The Ven. Prof. Medagoda Abhayatissa Thera’s objection to the Hathe Ape Potha, raises questions whether we, as a society, are ready to openly discuss sexual health and all other issues connected with it, not only with our children but even amongst adults.
Hathe Ape Potha is meant to act as an age appropriate guide for students of Grade Seven apart from their textbook on health science, to introduce the many bodily and emotional changes one undergoes around adolescence. But Abhayatissa Thera thinks that is not a good idea, objecting to some of the contents of the book which he describes as having the ability to corrupt the minds of the young. At a press conference he held recently, the Monk claimed that he locked his copy of the book in a cupboard to ensure Samaneras’ (novice monks) were not corrupted by it. His aversion to the book, in particular seems to be on masturbation, which Hathe Ape Potha teaches as being normal, but cautions about getting addicted to, and neglecting one’s studies.
While the Ven. Monk is urging the Education Minister of the newly formed government to ban the distribution of the book he also wants a special commission of inquiry appointed to investigate how the Hathe Ape Potha came to be, as he says, it goes against the country’s cultural norms.
Perhaps, the Abhayatissa Thera is unaware that the book did not materialise overnight; it is the outcome of a series of meetings since 2016 of Parliament’s Sectoral Oversight Committee on Women and Gender, which took up Teaching Reproductive Health to School Children as one of its concerns. The Committee report of March 27, 2019 outlines the many discussions and feedback from various stakeholders such as the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Health, Family Health Bureau, Child Protection Authority, academics and researchers in the field, that were considered prior to commissioning the publication of this book. The committee report notes that the lack of awareness amongst children on sexual and reproductive health has contributed largely to the many incidents of child abuse in the country. The committee notes that the crimes of rape and other forms of harassment against women (see graphic)are directly or indirectly related to our cultural attitude regarding sex and if the country is to move away from such an environment a child must be taught this subject ‘from his or her schooling period.’
The Ven. Professor would also be surprised to learn, that the Chief Sanghanayake of the Western Province, Ruhuna University Chancellor Ven. Dr. Akuretiye Nanda Thero has hailed the Hathe Ape Potha as timely and topical. The Chief Sanghanyake made his point clear when he attended a meeting called by the Sectoral Oversight Committee on Thursday, January 9th, a meeting Medagoda Abhyatissa Thera had been invited to but did not attend. He is scheduled to attend the January 22 meeting. (https://counterpoint.lkhathe-ape-potha-timely-topical/)
The Committee report also notes that according to the National Youth Health survey (2012/2013) published by the Family Health Bureau, nearly 50% of youth were unaware of sexual and reproductive health of the opposite sex. The report further states that between 2010 and 2016 the Police Women and Child Bureau had recorded 40,000 incidents of crime against children and 55,000 against women for that same period.
Apart from the commissioning of the book, teachers are being trained to deliver sexual and reproductive health information to students. The Committee has also recognized the parental role in imparting this information to children.
Social and religious taboos play an important role in preventing children from getting the correct message says Dr. Janaki Vidanapathirana, the immediate Past President of the College of Community Medicine. In the past five years, teenage pregnancies constituted 4.3% – 5.3% of the total yearly number of pregnancies in the country.
Pregnancy is not always the result of rape or coercion, but a lack of awareness which prevents the young from making sound decisions, she adds. It is an issue in all communities, across the country. This is why it is important to introduce age appropriate information on sex and reproductive health so children are presented with scientific facts and not myths. While it is important to train teachers in the satisfactory delivery of the topic, parents too must be included and both groups must be comfortable discussing the issue with children. Sweeping it under the carpet would only result in child abuse, unwanted pregnancies, contracting HIV/Aids and other forms of violence against children, says Dr. Vidanapathirana, who also points out that depriving students of age appropriate sex education, will only help perpetuate the vicious cycle into the next generation.
When children are gradually introduced to age appropriate information on sex and reproductive health, it means preparing them to be better empowered adults, with the ability to make their own decisions about their bodies.
When the Child Protection Authority statistics show 10,000 reported cases of child abuse, it is no trivial matter, says Kaushalya Ariyarathna, a lawyer. Data shows that annually, at least 20,000 in the 13- 16 age group become pregnant and a 2015 report also stated that 75 of those afflicted by the HIV/Aids virus were under 15 years old.
