Comprehensive Sexuality Education and Sri Lanka

Comprehensive Sexuality Education and Sri Lanka

23 June 2019 01:00 pm

All living things have been given diversity in the image of nature with no judgement. From the shortest vine to the tallest tree, and the tiniest worm to the walking giants on this planet earth, nature has developed structures within structures, advancing at every step of the evolution, begun from one single cellular organism. Above all, the evolution chain has placed human beings to lead on a superior role of this planet, nevertheless, whether the job is being done well is a dilemma. 

The realm of men created, civilizations followed, had their own sets of policies, and before the weaker, a stronger ruled them all. Centuries after, in a framework of democracy, equality between the sexes evolved, though some dominions kept male supremacy in their hand to ensure a society without being stained from the evolvement of liberalism. So to speak, women were kept in a frame, turning them to be productive machines and slaves to men, depicting perfect patriarchy.  

Throughout the journey of many millennia, we, the humans, defined ourselves as a leading race, socially constructed ‘norms’ that divided us and made all systems i.e. culture, religion, education, trading, banking, partnership, homing, healthcare, law, food, clothing, construction, follow. Partnership, in the speaking of mutual interest between sexes, reaches a huge distance, and sexual and reproductive segment shall not be missed. Given at a smallest age, throughout the life cycle of a human being, a child with no proper guidance to a segment that is so vital for their very existence is a victim of the before-said socially constructed norms, a slave before a race entitled to serve with no independency. 

Did you know, that only a 34% account of young people around the world can demonstrate accurate knowledge of HIV prevention and transmission? Did you know, that two out of three girls in some countries have no idea of what is happening to them when they begin menstruating? Did you know, that Sri Lanka—a country that is culturally bound, however infiltrated with patriarchy—does the favouring to this lack of knowledge on sexual and reproductive segment? Speaking of human freedom and freedom of expression, did you know, that Sri Lanka has not developed a safe space for people of all ages to talk about sexuality in the open? The said culture, religion, education, trading, banking, partnership, homing, healthcare, law, food, clothing and construction do nothing to back up this simple segment nature had given to us with no judgement?

Learning on sexual and reproductive segment on a comprehensive basis called Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE). Comprehensive Sexuality Education is a curriculum-based process of teaching and learning about the cognitive, emotional, physical and social aspects of human sexuality. It aims to equip children and young people with knowledge, skills, attitudes, behaviours and values that will empower them to realize their health, well-being and dignity; develop respectful social and sexual relationships; consider how their choices affect their own well-being and that of others; and understand and ensure the protection of their rights throughout their lives.

So learning of sex and sexuality is a right? Obviously yes. Why do young people need comprehensive sexuality education? Too many young people receive confusing and conflicting information about relationships and sex, as they make their transformation from childhood to adulthood. This has led to an increasing demand from young people for reliable information, which prepares them for a safe, productive and fulfilling life. Cultures are born with conventional wisdom. They are not made naturally. When a culture is being infiltrated with power and male supremacy, it exists biased to a single gender; a gender that pleasures keeping people (particularly women) in the dark to fill their bidding. A culture that delivers CSE unbiased has no negative aftermath in solidarity between people with diverse sexual characteristics. When information of CSE is delivered well to this demand, young people are empowered to make informed decisions about relationships and sexuality and navigate a world where gender-based violence, gender inequality, sexuality based discrimination, early and unintended pregnancies, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) still can pose serious threat to their health and well-being. Conflict always occurs before the presence of ignorance. Equally, a lack of high-quality, age-and developmentally-appropriate sexuality and relationship education may leave children and young people vulnerable to harmful sexual behaviours and obviously sexual exploitation.

CSE plays a crucial role in addressing the health and well-being of children and young people. Applying a learner-centred approach, CSE not only provides children and young people with age-appropriate and phased education on human rights, gender equality, relationships, reproduction, sexual behaviours risks and prevention of ill health, but also provides an opportunity to present sexuality with a positive approach, emphasizing values such as respect, inclusion, non-discrimination, equality, empathy, responsibility and reciprocity.

What does the evidence say about CSE? There is significant evidence on the impact of sexuality education. It emphasizes that sexuality education has positive effects, including increasing young people’s knowledge and improving their attitudes related to sexual and reproductive health and behaviours. Sexuality education – in or out of schools – does not increase sexual activity, sexual risk-taking behaviour or STI/HIV infection rates.

