Controversy about ‘Hathe Ape Potha’, a supplementary reader in Sinhala for Sexuality and Reproductive Health Education for Grade 7
Posted on March 6th, 2020

By Rohana R. Wasala

Recently, there was a heated discussion about a supplementary reader in Sinhala titled ‘HATHE APE POTHA’ for Grade 7 students in government schools in Sri Lanka for ‘sexuality and reproductive health education’, which is a novel subject to the country’s school education system. The writer believes that this controversy surrounding an insignificant relic of the disastrous Yahapalanaya is likely to prove an eye-opener for the new administration to be formed under President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa after the forthcoming general election in April. In fact, the issue of sexuality education for early adolescents was raised for the first time by the National Child Protection Authority in 2012 when the current prime minister was president.  The chairperson of the NCPA even recognized the need to train teachers for the purpose, but apparently the whole matter got shelved for some reason. The new president has a clear vision for the future of the country and a well thought out action plan for realizing that vision. Patriotic, value oriented intellectuals and committed professionals are required for driving this single minded national endeavour launched by the president who is himself a true intellectual and a proven professional. The debate over the sexuality education supplementary reader has revealed the sort of poor intellectual and professional specimens that should not be employed in the future; precious development funds should not be wasted on such fakes. The writer draws this conclusion without prejudice to the genuine intellectuals and professionals (the majority) who sat through the discussion sessions mentioned below in obvious discomfort and embarrassment at the poor show that the few Yahapalana conformists among them put up defending the book.

The booklet at the centre of the mostly frivolous argumentation was in the process of being introduced to schools after nearly four years of preparation (2016-19) during the past Yahapalana regime when it provoked a sudden storm of protest from some concerned Buddhist monks and lay persons. At a media briefing held about two months ago, Ven. Professor Medagoda Abhayatissa Thera of the University of Jayawardanepura, while agreeing with the past regime’s ministerial decision to introduce such instruction for school children, severely criticised the reader for the inappropriateness of the language used, the mismatch between the age range of the students (12-13 year olds) and the level of complexity at which the subject matter is approached in the text, and most importantly, for the strong suspicion that the book aroused particularly among nationalists  that there could be a subversive agenda behind the mode of delivery of the subject matter in that slim volume that is contrary to its purported educational purpose, something probably hidden even from the experts who produced the book and argued in its defence, as Ven. Abhayatissa conceded). 

He and another scholar monk, namely, Ven. Professor Induruwe Dhammaratana Thera of the University of Kelaniya, participated (presumably, as  invitees) in a workshop/seminar conducted on a later occasion with representative officials from the ministries of women’s affairs, health, and education, politicians (MPs), and experts including professors from the University of Kelaniya and the National Child Protection Authority; some interested civil activists who had probably been invited as well were present. (The writer has no knowledge of where these events – that is, Ven. Abhayatissa’s news conference, and the above mentioned discussion – took place, and hence is unable to specify the venues. He sincerely regrets this. His source of information about the latter colloquium, and about another similar meeting that followed it, apparently to dismiss those monks’ criticisms as irrelevant, is a pair of Sath TV videos edited and uploaded to the You Tube on January 23 and 25, 2020 respectively.)    

At the first discussion mentioned above (not the news briefing), Ven. Abhayatissa explained that he heard about the book from the grandmother of a girl of Grade 7 who attends the Dhamma school conducted at his monastery premises for school children. This child is a student of Mahanama Vidyalaya and, according to the monk, her grandmother is a highly educated woman, who is now a retiree from government service. She told him that she felt that the book in question is too coarse even for her as a senior adult, let alone children of her granddaughter’s age. So the monk got down a copy of HATHE APE POTHA  and read it through, and made the observations that he made. Ven. Abhayatissa said that by the time of this discussion the education ministry had already temporarily withdrawn the reader from circulation, probably, in response to his intervention as he believed. His argument was that the book seems to be designed to sexually titillate children at this tender age, rather than educate them through proper instructional materials and methods to restrain themselves from indulging in premature sexual activity. Restraint acquired through correct awareness is what is meant by the traditional Buddhist ethical principles of ‘kumari bambasara and kumara bambasara’, that is, chastity for young females and young males respectively. The meaning of bambasara (brahmacarya) in Buddhism is important in this context: it denotes sexual continence or abstinence. (The writer would like to add here that this is entirely compatible with what is recommended by the fully updated International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education for quality Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) document published by the UNESCO in February 2018. It says: ‘Programmes that combine a focus on delaying sexual activity with other content are effective’ (in delivering CSE to juveniles). Sexuality education is essential for promoting health and well-being, respect for human rights and gender equality among children and young people, and to empower them ‘to lead healthy, safe and productive lives’.)  

