Rape victim blaming in grade 11 textbook: Perpetuating dangerous folklore as scientific fact

 The thing with misconceptions and prejudice is that they beget more misconceptions and prejudices, and this cycle continues until and unless the root causes of these are addressed. However, in most cases, these issues come to light only after some dramatic incident, which is an outcome of continuing cultural practices that are neither sensitive nor sensible.

In the past few days, social media platforms were flooded with discussions on certain contents of the grade 11 Health and Physical Education textbook, which had focused more on the adverse impacts of rape and had portrayed that irresponsible behaviour of rape victims too can play a role in some rape incidents. The condescending manner in which the said parts of this textbook had discussed rape and unwanted pregnancies became a topic of discussion, as many considered that it amounts to victim blaming.


The controversial passage in the textbook

A prevalent reality


According to iProbono Equality Director Aritha Wickramasinghe, one of the persons who initiated a discussion about the above matter, said that victim blaming hinders victims from coming forward and speaking out, which in turn results in them not getting the justice they deserve.

He added that in most cases, they are afraid to speak out because they and not the rapist are likely to be blamed, and as a result, the rapist gets away with what they did.

“These types of situations create a system where criminals get away because the victims are not reporting crimes. So, essentially, this increases criminality and rape, and that is what has been happening all these years. Incidents of rape are increasing day by day, because we are not holding the rapists accountable because we have told the victims that it is their fault,” Wickramasinghe told The Morning.

He added: “Victim blaming is very prevalent in Sri Lanka. Most often, especially when women are raped, we comment on how women dress or about them being in the wrong place. We always focus on the victims, and blaming starts in schools, where the government textbook tells victims that they are also to blame. Therefore, this is a social and cultural conditioning which is taking place in schools. We have seen this because we are not holding rapists accountable and we are not sending them to jail or teaching boys and girls as to what consent is. This has in turn created a rape culture, and the contents of the education system are actually a very good example and evidence of how the education system is responsible for creating this situation,” he added.

When queried about education and victim blaming, Wickramasinghe added: “We do not have comprehensive sexual and reproductive education in schools. When it comes to the biology textbook, teachers tend to avoid teaching the little there is on reproduction and the reproductive system. Teachers must be mandated to teach the minimum that is already in the textbook. Also, that subject needs to be expanded so as to ensure that the students are given comprehensive sexual and reproduction-related education. That should include teaching about consent, respecting each other, respecting bodies, respecting choices, and also sexual orientation.”


Victim blaming and patriarchy


Meanwhile, Hans Billimoria of The Grassrooted Trust, an organisation advocating for proper sexual and reproductive health, rights, and education, among others, said that victim blaming is a result of a patriarchal social structure.

“The ‘asked for it’ culture, or the victim blaming culture is something that is reinforced repeatedly by the way we bring up our children,” he said, adding that in Sri Lanka, girls are brought up to understand that they could be victims, but boys are not brought up to understand that they can be perpetrators.

He added that even though the discussion on rape and victim blaming is centred on girls and women, a person of any gender can be a victim or a perpetrator.

Billimoria added: “If we look at the discussion around virginity for example, you need lessons in the health science textbook to discuss the basic sexual and reproductive health. If you take virginity and the hymen, that in itself is a misnomer, because the hymen cannot in any way prove virginity, because there are different types of hymen, where some girls are even born without a hymen, and depending on the hymen, there may not be any bleeding during the first time of having sex. So, even positing the hymen as this mythical symbol of virginity in itself is problematic. So, stemming from that, the way we bring up our children to understand about their bodies and to react to their bodies, feeds into the culture of victim blaming. Also, due to the victim blaming culture seeing women as immoral, if a girl is raped, sexually abused, or somehow becomes a victim of any kind of sexual violence, the first questions that are always asked from her include what was her behaviour, and what did she do to encourage what happened, and these include what she was wearing, the way she was walking, the language she was using, and whether she had used alcohol or cigarettes. So, again, this emphasises the importance of looking at the nature and qualities of a girl and a boy that we promote.”

According to Billimoria, for Sri Lanka to overcome this, health and physical education textbooks need “to be completely revamped and relooked at. What we need is six basic concepts about which our children need to learn; they are respect, consent, empathy, trust, how we build children’s self-esteem, and how we teach children to be sensible. Any health and physical programme needs to necessarily include those six concepts”.

