It is reported that the Ministry of Buddha Sasana, Religious and Cultural Affairs, has sought to introduce an age limit for ordaining young children as monks. This is a long overdue reform which is hoped will see the light of day without getting stalled by regressive forces as usually is the case.
In the not-too-distant past, may be three or four generations ago, a child being ordained at the village temple was a privilege bestowed upon the child and his family. Unlike his siblings or same age children he had a better chance of an education, nourishment, and a means out of poverty. It is a tragic phenomenon that even today, it is entirely the poor segment of society that make their sons become monks. Despite politicians on occasion calling for the expansion of the Sangha and ordination of children, one would never hear of any prominent individual ever allowing their own underage children to become monks.
The more serious problem is that of physical and sexual abuse notoriously associated with all forms of institutionalised religious establishments. Despite occasionally an individual being arrested and brought to justice, in most instances such abuse goes unpunished. The sacrosanct religious institutions are often beyond the reach of law enforcement leaving the child victims to suffer in silence and carry their physical and mental scars for the rest of their lives.
Sri Lanka has made some progress on child rights in recent years. In 2016, the minimum age for compulsory education for all children was raised from 14 to 16. In 2018 the age for criminal responsibility was raised from eight to 12 years. The minimum age of marriage under the general law of Sri Lanka is 18 years. The Shop and Office Employees Act also prohibits employment of children under the age of 14 years, unless under specific circumstances such as helping a family business. The only area where there has not been any progress or even dialogue with regard to child rights is the minimum age of ordination or entering a priesthood.
The religious arguments for continuing child ordination are also based on very thin ice. In the Buddhist canon for example the rules for ordination are found in the Vinaya Pitakaya. In it the Buddha ordained his only son Rahula who was seven years at the time. However due to strong protests by his own father, the child’s grandfather and then guardian, the Buddha formulated a rule that a “child who has not his parent’s consent should not be ordained as a novice.” Further in the Mahavagga Sutta the Buddha states that a boy of less than 15 years of age should not be ordained either.
If the Ministry of Buddha Sasana, Religious and Cultural Affairs is able to convince the Mahanayakas and the priesthood on the necessity to set a minimum age for ordination, it is most commendable. However, such an important matter which concerns the rights of children of this country should not be solely left to the discretion and magnanimity of religious leaders. The State has a responsibility towards its citizens, especially those who are vulnerable. The Government has a duty of care to the children who are incapable of expressing their own agency, to protect their rights, even at the risk of confronting opposition.