Ven. Abhayatissa hinted that, like a number of other policies and programs of the previous government, sexuality and reproductive health education was being made a pretext for undermining the entrenched Buddhist cultural foundation of the country. This culturally subversive scheme received the highest government patronage under Yahapalanaya. An LGBT ( lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) office with the slogan ‘Think Equal’ operated from the then PM’s office. It was His Eminence the Cardinal, the monk claimed, who provided him information about this, and requested him to make the society aware of the fact in the interest of the safety and honour of children and women. Ven. Abhayatissa also made incidental reference, disapprovingly, to the new trend of healthy people kissing HIV+ patients in public to show that such body contact does not spread the disease. (In any case, isn’t kissing in public still taboo in Sri Lanka?) His contention was that though it is true that AIDS does not transmit through body contact, there is no need to treat someone who deserves others’ compassion and assistance to lead a normal life as a celebrity by giving them undue attention. 

Ven. Professor Dhammaratana, who spoke before Ven, Abhayatissa did, made a strong case for rejecting the supplementary reader and the erroneous approach to the subject which it is based on. His idea was that completely unnecessary sections on nocturnal emission and masturbation meant for children at the target age would encourage premature sexual  gratification rather than impart proper sexuality education. He suggested that something other than strict sexuality and reproductive health education of the young was behind the whole project: it was yet another attempt by anti-national forces to sabotage the traditional Buddhist ethical cultural foundation that supports the Sri Lankan state. It was not surprising that, being the professor of Sanskrit in his university, he found it easy to illustrate his point that there are proper culturally compatible decent ways of introducing sexuality and reproductive health instruction, by referring to the ancient Hindu classic Kamasutra (of Vatsyayana), which, he said, is without a single word that arouses ‘raga’ or lust, and that it is not pornography at all. The two monks never objected to or questioned, but fully recognized, the need for sexuality and reproductive health education for school children. Their only demand was for the subject to be delivered in a culturally acceptable manner after consultation with all stakeholders including parents, teachers, educational experts and child psychologists. 

Despite this, the Yahapalana appointed promoters of HATHE APE POTHA, it seemed, were determined to show the monks in a bad light as ignorant, irrational, change resisting, politically motivated reactionary chauvinists. The monk’s candid criticisms of the manner of presentation and of the lack of proper adaptation of the content to suit the impressionable young minds seemed to fall on deaf ears. This is something one could observe in both the videos mentioned above. It supports the two monks’ common charge that the HATHE APE POTHA project is a subversive attempt, one of many in fact (like the ‘Think Equal’ office that shared the former PM’s office space) directed against the long entrenched Sinhalese Buddhist cultural foundation that sustains the unitary Sri Lankan nation state. 