“If we teach children to value themselves, first of all, when it comes to respect, we have to go beyond the power dynamics. We have to go beyond respecting someone who has more power, because respect in this country is often reduced to the power dynamics. We are taught to respect those with more power; but that is not what needs to happen. First we need to teach our children to respect themselves and we need to define what respect and value are. If you ask children, they will tell you whom to respect such as parents, teachers, the country, the flag, and the clergy; but, we can always see that respect is an outward and upward motion and that there is no valuing of self. If you take a look at sexual violence, according to a 2016 United Nations’ Population Fund (UNFPA) study, over 90% of women have faced some kind of sexual harassment in public transport. Now, this points to a gross violation of agency and the space of the girls and women, and there is also a complete lack of understanding on what consent is. So, this is why consent is integral in any kind of education programme, so that in the end, victim blaming does not come into play. If a sexual relationship is consensual, and if our young men, who are perpetrators in most cases, understand what consent is, then you will find that you cannot really victim blame either, because then there are two consensual people involved,” he added.

Speaking further on the concept of victim blaming, he added: “First and foremost, we should not be saying that the victim is responsible for it; that is just idiotic. The only person that is responsible for rape is the rapist, and it is not the victim who is responsible for such an incident. There is no justification to rape any person based on what that person wears, how that person behaves, or whether that person is drunk.”

He added that the message that is given to young people that the victim is somehow always to blame for rape, makes the perpetrator have a sense of entitlement that if a girl behaves in a certain way, she is fair game and that she is at fault. This kind of message has had deep detrimental psychological effects on victims, and also it lets young men down by giving them a message that it is okay to do it if a girl behaves in a certain way, according to Billimoria.

He also stressed that legal provisions available to address incidents of sexual abuse need to be reformed.

He explained: “Even though I am speaking within a gender binary, man and woman; rape goes beyond men and women. In Sri Lanka, even the legal definition of rape is limited to penile and vaginal intercourse, implying that a woman cannot be anally raped, because the classification of rape does not cover that. In other countries, any orifice that is violated, be it mouth, anus, or vagina, these are covered by the definition of rape. Even if one uses some object to do that, that is also covered by the definition. So, even our laws need revisiting to have a broader definition of rape to make sure that those who are violated in this way have legal recourse, and we also have to strengthen response mechanisms in the country. Owing to the culture of victim blaming, victims are reluctant to go to the Police. The response mechanisms we have in the country are incredibly poor. All of this is part of the victim blaming culture. The textbook could be a beginning, but we need to teach our children these things.”


The cover of the grade 11 textbook

Root causes


According to feminist activist Sharanya Sekaram, victim shaming is a result of a cycle which passes prejudicial ideologies about the matter on to the next generation. She added that when a person is young, he/she believes what they are taught and that becomes a part of their value system. “Due to this, the culture of victim blaming is inculcated in every part of the society,” she noted.

She added that even though there has been a lot of online hysteria about the matter concerning the said textbook, that attention however needs to be directed in the right direction. She added that the society needs to understand that those who are drafting the textbooks are also coming from the same society that they are coming from, and have therefore been exposed to the same types of ideologies which shape their opinions.

“I think that this has a huge influence on children due to several reasons. Nobody questions as to why we send children to school; however, when it comes to health and physical education, suddenly the conversation changes. I think that the online hysteria about this matter is a little misguided because we are not going to the root causes of this issue. Firstly, health and physical education is seen as an unwanted subject, and parents have started reading this book only now. Had this been in a book considered by parents to be important such as science, this might have been changed a long time ago. I think that the anger about this textbook is misdirected, because we do not look into the system in which these books are created. Everyone is attacking the Ministry of Education but in fact it is the National Institute of Education (NIE) that develops our textbooks. There is a group of officials who actually write the textbooks in the NIE. We need to go and work with these textbook writers because they are coming from the same patriarchal society that the rest of us are coming from. A small margin of us have had the opportunity to have a different kind of exposure to rethink these issues; but those who are working at public institutions have not received a training or the ability to think about what they are writing, so it is unfair of us to attack them so heavily without offering any kind of solution,” she explained.

She added that there are also victories concerning textbooks that have been won over a period of time, and that one such example is the contents on the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) which, after being revised, is now quite comprehensive.

“In addition, we have to pay attention to teacher training. We can have excellent content in textbooks, but, the majority of what is in health and physical education are not taught properly. Teachers lack skills to teach it. It is absolutely imperative that we change the textbooks; but, there is a need to fix the system and the NIE, so that the NIE has free-thinking textbook writers who are able to think openly,” she noted.

Victim blaming takes place when the victim of an unpleasant incident is held responsible for what happened to them. In some cases, especially when it comes to rape incidents, victims are sometimes blamed for encouraging offenders, and due to this, rape is sometimes seen as a reaction to a provocation, which hinders the process of getting justice for victims.

Members of society have a responsibility to be responsible, and being responsible members of society involves contributing to ridding society of social ills.