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Relationship Education – Lead by Example

30 April 2019 Posted by No Comment

30th April, 2019

By Hans Billimoria

In recent years, we have tried to disentangle relationship education from sex education in Sri Lanka. Our impetus: sex education in Sri Lanka is limited to education around sex and reproduction, i.e. vaginal – penal penetration that leads to pregnancy and childbirth. UNESCO prefers the term comprehensive sexuality education, and defines it as follows:

“Comprehensive sexuality education is a curriculum-based process of teaching and learning about the cognitive, emotional, physical and social aspects of sexuality. It aims to equip children and young people with knowledge, skills, attitudes 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.”

Arguably, this is exactly what we need right now, no matter what we call it. And while we prefer to focus on human well-being, dignity and developing respectful social and sexual relationships, we have to first contend with the fact that our existing heteronormative approach to sex education in schools have detractors based on the assumption that sharing information around sex and reproduction will lead to sexual experimentation and exacerbate promiscuity. This attitude is shared by text book writers in Sri Lanka who continue to exclude any information related to condoms. They echo the fear: If you tell kids about condoms, they’ll use condoms. Pre-marital and extra-marital sex will become a norm because it will become too easy to have “irresponsible and consequence-less sex.” (Health & Physical Education Teacher, March 2019)  So standard global HIV prevention strategies such as ABC – abstinence (A), being faithful to one partner (B) and correct and consistent use of condoms (C) are limited to A & B – “Postpone sexual activities until marriage. Limit sexual activities only to your spouse” while C gets an oblique mention “Identify risky situations in society and protect yourself from them.” (Health and Physical Education, Grade 11, HIV & AIDS)

Given the general reticence of teachers to broach these subjects in the classroom, most of our children do not receive even this basic information in the classroom. In addition to claims that sexual and reproductive health education leads to promiscuity and experimentation, teachers cite embarrassment, age of students, sex of students (if the H&PE teachers are of the opposite sex to their students, he/she generally avoids the lesson) as rational for either skipping the lesson, or picking and choosing the information they share. One teacher stated – “they learn these things naturally anyway.” (Health & Physical Education Teacher, March 2019)

The key finding of our work with H&PE teachers in Sri Lanka over the last two years is that they know best. The age-appropriate design of the curriculum by selected experts in the field has no bearing on their decisions on what to share with students and what to judiciously ignore, in their classrooms. In 2018, a principal also spoke of a teacher who requested her students to staple the pages of offending chapters together.

This apprehensive approach to sex education in Sri Lanka ignores the realities of unintended teenage pregnancies, which can have serious consequences for both teen mother and child; sexually transmitted infections among young people, including HIV; accessible illegal abortions; and all too prevalent sexual violence. All indicators that our young people are not just sexually active, but that they lack the information they need to make decisions and choices that will keep them safe, healthy, and happy.

“Teen pregnancy — closely correlated to poverty and education — can negatively affect an individual’s physical and emotional wellbeing as well as that of the newborn. Poor awareness of basic sexual and reproductive health and limited access to contraceptive methods create additional problems like HIV infection and unwanted pregnancy. A National Youth and Health Survey found that 45% of girls are unaware that pregnancy can happen after just one instance of sexual intercourse.”UNICEF

Furthermore, given that our young people have unprecedented access to information online from various sources, including the conflation of pornography and sex, and the online violence that our young people face every day, more than ever we need to rethink the information we share in the classroom.

Countries are increasingly acknowledging the importance of equipping young people with the knowledge and skills to make responsible choices in their lives, particularly in a context where they have greater exposure to sexually explicit material through the Internet and other media.”UNESCO International technical guidance on sexuality education: an evidence-informed approach

We need to move beyond sex and reproduction. But how do we do this when we struggle to impart what is in our existing text books? Our text books are reviewed periodically, so that updated scientific information may be included – e.g. antiretroviral therapy reducing the risk of HIV transmission – but if we ignore the chapters that may embarrass us as teachers, who will tell our children that things have changed with HIV, so that we end the fear-mongering?

We need to focus on healthy relationships. Information on self-esteem, empathy and respect have trickled into the H&PE syllabus, but we need more robust application in the classroom, as well as age appropriate discussions around consent, and trust, beginning in early grades with proven methodologies such as good touch/bad touch, which will further help mitigate sexual violence, and dare we say violence in general.

Understanding respect, consent, trust, empathy and building self-esteem should arguably be central to our response against hate and violence which has percolated into every sphere of our existence. Last year, an early childhood learning initiative – Think Equal – received negative press as it was seen to promote homosexuality because its central tenets included respect of everyone, including those of diverse sexual orientation. Beyond the scientific fallacy that homosexuality can be promoted, these ignorant divisive reactions underscored more than ever the need for programmes such as Think Equal, and other similar early childhood learning models championed by UNICEF, Save The Children and Plan International that focus on fostering respect and empathy for all.

The Grassrooted Trust in the years ahead will focus on helping our H&PE teachers engage with their students in the classroom, and use their existing texts as effectively as possible, helping them understand the rational for the included information and help them unpack the prescribed teaching methodology. Grassrooted, with other partners, will also work to help our state education sector include more scientifically accurate and comprehensive information on sex and relationships in the national curricula.

That said, reflect on our reality. Learned behavior is one that an organism develops as a result of experience. Modelling behavior is a method of learning that consists of observing and modeling another individual’s behavior, attitudes, or emotional expressions. Our children are watching us. They’re learning from us. If we want to impact hate and violence we need to counter the narratives they are exposed to every day, especially now – and one of the most effective ways to do that is to ensure that as teachers and parents we lead by example.


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