The second video mentioned above is of a meeting of mostly the same persons except for Ven. Abhayatissa and Ven. Dhammaratana, who were replaced by two other monks (whose names and designations are not known to this writer).  It was clear that the two new monks had been contracted to pooh-pooh the criticisms of the other two who had taken part in the first session. Only one of them – the senior looking one – spoke, but he only made some stale comments and the other one smiled and nodded his head in agreement. The speaker monk’s idea was that there was nothing wrong with the book and that it was OK for use with the children of Grade 7. He threw in a few  words in English, too. He said that when he contacted one of the dissenting monks on the phone and expressed his views, he had been asked to go and have his head checked by a psychiatrist, and that he returned the compliment in the same words. The writer’s opinion is that these two monks contributed little to the discussion beyond trying to rubbish the completely valid constructive criticisms that the two well informed scholarly monks had offered at the previous workshop. The senior of the monk duo who participated in the second meeting repeated what any person connected with education would say in such a context: that education means intellectual, physical, aesthetic, social, emotional, and moral development of the child, and that proper sexuality and reproductive health education was indispensable for adolescents. He held that HATHE APE POTHA is totally acceptable as it is. But it is difficult to agree with him on this, given the well-grounded arguments advanced by the more authoritative monks heard previously. 

In the course of advocating the immediate introduction of sexuality education for children he referred to the scandalous case of a thirty-five year old father seducing his fourteen year old daughter (her mother being away employed abroad) because she desired him to, as she revealed to the doctor she had been referred to by the police for examination. Here the monk was only repeating the dominant argument heard in both sessions in support of urging the immediate commencement of sexuality and reproductive health education in schools: Very young children (particularly girls, and certainly boys too) are easily vulnerable to sexual abuse, mostly at the hands of adults who are often close relatives or family friends. All speakers who found nothing wrong with the book under discussion dwelt on this theme  in order to urge its acceptance.They failed to acknowledge the obvious fact that the objections raised by the Vens. Abhayatissa and Dhammaratana were not based on a denial of this social reality, but on the non-ethical and deliberately subversive delivery strategies adopted in the book. 

The writer feels that this article has already become longer than he wants it to be. So he would like to skip over the patently inept contributions that certain other ‘resource persons’ (one of them a very very important serving government functionary with a future before him in his career) made, more to give the brush-off to the rational protests of the last mentioned two monks than to facilitate a possible answer to their legitimate concerns. One wonders whether the experts employed had sufficiently differentiated between sexuality and sex in their own minds. However, the (former/still sitting?) health ministry spokeswoman talked some sense, explaining the brief that was set to be addressed by the experts. Actual objections to the very idea of sexuality instruction for school children are likely to come from other quarters than Buddhist monks who, of course, have no issue with that, and are in fact playing a supportive role. Persons who could be expected to express discordant or modified views are not heard in the videos the writer watched. Their ideas should be considered as well, and accommodated if possible, in any government school teaching program.  

 The writer’s own opinion is that young Sri Lankans today, especially, post-millennials, that is, young people from 8 to 23 years of age by now (2020), are less inhibited and more open in social interactions with their peers of the opposite gender than their parents and their older siblings were. They can be relied on to be naturally and healthily receptive to sexuality and reproductive health education. Of course, there is no guarantee that all newfangled modes of behaviour that are embraced by them sit comfortably with the rest of the (adult) population. Local religious cultural sensitivities need to be respected (which is the point of the monks’ intervention in the issue). Fortunately, the Buddhist and Hindu religious values shared by the majority of the people tend to allow gradual integration of usefully harmless but alien behavioural trends into the local cultural setup provided they do not clash with the humanist ideals that are traditionally upheld in the Lankan society. For example, a couple of years ago, there was an outcry raised by some cultural crusaders against marking of the February 14th Valentine’s Day by a few, mostly city dwelling, local young men and women. But today the Valentine Day events seem to be taken for granted or pass unnoticed. Similarly, though legal granting of marital rights to gay couples is immediately inconceivable, the majority Buddhist population’s attitude to homosexuality (but not pedarasty or other forms of sexual crime or misdemeanour involving homosexuality), is amused connivance, as it has traditionally been the case. However, in a global context where responses to homosexuality vary from legal recognition of same-sex marriage to death penalty (only 28 out of the 193 countries represented in the UNO allow gay marriages while 6 countries execute persons for their homosexuality), gay rights issues need not be made a weapon in the hands of anti-national forces determined to destroy the Sri Lankan state, until they are resolved lawfully through democratic humanitarian consensus. The same warning is applicable to sexuality and reproductive health education for pubescent children.

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