Sex and sexuality – two things which were very personal to both males and females- are no longer personal. The patriarchal cloud still hovers around the deeply grounded conservative background we Sri Lankans come from. Therefore even if a woman is constantly abused, she would rather keep quiet than let her voice be heard and become a topic of discussion. From domestic violence to gang rape, there have been many reported incidents of sexual harassment. This also means that many of these cases go unreported. “When men see a pretty girl, squeezing, touching or holding her comes with a general sense of entitlement that men have within our culture which is mainly patriarchal,” said Hans Bilimoria, Director of the Grassrooted Trust in an interview with the Daily mirror.
As such the Daily Mirror sheds light on a few matters that concern sex and sexuality, the culture of shame and the immediate need for an educational reform mandate.
Lonely Planet recently ranked Sri Lanka as the number one destination for travel amid foreign women constantly facing various issues, the worst of them being rape. It wasn’t long before former Minister of Tourism John Amarathunga suggested that tourists need to be aware when travelling and that they shouldn't do so. “This again points to the attitude towards women and especially foreign women,” Bilimoria continued.
Foreign women are always tricked into paying higher taxi fares and there have been reported cases where tuk tuk drivers were a threat to these women. Hence, an attempt was made to identify foreigner friendly scooter taxis (tuks). When asked whether such initiatives would help Bilimoria said that they would be successful as far as the drivers of these taxis are educated in treating the passengers. “This could be anybody from a male, female or even a transgender person. The tuk driver should treat them equally without trying to exploit them. So it’s about educating the people who interact with tourists. For us it’s always about education,” he went on.
Adding in her comments gender activist and writer Sharanya Sekaram, who also works as a programme manager at the Grassrooted Trust said that as a country, she has always found a competition. “It’s not about solving our own problems. For example if we talk about rape we say at least we are not as bad as India, if we talk about female political participation we say that we had the first female prime minister, if we talk about women in the workplace we ask to look at these boards and societies headed by women. We are always defensive instead of addressing the fact that we are very much that. We don’t seem to admit that we have this problem,” she said.
Culture of shame
Although there are many incidents of sexual harassment, only a handful of cases are reported. “If you take a man masturbating in a bus, people would think it is an isolated incident, but there’s enough evidence to prove that these are not isolated incidents,” Bilimoria emphasised. “We also have a culture of shame beautifully embedded into us,” Sekaram added. “Hence victims are asked why they didn’t stand up and fight back. There’s also a complete lack of faith in consequences because there are no consequences for the people. This is because there’s no confidence in law enforcement and response. Shame has been embedded from the time you can walk – from when we are seven years old we talk about dress codes in schools. Whenever they say that the girls’ skirts are too short they are distracting the male teachers.” she continued.
‘Baduwa’ and ‘kaella’
“The message sent to our young men needs to change,” Bilimoria pointed out. “So the message that we are giving in terms of the objectification of the woman is something that we need to change. ‘Baduwa’ and ‘kaella’ are two very common Sinhala words that young men use to refer to women. These two words are ubiquitously used and have been acceptable within every group I have met. This includes the clergy as well. I was at a children’s society where children as young as age 10 were using those words. That is what they are learning unless we take the boys and start talking about equal opportunity and equal possibility. We need to move into a place where we say that a girl and a boy are no different apart from what is between their legs. So it’s about potential, possibility, opportunity and that is what we need to focus on. During the recent Commonwealth Games we saw those children who won medals. It was because they had the opportunity. She wasn’t running like a boy or a girl, but she was running like herself. That should be the focus of our education system. At the moment we fall far short of that discussion of that school system within our homes. In terms of how we continue to reinforce the stereotype, the toys we buy, the colours we ascribe to a girl and a boy all that nonsense has a knock-on effect on these children to the point that they are ultimately objectified,” said Bilimoria.
Approach for sex education
With conservative norms spreading like a cancer, it has been a challenge to at least propose the topic of sex inside a classroom. But Bilimoria believes sex education is improving. “We need to talk about relationships, how we treat each other, we need to talk about respect, empathy and focus on self-esteem. Most of the victims and perpetrators we work with have an issue with self-esteem. Why should a man hit a woman if he has good self-esteem? Why is a man rubbing himself up against a girl in a bus if he has self-esteem? So low self-esteem has a real impact and that is why the health and physical education curriculum have slowly progressed and gotten better over the years that now there’s discussion on self-esteem, respect and empathy,” he added.
