Sri Lanka is slowly emerging from a decades-long civil war that ended in 2009. This scenic nation carries the scars of the conflict, and poverty continues holding many children back. But Compassion’s local partners are helping vulnerable children to realise their full potential.
11 Jan, 2022
Pradeepkumar gazed up at the night sky with nothing beneath him but a thin sheet and nothing above him but swaying branches. The rocky ground under a tree would be his bed for the next two weeks. He thought of his children. Hours earlier, they had pleaded with him to come inside to sleep. When he insisted on staying outside, their faces dropped.
Pradeepkumar and Devaki are the parents of four children. The youngest two, Rekonshan and Rebeaka, are registered in Compassion’s Child Sponsorship Program in Sri Lanka. The couple have learnt to survive on very little while caring for their growing family.
“Earning a steady income, feeding and taking care of four children has been very difficult,” says Devaki. “We can’t give them nutritious food so all four of them are underweight.”
Employment has come and gone for Pradeepkumar. In 2018, while working at a spice factory, aching lungs and a persistent cough forced him to stop work and see a doctor. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis, a serious infectious lung disease. The doctor said the illness was the result of inhaling fine chilli particles at work. Not only did he have to give up his job, but he also had to isolate himself from his family while he recovered.
“We only have one room in our home where we cook, eat and sleep together. So he had to sleep outside the house under a tree for two weeks,” recalls Devaki. “This made my children and I very sad. None of our relatives came to help us because they were scared of contracting the illness.”
What is the need in Sri Lanka?
Poverty affects millions of Sri Lankans like Pradeepkumar and Devaki. It is overwhelmingly concentrated in rural communities, particularly in the northern and eastern regions. In 2021, it was reported that one in six Sri Lankans face multidimensional poverty.1
Of those people facing poverty, 80 per cent were found to live in rural areas.1 Sri Lankans working as labourers, such as on remote tea estates, face the greatest disadvantages in gaining access to education, healthcare, better quality food and housing.2
Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sri Lanka had been making commendable progress in its fight against poverty. From 2013 to 2016, the World Bank recorded the national poverty rate dropping from 16.2 per cent to 11 per cent. Tourism was booming and new employment opportunities were opening outside of the agricultural sector. The nation was labelled a “development success story”.
But in 2020, in a matter of months, COVID-19 undid much of this progress. The growing industries that had been contributing to poverty reduction, such as transport, manufacturing, construction, tourism and hospitality, were hit hardest. Poverty crept back into urban areas as widespread unemployment and inequality became more pronounced.
Because of the ripple effect of the pandemic, the Sri Lankan economy is said to have suffered the worst contraction on record.3 High inflation meant that basic goods became completely unaffordable for many families. The World Bank estimates that during COVID-19 over 500,000 Sri Lankans were plunged back into poverty.
Amid these challenges, extreme weather events persist and grow increasingly severe in Sri Lanka’s tropical climate.4 Ranging from damaging storms to crippling droughts, these natural disasters bring devastation, particularly for vulnerable communities who have no safety net in times of crisis.
What does child poverty look like in Sri Lanka?
For Devaki and Pradeepkumar’s children, poverty pushes its way into every area of life. Poverty means that Devaki’s children must cycle the three-kilometre journey to school together on the same bike. Poverty means declining invitations to family events because they have nothing suitable to wear. Poverty means sleeping outside to avoid spreading illness. Poverty means having to use their neighbour’s bathroom for lack of their own and living in perpetual fear of irreparable rain damage to their modest home.
“It is very difficult and it affects us not just physically but even our minds, thoughts and emotions,” Devaki explains. “Every time one of our children asks us to buy them something they like we have to say no because we can’t afford it. I cannot even cook their favourite food for them. All of this affects us emotionally.”
The experience of Devaki’s children is sadly shared by many others.
