Why is the media important to facilitate a progressive dialogue around sexual and reproductive health in Sri Lanka?
The National Youth Health survey (2013) highlights that 50% of young people in Sri Lanka have limited knowledge about their sexual and reproductive health and rights. When young people don’t have access to accurate information and services on sexual and reproductive health, they are more vulnerable to coercion, sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancies.
In light of this, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Sri Lanka held a workshop to support media personnel to strengthen reporting and advocate for issues related to sexual and reproductive health, including the need for Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) in Sri Lanka. The workshop aimed to create awareness about CSE, to help educate the public that CSE goes beyond physical information, and its essence is to help young people to explore and nurture positive values regarding their sexual and reproductive health and rights. It provided an opportunity to highlight that CSE includes discussions about family life, relationships, culture and gender roles, and also addresses human rights, gender equality, and threats such as discrimination and sexual abuse. As CSE is somewhat of a taboo topic in Sri Lanka, it needs not only courage to breakdown myths and misconceptions, but also professional and technical knowledge on the topic.
What is CSE? Why CSE?
To help young people make informed decisions about their bodies and lives, comprehensive sexuality education plays an important role in protecting the health, well-being and dignity of young people. The concept of sexuality is not a simple one to define, it is definitely not only limited to biology, but a core dimension of being human which includes: the understanding of, and relationship to, the human body; emotional attachment and love; sex; gender; gender identity; sexual orientation; sexual intimacy; pleasure and reproduction. Sexuality is complex and includes biological, social, psychological, spiritual, religious, political, legal, historic, ethical and cultural dimensions that evolve over a lifespan. Hence, when it comes to comprehensive sexuality education refers to a curriculum-based process of teaching and learning about the cognitive, emotional, physical and social aspects of sexuality. It aims to equip children and young people with knowledge, skills, attitudes and values that will empower them to: realize their health, well-being and dignity; develop respectful social and sexual relationships; consider how their choices affect their own well-being and that of others; and, understand and ensure the protection of their rights throughout their lives.
However, it is found that there are many myths and misconceptions around CSE in Sri Lanka. This is where the media can play a pivotal role in challenging these misconceptions by taking the responsibility to educate parents, teachers and society about the benefits of age-appropriate comprehensive sexuality education for young people.
Let the data speak for itself
It is estimated that over a quarter of Sri Lanka’s population is youth. Every young person will one day have life changing decisions to make about their sexual and reproductive health as they transition from adolescence to adulthood, and this will include discussions about ‘sex’. While sexual and reproductive health is included in the school curriculum, challenges exist as many young people fail to get adequate information from the classroom due to various reasons, such as teachers being too shy and anxious to have an open dialogue about sexual and reproductive health and the lack of support from the senior management of the school to teach age-appropriate CSE to young people. As a result, with keen curiosity, young people are usually exposed to sexually explicit material through the Internet, social media and friends. These sources can provide unreliable and misleading information which increases their vulnerability to poor sexual health outcomes, including those related to HIV, STIs, early and unintended pregnancy and gender-based violence.
Debunking myths around CSE
At the workshop, Ms Ritsu Nacken, UNFPA Sri Lanka Representative highlighted: “The media is critical to any progress in changing attitudes and perceptions about comprehensive sexuality education”.
Indeed, just as how the recent topic on “Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)” stirred debate on various newspapers and magazines, the media is a powerful tool in forming and influencing public opinion, and it is meant to provide open space and freedom for discussion on sensitive issues, such as sexuality.
The workshop started off with an interactive quiz highlighting the myths and misconceptions about CSE in Sri Lanka. While many media personnel got the correct answers, some displayed inaccurate notions on issues related to gender equality, abortion and gender-based violence which were clarified during the session.
Following which, Sarah Soysa, National Programme Analyst on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights at UNFPA Sri Lanka highlighted: “Comprehensive Sexuality Education is the crossroads at which education and health meet. The media has an important role in generating national attention to advance CSE in Sri Lanka”.
Thus the media workshop helped debunk myths and misconceptions about CSE among media personnel, and secondly, clarified the content as well as the importance of CSE for young people in Sri Lanka.
Smriti Daniel: dilemma about reporting SRHR
Prolific journalist, writer and communication consultant, Smriti Daniel led a group discussion about whether sexual and reproductive health and rights is a ‘niche’ topic that does not apply to the wider population. She highlighted how SRHR is in fact closely linked to politics, economy, climate change and socioeconomic development. During the discussion, the media personnel stated the challenges they face both in their personal and professional lives when reporting about sexual and reproductive health.
Lack of technical knowledge on sexual and reproductive health and rights, as well as comprehensive sexuality education hinders one’s ability to report the story in a socially responsible manner. Undoubtedly, readers may chase after eye-catching headlines. What sells drives the journalists to sensationalize certain topics or even to compromise ethical reporting such as displaying misleading headlines and revealing private photographs or personal information of perpetrators and victims. Lastly, the presumption and stereotypes leads to filtering the truth.
As mentioned by one participant about the personal challenges they face when reporting information about sexual and reproductive health: "There's a disparity between what 'sells' and what's ethical”.
Another obstacle is the professional hierarchy where young journalists of entry level have little opportunity to report on culturally sensitive topics. Some reporters appear to be very cautious when reporting on sexuality as they fear negative comments by readers, stereotyping of their field of work and rumours of sponsored posts.
Anomaa Rajakaruna: the power of film
Director, editor, poet and photographer Anomaa Rajakaruna showed a popular teledrama to mainstream comprehensive sexuality education in Sri Lanka, which was produced 18 years ago. Interestingly, during the course of 18 years, she highlighted how nothing much has changed. Contraception, sexual and reproductive health and rights and comprehensive sexuality education are still considered taboo in Sri Lanka. In some parts of the country, men still have the final say and decision making power in terms of contraception, and women and girls don’t have the choice to make decisions about their sexual and reproductive health.
Every person has the power of choice. The power to decide if, when and how often to have children and the right to accurate information and services to make responsible and informed decisions about their sexual and reproductive health.
As highlighted by Anomaa,"Teledramas can be used as a powerful tool to challenge the myths and misconceptions around sexual and reproductive health. As media personnel, we have to push boundaries and advocate to advance comprehensive sexuality education in Sri Lanka”.
Concluding the workshop, Ms. Madusha Dissanayake, Assistant Representative of UNFPA, further reinstated how media censorship can affect the discussions about sexuality and sexual and reproductive health within families.
“The media can make the discussion about sex and sexuality more open and less taboo. The media can play a significant role in highlighting the rights and choices that young people have about their sexual and reproductive health”.
 In Sri Lanka, youth age category is defined from 15-29 years of age
 50% of Sri Lankan youth have limited knowledge about sexual and reproductive health (National Youth Health Survey, 2013)
 A study from the tea plantation sector found that 59% of participants were informed about sexuality and related information for the first time through friends and peers.
 Teenage pregnancies in Sri Lanka is at 5.2%, yet subnational disparities exist with a rate of 8-9% (Family Health Bureau, 2015)
 17% of ever-married women aged 15-49 have suffered from domestic violence from their intimate partner. The Kilinochchi and Batticaloa districts have the highest level of domestic violence (50%) and those with only primary level education reported 30% - the highest percentages of domestic violence (DHS 2016 )