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The Birds & The Bees

22 January 2015 Posted by One Comment

2015, Sri Lanka’s new beginning. Hope. Confusion. Resentment. Hope. The I-told-you-so-ers are waiting in the wings. Failure imminent, apparently. Tails are up. Sarongs similarly tied about fat and thin and hairy thighs. Even if everything goes wrong it won’t be as wrong. Tread carefully. Slippery slope. Holier-than-thou alert. It’s the same argument on both sides. Good versus evil. Ask the Japanese. Arguments of infinite regression, futile. Ask Palestine.

Women have spoken this time, they said. They report, we repeat, you decide. The grey bearded lady has left the building and we have Rosy days ahead. Mrs. Senenayake however, has been trusted, albeit briefly, not with women, but far more significantly, with children.

Abolitionist, Frederick Douglas claimed “it is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men”, and Mrs. Senenayake learnt the truth of this, repeatedly, in Parliament as she battled chauvinism, sexism, and primitive gender stereotyping. The question is, what do we do about this now? It is still too premature to hope for anything lasting, the 100 fateful days, and a parliamentary election have to pass first past the post. Still, regardless of who receives the portfolio for our children, the time to stop pretending is now.   Let’s uproot that proverbial ostrich from the sand. We have the opportunity to speak once more, unabashed, of what many in our country feel is true. Real. Present. We may have been afraid to put up our hands and say so, but now, more voices will emerge, and they will be heard. We hope. The rights of a child cannot be argued. Our cultural and religious teleology won’t allow it. The child is sacred across all faiths and persuasions, it’s just that the patriarchal structures that continue to be superimposed on to our current realities are now, more than ever, obsolete. We have to revalue our approach. How do we teach our children that respect, for example, is not intrinsically woven in with power? These perverse demands on respect have sullied it, and some of our young have misunderstood it to the point that grabbing at what they see has become a norm over the decades. Sexual harassment on public transport is not new, increasing figures are probably a result of greater reportage. Women’s desks in police stations, domestic violence acts – we have the blue print for success, yet, what makes a man continue to grab at a buttock and rub up against women and girls, indiscriminate of age?   Police statistics on rape and child sexual abuse remain startling. Incestuous perpetrators are not uncommon.  The fabric of family is rent in two and three and four, and needs mending.  Are we ready to face this reality, or do we collectively, once again, bury our head where all is quiet and blind, even as our hind-quarters buck and sway to the music.

In the past few years we coined the term pseudo-conservatism i.e. we as a people only pretend to pander to cultural or religious norms and mores.  The ex-presidents’ sons were lampooned as sexually amoral mutts having fun with girls in short skirts and seemingly advocating for skimpily clad cheer leaders at the Night Races. It will be interesting to note if the turnout diminishes for cabaret nights with working girls from Eastern Europe, Central and East Asia, Mauritian Islanders, during the upcoming  ‘Big Match’ season, where old boy fraternities let their absent hair down. Similarly, the buying and selling of sex has been much talked about in recent times with the advent of the casino bill, and politicians and activists alike have touted regulation and taxes as possible solutions. Regulation and taxes may prevent underage sex work, and the abusive exploitive environment in which some of our men and women work – even the quasi-legal status of sex work has the potential to do this as seen in India and Thailand – but in the end if we continue to value women, girls, transgender, gay men… sex as a commodity, our young will learn no different from us.  They will continue to buy and sell sex attaching to this the same value of shame, degradation and failure.

We need to speak and act different.  We have the mechanism in place; a Ministry of Education that prides itself on our literacy rate, a Ministry of Health with a public healthcare system that is the envy of South Asia and committed team of professionals within the National Institute of Education to draw up the curricula. Unilateral agencies such as UNICEF and UNFPA have global and national mandates to improve sexual and reproductive health and gender education for young people, along with a strong Civil Society that I committed to eradicating discrimination of all forms, and ensuring every child and young person has the right to equal opportunity.

birds and bees
Accurate and comprehensive – the facts – age appropriate – Good Touch Bad Touch and NO (say no!) GO (go away!) TELL (and tell someone you trust!) for the little ones – sexual and reproductive health and gender sensitivity education, with the values of respect, honesty and open lines of communication included, is crucial if we want to make any headway against the bullying, tormenting and abuse suffered by our children and young people who grow up to be adults, and often continue to face this perpetual fate.

Begin this discussion. We may not agree on everything, but we can agree that to do nothing, and to allow for the status quo, would be folly. No one is asking for children in schools to weigh in on the repealing of penal codes, or discuss the efficacy of a harm reduction programme for people who use drugs in Sri Lanka. What we’re advocating for here is a discussion on how we could reinforce the values of respect and honesty, in a culture that came to accept corruption and violence as a given, with the glorious impermanence of hedonism – make hay while sun shines. We owe our children more than a lesson or two on the human reproductive tract, an O Level question on HIV transmission and the breadwinner-homemaker dichotomy of the civics text book that doesn’t allow for mothers to be successfully employed outside of the home.

We need a more human literacy that we could be really proud of, where our children respect one another regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, physical prowess or skin colour. This doesn’t mean we tell them that being gay is right or wrong, for example, it just means we tell them that some people are, and as the World Health Organization finally accepted in 1992, it’s not a mental disease. Baby steps. Let’s talk about difference. Let’s talk about bullying. Let’s talk about hurting someone, physically and emotionally. To risk sounding like a stuck record, let’s talk about respect, honesty and the need to communicate.

Sports, the arts, any activity that teaches kids to be social and work towards a common purpose, is another sphere that must not be ignored. What is taught in a classroom, often comes undone in the real world, on the field of battle. The derogatory and degrading practices that masquerade as initiation or coming of age ceremonies in schools and universities, for example, need addressing. If we are to turn out responsible adults, we need to be vigilant of every influence, and in an age of free media access, the challenge is constant. A mobile phone can be her window into the beauty and ugliness of our world. While we’re no longer Number One as a nation for googling SEX, the vagaries of social media and the internet have by no means diminished.  Over the last few years girls in Sri Lanka have committed suicide because of what they allowed for on social media. How many girls? One is too many.

Parents cannot abdicate responsibility and leave institutions to instruct their young. This is felt.  This is known. This is true. Yet, too often blame and recrimination is directed every which way but home. Simply put, we need to work together; parent and teacher, community leader and clergy. Our messages may vary, yet the many kernels of truth often sum up the whole – a good citizen, responsible for her actions and mindful of his words.

Remember, the justice of equality always needs a helping hand, and compassion and empathy are the cornerstones of human dignity. Yes, it takes a village, yes, it takes courage, and no, it’s not too late.

One Comment »

  • vyomi said:

    “Parents cannot abdicate responsibility and leave institutions to instruct their young”….. This is a fact and it MUST change, we as parents have to take time off from the rat race to actually ‘parent’ our children… Not occasionally, but daily!

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