By Dimithri Wijesinghe and Chenelle Fernando
Taboo Sri Lanka 2019 was held at Trace Expert City on 26 January from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. where audiences were invited to “discuss the undiscussed”. The event was the product of a partnership between Pulse and AURA India.
Director and CEO of AURA India Siddharth Ganeriwala said: “It’s been nine months in the making, and in just that short amount of time we put together this conference, we liaised with Pulse to bring together this amazing group of panellists.”
Taboo Sri Lanka Curator Aanisha Cuttilan spoke of how they’ve witnessed a gap when it came to certain topics that habitually phase out of discussion. She said: “Taboo was the first step forward when it comes to breaking the stigma surrounding anything from mental health to premarital sex. We hope to do more in the future and to hopefully break more taboos to create a healthier society.”
When asked about why it is that this is being conducted in English Siddharth said: “When we did some digging back in India what we found out was that the middle to upper middle class are a group that really tend to brush things under the rug, and they were also a readily available class to educate. The new liberals may appear to be open-minded, but many of them do not have a deep understanding of these issues.”
The attendees were in for a treat, as we were able to witness a number of activities apart from the panel discussions that took place. The taboo tree, the taboo crossword, the experience hall alongside delectable food stalls added to the entire experience. We personally found that the open mic session was the perfect ending to a successful day of awareness and discussion.
Here’s what we checked out at the event.
Wrap-it-up: Panel Discussion in contraception and premarital sex
- Family Planning Association (FPA) Thushara Agus
- FPA Medical Director Dr. Harishchandra Yakandawala
- FPA Director Public Affairs Sonali Gunasekara
The discussion started out slow considering the audience was still in a sleepy haze at 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning, however, considering the topic, the energy picked up considerably as it moved into the more risqué dialogue on sex for pleasure vs. sex for procreation.
An incredibly nuanced perspective usually avoided by people – Sri Lanka’s tradition of celebrating young girls attaining age, then followed by absolutely disallowing them to explore the entire concept of sex: “When a young girl attains age, it is announced to the world that they are now ready to be a sex object, this celebration is actually a sexual ceremony,” said Dr. Yakandawala.
The debate also shed some light on an interesting stance taken by the government with regards to sex and also contraceptives. Sexual education still remains biological and clinical, and there has been a push for more; there exists a two day private programme for students just after A/L which according to Sonali Gunasekara: “Is not much, but it’s something.”
Sonali further revealed that when it came to contraceptives, many women discreetly approach FPA to purchase them and many of the men, their husbands, are unaware of it, she said: “There is not enough openness about this, there is a general feeling and unease as we find it difficult to admit that we are having sex.”
The question and answer session had school children attending the event, ask truly candid and relatable questions like: “You speak about cultural norms being the problem, but how do we actually go about combating that?”
Sexually transmitted diseases, and getting tested: A guide
- The positive women’s network/National STD/AIDS control programme Princy Mangalika
- National STD/AIDS control programme Palitha Vijaya Bandara
This discussion was conducted entirely in Sinhala, in contrast to the rest of the panels was heartfelt and proved to resonate with many of the attendees from outstation.
Princy Mangalika spoke candidly, and it was truly engrossing how she has shared her story about living with HIV and the societal prejudice she has been subject to over the years, despite having contracted HIV from her husband who shortly after being diagnosed himself, committed suicide.
Princy said: “My house was set on fire by our neighbours at one point, and I had to pull my children out of school.” These were the things she had to deal with as a person living with the disease.
Palitha, speaking about how the misconceptions surrounding AIDS and HIV are quite rampant in the country to this day, said: “I saw just last week, a board at the Veyangoda Police station that read AIDS is deadly, in 2019 this was something that I had to see.”
The two panellists proceeded to educate the public on how modern medicine has come so far that there’s medication that combats the virus so efficiently that it is no longer a death sentence.
Attendee Lahiru De Silva said: “Sri Lankans tend not to have this conversation, and it’s even rarer outside of Colombo, so this was a good idea and it’s been well put together. But I do wish there was more time allocated for questions, because many of us are ignorant in these topics.
This panel was most definitely one of the best ones, it was conducted entirely in Sinhala which was amazing and what was needed because let’s face it, the English speaking Colombo crowd, most of them at least maybe via the internet or other means are quite educated and aware, but those outside that line are totally in the dark.”
Not your nangi: Street harassment hurts
- Not Your Nangi Nabeela Yasseen
Not Your Nangi is an awareness platform that encourages victims to share their experiences which will be shared through their Instagram page subsequently. Nabeela Yaseen, Founder of the movement conducted this particular session to enlighten guests on the complexities and the gravity encircling the ordeal at hand.
Whilst Nabeela wishes to fuel the cause on full force starting February through various activities, she has over the past individually conducted educational workshops through ‘Not You Nangi’ to educate students on what sexual harassment is.
