It’s all about sex education, not about asking children to go have sex!

Point of view
An uproar over a book approved by the UK education authorities which certainly passes muster with the unprejudiced says Nanda P. Wanasundera

I write with regard to a news item on page 6 of the Sunday Times of November 7, by Leon Berenger, titled ‘Textbook controversies trigger official visits and legal action: Education Ministry officials will be calling at private international schools this week to inspect teaching material being used’.

I personally think they are wasting time and money when the education system of the country is in such a dire mess with no textbooks and material for teachers and students, and exams conducted in the most haphazard, if not dishonest manner. We read about these.

The Education Secretary, Sunil S Sirisena, threatens these “upmarket educational institutions (who) have had a free run for decades” …and that “All this will change once a national policy on education is established.” Absolutely good about the policy, but please see that our local education system follows policies and is improved, with so much to be improved before going into territory that is best left alone.

Text books can be corrected, withdrawn etc, but don’t be belligerent against these international schools which are doing a great service not only to expatriate children but to the locals as well. Is there a move against these institutions? A hidden agenda perhaps? We so lack tact and diplomacy, a nation of rushing bulls into china shops. And we are also so adept at killing the goose laying golden eggs. Remember the government’s near belligerence apropos GSP concession.

I cannot speak at all about the History and Geography books used in these schools. I have not seen them. But I most definitely can speak about the sex education book that has raised a hornets’ nest by a single complaint made by a former UNP parliamentarian, Dinesh D. Dodangoda to the National Child Protection Authority and the Chairman, Anoma Dissanayake, reacting as if there was indecent sex education in the school and every child above 12 years asked to go have sex.

The NCPA has of course slept through so much child abuse and rape and exploitation of underage children as servants. Very recently it was reported that every day three children are sexually abused. If the NCPA is so geared to save children why not turn to these poor kids and marginalized families instead of threatening a school like the Colombo International School which caters to foreign children and the rich locals who intend sending their children abroad to continue higher studies? Berenger’s article ends with this fact. “ …Dodangoda has filed legal action and even taken his child out of the school.” We hope the courts are free of prudes and prejudice. About the last statement we have heard otherwise!

I for one was doubtful about the outrageousness of the matter as it was to the parent and Chairman NCPA, and put it down to the now prevalent new order of the day: morality (only for the masses) and such strict values (pseudo). I suppose the child protector official who rose to a protest lodged with her by the parent deduced that the kids were all in danger of becoming immoral due to the book.

The Principal of CIS replied the accusation cum threat with calm reason. He said the said book was approved by education authorities in the UK and was given to students as young as 12 and 13 in schools in Britain. Isn’t that enough to allay fears and settle ruffled feathers? I am positive the UK education system is headed by far sighted, educated professionals. Whether in the UK or Sri Lanka, children are children and need guidance.

Many agree that sex education is needed since children now go about unchaperoned and have plenty of opportunities for being very close to members of the opposite sex. So they must be made to realize their natural desires and what it means to be growing up and how to deal with such matters and not get hurt or pregnant. Young ones may be enticed by older persons, so the young need to know about HIV Aids and other sexually transmitted diseases. It is much better to know, even though original telling may shock the young. Almost all kids will take sex education in their stride, more so because this type of education is undertaken by trained counsellors, health workers or mothers.

Sexual abuse of kids by teachers, principals and family elders would be halved if not totally eliminated if teachers and mothers had sex educated their children without being such stupid prudes, pretending children fell out of the sky without any act on the part of humans.

Controversial book

I know a thirteen year old girl student of CIS. I asked her about the book. Very matter-of-factly she said the book was given to her grade and the lower grade and she took it home and her mother saw it. That was all. No teaching from it; no requesting parents take over and go through the book with their kids. (More’s the pity I say!)

There’s absolutely nothing controversial about Introducing Moral Issues by Joe Jenkins published by Heinemann Educational. Both Dodangoda and Anoma Dissanayake must be unaware that Heinemann Educational is a most reputed, respected British and international publisher. The books they publish are refereed, I am sure. Dissanayake also seems not to have looked into the book or at least read a few chapters. Even a school library book is never banned because of one or a couple of protests. It is read by adults and the decision taken to remove it from the shelves or let it be taken collectively.

