Importance of cultural values in the delivery of sexuality education
Posted on March 18th, 2020

By Rohana R. Wasala Courtesy The Island

This is in response to two recent articles published in The Island that relate to the aftermath of the debate about the suitability of the booklet titled ‘Hathe Ape Potha’ as supplementary reading material for introducing sexuality and reproductive health education for Grade 7 students in Sri Lankan schools, viz. ‘Attempts to introduce reproductive health education in schools – Need to face the realities’ by Dr. Janaka Ratnasiri/Midweek Review/February 11, 2020 and ‘Reproductive Health’ by Citizen S/Opinion/February 12. Both refer to an earlier Opinion piece of mine carried in the same paper on February 7, Dr Ratnasiri directly, and the anonymous writer obliquely. Citizen S’s piece is a highly commendatory response to Dr. Ratnasiri’s. I too broadly agree with Dr Ratnasiri’s comments and share his hope that ‘the new educational policymakers will consider reintroducing this Booklet after editing it suitably….’ (if they don’t have a better alternative, I’d like to add).  However, it is my feeling that certain misgivings both writers seem to have about my contribution to the discussion need to be cleared because those doubts or misunderstandings question the soundness of my ideas about the cultural-political aspect of the issue concerned. 

First, let me turn to Dr. Ratnasiri. He has chosen to comment on two pieces published in The Island on February 7 on topics that have relevance to the question of bringing in preliminary sexuality and and reproductive health education for the benefit of Lankan school children. The two pieces of writing are my opinion piece aforementioned and a news report about an International Women’s Day (IWD) event organized by the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL)  where the former Supreme Court Justice Shiranee Thilakawardena, in her keynote address as chief guest, made an incidental reference to the alleged prevalence of teenage sex activity in the country.

 In Dr Ratnasiri’s judgement, my write-up about the controversy over ‘Hathe Ape Potha’ discusses what he calls ‘hypothetical situations’, while the other (the news report containing the retired Supreme Court judge’s revelations) describes hard facts. Dr Ratnasiri is right about the judge’s speech (though the facts she revealed are as they are relevant to the theme selected for the abovementioned IWD event this year: ‘Countering Technology based violence against women’. But she referred, in passing, to children who are related victims of such violence. Justice Thilakawardana was reported to have remarked that ‘children should be trained to decide what is good or bad relating to sexual matters in child appropriate language’, words highlighted in the news report by being chosen for its headline. Actually, when I read this news item in The Island of February 7 (the same day that my article also appeared there), I was happy to see that the important speaker’s idea that children should be trained to distinguish between what is good and what is bad in sexual matters ‘in child appropriate language and later on in more explicit terms to protect them from being exploited and harmed online and offline’ was consonant with my own view regarding imparting knowledge about sexuality and reproductive health to school children. My article, which had been composed several days before it was published in The Island on February 7, referred to the monks’ argument 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’. 

(By the way, both Dr Ratnasiri and the anonymous Citizen S seem to go on the wrong assumption that the monks are against sexuality education and that this is because they think that the subject is sexually titillating for them resulting in premature sexual activity, whereas what the monks actually argued was that it looked as if the book was so designed as to sexually titillate these adolescent children; they were not saying that sexuality education itself would produce that effect. They do not object to the subject being introduced. I don’t expect anything better from an anonymous writer, but I do expect something better from Dr Ratnasiri.) 

So, I’d like to modestly claim that the honoured retired judge’s attitude and mine accord with the stand taken by the Buddhist monks who have criticized ‘Hathe Ape Potha’ for the inappropriateness of its language and its disregard of the age and comprehension ability of early adolescents. Retired Supreme Court Justice Thilakawardana was widely known as an upright judge while still in service. Her words carry a lot of weight with the rational responsible majority of the public. Justice Thilakawardanana’s phrase ‘in child appropriate language and later on in more explicit terms…’,  is most likely to be an allusion to the controversy over ‘Hathe Ape Potha’ that featured those vocal Buddhist monks.

Something that these monks take great pains to convince their opponents or potential critics including the experts and others who support the booklet as originally compiled is that they are NOT against  the introduction of sexuality and reproductive health education, and that, on the contrary, they are all for it. None recognize the rationality of providing holistic sexuality and reproductive health instruction in schools more readily than these monks. Their only demand is that this be presented to the children in a scientific, culturally acceptable manner. Curiously, however, those who disagree with the monks deliberately ignore this fact, and, instead,  try their level best to portray them as reactionary dogmatists who are trying to throw a spanner in the works where they have no business to be. Is it surprising that the monks tend to suspect that this is yet another way of misrepresenting the dominant Buddhist moral-cultural values of the majority Sinhalese as a hindrance to the introduction of the subject of sexuality and reproductive health, instead of truthfully upholding the soundness of those values in the context of implementing a holistic sexuality and reproductive health teaching program? The existence of a real threat to the preservation of the Buddhist religious-cultural foundation of the historical homeland of the majority Sinhalese cannot be disputed. It is a hard fact, not a mere hypothetical situation. Dr Ratnasiri emphasizes the ‘need to face the realities’.  The ever growing threat just mentioned, which is manifest in numerous forms, too obvious to be named, must be prominently included among the realities that Dr Ratnasiri says the nation must face. Opinions, hypotheses, assumptions or ‘hypothetical situations’ are as good as ‘hard facts’ if they are well supported by observations as mine are.

Citizen S being anonymous need not be taken seriously. A writer’s anonymity in a context like this is an indication that s/he is not confident enough to defend,  or acknowledge responsibility for, her/his ideas. To me Citizen S sounds like a sneaky defender of Hathe Ape Potha however sound the monks’ criticisms are. S/he doesn’t seem to have any clear idea regarding what the controversy is about, what sexuality and reproductive health involves, or why it is bound to be a highly contentious and extremely difficult subject to handle with young learners in any ‘civilized’ society (society with a culture). Can there be any education with culture disregarded? 