The objective is to make people aware and understand the spectrum along which these experiences take place.
She added: “It’s not just sexual harassment, but everything that entails sexual violence, it’s not just catcalling, be it a five year old whose sister saw someone reach into her underwear, to someone’s gardener who touched their breast because their mother wasn’t around, so people would understand the ways in which sexual violence would take place, to see how prevalent and rampant it is.”
Flying the rainbow flag: Panel discussion on homosexuality and gender identification
- Actor and author Brandon Ingram
- Iprobono Sri Lanka Country Representative Aritha Wickramasinghe
This session started off really interesting, with the moderator stepping out into the audience and asking people about their perceived opinions on homosexuality. In the process, he invited on stage a young female to male trans individual.
To get the ball rolling, Brandon shared a heartfelt anecdote about his coming out story, having been brought up in a strict Christian household and how one day he heard a sermon that said that homosexuality is a sin, following which he went home and proceeded to get on his knees and “prayed so hard” wishing that he should have been born a girl, so that liking boys would be okay.
Aritha too shared how the most important advice he could give is that we are gifted one life, it is our duty to live it for ourselves, and nobody else.
There was also an interesting discussion on religion and homosexuality, where the panellists shared how Sri Lanka being a Buddhist country, it shouldn’t be frowned upon at all as the five precepts only refers to sexual misconduct and there is no reference to homosexuality in the Pali canon.
Domestic violence and gender-based violence: Conceptualization & legal advice
- Attorney-at-law Harshana Nanayakkara
- Artist Yasodhara Pathanjali
- Shevon Fernando
Violence that takes place over a domestic setting is never a good thing, and is swept under the carpet by many for one of the most obvious reasoning of it being taboo. Many women who are required to undergo these harrowing experiences stay quiet due to the societal stigmatisation and prejudices that cling onto these victims.
Harshana Nanayakkara, a lawyer who has been handling cases of such nature for a while, spoke of how it’s considered taboo for victims of domestic violence to come forward and raise their issues. Whilst talking about how Taboo created an ideal platform through the panel discussion for those involved in domestic violence, he attributed the grassroots of the issue to the social and cultural stigmatisation.
“Culturally and socially, the victim feels that she has committed something wrong, hence they don’t come forward and culturally there are things we could do to improve this,” he added. We learnt that despite the support provided by the legal framework by way of the Domestic Violence Act 2005, people still limit themselves. Nevertheless he went on to touch on how the law itself could be more effective.
This, could for instance, be evidenced by the lack of laws governing the offence of marital rape right here in Sri Lanka.
Yasodhara Pathanjali, a local artist sharing her story noted that, growing up in England she was a victim of domestic violence. Standing up for what’s right, for the greater good makes her story a rather inspirational one to all women who have had to encounter similar experiences in life.
She spoke of how the notion of standing up for herself made her appear as an attention seeker. She disapproves of those innate notions that require a woman to remain in a stagnant setting despite her unhappiness, for the greater good of the children. This, she says, is a wrong attitude as children are vested with the tendency to pick up on these awful traits subconsciously, only to see its effect later on in their lives.
Cyber Bullying and the Sri Lankan nude photo culture
- The Grassrooted Trust Sharanya Sekaram
Re-evaluate respect was the message. In a dynamic session conducted fantastically by Sharanya, she discussed the prevalence of the nude photo culture, which is no longer referred to as revenge porn as according to her: “It is not always for revenge, and it’s not porn because porn is consensual.”
She referred also to how the perpetrators may be brought to justice, but the victim is often ignored, the consequences they suffer remain unaddressed.
Further, referring to how these acts of indecency are committed against women because of our archaic and patriarchal culture, she said: “The patriarchy is upheld by both men and women,” revealing damning evidence to support it; statistics showed that over 60% of women believe that they deserve to be verbally or physically abused.
Sharanya further branched out to discuss unfortunate and alarming school trends, where young girls discuss having: “Safety pins and or compasses, so they could use them on gropy pervy passengers on the bus.” Which really is troubling and the solution is to teach our young children to learn what is appropriate and how to respect one another.
Chamath Alwis, an audience member: “The most important thing is to have these conversations outside of Colombo, but for a first time effort this is great, with a fantastic line-up of speakers and topics.”
Boys will be boys
- Voices of Humans Founder and Managing Director Kapila Rasnayake
This session took place towards the end of the programme. As per the norm, you’d expect for the session to slow down, but this particular went far beyond our expectations. Kapila Rasnayake with his dynamic approach taken on stage was successful in grasping everyone’s attention in no time, despite it being bilingual. Having completed his masters in Sociology from the University of Kerala, Kapila is a community and social worker with a wealth of expertise in rights based advocacy and working with marginalised groups.
