The award is to honour and recognize an inspiring activist who has made an exceptional contribution to establishing the rights of the child in Sri Lanka with compassion, dedication and courage.
Mrs. Gethsie Shanmugam
Gethsie Shanmugam’s contributions to improving the lives of children are remarkable not only for her efforts over several careers over nearly six decades, but also for the vital and path-breaking nature of her work with some of the most vulnerable groups of children in Sri Lanka.
Gethsie’s career began as a teacher in Mowbray Girls College, Kandy (1957-60) and St Joseph’s College, Colombo (1967-83), where her experience of working with adolescents at St Joseph’s was to provide a key foundation for her later work. During this period, she was trained as a counsellor by Fr. Mervyn Fernando, and worked with him to pioneer value education programs for both adolescent boys and girls, and was increasingly called on to help many children and adolescents who were facing personal difficulties. She subsequently received further training as a counsellor in Vellore, South India.
After the start of the war, Gethsie began to work with displaced adults and children, and following the publication of a booklet she wrote on this work, was recruited by Redd Barna (Save the Children, Norway, 1987-2000). In this second phase of her career, Gethsiedid groundbreaking work in a number of areas: developing a model for kinship fostering of orphaned children to protect them from institutionalization and armed recruitment; supporting widows and their families overcome vulnerability and stigma; providing services for street children that offered nutrition, safety and forms of appropriate education; training pre-school teachers and caregivers on culturally grounded approaches to emotional and social development. Gethsie trained and mentored community workers, and crucially provided direct support to children and their families when they faced particular difficulties. Her role as a skilled counsellor and social worker was vital for the success of these programs.
After her work with Redd Barna, Gethsie has continued to drive many vital initiatives for children, including establishment of an early safe house for child victims in the justice system, community and education-sector services for children and families following the tsunami, and also conducting sensitive research on prevalence of child sexual abuse, rehabilitation of child soldiers and care of migrants’ children. She has continued to be active in working in former conflict areas and the plantation sector, guiding and training others – and routinely being called on to deal with ‘difficult’ cases, both in the field and at home. Gethsie continues to contribute to state and private radio and television programs to provide advice to parents and caregivers on supporting children.