By Vishane Herath and Chamindra Weerawardhana –
The recent meeting of the Parliamentary Sectoral Oversight Committee on Education and Human Resources Development and the Sectoral Oversight Committee on Women and Gender [hereinafter referred to as PSC meeting], focused on the sex ed book ‘Haté apé potha’ [HAP] was highly demonstrative of social, political and cultural misconceptions in Sri Lankan society. Three cis male Buddhist monks were given front-row seats to flaunt their positions on the topic of….sex education!
If it were a PSC hearing on the provision of sex ed, it should have been a platform that discussed how best to provide the best and most comprehensive sex ed to the children and youth of Sri Lanka. Instead, in this particular PSC hearing the entire conversation revolves around how best to ‘limit’ the provision of sex ed in Sri Lanka.
About the book
To recap briefly, this book is perhaps one of the most laudable developments that have taken place in the recent past in the sphere of education in Sri Lanka. The systems in place are doing great injustice to the children and youth of the country by not providing them with comprehensive sex ed. This dearth is also one of the key reasons of [if not the foremost reason of] the high rates of sexual abuse and violence in the country. The lack of comprehensive sex ed is also closely interlinked to the proliferation of STDs and mental health issues.
It is in this broad context that this book, produced by a group of specialists, and coordinated by the Ministries of Health and Education, is a highly commendable development. The book discusses issues of bodily autonomy, consent, and sexual health. Although there certainly is plenty of space for development and further innovation, there is no doubt that this book is a very important first step in the right direction, in moving towards comprehensive and inclusive sex ed in Sri Lankan schools. In a country where many schools continue the archaic, unadvisable and outdated practice of gender segregation in primary and secondary education, it is not easy to develop a comprehensive dialogue on issues such as consent, bodily autonomy, and sexualities. It is in this broad context that HAP gains vital importance as a tremendous contribution. The medical professionals and education sector specialists behind the production of this book deserve unreserved appreciation.
The PSC Meeting
First and foremost, a key point we wish to highlight is the absolute futility of granting pride of place to Buddhist monks in this dialogue. Frankly, this platform is not one for Buddhist monks, or for that matter, to ministers of religion of any faith practised in Sri Lanka. To add hay to the fire, it is also appalling to note that it is only cisgender male [and technically celibate] monks who are given pride of place. If they were included, why not the Bhikkunis? Do they not have a say in this dialogue?
The behaviour of the monks throughout the meeting is particularly appalling. One of them, whose name has been most widely heard when it comes to his vocal opposition to this very important book, behaves in the most despicable mannerism. He clearly has no notion whatsoever of best behaviour and compliance to best practice in a formal setting of this nature. It is our take that the MPs should have taken action to exclude this monk on the basis of his antisocial behaviour, instead of seeking to cajole him and trying to do their best to avoid ‘ruffling’ him.
The most insightful comments came from specialist doctors who were present at the meeting. It is also important to note that the female medical and education sector experts present at the meeting provided the most informative and thought-provoking input, in the face of what can only be described as an absolutely pathetic level of ignorance [of the saffron-clad].
Against healthy sexualities: monks on masturbation?
One observation is worth reiteration. The detail that the monks were most affected by seems to be the fact that HAP includes two sentences about masturbation. They seem to have their mind-set fixated on their beliefs (which stands no ground other than it being a personal opinion) that masturbation is in fact sinful and that HAP is promoting and ‘guiding’ children towards masturbation, disregarding all the information and scientific facts presented at the meeting by Medical and Mental health professionals . One of the saffron-clad even stresses on his belief that comprehensive sex ed should not lead children to believe that sex is about pleasure. It is hard to understand whether he is implying that parents – if not people – all around the world only engage in sexual acts for the sole purpose of reproduction(or that sexual activity other than penile-vaginal penetrative sex does not exist/are unnatural). The monks also seem to be particularly affected by the fact that the book explicitly mentions that girls also masturbate. In our take, the book is somewhat inadequate on this matter, when it comes to the use of words and syntax. If you read that section carefully, you will notice that the prime emphasis is on masturbation by boys [if not children assigned male at birth]. Masturbation by girls [if not children assigned female at birth] is included as somewhat of an addendum. This, we believe is something that requires genuine fixing.
As human rights activists, we would also highlight that the book requires an age-appropriate section on gender identity/expression, providing children who are non-cisnormative or non-conforming to obtain some form of useful insight.
The path forward?
In conclusion, it is absolutely crucial to highlight that Buddhist monks or ministers of religion of any other faith should have no say at all in determining how our children and youth are taught sex education. Distributing this book to all children in the grade 7 age group is an absolute must. Moreover, we have to strive to develop better and more informative sex education, which imperatively includes elements such as informed and enthusiastic consent, the use of protection [not only the condom(including, obviously, female condoms) but also dental dams], STDs and preventive information, and healthy sexual practices. It goes without saying that it is absolutely essential to make sex ed LGB-inclusive, as well as transgender and intersex-inclusive. This is the only way in which we can challenge sexual violence, gender-based violence, and move towards a society in which consent, respect and healthy lives thrive.
*Vishane Herath is a human rights and gender justice activist. He is a student at the University of Victoria, British Columbia.
*Chamindra Weerawardhana is a human rights and gender justice activist, author and political analyst. She is currently a Visiting Fellow at the University of Victoria, British Columbia.