term solutions while the country works to resolve this crisis.

GFC partner the Sunshine Charity does just that. The Sunshine Charity has prioritized children’s education since its inception, providing kids from impoverished families in Sri Lanka’s eastern region with the opportunity to learn at the Sunshine daycare and preschool. The organization also looks after the children’s nourishment by providing healthy meals in school and medical assistance, as well as nutrition workshops for their mothers.

“The economic crisis has severely affected the education and nutrition of children,” said Sharadha de Saram, Founder and Trustee of the Sunshine Charity. She explained how school closures have hindered children’s development – for example, children who should be transferring from preschool to first grade are not ready.

The Sunshine Charity has also extended its reach to its students’ families, providing a monthly ration pack of essential food items. Sunshine has launched a fundraiser to obtain donations to continue supporting these families.

Children enjoying a meal of chickpeas.

Children enjoying a nutritious meal at the Sunshine preschool in Sri Lanka. © The Sunshine Charity

“One mother told me she doesn’t know how they would have survived if they didn’t receive this food pack,” said Sharadha.

Rural Economic and Community Development Organization (RECDO) is another GFC partner in Sri Lanka scaling up its support to children and young people during the economic crisis. While RECDO first began its work assisting displaced communities in northeastern Sri Lanka during the civil conflict, its efforts over the years have become more child- and youth-centered. RECDO carries out educational workshops for children, projects to build houses for low-income families, and youth mentorship programs. It also works to prevent alcohol and drug abuse among young people.

During both the pandemic and the economic crisis, RECDO has refocused its operations to enable children to continue their studies during school closures; provide food and nutrition for children from poor families; and offer food assistance to pregnant mothers.

“The economic crisis has been devastating for young people,” said Azhar Abdeen, Founder of RECDO. “Their education is in shambles, and youth have almost no employment opportunities and are turning towards petty theft.”

Schoolchildren with bags of food.

Schoolchildren with bags of food provided by RECDO during the pandemic. © RECDO

Organizations like RECDO and the Sunshine Charity are doing as much as they can to support children and their families. But they need your help to safeguard the hopes, dreams, and futures of Sri Lankan children.

Donate now to help local organizations provide emergency support to children in Sri Lanka.

Header photo: Children at the Sunshine preschool. © The Sunshine Charity

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