As such, Bilimoria and Sekaram believe that schools are crucial because there’s no better place that brings children and parents together. “Therefore we always advocate bringing parents to the school and having these discussions in the classroom and why it’s important to reinforce these messages at home,” Bilimoria further said. “So you have to bring teachers and parents as partners in terms of this education. I think the National Institute of Education is crucial here. From 2006-2013, homosexuality was listed as a form of child abuse, but it is no longer there and there has been progression. Even in terms of understanding HIV there has been progression. But we definitely need to see what’s in the curriculum or teacher guide because teachers sometimes refuse to follow what’s in the curriculum. So we need to shed light on the tools that would take away the embarrassment and the shame in talking about these in a very fact-based, scientific, sensible approach,” he said.
In early October a 52-year-old man who was sexually abusing a school girl was arrested from Hettipola. This was after the school staff discovered a letter written by the victim which was dropped off at the school complaint box
Grassrooted Trust is working with 60 schools in Batticaloa and Bilimoria also pointed out that parents seem to be more interested in exam results. “It is not a today or tomorrow story – it is hard work which is long-term and generational. But the longer we wait and the longer we avoid it, the more difficult it will be to undo these things. I think we still have an opportunity right now to undo some of these things because they aren’t entrenched.” he added.
Educational reform mandate
“We strongly believe in an educational reform mandate,” Bilimoria stressed. “This has to have six core values including respect, self-esteem, consent, empathy, trust and the value of being sensible. We have been saying that these are the six values that any responsible authority needs to focus on. If you focus on these six core values then you are teaching people that it is not alright to go and rub yourself up against someone on a bus. We don’t have discussions about consent either in Sinhala or English. But one needs to be conscious of it and the principle about consent is a big one. All these principles are not just about sex or gender; it’s about the dignity of human beings and how we interact with one another. Human dignity is our focus and how do we further that conversation regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation, faith, creed, caste etc.? We need to focus on the right to be you and until we teach children to respect each other and their differences, we are not going anywhere,” he said.
Early child protection
In early October a 52-year-old man who was sexually abusing a school girl was arrested from Hettipola. This was after the school staff discovered a letter written by the victim which was dropped off at the school complaint box. Following this incident, The Grassrooted Trust emphasised on the need for support systems for students within the school system. “From what we understood, there was an issue of trust. Therefore early child protection mechanisms are vital. The fact that she had no one to speak to, the fact that she had to write it down and put it in a box means there were trust issues. But we don’t know whether she went and told her parents and what their reactions were. Therefore you need to build systems and as far as I understand the Government is now training counselors to be appointed as counselors in schools. But I believe that a strong counselling system within the school, where the teachers are easily identified, is important, but it again boils down to confidentiality. Because many students have told us that they don’t want to talk about their issues because that adds to the staffroom gossip.” said Sekaram.
“Therefore we need to ask what parents want from their children and what do we want these educational institutes to do for our children? We need to identify the skills and tools and what we need to do for our children to bring about this better world we harangued on about,” she opined.
Bilimoria also pointed out that it’s important to de-stigmatise access to help. “As we know mental health has much stigma associated with it and even going to the counselor will label that child or a person as mentally retarded. Therefore, talking to the school counselor as a natural part of growing up and dealing with issues is very important.” said Bilimoria.
Sri Lanka also has a community of diverse sexual orientations and gender identity. When asked whether there is space for acceptance Bilimoria referred to an incident that took place in 2011. “There was an exposé done about homosexual individuals back in 2011. Once that article came out, many organisations closed down and ceased to exist. In fact everybody hid and none of the authorities came out. But they started to exist after 2015 since they thought they will have more space for discussion. When the constitutional process was happening there were two submissions by people of diverse sexual orientation and gender identity to include them in the Constitution in terms of discrimination. Hence there was hope for change and even the GSP + conversations were happening,” he said.
It’s not rocket science that there are people with diverse sexual orientations. As opposed to the West they are often stigmatised and labelled in Asian cultures. The LGBTIQ community in Sri Lanka has voiced out their concerns on several occasions
In his concluding remarks, Bilimoria said that education reform is the need of the hour. “Unless we don’t do that immediately, in 30 years this kind of an interview will be done again – so in 30 years’ time if this conversation continues then we have miserably failed,” he concluded.