Why should children know where babies come from?

  • Saving the children through sex education

By Nethmi Dissanayake

Child abuse is one of the most pressing social problems of our time, not just within Sri Lanka but globally as well. Like with many social issues, one strategy that can go a long way to limit the incidents and impact of child abuse is awareness and education. However, this is where things can get very complicated in a conservative society such as ours, where, unfortunately, even mentioning the word “sex” is an unthinkable taboo.

So where does that leave us with child sexual abuse (CSA)? Usually defined as a child being molested by an adult or an older adolescent for the purpose of sexual stimulation, CSA is covered in the Penal Code of Sri Lanka and includes statutory rape, incest, obscene publication or exhibition relating to children, soliciting a child, grave sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and sexual exploitation of children. Despite this legal protection, the taboo towards matters of sex and sexuality lead to many abused children staying silent out of shame, guilt, or the fear of being blamed. The lack of discussion on sexual boundaries also leaves many children not understanding that they have been abused, or what behaviour from an adult is inappropriate.

In this kind of an atmosphere, how do we approach a topic like sex education in a country like Sri Lanka? When would it be appropriate to provide sex education to children, and can it be guaranteed to avoid sexual harassment of children?

Comprehensive sexual (and sexuality) education, when done right, can be a key intervention to prevent not just CSA, but also intimate partner violence and sexual violence, as well as prevent unwanted pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

We don’t need to teach children about sexual intercourse to teach body safety: Milani Salpitikorala

Attorney-at-Law and Child Protection Force Founder/Executive Director Milani Salpitikorala

Speaking to Brunch, Attorney-at-Law and Child Protection Force Founder/Executive Director Milani Salpitikorala explained the connection between proper sex education, less child abuse, and the role parents play in protecting their children.

“The most common perpetrators of abuse are almost always someone close to the family or someone from the immediate family,” she said, which is why it is vital for parents to be vigilant and have a very strong bond with their child so that their child can open up to them.

“We don’t need to teach children about sexual intercourse itself to teach them body safety. There are many new methods, introduced and used worldwide, on proper body safety teaching methods. We need to catch up with the rest of the world and start with efficient early childhood development education that includes emotional intelligence and body safety,” she added.

Moving beyond just children, Salpitikorala stressed that it is also important for parents to talk to teenagers about sexual health and their changing bodies. “Parents must have the talk. It is very important for the safety of the child. It is also important for the parent or guardian to leave that space open for the child to ask any questions that concern them and create that friendly and safe space for the child to open up in. We also must understand that pre-teens and teenagers go through physical and biological changes to their bodily hormones and we must accept it, because it is a natural occurrence. We must accept, acknowledge, and be mindful about it.”

Speaking about how proper sex ed helps children and teenagers, Salpitikorala said an educated child is an empowered child who can protect themselves by speaking up when forced into abuse, violence, or exploitation. “In my personal opinion, programmes such as Think Equal should be implemented by the State. This programme taught children to learn to identify their feelings and be more empathetic. They learnt about emotional intelligence, caring for mother nature, etc.”

Salpitikorala concluded by explaining how implementing sexual health education in schools would benefit society as a whole. “It will reduce sexual frustration amongst possible perpetrators, it will help children identify instances where they may be put into a vulnerable situation, it will help relieve curiosity, and young people could practise safe sex instead of putting themselves at massive risk of unwanted pregnancies and STIs.”

Children must be taught their own body autonomy: Nadine Croos Co-Founder Nadine Croos Co-Founder Nadine Croos shared her thoughts on sex education, noting that in 2020, Sri Lanka saw 518 reports of sexual harassment involving children, 256 accounts of child rape, and 378 reports of grave sexual abuse. “And that’s only counting the reported abuse crimes. This, for the most part, means that a lot of CSA cases in our country go unreported because families would rather ‘save face’ in their community rather than address this heinous crime.”

Croos explained that this goes back to the taboo of sex, which stems from archaic Victorian narratives that are still enforced today, and while young generations are changing, with more access to more information, our different generational thinking patterns have not.

“This is why it’s important that we, as a society, learn to change in order to progress as a country,” she said, adding that this taboo around sex perpetuates abuse well into adulthood, especially for women and girls. “With our society placing the ‘virtue’ of virginity at the highest level, the majority of women and girls living in these communities are expected to bear the responsibility of ‘family shame’ even if it is a result of rape, while the perpetrators are free to continue their behaviour, unpunished for their crimes.”

Comprehensive sex education for children and teenagers would teach body autonomy, not just for children to know when they’re being abused, but also for young adults to discover themselves and what is safe for their sexual and reproductive health. “We need a cycle of consistent education offered by the school, state, or community organisations that engage parents, teachers, and young adults alike. By keeping children in the dark and not having an open dialogue about the awareness of sexuality, we create a space conducive to fuel archaic stigmas and taboos that increase the occurrence of sexual abuse,” Croos said.