He stressed on the rifts of the socialisation process, and what it means to be responsible towards the moulding of the ideal man. As per the social expectation, to be a man is to violate rights, to control someone, to not be human, to not be emotional, to take care of everyone else instead of yourself, and quite possibly the creation of a power relationship.
“I try and challenge these stereotypes, to create a space where men can ideally question and challenge their role for their personal development and whether they should stay within those social constructs.” One must currently take full responsibility over their mental health, to take collective and shared decisions with the aim of harnessing a human relationship.
Kapila then went on to attribute the reason for the recent resurgence of this movement, to the number of human development programmes that take place daily. He said: “Without changing men’s attitudes, we can’t achieve equality; therefore sometimes we should work with men separately. Men and women have differed socialisation patterns, hence their socialisation is different. Otherwise, programmes could have been conducted in similar platforms.”
Breaking the taboo around feminism: A panel discussion
- Oxfam Sri Lanka Sheshadri Kottearachchi
- Selyn Selyna Pieris
- The Grassrooted Trust Sharanya Sekaram
Feminism is a topic subject to debate by both sexes, and what better way to address the matter than to sit through an eye opening session that examined what this perception truly entails? Contrary to popular belief, we were impressed by Oxfam Sri Lanka Sheshadri Kottearachchi. She said that as an audience we are required to acknowledge the notion on how we tend to sweep through the struggles faced by women outside the metropolis on the daily.
“This doesn’t mean that we hold back from the conversation, rather that we understand the sensitivities of feminism and the many layers affecting it,” she said. True enough, there exist certain individuals who negate this through avoidance, however according to Sheshadri: “Many of us are able to speak up and succeed the way we do today, because women and men before us have spoken up/acted against damning patriarchal norms.”
Zero waste menstruation: Demo and discussion
- Happy Bleeding Nadeesha Paulis
Nadeesha introduced the eco-friendly and endlessly convenient “menstrual cup”, a neat little tool made of medical grade silicon.
The impressive list of pros really intrigued the audience and this was an interestingly eye-opening conversation, speaking about the many positives she said: “It’s non irritable and is inserted inside the vagina during each cycle. Since the blood accumulated within the cup has very limited exposure to air, it will leave no odour.”
When acquiring your own cup Nadeesha said she prefers the ‘Boondh cup’ and emphasised on the fact that not only has it been subject to research and testing, but it also comes in one size that fits anyone.
Taking care of your Mental Health: Panel Discussion
- Author Nathali Devinka
- CCC Line Ranil Thilakaratne
- Footsteps to Freedom Nivendra Uduman
During this session, key focus was placed on ‘Taking care of your mental health’ and the level of mental health awareness currently prevalent in the country. It further entailed how we as a community could collectively contribute with the removal of the mental health burden to support one another.
Listening without judgement was stressed on, and also how family and community support is really important for people to recover from mental health problems.
The audience was able to understand how mental health is just as vital as physical health. Taking care of it acts as an imperative notion to be able to lead healthy and productive lives whilst contributing to our families and communities. “I believe that Sri Lanka as a country requires a focus on life skills, conflict resolution and emotional regulation,” added Nivendra Uduman, Counsellor and Founder of Footsteps to Freedom.
Considering rural gap, he spoke of how mental health awareness is required to be taken to the grassroots, the heart of the country and not just benefit a selected faction.
Whilst there appears to be an increase of numbers in terms of people seeking for mental health, Nivendra said: “there is a stark difference in how the stigma and shame surrounding mental illness affects people living in rural Sri Lanka.” He added how as a community, we must stay active and passionate about the change we wish to see in our country. He said: “It all begins with a conversation and a hard look at yourself. Don’t just talk. Listen.”
Ending corporal punishment: How and why
- Stop Child Cruelty Chairperson Dr. Tush Wickramanayake
Dr. Tush Wickramanayake who was brought up in England happens to be the forerunner that bears awareness to the cause. According to Article 43 of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, general comment no 8 defines corporal punishment as any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light.
We learnt that presently in Sri Lanka, there seems to be no methodology pertaining to this phenomenon unless it has rendered grave injury to the victim. In the event of a traumatising experience, it’s quite unfortunate to note how despite the undivided attention afforded to the child, there appears to be no emphasis placed on examining the pressures and frustrations of the perpetrator that led to the act.
Experience Hall: Book Bees, Children’s Book club
This unique session for children focused on their take on gender stereotyping. According to Maria Jayakody, these stereotypes tend to set boundaries on what both girls and boys think that they can do.
Considering this age group, Maria stated that they aren’t aware of the messages they receive from social media and society in general. She said: “So today, it’s not telling them that they should break the stereotype or that they should behave in a certain way, just to make them aware and to be critical of the messages that are made to them through media and essentially to question them.”