Strawberry Girl of Little England

The day was not a holiday, nor was it an afternoon when schools had closed. It was a bright morning with schools filled with children, when I saw this sight by the road side. We were heading towards Kandy, from Nuwaraeliya through the deep green valleys and cold mountains. Few children were nearing the vehicles that passed by with stretched hands. They were pleading for money. ‘Beggars’ – as it is termed in Sri Lanka. They were begging on behalf of their parents, siblings, families and for those who make begging a business.

It has been reported that the past years has seen a rise in the beggar populace in Sri Lanka, especially in the urban cites, with Colombo leading it. Though begging of children can be seen often on busy streets, traffic signals, and in public places such as parks and shops, the general public seem to turn a blind eye towards this issue.

According to a report of CEPA [2008] there are two categories of children working on the streets: those living on the streets accompanied by parents or some others who engage in begging or the unaccompanied children begging alone; and secondly those who return to their homes after begging. A report by the International Labour Organization [2016] estimates 4.6 million as the total number of children within the ages of 5-17 in Sri Lanka. And CENWOR through a study reports that the unaccompanied children on the streets are amongst the ages of 6 and 15, and most of them are boys.

While this issue of children begging takes place due to various circumstances with poverty being the major cause, the effects and results of children begging leads to poor health conditions, risks of accidents and injuries, undesired behaviour and practices, and mostly non admittance and dropouts to/from schools.

The Nuwaraeliya district, which is called as ‘Little England’ reflecting on its climate and beauty, is formed with a 57.6% of Tamil and 39% Sinhala population. 78% of the total population in the district are from the plantation sector. The district’s economy mainly depends on the agriculture sector, and is considered as one of the districts that provides a high portion of the country’s demand of vegetables, especially potatoes. Floriculture and horticulture are the other sectors of the district in agro-economy. The annual temperature being between 10 to 20 degree Celsius, provides suitable climate conditions for many varieties of rich flowers, greens, vegetables and fruits – including strawberry which is a rare fruit in Sri Lanka.

Two kilometres away from Nuwaraeliya city, near a risky bend of the main road, I saw this little girl who stood leaning against her mother with a packet of strawberries in her hand. She was waving at the passers-by. The girl’s smile encouraged the vehicles to stop.

Mekak ganna nona” [buy one of these madam], said her mother Premawathi who was a strawberry vendor taking the packet from the girl. The conversation with her led her to mention,

My husband was a tea factory labourer; but because most of the tea factories got closed he lost his job. After losing the job, he began to work as a day labourer in a construction site, where he got injured and now cannot get up from his bed. So, I am forced to earn some money to see to his health and to feed my children

According to the Central Bank Annual Report of 2014, Sri Lanka was the world’s fourth-largest producer of tea with 23% of the total world export. Yet the recent years saw a decrease in this that led to less employment in the Tea Estate sector, leading the estate population to engage in alternative earning sources. According to the Department of Census and Statistics, in 2015, while the district child dependency ratio was reported as 47.15 the elderly dependency ratio was 19.68.

I have to do everything at home now; I come here often, to sell strawberries I buy these packets from a private farm and earn about 10 to 20 rupees per packet. I have to stand here whole day, and that I cannot do alone.  So I bring one of my daughters with me here. When they come here they have to skip school. Our feet hurt. How else will I feed my girls otherwise”, mentioned Premawathie sadly.

According to Premawathie, 21% of the families in the Nuwaraeliya district are Samurdhi receivers. [Samurdhi is a government welfare programme]. This indicates that even though the district welcomes a high population of tourists and has a supportive climate for agriculture, the district agriculture and tourism economy has not adequately addressed the poverty issues seen in the district.

Economic conditions of families directly impact on the education of children.  Ministry of Education (2001) data reveals that the percentage of non-attendance of the age groups 6 -14 in Nuwaraeliya district is 10.19 making it the highest rate in the 17 out of 25 districts in Sri Lanka rate (District data from Northern and Eastern Provinces are not available). Poverty is one among many reasons for school dropouts. The worst effects of poverty and other related factors in education, is the irregular attendance of children. And  the irregular attendance of children to school, or school dropouts result in low education performance.

Abirami Parasuram | Sri Lanka