“Who would you rather our young children get their information about sex from? A professional who will ensure they learn nothing but the facts? Their peers filled with misconceptions and even dangerous information? Or perhaps through internet mediums that are filled with unreliable information and false depictions of sex through harmful lenses? I believe having a carefully planned sex education programme is key; one that is relatable to us and one that takes into consideration our culture, history, and national identities as Sri Lankans,” she shared.

Sharing her opinion on what changes should come forth in our education system in regard to sex education, Croos said that in most schools, sex education is taught only from a biological perspective, if at all. Cross added: “Children learn about sex through a bodily functional point of view and that’s mostly it. A case in point is the recent grade 11 Health and Physical Education textbook, released by the Department of Education, which takes strides backwards by taking a stance of victim-blaming girl students, while we are made to feel sympathy for the male perpetrator.

“This hardly demonstrates the reality of the situation of what sex constitutes. In the US (for example), most children are required by their school to start sex education as early as sixth or seventh grade. They are also taught the importance of abstinence while educating them on safe sexual practices. This makes students more informed to make the right decisions for themselves.”

These are not dirty, dark secrets that should be kept hidden: Dr. Tara de Mel

Education Forum Co-Founder and former Ministry of Education Secretary Dr. Tara de Mel

Education Forum Co-Founder and former Ministry of Education Secretary Dr. Tara de Mel shed some light on the issues of our current education system in regard to sexual and reproductive health and the changes that need to take place. “The Sri Lanka school curriculum for grades six to nine includes material on sexual and reproductive health and many important aspects connected to the body under ‘Health Science’. Although I haven’t studied this in detail recently, I am told the content is good and that it is age-appropriate,” Dr. de Mel shared.

“But the problem is that teachers are reluctant to teach what’s in the textbooks. Some teachers are apparently embarrassed to teach certain sections, particularly in boys’ schools or in co-ed schools. Boys, in particular, aren’t apparently very receptive when these issues are raised, and they end up disturbing the class during sex education lessons,” she aded.

She explained that unless teachers teach all components included within the “sexual and reproductive health” theme comprehensively, including the traditionally “unmentionable” areas as per conservative Sri Lankan culture, children will seek answers to their questions from pornographic sites on the internet or similar unsuitable methods.

“Children, by nature, are curious about their body, their genitals, and the changes happening to them due to physiological hormonal changes, both during the formative years of adolescence and even before. Parents usually expect teachers to provide guidance on educating children when such changes happen and what to expect. Biological changes that take place during teenage years need to be discussed openly and objectively, in class. These are not dirty, dark secrets that should be kept hidden,” Dr. de Mel stressed.

Dr. de Mel recalled that a very good book was published a few years ago that dealt with sex education in a scientific and logical manner, but for narrow-minded and petty political reasons, its distribution was halted, highlighting that it is this type of activity that stands to jeopardise important initiatives taken in the education sector.

“Countries with admirable education systems in the East and West include sexual health into the curriculum from primary classes, in a very age-appropriate manner. This type of education will help children to grow up with a broad-minded outlook, and with a sound understanding on issues connected to gender, sexual differences, and evolution of sexual growth of both girls and boys, and the need for respecting peers of either sex. Understanding sexual growth and the attendant physical and emotional issues during those vulnerable years should be a core component of any education system,” she added.

Addressing the role family plays in healthy sexual development, Dr. de Mel explained that parents need to understand that children growing up during adolescence need to be cared for with extreme sensitivity, highlighting that an adolescent’s emotional changes are as important to understand as the significant physical changes taking place in the body. It is very important for parents to allow children to inquire about and discuss aspects connected to sexual issues and sexual growth without fear of judgement or ridicule.

She also spoke about the importance of addressing the issue of sexual diversity in school. “Understanding the sexual orientation of different people is very important. Teachers should educate children from a very young age on the importance of values like empathetic understanding, respecting everyone regardless of religion, race, caste, sexual preference/orientation, and without any discrimination, prejudice, or bias. Giving due recognition to LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning) communities and respecting everyone in school and society, irrespective of sexual and other preferences, are all extremely important.”

Speaking on the socioeconomic benefits of Implementing competent sexual health education at the school level, Dr. de Mel explained that a broad-minded education will nurture a population of young people with a worldview in keeping with 21st Century necessities. “Respecting all communities and understanding gender equality with sensitivity augurs well for any community.”

A lack of sexual knowledge goes hand in hand with a higher potential for being sexually abused, both as children and adults. Comprehensive sexual education that covers aspects likes consent and safe/unsafe touch also means raising children with a greater understanding of sexual abuse. Beyond protecting children from scary possibilities, responsible sexual education also helps children to develop a healthy positive body image and to feel more respect towards themselves and sexuality in general. It helps counter the sense of shame and taboo associated with our genitals, desire, and sexuality generally, and helps the people of the future grow into responsible and trustworthy adults.