Now, there are more instances of children reaching puberty even as young a ten, and they need to be able to understand the changes taking place in their bodies, she pointed out. Unfortunately, the generation gap between teachers and students, and the busy lifestyles of parents means children will access information elsewhere, and that may not be the best. The Hathe Ape Potha seeks to fill that vacuum and ensure children get the correct picture and not myths from peers or the internet. When students are taught about all the other organs of the body, why is sexual and reproductive health such a taboo topic, she asked. “We should not be ashamed to impart sex education to children; instead, teachers, parents and politicians should be ashamed that by depriving them of such crucial information, their children could actually face many hardships.’
Paba Deshapriya, Director of Grassrooted Trust, welcomes the publication of the book, which she points out goes directly to students, instead of remaining a teacher’s guide. But, what we should be aiming at is to introduce comprehensive health education; teaching empathy, understanding trust, gender equality etc. to children, she says. That must begin at a very early age; 3 to 7 years is when children grasp all information and that is when the basic values must be introduced. They need to understand what trust is and what love is.
The introduction of the book has exposed how unskilled teachers are in handling this topic, she says. The same goes for doctors. Despite their education and training they still cling to beliefs such as staying away from the temple during menstruation as it’s considered impure. Girls especially, are discouraged from enjoying sexual pleasures.
But for politicians, education is not a priority, and any interventions are mostly mediocre. It is important to look beyond the curriculum, beyond the Hathe Potha and counter misinformation in a manner that inculcates better attitudes and behaviour, she adds.
A drawback that Deshapriya identifies is also noted in the report of the Sectoral Committee; health science is a compulsory subject only up to 9th grade. It must, says Deshapriya, be a compulsory subject up to Grade 12, so students would remember the information into adulthood. The Sectoral Committee meanwhile has also prepared a book for Grade 12 students, titled ‘Dolahe Ape Potha.’
Unfortunately, the guide books are available only for Grades 7 and 12, and while the health science books deal with some information, similar guide books for all grades would be the ideal.
Deshapriya’s concerns are echoed by the Family Planning Associations Advocate for Comprehensive Sexual Education, Sonali Gunasekera, who told Counterpoint that “CSE training programmes should contain information on relationships; values, rights, sexuality; gender; violence and staying safe; skills for health and well- being; the human body and development; sexuality and sexual behaviour, and sexual and reproductive health. To ensure a healthy young population, says Gunasekera, age appropriate Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) must be taught to children very early in life. Both young people and school children have responded positively to learning about SRHR.”
A former teacher, UNP Parliamentarian Rohini Kumari Wijeratne, one of the members of the committee told the January 9th meeting, that there had been similar books, such as “Surakenne and Udavu Yavvanaya for students before and there had been no objections to them. When she was a Grade 11 student, the teachers asked the students to read the text book themselves instead of explaining the contents pertaining to sexual health, she revealed. Many of her own students have been sexually violated by family members and even clergy; ‘Should we cover it up, or prevent teenage pregnancies’ she asked.
Hathe Ape Potha introduces students to various topics from nocturnal ejaculations, menstruation, attraction to the opposite sex as well as the importance of nutritious meals, cleanliness and protecting themselves from both friends and strangers. In fact, though Abhayatissa Thera has taken up cudgels against this book, sexual and reproductive health, which, in some form or the other, has been taught to sixth and seventh graders since 1989.
The report of the sectoral oversight committee notes many countries around the world have introduced sexual and reproductive health in the school curricular as a ‘long-term remedy to reduce child abuse and to prevent teenage pregnancies.’ In fact, it states that the rate of teenage pregnancies is lowest in the Netherlands, where sexual education is taught as a subject starting at pre-school.
Certainly, Sri Lanka has a long road to go in this aspect, especially when society, including clergy of all denominations, is bound to weigh in with their brand of what is culturally and religiously acceptable. As an Education Department official put it, distribution of the book at one centre was shelved, as the staff at the centre considered it a ‘kunuharapa pothak’ (filthy book).
But break down those barriers we must, if we are to ensure better protection for our children.
Let’s start by asking ourselves what is this ‘culture’ we must protect at all cost!