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Dr Asiri Hewamalage: Advocating for inclusive early childhood education in Sri Lanka

Posted: 8 September 2021

Sri Lanka, Alumni, COVID-19, Disability, Experience, Impact, Inclusion,

Australia Awards alumna Dr Asiri Hewamalage is committed to promoting child-friendly education in Sri Lanka that is inclusive and equitable for all. Through her work, she aims to encourage nurturing care practices among parents and teachers of early childhood education, which will give all children in the country a head start in achieving their maximum potential.

“Sri Lanka has achieved great progress in child health indicators, especially in reducing child mortality rates. However, even though there are very good child healthcare services in the country, services for children with disability are not yet well established. This applies to education and social services as well as healthcare. Therefore, my objective is to create adequate health services for such children, including parental support, and also to create an inclusive education system for children with disability,” Asiri says.

Having completed her Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery and Master of Science in Sri Lanka, Asiri was looking for opportunities to enhance her ability to support children with disability when she heard of the Australia Awards Scholarships through her friend, alumna Hasini Pallawala. The unbiased selection process and the merit and transparency of the program which further piqued her interest in the Scholarship. She applied in 2014 and received an Australia Awards Scholarship to pursue a Master of Inclusive and Special Education at Monash University.

“I gained so much experience from academics, social life, communication, everything. I have several degrees from Sri Lanka, but I loved the pedagogies used by the education faculty of Monash University, which allowed us to learn spontaneously,” says Asiri.

An accomplishment that bears special significance to her is receiving two Dean’s Awards for Academic Excellence and Academic Achievement, which she cherishes.

Asiri with her husband receiving two Dean’s Awards at Monash University

Her brief time in Australia also helped her change her views on how she sees herself, how she looked at others and especially on the importance of valuing diversity and being non-judgemental. Her outlook on disability also changed. She initially selected the course because she wanted to help children with disability, but her experience in Australia made her realise that she didn’t simply want to ‘help’ but also ensure that they are included in our lives. She remains in touch with friends from the university and is also in contact with her Australian lecturer Dr Penny Round, to whom she reaches out for advice when necessary.

After returning home in December 2016, Asiri commenced work as a Senior Registrar at the Child Development and Special Needs Unit of the Family Health Bureau under the Ministry of Health. There, she was involved in developing a communications strategy for the child development program at the Family Health Bureau. She also lauched ‘IncluDe’ (Inclusive Early Childhood Development), a health sector disability services program. IncluDe aims to detect early developmental disabilities and provide early childhood intervention to enhance functional capacity. This project has been implemented in the Colombo and Kandy Districts, benefiting thousands of families.

In May 2017, Asiri received a Fellowship to be an Exchange Researcher for the Research Institute for Primary Care and Health Sciences, School of Medicine at Keele University in the United Kingdom. She was part of a team that conducted a systematic review of community-based interventions for managing autism spectrum disorder in low and middle-income countries. This review was published in the journal of the 131st Anniversary International Medical Congress of the Sri Lanka Medical Association and PROSPERO, the journal of the United Kingdom National Institute for Health Research. After completing her Fellowship, Asiri returned home and was appointed the Consultant Community Physician – Maternal & Child Health of the Regional Director of Health Services Office in Galle District. In this role, she was responsible for Galle District’s maternal and child health activities as the program planner of the region. She was involved in district-level planning, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation of maternal and child healthcare services. In addition, she was involved in staff training, teaching and research related to maternal and child healthcare services. She was in this role for one year, after which she was transferred as a Consultant Community Physician attached to the Ministry of Health’s National STD/AIDS Control Programme. Asiri was the national program consultant responsible for promoting sexual health among the general population and in schools and universities.

In June 2020, she was appointed Consultant Community Physician at the Ministry of Health’s Family Health Bureau, where she is the national program manager responsible for child development and special needs. In this role, her responsibilities include ensuring all children receive adequate psychosocial stimulation in an environment supportive of their optimal growth and development through nurturing care; establishing a mechanism to systematically screen all children to detect developmental delays and related problems; making evidence-based interventions available for children with disability. Asiri also plays a key role in advocating among policymakers and creating awareness among the public of the burden of disability-related ill health and the need to initiate concerted efforts to mitigate challenges and ensure synergy between multidisciplinary and intersectoral stakeholders when delivering disability care programs.

Apart from her official duties, Asiri also works with the Children’s Secretariat and Ministry of Education to improve the educational curriculums in preschools and early primary grades to promote inclusion. She works with the World Health Organization and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to promote nurturing care for early childhood development. Asiri also serves as a visiting lecturer on Public Health, Early Childhood Development and Inclusive and Special Education at local universities and is a committee member of the National Education Commission, which reports to the President of Sri Lanka on educational policy development. Through her various involvements using her professional and academic capacities, Asiri says she is trying to create a child-friendly education system.

Despite this busy schedule, Asiri still finds time to engage in alumni activities. She was a recipient of an Australia Awards Small Grant in 2020, through which she was able to develop information, education and communication materials for caregivers of children with disability. This included developing materials such as videos in Sinhala and Tamil languages with instructions for caregivers about conducting parent-mediated activities in their homes, especially in light of COVID-19. Asiri has also taken part in social media campaigns commemorating International Day of People with Disability and was involved in the online panel discussion on the topic of ‘Literacy and Inclusion in Asia – COVID-19, Challenges and Opportunities’ organised by Australia Awards in South Asia in September 2020. Asiri acknowledges the benefit of all the opportunities she has received as an Australia Awards scholar and as an alumna.

“The knowledge I gained in Australia regarding educational methods and inclusive and special education practices is being used in my line of work and in the policy and planning of Sri Lanka in its attempts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals in 2030,” she says. “This would not have been possible without Australia Awards.”