On the 21st of January 2016 the Daily News published ‘Wariyapola Hit by HIV’ – a news report outlining that “The Kurunegala district has the second largest number of HIV infected cases among all districts in the country and of them, the majority has been reported from Wariyapola.” The article was apparently the result of an Awareness Programme conducted by consultant Aruna Shantha Ratnamalala of the Wariyapola MOH Office at the Minuwangoda Bodhirukkarama Viharaya. No date was specified. MOH consultant Ratnamalala is reported as stating that “a child is sexually active between the ages of 10 to 12 although he or she is not mentally strong to enter marriage.” Ratnamalala underscores the vulnerability of the child by further stating “various sexual inducements are made to them through certain print and electronic media. There are nearly 50 hotels in Wariyapola which rent out rooms for couples”. The news report concludes with the statement “The revealing attire by certain females also tempts males to engage in sexual activities promoting the spread of STDs.” It is not clear if this concluding statement was made by Ratnamalala, or whether it is the view of the Wariyapola Group Correspondent.

The Grassrooted Trust, an organization that works on education and awareness around HIV, Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, Gender and Violence related issues, has two questions to address to the Ministry of Health (MOH), which coordinates our HIV response via the National STD/AIDS Control Programme (NSACP).

We also invite input from UNAIDS Sri Lanka, who work on media sensitization around HIV, and/or any agency that has the specific mandate and/or have received funds to sensitize/make aware the media on how best to report on HIV related issues. Global Fund Primary Recipients (PRs), Sub Recipients (SRs) and Sub-Sub Recipients (SSRs) – often comprising of community based organizations made up of key populations and those vulnerable to the spread of HIV – in particular, are invited to share the very real challenges they face in making sure negative stereotypes are not reinforced by indolent media coverage.

Do MOH consultants receive adequate training on gender?

If the concluding statement was in fact made by the MOH Consultant, blaming women for the spread of STDs is patriarchal, ignorant, and primitive. The “revealing attire” argument has been debunked repeatedly in recent time with reference to rape, both in Sri Lanka and the region. The latest available police statistics (2014) in Sri Lanka indicate that the highest numbers of rape occurred in Ratnapura (138) and Anuradhapura (133) where “revealing attire” is by no means a norm. Possibly the opposite is true in these regions, but then as the police have not gathered evidence as to length of dress, or position of sari (above or below naval) from victims of rape and incest, conjecture in this regard would be futile. What is insidiously different here, however, is that women are labeled vehicles of disease, they are the perpetrators – “promoting the spread of STDs” – not the victims. We suggest that perhaps MOH Consultants receive clear guidelines on how to interact with the press, so that ill-conceived statements of this nature are avoided in the future. We recommend the additional benefit of gender sensitivity training that a myriad of government and non-government agencies would be more than willing to offer on request. If no agency can be identified, The Grassrooted Trust offers our services, voluntarily. No charge.

If children aged 10 to 12 are sexually active in the Kurunegala district, do we not have a desperate need for comprehensive relationship/sex education in Sri Lanka?

We suggest that the inability to effectively implement the existing Health Science curriculum may have, in fact, led to these children being sexually active at such a young age. The incomprehensible aversion to the existing Health Science curriculum may also have, in fact, led to 23 students contracting HIV in 2015, and 22 in 2014 (NSACP, June 2015). In fact, the valiant efforts of curriculum development experts at the National Institute of Education (NIE) have proven futile due to the reluctance of teachers to teach approved content.  It appears that a misplaced sense of shame and culture are the obstacles to learning. According to the recently published Country Profile on Universal Access to Sexual & Reproductive Health:

“Teachers are reluctant to discuss these topics in the classroom due to cultural inhibitions.”

“Attempts to introduce concepts on this subject [reproductive health] have been resisted by certain school principals, teachers, administrators and parents. Objections are on grounds of cultural sensitivity. [They] contend that the magnitude of the problem is not that high and in any case discussion of issues on sexuality may exacerbate promiscuous behavior…”

– Country Profile, Universal Access to Sexual & Reproductive Health (2015), pg 10

The fear of exacerbated promiscuity due to scientific information received in a classroom environment juxtaposed against the fact that Sri Lanka led the world in googling sex related content from 2011 to 2014 illustrates that this is an irrational fear, which ignores the reality on how our young people access information today. We need to balance out the explicit noise i.e. “various sexual inducements” they encounter online with a sensible approach in the classroom.

Furthermore, the MOH Consultant will have at least anecdotal evidence to substantiate the claim of sexually active children aged 10 to 12 in the Wariyapola area. We hope. We also hope that this, and other evidence like it, will be submitted by the Ministry of Health to the Ministry of Education, with an urgent call to arms:

  1. Train teachers to deliver the existing curriculum effectively.
  2. Form a task force to look into drafting a comprehensive, age-appropriate and culturally relevant Relationship Education programme for schools that build on existing curricula and underscore the values of self respect, respect for others, and respect for difference.

The recent fallout over the sharing of naked pictures by young people; the misplaced and betrayed trust, the blackmail, the extortion, the violence, the lack of negotiation skills i.e. learning to say no, the utter dependence on often transient teenage relationships i.e. I will love you forever, the shame, the emotional trauma,the cold blooded exploitation by young school boy perpetrators – these are all indicative of our broken system. We have the tools to fix it. UNESCO developed a tool kit for our region in 2011. Do we have the will?

The Grassrooted Trust believes that education based on science and fact, in an open and supportive environment, will help our young people be more sensible in their dealing with each other and the world around them. Give them the opportunity we never had. Give them Relationship Education.

[email protected] / FB: Grassrooted / www.grassrooted.net