Seeking answers from the local schools, several school teachers and students have been interviewed. What they have to say about is rather astonishing. One teacher commented, “Schooling system in Sri Lanka follows a rush mechanism to cover all syllabuses, so children would pass the exams. Giving priority to sexual and reproductive health lesson in school’s curriculum is missed.” Another teacher commented, “I am a Heath and Physical Education teacher for Grade 11 students. In my capacity I teach them the sexual and reproductive health lesson, because children should be taught about these things in order to avoid negative impression and exploitation,” while another teacher went on to say, “Well.. they.. uhm.. learn sooner or later anyway.”

Programmes that promote abstinence as the only option have been found to be ineffective in delaying sexual initiation, reducing the frequency of sex or reducing the number of sexual partners. Programmes that combine a focus on delaying sexual activity with other content are effective. ‘Gender-focused’ programmes are substantially more effective than ‘gender-blind’ programmes at achieving health outcomes such as reducing rates of unintended pregnancy or STIs. Mix schools should be significantly focused on this matter. Speaking of topics like sexual orientation, gender identity and expression would help young adolescents to early come in terms of their sexual identity. Sexuality education has the most impact when school-based programmes are complemented with the involvement of parents and teachers, training institutes and youth-friendly services.

At a simple query made from a selected number of school students of Grade 10/11 and advanced levels, some said they have been taught of reproductive system in their school curriculum. Some had a subtle idea of STIs. When they were asked about the delivery of the lessons, majority of them said that nothing beyond the content on their textbooks were ever taught. Some said a group of doctors and medical personnel came to their schools and had a seminar on sexuality and STIs, as part of a vocational training. Asking back if the content was clear enough for them, in response a majority of them said the seminars were quite small and in most cases were fast and not full-day sessions.   

Sexual and Reproductive health, or more accurately CSE, should not be something that is taught on a rush-hour basis. Prior to developing this article, my background check said all information accounting to sexual and reproductive health, or CSE, come into school curriculum and vocational training through the National STD/AIDS Control Program (NSACP) of Ministry of Health, and the Family Planning Association (FPA) of Sri Lanka. If there is a system in which school curriculums or vocational training are being conducted in raising sensitization for CSE, it should be carried out with utmost regard. Countries are increasingly acknowledging the importance of equipping young people with knowledge and skills to make responsible choices for their lives. CSE supports young people’s empowerment by improving their analytical, communication and other life skills for health and well-being in relation to sexuality, human rights, values, healthy and respectful relationships, cultural and social norms, gender equality, non-discrimination, sexual behaviour, violence and gender-based violence, consent, sexual abuse and harmful practices.

Given the socially constructed norms in a cultural bound country like Sri Lanka, children are being suppressed from learning these contents with developing spontaneous fear in them. Many of whom have been suppressed do not even know that learning about sexuality is a right. Covenant on the Rights of the Child (CRC), to which Sri Lanka has signed in, confirms it. Recognizing CSE as mandatory part of learning in School education has already been told too many times over the years. CSE goes beyond educating about reproduction, risks and disease. It reaffirms the position of sexuality education within a framework of human rights and gender equality. It and reflects the contribution of sexuality education to the realization of several internationally agreed commitments in relation to sexual and reproductive health, as well as the achievement of the goals in the 2030 Agenda of the WHO in relation to health and well-being, quality and inclusive education, gender equality and women and girls empowerment.

Looking at government statistics, the number of STIs is growing. Although Sri Lanka is still a low prevalence country to HIV, lack of awareness, particularly among young people, fuels the conflict.  Teachers tend to skip, or subtly touch the lessons, because neither of them have been properly trained to speak of such sensitive but natural topic. On media, sex is obviously very good business, and fantasized through pornography. In a technologically most advanced society, such media are available for children to access. Amid lack of navigation for knowledge and education, children coming-of-age are self-oriented to their most natural instinct and learn inaccurate information through porn media.   

The situation in Sri Lanka should be immediately changed. Despite any international covenant demands it, or any government body says otherwise, CSE is but a drained pipe in most part of the countries. Sexual assault is a growing crisis in all parts of the country. People are being led, particularly influenced by male supremacy, to consider it to be something talked behind closed doors. Sexually assaulting a woman is easily justified through how her body looked, or how she wore clothes at the time she was assaulted. No one speaks of the supreme power a man was given to express his sexual arousal in public just because he sees a woman. A rapist is not born – he is made. There should be an open discussion in Sri Lanka to address the issue, without having so called culture being hindrance to the topic. A good culture never promotes violence, or assault by sexual means. Sri Lanka was conditioned by those who tend to keep a group of people controlled under their power, by political, or socio-economic means so that diversity shall not rise with liberalism that follows. CSE should be a mandatory segment in all educational bodies in Sri Lanka.    

Ranshitha Kularathne