The introduction and implementation of Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) for young people in and out of school is making extremely slow progress in Sri Lanka, in an otherwise well developed education system, including a youth literacy rate of 97.7% (2008-2012, UNICEF). These delays are due to various reasons including conservative attitudes in society and among policymakers, cultural barriers, pressure from religious groups and leaders, and most importantly, lack of political will.
Results of such delays are hard to miss. Studies show that knowledge on SRH is poor among adolescents, who comprise 19% of the total population. The country has a National School and Adolescent Health Programme. The low level of SRH knowledge, the incidence of adolescent pregnancy (5.3% of registered pregnancies) and various other factors such as high levels of stigma and discrimination around HIV and incidence of gender-based violence and attitude towards women show that implementation of the programme is less than satisfactory.
It is in this context that it is interesting to note that in the past few years, there has been a propagation of various online platforms providing sexuality education. National and international NGOs produce these platforms, often in partnership with various state institutions. The latest such platform is being promoted as “Sri Lanka’s first self-learning comprehensive sexuality education website”.
The availability of accurate information on sexual and reproductive health (SRH) is never a bad thing but it is time we take a more critical look at these platforms in the context of state obligation to provide access to SRH information to young people, management of resources for CSE, lack of cohesion in sex education programming, access to the Internet (especially for girls), and privacy and protection of user data.
A comparison of the Happy Life website launched circa 2010 and the Road to Adulthood website launched in 2017 are as follows (while also acknowledging the presence and value of websites with more specialized information such as Act Now by CENWOR and with more rights-based and sex positive information such as Bakamoono by the Grassrooted Trust).
Happy Life is a collaboration between Family Planning Association (FPA) of Sri Lanka, IPPF, the Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA) of Sri Lanka and its e-Sri Lanka and e-Society programmes (the site also mentions funding by the UNFPA). Road to Adulthood is a collaboration between UNFPA, Y-PEER and Sri Lanka’s University Grants Commission which is set up under the Ministry of Higher Education. Both websites are trilingual, catering to Sinhala, Tamil and English languages. So far so good but a closer examination of the content in the two sites brings up questions about how the government is managing resources and the level of coordination between various state institutions.
While Road to Adulthood claims to be a CSE website, contains a self-learning component with quizzes, and covers topics such as gender and sexuality, reproductive health, contraception, STIs, HIV and AIDS and drug abuse, Happy Life covers these same topics more deeply and offers a much wider scope of content which includes abortion and post-abortion care, gender-based violence, types of counseling, and various methods of connecting with doctors and counselors such as telephone, SMS, email, online chatting and video conferencing. It is also interesting that although the scope of content and learning is very limited compared to a site like Happy Life, the completion of self-learning on Road to Adulthood qualifies users for a certificate endorsed by UNFPA Sri Lanka and the University Grants Commission.
Happy Life does not require signing up and the information is freely available for anyone interested. The site prioritizes the user’s confidentiality and the protection of their the privacy, and explicitly states so. Road to Adulthood requires the user to sign-up using an email address and indicate whether they are over 18 years of age. While signing up may be for the purposes of completing self-learning modules, it is disappointing that any other information and resources cannot be accessed without signing up either. What is even more disappointing and alarming is that despite the compulsory requirement of signing up, the site does not have a public policy regarding confidentiality and privacy of users nor does it indicate how the collected data will be stored, used and shared.
This comparison throws up several observations and questions that are framed under three areas below.
Sri Lanka has signed and ratified several international human rights treaties that have established state obligations to provide sexuality education to young people, in and out of school. NGOs have consistently been advocating to hold the state accountable to these obligations but progress has been very slow due to a lack of political will and conservative attitudes of policymakers. It’s heartening to learn that this year a teaching guide and a curriculum on Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) were launched, developed by the Ministry of Education in consultation with the FPA. The curriculum will be piloted for Advanced Level students (ages 17-19) in the Western province and later expanded to other provinces as well as students from Grade 6 upwards. While limited in scope at the moment, this is a positive development in line with the gaps in the existing curriculum of Life Skills based Health Education for middle school students.
