Pre-marital sex is considered taboo by a Sri Lankan society that is deeply entrenched in cultural norms and values. Let’s face it – the older generation (inclusive of our parents) considers sexual relations are only for married people and even if they did not, they would like to believe that young people are not sexually active.
So we choose to not talk about sex. Why? Because there is a perception that teaching youth about sex is a means of encouraging them to engage in sex. I am not going to dwell on cultural prejudice or argue against long held social beliefs. However, I am here to start a conversation about sex.
Did you know that over half of the young people that participated in the National Youth Survey of 2013* (Sri Lanka National Human Development Report) were unaware of contraceptive methods? Also, 55% of young people from that survey had no knowledge of available Sexual and Reproductive Health (SRH) services close to where they live.
This leads to the obvious question. Why is there such a big disparity in young people being sexually active but having little knowledge in the actual science behind it?
Let’s start with the numbers.
These facts are taken from the recent United Nations Children’s Fund Survey*
Sex and Sri Lanka’s Free Health Policy
Sri Lanka’s free health policy has meant that we as a country have made great strides in improving the health of our citizens. If we were to compare our free health policy to other countries at a similar development level, the health indicators of Sri Lanka are pretty impressive.
However, we need to understand that although the right policy tools are in place, there are loopholes that have been overlooked or have been difficult to implement due to cultural sensitivity and social stereotypes.
Adolescents have little knowledge of reproductive health with only 50% showing awareness on the subjects of Sexually Transmitted Infections and HIV. Young people find it difficult to access information pertaining to Sexual and Reproductive Health (SRH)* (Source: National Youth Policy of Sri Lanka).There is also a sense of shame as well as an assumption of legal barriers to access of necessary services, if unmarried.
Conversation toward SRH should not be taboo. We should be able to openly discuss it, especially with young people as they are the group most at risk.
Grass root vs Policy
One of the key things that can be worked on is to improve school health programs and expand and strengthen physical and mental awareness. We need to ensure proper implementation of SRH education at school level. Also we need to continue these services as deemed appropriate to higher education sectors that include universities and technical and vocational training institutes.
Also vital is the building of capacity for health professionals and teachers who have the responsibility to teach the subject at schools to better respond to youth health issues.
Building of Life Skills
Enhancement of life skills is another area that should be looked into, especially on decision making and critical thinking for young people. This would go a long way in helping youth to avoid at risk behavior with a strong focus on safe sex and the use of contraception.
Lastly, we need to be honest with ourselves. Knowledge on Sexual and Reproductive health is a right because information on how our bodies work and what the consequences are if we don’t take responsibility for whatever choices we make, ultimately affects the social fabric of Sri Lanka.
The underlying issues of not being open about the subject, drives young people to look to the internet – namely pornography – and their friends for information that is generally not accurate. The lack of education also drives other social issues such as teenage pregnancies, abortion, abandonment of children born to mothers too young to look after them, Sexually Transmitted Infections and HIV, etc. This has a huge bearing on socio-economic and health indicators of the country.
Why the Conversation is Important
All of this can be alleviated to a large extent if the correct education tools are in place so that the right conversation can begin at the appropriate age and be carried on into adulthood. Cultural norms and values aside, there is nothing wrong with having access to knowledge that will shape the informed choices we make, and benefit our health and future in the long run.
So Sri Lanka, do you still think this is a conversation we should not have?