Many intellects have advised the author and/or been quoted by him in the book. Its back cover blurb says: “Introducing Moral Issues is an accessible and thought –provoking introduction to key personal and social issues for lower secondary pupils which explores spiritual and social responses to issues of right and wrong and life and death.”

So it really looks as if the Chairman/NCPA and the complaining, going-to-court parent cannot read English plain and simple without blackening what is written with their prejudices and inhibitions. Others may rise up and protest about religions being brought in. Please read the quotes on the major religions as I did. Knowing Buddhism and having studied Christianity, I read the quotations from these two religions. It’s faultless and no bias or twisting.

Some of the chapter titles are: ‘Meanings of life’; ‘Mysteries of life’; ‘Who am I?’; ‘Relationships’; ‘Friendship and loyalty’; ‘Animal rights’; ‘Bullying’; ‘Violence’; ‘Prejudice’. Among 46 such are those that roused the ire and horror of the two prudes I mentioned. The chapters are: ‘Making love’; ‘Abortion’; ‘Aids’; ‘Contraception’; ‘Drugs’. The chapters on these (to prudes taboo subjects) are very well written - scientific plus understanding – so that they inform and educate and I add, prepare the young readers for life ahead. Each chapter runs through two pages with quotations, discussion points and then explanations in plain lucid language. For example contraceptives are diagrammed and described briefly. If the book is read or an elder teaches from it, the idea of contraceptives will be taken in their stride and not made a fuss of by an early teenager. And here’s the AND. When the child who has gone through the book comes to the point of being in love and wanting to get physical, the child has gained fore-knowledge. It’s much better than going into sex and then being surprised at getting pregnant.

Much more can be written about the worth and value of the book and sex education per se, which apparently CIS has not timetabled. The book was given to the seventh graders to take home. So prudish parents and protectors of children, know your facts and cast aside self selected moral lenses and know that formal sex education gives much more help than shocks or ‘corrupts’ as we Sri Lankans say. The Chairman has suggested deleting certain chapters from the book. Not to be done at all.

Natural instincts in the young need to be tolerated wisely; the young made aware of what can happen to them or what they could do. Let not people from elevated positions direct morality. We know how much rot there is. Catch the murderers, the torturers, the drug dealers, the abusers of kids as young as nine years, the suppressors; not the vulnerable nor enlightened educators.

As I was writing this I was visited by two lecturers, one in a local university and one in London. They went through the book under discussion and approved of it and also insisted sex education is very necessary, starting with children as young as 12. I had a letter from a friend who said she was a pupil of Vembadi Girls’ High School Jaffna, and remembers clearly a ‘science of life’ course by the principal, Miss Elsie Scowcrift for fifth formers (SSC class), with one period a week set aside for this. ”She had huge posters of the reproductive organs and explained the process of puberty and the cycle of life” My friend says she was very young but unafraid as the principal assured them these were facts to be known. “In her wisdom, she would get younger girls from Hindu families to join us for this course as she knew they would be married off at 14 and 15 as was the custom in conservative Jaffna of that era. What foresight! As such Vembadi equipped us to face life head on. This was 60 years ago. I wonder what the NCPA would have to say to this.” I dare not imagine! Maybe the enlightened missionary would be accused of sex perversion!

You the reader, or more probably the NCPA Chairman and Mr D D Dodangoda may wonder what my credentials are in writing this piece. I am a liberal mother; was an understanding teacher working mostly with teenagers for twenty years; and was head librarian at the Overseas Children’s School (now Overseas School of Colombo) for nine years and a member of the Heads of Sections Committee. I was also trained and conducted conflict resolution workshops in rural schools while working in a human rights organization within the Law Faculty, University of Colombo. With my long experience of working with schoolchildren, I most definitely feel they need formal or informal sex education. By informal I mean answer their questions and for goodness sake not give them the idea that talking of birth control or making love is indecent and taboo. Kids are curious. So answer their questions rationally with no dodging or being censorious.

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