However, the question remains why do state institutions have a history of showing greater willingness to launch online resources rather than accelerate the implementation of CSE within school curricula?
Are online platforms considered to be not as paradigm shifting as introducing CSE to the education system?
Is it an easy way out for policymakers to partially meet their state obligation without shaking things up?
Or is it a strategic move to reduce stigma around sexuality education and gradually introduce CSE to the school curricula?
The answers are not straightforward but it is important that we ask these questions.
Resource Management and Cohesion in Programming
The overlaps between online sexuality education platforms as well as the lack of imagination in the scope and presentation of information brings up questions around how the state manages available funding resources as well as the seeming lack of coordination in sexuality education programming in the country.
Why does the government allocate funds as well as approve projects for the duplication of existing resources and for the gatekeeping of resources?
Why are government institutions as well as national and international NGOs not aware of or disregarding existing resources and each other’s work? For an example, when websites such as Happy Life provide information without gatekeeping, why is the UNFPA and the UGC creating a new platform that is only for those above 18? Why isn’t there better coordination between ministries and government agencies to distribute funds more efficiently and minimize duplication and waste?
Are there no reviews and due diligence conducted before developing new platforms?
Why aren’t new resources expanding the scope of existing resources? For example, what about including specific information for people with disabilities? What about information on emerging and increasing phenomena such as online violence against women and girls including non-consensual distribution of sexually explicit media?
Internet Access and Right to Privacy
It is imperative that the propagation of online sexuality education platforms is interrogated in terms of access to the internet, especially for women and girls. While internet penetration is gradually increasing in Sri Lanka, it must be noted that as of 2016, the percentage of the population with internet access is only 29.3%.
Young people are not a homogenous group and their access to the internet is affected by a number of factors such as class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, abilities, urban or rural locality, etc. Challenges such as the high cost of devices, the high cost of connectivity, lack of infrastructure, conservative attitudes, cultural and religious restrictions and geographical location restrict young people’s meaningful access to the internet. Often a direct proportionality can be seen in the increase of women and girls’ access to the Internet and increase of violence against women online and many a time, rather than address the structural causes of violence, the possibility of violence is used as a reason to restrict access to the Internet and censor young people's, especially women and girls’, freedom of expression and right to bodily integrity.
This makes one question for whom the online sexuality education platforms are meant. Even when the information is available without any gatekeeping, several intersecting privileges have to be in place if one is to access that information, interact with it and seek advice and counseling. Therefore while the availability of this information online can benefit certain young people, it is imperative that the state acts imminently and effectively to implement CSE in and out of schools that has the potential to reach a greater number of young people, especially given Sri Lanka’s favorable education indicators.
An internet search in English, Sinhala and Tamil using queries around sexuality education (how to have safe sex, emergency contraception, homosexuality, etc.) shows dismal results when it comes to Happy Life and Road to Adulthood (the latter not being an open site makes it harder to be visible). Let alone the first page of search results, these sites don’t come up even beyond five pages. This leads one to pose serious questions to the state institutions, NGOs and INGOs behind these online sexuality education platforms.
What kind of monitoring and evaluation is carried out once sites are launched?
Are there efforts to improve and update content to suit the needs of users?
Why aren’t strategies such as search engine optimization used effectively to ensure that the sites are listed high in search results?
As mentioned in the comparison of the two sites, issues regarding confidentiality and right to privacy of users were apparent in the case of Road to Adulthood. In a country where sexuality education is still mired in stigma and more so for women and girls, there must be greater (or greatest) emphasis placed on the security of the data and personal information users share. State institutions and NGOs have to be transparent about how they are using the data collected through the sites and disclose security measures being implemented such as deleting data after a certain period. Unless these platforms create and present an environment that is conducive to young people fully and securely using the sites without fear of being stigmatized and harassed for their interest and curiosity about sexuality, the questions will remain: for whom and to what end is online sexuality education done in Sri Lanka?
While it is easy to applaud every initiative to disseminate SRH information, it is important that we engage in constructively critical and often difficult conversations. It is the only way we can constantly improve the design and prioritization of programs as well as the quality and scope of content. Most importantly, it is how we can hold the state accountable to its obligations towards young people.