According to a National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), US, research paper  titled ‘Development of Contextually-relevant Sexuality Education: Lessons from a Comprehensive Review of Adolescent Sexuality Education Across Cultures’ by Hildie Leung et al published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, USA on February 20, 2019 ‘Sex education refers to an age-appropriate, culturally relevant approach to teaching about sex and relationships by providing scientifically accurate, realistic, non-judgmental information”. This definition acknowledges that the aim of sex education extends beyond the transfer of knowledge on human physiology, reproductive system, or the prevention of STIs. Rather, sex education is conceptualized holistically with the goal of empowering youths to better understand their sexuality and relationships, which will ultimately improve adolescents’ sexual health and overall quality of life’.

The words quoted (by the authors of the research paper) in the above paragraph are from UNESCO’s International Guidelines on Sexuality Education: An Evidenced Informed Approach to Sex, Relationships and HIV/STI Education, 2018. The initials STI stand for Sexually  Transmitted Infections.  

The researchers add that ‘the content, messages and approaches of delivering sex education vary across countries’. What they say about the Chinese context by way of illustrating the point may be recognized as something somewhat similar to what is likely to be encountered by researchers in the Sri Lankan context. They hold that in the global Chinese contexts the implementation of sex education remains contentious in terms of public health and education policies on three grounds: first, the deep-rooted perception of sex as a taboo” in itself, some arguing that sex education encourages promiscuity among the young (but informed Sri Lankan adults are not likely to raise that negative argument against a properly presented explanation of sexuality in a matter of fact scientific way in language appropriate to the target group of students; second, while policy makers, educators, and parents agree about adolescents’sexual behaviour apparently getting out of contro  they disagree on how such unrestrained behaviour can be minimized; and third, who should assume responsibility to discipline the youngsters. In addition to this, the authors point out that ‘there are various approaches to sex education including abstinence-only, abstinence-only-until-marriage, abstinence, and comprehensive sex education’, and also that these could be family based, school based, etc.

My opinion, for what it is worth, is that educational and health authorities need not turn sexuality and reproductive health information into such sensational material among these innocents as to knock their senses off, most of whom are already exposed to that kind of stuff anyway, if they are curious enough, which they naturally are, on the internet. Perhaps, the sexuality and reproductive health topic should be subsumed under a broad subject area covering physiology, health, and  hygiene, to be incrementally treated as other topics from lower to upper grades, but without any exam-orientation (SRH knowledge should not be a pass fail subject with viva voce exams, practicals, grades, etc). Separate textbooks or supplementary readers may not be necessary. Technology will come to play in school education more and more in the future. The present generation of parents are more informed and can assume a candid, straightforward attitude more easily than their own elders  in dealing with factual sex and reproductive health information in a civilized scientific way in loving intimacy with their growing chidren in the privacy of their homes. Parents also can use the abundantly available internet sources as research tools. 

Buddhist and Hindu religious-cultural values are supportive of sexuality and reproductive health education. Dr Ratnasiri claims that Buddhist children are introduced to sex education when they daily repeat the Five Precepts, the third of which is refraining from sexual misconduct. This is the traditional translation or interpretation of  the third precept, which uses the word kama. But in Hinduism and Buddhism kama is not exclusively sexual pleasure, it refers to the healthy gratification of sexual desire and other kinds of sensual pleasures without any sexual association. The website has a good definition of kama including the following:

‘Kāma is one of the four goals of human life in Hindu traditions. It is considered an essential and healthy goal of human life when pursued without sacrificing the other three goals: Dharma (virtuous, proper, moral life), Artha (material prosperity, income security, means of life) and Moksha (liberation, release, self-actualization). Together, these four aims of life are called Puruṣārtha.’

Purusarthas are the four ends of human life according to Hinduism. The Buddhist attitude is not different in this respect, with perhaps the exception of the last. The third precept recommends abstention from wrongful sensual gratifications, but not from wholesome indulgence in ‘gihi saepa’ (wellbeing of a householder/lay person, which includes healthy self-fulfilment in sexual life), which, though is not the ultimate goal of the seeker. Proper scientific sexuality and reproductive health education is entirely compatible with the dominant culture of Sri Lanka. 

Qualities of self-restraint, fortitude, resilience and compassion displayed by people in eastern countries where the same religious culture prevails including China – the birthplace of the current Covid-19 pandemic, South Korea and Thailand, are trying to contain it with a degree of success that is not found elsewhere.  Sri Lanka is still relatively safe – with not many cases reported so far, and those too arrived from abroad – although about 10,000 Chinese are there on work visas, as the minister in charge of health claimed. They have been asked to self quarantine, which request they are abiding by, she added. The Late Show with Stephen Colbert – You Tube interviewed the renowned US astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson a couple of days ago. He was asked by host Colbert to comment on the dreadful Coronavirus outbreak that is sweeping across the globe. Tyson replied: ‘We are in the middle of a massive experiment worldwide: Will people listen to scientists?’ …….. (Doctors tell us that) simple hygienic practices like washing your hands thoroughly are all that is necessary to beat the epidemic. It is as simple as that. But will people listen to scientists?…..  Life lived in fear is life half lived.’ Dr Tyson was speaking from his experience in his native America. On our part, we may say that in countries like Sri Lanka, people usually live by cultural values that encourage them to listen to the wise (vinnu), which here translates as the kindhearted scientists (mainly doctors) who are offering helpful advice in the present global crisis situation. 

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