By Vishane Herath –
The international day of action against corporal punishment of minors fell on 30th of April. This date, and the advocacy priorities that it brings to the fore, are of prime importance to the context of Sri Lanka. A country where corporal punishment has been normalised and even appreciated in the schooling system for many, many decades, Sri Lanka is home to a schooling system where a culture of physical abuse and corporal punishment of minors by adults is, in some cases, a day-to-day occurrence.
As someone who used to be regularly victimised by this toxic culture, it is my understanding that a great deal of work remains to be done in combating corporal punishment in our schools. The work of collectives such as ‘Stop Child Cruelty Sri Lanka’ has been central in guiding us in a progressive direction. We need to keep working to make corporal punishment a shameless vice of yesteryear. One way of getting there is indeed a somewhat direct approach, which some may deem controversial. This involves calling out in public, ‘naming and shaming’ schoolteachers who engage in corporal punishment. These individuals are nothing but child abusers and absolute criminals. Calling them out, and ‘normalising’ publicly shaming them, is a path to making corporal punishment something present and future teachers will learn to be ashamed of.
The issue is larger than the issue itself – as in – its trigger and trauma effects have long-term impacts. They contribute to the culture of violence and toxicity we find everywhere in our society. A prime example is our universities, where violent crime and abuse in the name of ‘ragging’ is normalised. On top of it all, let us not forget the fact that we live in a country where citizens are indeed being constantly ‘ragged’ by the political class.
In this spirit, let this article be a starting point that will inspire many other people to publicly call out, name and shame those who exercised corporal punishment upon them. Let this trigger a series of naming and shaming of teachers who used the tremendous power imbalance between a teacher and a pupil in Sri Lankan schools to beat up young children with next to no agency.
I am sitting at my desk and contemplating about the time I spent in high school, a gender segregated all girls’ school named Devi Balika Vidyalaya in Colombo, Sri Lanka. I should let the readers know that I am a transgender man, who came out to most peers and adults around the same time I was studying in this school. My memories of school are a mixed bag of more bad memories than good ones. When I think back, I am struck by the fact that almost all my bad memories are centered around one sinister individual, the woman who held the position of the principal, WDPK Samarasinghe, also known as Pradeepa Samarasinghe (Hereinafter referred to as PS).
As far as I remember, she was transferred to our school as the Principal from whatever position she held at a girls’ school in Kandy, towards the latter part of 2009. My first close encounter with her occurred a few months later, around May 2010, during the school’s annual Vesak celebrations.
There were certain ‘rules’ we had to follow we used to question, and things we were not allowed to bring to the school (such as USBs, DVDs, autographs etc). I had 7 other friends who I considered my close circle back then. We used to question some of these archaic ways and preferred to follow only those ‘rules’ that made sense to us.
One day, our classroom had been ‘randomly chosen to be checked’. By ‘checking’, I mean prefects and/or the class teacher going through every student’s personal belongings without prior notice or their consent, to see if they see anything ‘suspicious’. And by ‘suspicious’, I mean anything that could indicate a student was involved in any way with the ‘opposite sex,’ or if they have aforementioned ‘illegal goods!’ [yes, hail Tom Brown’s schooldays!]
Long story short, the prefects had confiscated a few DVDs we had in our school bags and an ‘autograph’ (a book we used to write inside jokes and nonsense about each other in our close circle). PS brutally smacked four of us in front of the rest of the class. We were then dragged to her office and were forced to kneel on the floor till the school day ended. This was followed by more smacking, and the use of very condescending, patronizing, and disgusting language, extremely unbecoming of a responsible educator. All of this because she could not handle a few teenagers being themselves, and because they had Harry Potter DVDs. How bold of them!
This is just one example among many of how PS took it out on the students. After the above-mentioned first encounter, it was as if I was ‘marked’ by her, and the bullying did not stop until the day I left school.
As a teenager who was grappling with issues of gender dysphoria, and the depression and anxiety that came along with it, getting bullied by peers and teachers was already far from manageable. If you may put yourself in my shoes, consider getting bullied by the school principal on top of all that, simply because she could not stand someone who refused to be shaped into a mould – her mould. In hindsight, my masculine presentation would have also been a major factor that fuelled her hatred of me. I personally knew many students who were at school around the same time, who were also bullied by PS, simply because they had different opinions and perspectives that were critical of the school principal’s archaic, Victorian era understanding of the world.
I recall an occasion when PS beat up a group of students without any form of prior investigation. This happened because the said group of students were “having some food in the cafeteria during class time”. It was later revealed that these students were not having classes during the time, and that they in fact had no obligation to be in class. This was because they were awaiting the results of their GCE O/L exam. They were therefore in school not to follow regular classes, but for some other reason. This was the extent of the principal’s sadism and paranoia!
Another incident that best describes the cruelty of the principal is the case of a student who was once summoned to the principal’s office, in the presence of the teacher who oversaw “discipline”. The reason for this summons was a mere rumour, that this student was having a romantic relationship with a boy. PS had slapped the student, which caused bleeding through her nose. This incident alone would have been grounds for immediate dismissal of the principal in any civilised country. At this school, however, it went unreported, because the principal contacted the parents of the student and threatened to expel the student if they were to report what happened to a national human rights mechanism or to any other competent authority.
