Benislos Thushan, 25, still remembers the first time he heard the word 'period' used freely in conversation in Colombo. Although it was only a few years ago, the openness of the discussion made a mark on him. "It was a culture shock," he said, contrasting it to his conservative upbringing in the North. He noted that there was a lack of dialogue on female reproductive health among schoolchildren in general, and said that teachers must be sensitized to deliver comprehensive sexual education effectively.
This glaring lack of dialogue about sexuality and sexual health, especially among the youth, was the focus of the Generation-to-Generation dialogue on Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) hosted by the UNFPA last month. The taboo and culture of silence that surrounds the subject of sexuality education has potentially damaging effects. Misinformation abounds, and given the lack of access to credible sources of knowledge, schoolchildren and teenagers often look for alternate means of education.
Roar journalist Aisha Nazim, who was also a panelist at the discussion, remembered how boys in her school van would purchase porn for as little as Rs. 20 a CD. “This would be freely passed around, and that’s how many of them learned about sex,” she said. She faulted teachers for skipping lessons on sexual reproduction, revealing that there was ‘lajja’ or a culture of shame associated with asking questions on the topic of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) when she was growing up.
Although it is unclear if remedial measures have been put in place to give schoolchildren and young adults better access to sexuality education, Director of the Ministry of Education, Renuka Peiris, said that the Ministry wanted to continue to introduce “age-appropriate” sexuality education to schoolchildren. She did acknowledge, however, that since the SRHR was only mandatory at grade eight, students often chose to educate themselves in other ways.
“Only 42% of students in Sri Lanka select health and physical education as a subject and have access to even basic knowledge of SRHR,” she said. “ The rest rely on media and Internet.”
While some panelists expressed the fear that premature exposure to CSE could be seen as endorsing sexual activity, leading to early experimentation, the UNFPA emphasised that studies had in fact proven that CSE did more to delay the onset of sexual activity among adolescents than promote it. In fact, research shared during the discussion showed that in countries where age-appropriate CSE was effectively delivered, the incidence of teenage pregnancy is low.
Desire And Pleasure
The role of desire and pleasure in inciting sexual activity among adolescents is rarely, if ever, discussed. Although no solutions were presented to this, Sharanya Sekaram, editor, bakamoono.lk told Roar Media that it was imperative to have an open and honest conversation on the topic. “What we need to do is remove the shame and stigma. After all, sex is fuelled by desire and pleasure, which can vary from person to person,” she said.
She said it was important to create awareness about the importance of respect, consent and bodily autonomy when it comes to sexual relationships. “It's about how you understand your own and other's desires through communication – and respect those boundaries,” she said. Consent is also a crucial element to understanding subjects like masturbation, for instance. “Masturabation is already a part of the current curricula,’ she said. “however it needs to be taught why masturbating in public to someone who hasn't expressed their consent is wrong vs doing it in private.”
Another lack in the current curricula is the fact that it doesn’t include or address sexual activity that is inclusive of the LGBTQI community. Sekaram pointed out that while the law prohibits “sex against the order of nature”, it is important to widen our language and discussions. “It's about scientific facts. Homosexuality is no longer classified as a mental illness, even by the Sri Lanka College of Psychiatrists. We need to understand that heterosexuality is not the only reality and young LGBTQI people now know where to access the information they need.”
The Need For More CSE
Parliamentarian Sudarshani Fernandopulle, Deputy Chair of the Parliamentary Sectoral Oversight Committee on Women and Gender, noted that in the modern world, traditional values designed to protect young people have restricted them from receiving comprehensive sexuality education. In conclusion, Madusha Dissanayake, Assistant Representative, UNFPA in Sri Lanka pointed out that Sri Lankan society should sufficiently evolve to where we are unafraid to say the words ‘orgasm’ and ‘masturbation’ in public. “Sex should be treated as a positive subject for discussion so that we can ensure every young person's potential is realized,” she said.
Sri Lanka has a youth population of over 4.4 million, but according to the National Youth Health Survey (2013) 50% of young people have limited knowledge about sexual and reproductive health. Although teenage pregnancy in Sri Lanka is relatively low at 5.2%, sub-national disparities exist with a rate of 8-9% in some localities. Further, incidents such as that which took place in Ampara, where inaccurate information relating to reproductive health caused mass hysteria and violence (after a Muslim shop owner was accused of adding ‘sterilisation pills’ into food being served to Sinhala patrons), highlight the need for sexuality education to become more widely available from a young age in Sri Lanka.