By Kshama Ranawana
It’s back to the drawing board for the Hathe Ape Potha, the supplementary reader on sexual and reproductive health.
On Tuesday, January 21st, interested stakeholders, Buddhist clergy, officials of the Education and Health Ministries, Psychiatrists, representatives of the Child Protection Authority and Academics met for the second time to discuss whether or not the Hathe Ape Potha is appropriate reading material for Grade 7 students.
The meeting was jointly called by the Sectoral Oversight Committees on Women and Gender and Education and Human Resources Development at the Parliament complex. The book, a supplementary reader for students of Grade Seven is meant to explain sexual and reproductive health in an age-appropriate and simple manner. It is the outcome of nearly 4 years of discussions initiated by the Sectoral Oversight Committee on Women and Gender on the subject “Teaching Reproductive Health to School Children.”
Earlier, on January 9th this year, the Committee invited the same stakeholders for a discussion on the book, as Ven. Prof. Medagoda Abhayatissa Thera had, at a press conference objected to its distribution to school children. While he did not attend the meeting on the 9th, Chief Sanghanayake of the Western Province, Ruhuna University Chancellor, Ven. Dr. Akuretiye Nanda Thero who was at the meeting, endorsed the book. Owing to questions raised whether the book had been reviewed by child psychiatrists, it was decided to call a second meeting on the 21st, to which Prof. Abhayatissa Thero and other interested parties were also invited.
At the outset of the second meeting, the State Minister for Public Management and Accounting Lasantha Alagiyawanne raised issues on how the book had come about. His line of questioning resulted in Education Ministry officials not giving clear responses, even though many of them had participated in the discussions that led to producing the book. He accused officials of the Health Ministry of putting together a book for the Education officials to distribute.
It is indeed a sad commentary that Ministers and other officials seemed to have come to the meeting without at least reading the Committee’s latest report on this matter, dated March 27, 2019.
That report not only lists all the officials and stakeholders whose input was obtained but also the efforts taken to train teachers so they would be comfortable discussing sexual and reproductive health with their students. In fact, the report notes that the manual to train teachers on the subject had been submitted to the committee by Education ministry officials on May 4, 2017. Moreover, according to the report, the introduction to the hand book and training of teachers had been launched on June 17, 2017 as a “Pilot project” in the Western Province. The meeting was told, it had been expanded to cover the whole country, later and it was only in the North and East that there had been some reluctance amongst teachers and principals to discuss the subject.
What’s more, an awareness programme was held at the Parliament on May 25, 2017 for members of the Education Ministry, the Provincial Ministers of Education and Directors of Education, members of other Sectoral Oversight Committees, the Parliamentary Caucus for Children, Women Parliamentarian Caucus and the media. Additionally, the National Education Commission and the Ministry of Education had been requested to work out a method to increase the periods teaching health and include time for instruction in reproductive health education from grade 6 to 12.
Venerable Dr. Akuretiye Nanda Thero, too, pointed out that the subject was included in the grade seven text book as well as the teacher’s guide. In fact, he pointed out the text book even carries photos of the sexual organs.
Psychiatrist Dr. Swarna Wijetunga, who was also representing the Sri Lanka College of Child and Adolescent Psychiatrists, while agreeing with the need to introduce sex education to students, stated that the only bone of contention was the last two sentences on page 8 of the Hathe Ape Potha, referring to masturbation. She said there was concern that once a concept is introduced there needs to be other supports to go with it, or there was the danger of children not learning limitations.
It transpired during the discussions that the final draft of the book had not been presented to the Sectoral Committee. Had it been, said its chair Dr. Thusitha Wijemanne, perhaps they could have asked that those sentences be removed or reworded.
When the Ven. Prof. Abayatissa Thero, and three others joined the meeting, the tone of the discussion changed. The Thero was of the opinion that the books should be burned, even though he agreed that children must be introduced to sex education. He felt this book would push children towards sexual activity. What needed to be taught was prevention, he argued, not acting on ones feelings. It was not just the section on masturbation, which he said, attempted to show it was practised by everyone, but there were other parts of the book that were objectionable.
But, Dr. Pabasiri Ginige, Senior Lecturer of the Department of Psychiatry, University of Peradeniya Medical Faculty, countered this view, saying that masturbation was not deviant behaviour and something everyone indulges in. “Ultrasounds, have shown even foetuses masturbating. She said she had treated “children and adults at her clinic who were guilt ridden believing it was a sin!”
The Thero, argued that if girls were to be respected, such issues should be discussed away from the boys. “In the West, they say use a condom, we say control your urges’, he added.
All of this, he alleged was a part of a larger plan to change society, and even the authors of the book may not be aware of that, he said. ‘There is, the Think Equal” project, he said, which had its office in the Prime Minister’s (former) office. He had been asked to look into it by the Cardinal himself. (Think Equal is a project to teach inclusion and equality to pre-schoolers https://thinkequal.org/)
Meanwhile, the Ven. Induragare Dhammaratana Thero argued that one must be cognizant of the age of children when introducing any subject,’ a 12 year old should not be taught something that is appropriate for a 16 year old.”
“Reckless,’ argued Dr. Wasantha Bandara, who was one of those who joined the meeting with Dr. Medagoda Abaytissa Thero. He charged that the book had been prepared without adhering to any standards, and questioned whether there were such standards, like in foreign countries, that Sri Lanka adhered to. He asked if there had been any discussions with parents or teachers on this matter. He took issue over cautioning children against friends and family who could violate their bodies, stating that it places all male relations as sexual predators.
While many of such comments drew protests from others present, it was UNP MP, Rohini Kumari Wijeratne, a member of both sectoral committees, who stood her ground, responding even with teachings from the Buddha. She added that guidelines of the education ministry were followed when preparing the book.
National Programme Manager, School Health, Family Health Bureau, Dr. Ayesha Lokubalasooriya, explained that all guidelines, including international standards had been studied prior to putting the book together.
At the end of the day, Prof. Ashu Marasinghe, who chaired the meeting, requested the Education Ministry to review the book and submit their comments to the committee in a month. He also accepted documents submitted by Dr. Bandara, to determine a framework of standards when preparing books.
One can agree that culturally sensitive matters could be rephrased, but should several years of hard work, of government officials and other subject experts, who had contributed their time voluntarily, be thrown out, to please the notions of six men and their supporters?