In a major plot-twist, it was later revealed that the principal had made a complete mistake in identifying the student concerned by these rumours [at this point, I would like to reiterate that no teenager deserves corporal punishment for being themselves. What is necessary is comprehensive and open-minded sex and relationship education, and breaking the dogmatic views surrounding these issues in the Lankan schooling system].
Before she was appointed principal, Devi Balika Vidyalaya was a place where young minds were encouraged, at least to a certain degree, independent thinking. This does not, however, imply in any way that it was a school with very progressive policies. Instead, what I mean is that it did have some space to produce citizens who could think critically, instead of being moulded to look at the world only with a sense of servility. It was a place where girls (and to a certain extent closeted trans boys and non-binary youth) were encouraged to grow into their authentic and diverse selves.
Today, all these elements, and indeed the very guiding ideals of the founding principal, Deshabandu Dr Wimala de Silva, have gone down the drain. It is no exaggeration to say that today, Devi Balika is producing machines with brains instead of citizens capable of critical and counter-intuitive thinking.
Pradeepa Samarasinghe is not only a practitioner of corporal punishment deeply condescending foul language when talking to students. She can also be described as thoroughly unprincipled. Not only does she take issue with students who stand up to her and her corrupt ways, but she does the very same with members of the academic staff. Teachers who oppose her ways mysteriously get transfers to schools in rural areas. In the Past Pupils’ Association, she weeds out past pupils who stand up to her.
PS also punishes feminist thinking and she herself is a strong defender of the patriarchy. In a so-called ‘girls’ school’, this is indeed deeply problematic [I also wish to highlight that every child, irrespective of their gender, requires a feminist education].
To give but a basic example, the school had a tradition of annual Sinhala and Tamil New Year celebrations. Before the arrival of PS, students could dress any kind of New year related clothing as they pleased. Students would wear dresses, traditional Sinhala garments, traditional Tamil garments, national dresses, sarongs, vettis and shirts, and even shorts and t-shirts occasionally. There was no discrimination based on what you wore, and there was no gender segregation in clothing, as anyone could wear whatever they pleased. This was an occasion I was usually the happiest because I got to be my most authentic self. As I remember, this was not just a day where everyone got to wear whatever they wanted. It was also a day on which students were taught about different traditions and customs, teaching them a strong message on inclusivity and friendship at the same time. I reiterate the point about inclusivity, because even though it was Sinhala and Tamil New Year, pupils who belonged to different ethnicities and followed different religions were not left behind. They could also wear whatever they were comfortable with. Teachers often used to ask Sinhala and Tamil students to bring an extra piece of clothing to share with our friends who might not celebrate New Year in their homes. Every classroom would get together and appoint roles of a family (very cisgender heteronormative of course) to fellow classmates and they were to dress accordingly and follow the New Year customs too. Every classroom would have a feast table filled with sweets where both Sinhala traditions and Hindu traditions were celebrated. And every classroom would share their food with other classrooms. This annual celebration was one of those events where we were taught inclusion and respect. It taught us how to “celebrate” each other’s differences. This is indeed the kind of example that every single educational institution ought to develop, especially given our recent history of a 30-year war, post-war challenges and continuing ethnonational and ethno-religious cleavages.
Soon after PS became principal, one of the very first things she “changed” was this celebration.
She imposed a ‘rule’ that students can only wear the traditional Sinhala attire for women (redda-hatte), or the lama sari, which is the traditional attire for girl-child, or the school uniform, for this event. This was the ‘only right’ thing according to her extremist ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’ ultranationalist ideals. Teachings about diversity, inclusion, celebrating differences and respecting one another all went down the drain. In addition, the one chance for a trans or queer student to experience even the slightest sense of belonging, came to an end. In fact, she despised diversity. Instead, her policies were intended at ensuring uniformity and conformity to an ultra-conservative Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist agenda. PS was (and still is) hell bent on moulding young minds into becoming wives who faithfully serve their husbands, doctors who would only be book smart, engineers who would not dare question their male counterparts at work, women who would willingly obey and serve, and women who would not utter a single word against glass ceilings and other gender-based barriers and women who are oblivious to issues of gender-based injustices in society. It is indeed very sad that in the community of recent past pupils, only a few of us have been fortunate to “liberate” ourselves from the shackles of her destructively extremist policies.
Unfortunately, it is a truism that many of my peers would serve this patriarchal system, when they have every potential to go above and beyond it and rise. Yet another prime example of the fraudulent and narcissistic ways of PS is the latest set of developments concerning Devi Balika Vidyalaya [read, for example, here]. This, however, is a topic for another day and another article. What was described above was, indeed, all but the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The issue of corporal punishment, and the resulting culture of toxicity, its mental health effects on children and youth, have a lifelong negative impact on the victims of corporal punishment. It is therefore absolutely vital that we continue to call out in public, name and shame every single individual who commits such violent and destructive crimes on the nation’s children and youth.
*Vishane Herath(he/him) is a Human Rights Defender. He is currently completing his undergraduate degree in Gender Studies at the University of Victoria, Canada. He writes in a personal capacity.