Over 40 per cent of Sri Lankan children under the age of five are multidimensionally poor and one third of children under four are underweight or have stunted growth.¹
The effects of poverty during early childhood, particularly nutritional and cognitive deprivation, can have lifelong consequences. Poor diet and ill health in the first 1,000 days of life has been linked to a significant reduction in lifetime earnings.5
The effects of poverty are made clear in far more than just income. A 2018 study found that Sri Lankan children in poverty were eight times more likely not to attend school. The same study indicated 10 per cent of children in Sri Lanka lacked access to safe drinking water and 12.5 per cent had inadequate sanitation facilities. Violence in the home is also more common for children in poverty, creating unsafe environments that make it difficult to learn and flourish.5
Compassion’s story in Sri Lanka
Compassion’s work in Sri Lanka was established in 2009. There are now more than 16,000 children registered in our programs across 93 local partners. Over 670 local mothers and their babies are also supported through our Mums and Babies Program.
The needs of children living in poverty vary greatly and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. That’s why our programs take a holistic approach and can be tailored to suit a child’s unique personal context.
For Pradeepkumar and Devaki, who have lived in poverty since their own childhoods, the support from Compassion is vital to breaking the generational cycle of poverty. When their situation felt hopeless, the local workers rushed to help. They provided a mattress, food for the family and a temporary tent for Pradeepkumar to sleep in while he recovered from his illness.
The help didn’t stop there. When Pradeepkumar lost his job as a day labourer during COVID-19, regular food and hygiene parcels from Compassion kept the family afloat. Their child development centre even connected the family to another local organisation who helped build bathroom facilities in their home.
The couple have seen a notable difference in their children since they became part of the program. “I have so much hope for my children and their future because of the local child development centre,” says Devaki. “I can see a big difference in my eldest son’s education as well, because they have extra classes and help him with maths and English. He now says that he likes to study, and he likes the subjects he used to find difficult. He is moving forward in his studies.”
Shantha is the Manager of Partnership at Compassion Sri Lanka. For her, releasing children from poverty means more than providing food or shelter.
“We don’t want families to think of Compassion as just a place where they can receive help and then go,” she explains.
“We want to equip our child development centres to become self-sufficient and come up with their own strategies. We want them to recognise their potential so that, ultimately, they will become resilient. That is our goal,” says Shantha.
You can also watch the latest update from Compassion’s local partners in Sri Lanka on our YouTube channel.
How you can help
Every child is special, uniquely made by God. And support from a good neighbour, like you, helps children in poverty to know they matter.
Though Devaki’s family face many challenges they still find joy.
“My four children are my wealth,” says Devaki. “They bring me much joy and happiness. Because of the local child development centre, I have so much hope for my children’s future.”
You can help restore hope to vulnerable Sri Lankan families today by sponsoring a child.
Would you like to learn more about poverty and Compassion's response in other parts of Asia? Read our blogs below:
- Asia in Focus: Poverty in Bangladesh
- Asia in Focus: Poverty in Indonesia
- Asia in Focus: Poverty in The Philippines
- Asia in Focus: Poverty in Thailand
Words by Rachel Howlett with field reporting by Odessa B.
1UNICEF (2021). Multidimensional Poverty in Sri Lanka. https://www.unicef.org/srilanka/media/2371/file/Multidimensional%20Poverty%20in%20Sri%20Lanka.pdf.
2Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka (October 2020). Child Poverty in Sri Lanka and Issues Related to Their Education and Access to Safe Water/Sanitation. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/344449503ChildPovertyinSriLankaandIssuesRelatedtoTheirEducationandAccesstoSafeWater_Sanitation.
3The World Bank (2021). Sri Lanka Development Update 2021: Economic and Poverty Impact of COVID-19. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/35833.
4Centre for Excellence in Disaster Management & Humanitarian Assistance (March 2021). Sri Lanka: Disaster Management Reference Handbook. https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/disaster-mgmt-ref-hdbk-sri-lanka.pdf
5UNICEF (February 2020). Investing in the future: A Universal Benefit for Sri Lanka’s Children. https://www.unicef.org/srilanka/media/1276/file/Investing%20in%20the%20future:%20A%20universal%20benefit%20for%20Sri%20Lanka's%20children.pdf.
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