A Condemn-Nation on condoms

Published on January 9, 2011   ·   1 Comment

By Vagisha Gunasekara

What happens when a young, single gal walks into a pharmacy in the suburbs of Colombo and blithely asks for a condom?
In a dangerous mood to amuse myself (and for the purpose of experimentation), I walked into a crowded suburban pharmacy and asked the salesman for a condom … yes, without stammering, sweating, or batting an eyelid.  All the customers around me -everyone from the pregnant girl to the elderly lady with arthritis, to the middle-aged man who was purchasing Vintogino for his backache – instantly turned their attention to me with varying expressions on their faces; the salesman’s reaction was priceless.
Snapping out of his state of shock, he consulted his counterpart on the other side of the store (conveniently planted near the sacred glass showcase that housed the oh-so-scandalous world of condoms) to expedite the sale.  In a tone so loud that heaven could hear, he shouted (in Sinhala), “Sarath aiye, may miss condom illanawa.”  Sarath aiya was equally horrified, as were the rest of the customers in the pharmacy.  I decided to take this experience to the next level when I felt the crowd inching closer to me.  I indulged them (and Sarath aiya) by asking explicit questions about the size, texture, color, flavor, and the quality of the condoms and sealed the deal by purchasing ten pieces, probably to the amazement of the mob.  As I paid and walked out of the pharmacy, I felt multiple pairs of eyes follow me to the car, as if tracing a criminal.  I wasn’t in the mood to guess all their assumptions about my identity, character, or virtue; rather a storm of questions were brewing in my head.  What are our perceptions about sex? What social messages regarding sex exist in our society? And how do these messages affect the masses? Very soon I realized that I had just opened a can of worms…

New age young

Ours is a society of contradictions and hypocrisy.  In the land of “gedara budun amma,” someone’s amma is subjected to domestic violence every single day (accurate prevalence: two out of every three Lankan women are subjected to domestic violence – Women in Need statistics).  Similarly, we have equally hypocritical perceptions on sex.  One the one hand, Lankans still believe in the prerequisite of a marriage license to have sex.  Pre-marital sex is social taboo and even the parents who are well aware of the    flourishing sexual activity of their unmarried offspring refuse to admit such ‘preposterous behavior’ associated with their children.  On the other hand, straight talk with new age youngsters or having a sharp observant eye around town (not only Colombo, but areas as far as Jaffna and Trinco) reveal a whole new world of underground sexual activity. It is equally confusing when the very individuals who chant “kamesumitchachara…” in the morning,  trot up to five-star hotels with their mistresses or lovers for nocturnal festivities.  Last ly we are a society that is averse to public dialogue on sex, reproduction, and rights of a woman to her own body, sex education in public schools, illegality of abortion, reluctance to raise awareness about STDs/STIs, and acknowledgment of burning issues such as teenage pregnancies.
On the other hand we currently face a myriad of social problems stemming from our reluctance to have any dialogue about sex and reproductive rights. Despite loud calls for abstinence, our teens are increasingly becoming sexually active, resulting in off-the-charts teenage/early pregnancy rates especially in rural areas.  Circulation of pornography is rampant in schools and heart-to-heart conversations reveal youngsters’ desires to give sex a test-drive after being inundated with all such sexist sexual imagery.  Moreover, prevalence of STDs/STIs are on the rise and back-alley abortions are being performed using bicycle-wheel spokes (… don’t believe me? Visit the RDHS office in Jaffna town on hospital road and find out for yourself). The Gender-Based Violence desk in the teaching hospital in Jaffna town reports back-alley abortions from at least two DS divisions in the last quarter and I came across many such cases in other parts of north and east Sri Lanka).

Puritanical perceptions
Pregnant with puritanical perceptions about sex, we face a serious dilemma in the face of such social problems.  On one hand we boast with great elan about what a pure, uncorrupted, and immaculate culture we have; while on the other hand, we fail miserably in upholding those very values that set us apart from the rest.  And throughout this aimless journey, how many futures have we compromised?  In other words, our lived realities reflect the double standards and the confusion that has engulfed, hampering our progress, and making our future bleak. So, how can we resolve such problems?
Solution I:  Abstinence.  Abstinence has long been the panacea advocated by religious groups.  Religious taboos aside, abstinence does carry some practical value.  Sri Lanka being a country where helpful information about safe sex and contraception is not readily available or accessible, teenagers and young adults are better off in practicing this first option.  Data from around the globe reveal that unmarried teen mothers are less likely to complete their secondary education, significantly restricting their access to high-paying careers and economic independence.  Moreover, abstinence may have some currency in a land such as ours due to the stigma associated with pre-marital sex.  But not for long.  Culture and perceptions are ever changing concepts.  Thus, we cannot expect the culturally sanctified abstinence argument to hold water in the age of the market where MTV and Playboy have more audience than CNN and Newsweek.  Clearly, an alternative must be sought.
Solution II:  Birth Control.  On the positive side, Sri Lanka has some readily available methods of contraception, such as condoms and oral contraceptives.  Abortion is illegal here (unless the mother’s life is in danger) and other methods of birth control such as tube ligations are less common.  The issue here is not the availability of contraceptives, but the availability of information regarding using contraception and attitudes towards this method of birth control.  How many family planning field workers have been chased away by concerned husbands for introducing “Mithuri”?  How easy is it for a woman to walk into a pharmacy and purchase condoms, birth control pills, or emergency contraception?  More importantly, how many youngsters are aware of the correct usage of oral contraceptives and benefits of wearing a condom during sex?  In order to disseminate this crucial information, dispel myths and change attitudes about birth control, awareness-raising must take place at the societal level.  How do we do that?
Solution III:  Sex Education.  To some extent, sex education is part of most teenagers’ lives in Sri Lanka.  Every O/L science text book has a very brief chapter on “male and female reproductive systems”.  Despite the glorious diagrams and the heightened curiosity of the hormone drenched teenagers, this chapter receives the least attention.  Unfortunately, the teacher conveniently breezes through the entire chapter, using technical jargon, almost implying that such organs do not really exist in us. It has been my experience that the one who questions at the end of this chapter will be judged and marked for life.  Instead of such superficial sex education, why not embark on developing a comprehensive sex education school curriculum that is both abstinence-based and informative about reproduction and contraception?  Such a school program, titled “Not Yet”, was started in the United States in the 90s; it advises students to postpone sex as the best way to avoid pregnancy but tells them how to use birth control if they do start.
In many ways, this is a call for reform.  We are in a post-war period, where we the people have a unique opportunity to recreate our social fabric.  While areas such as infrastructure are crucial for development   we cannot overlook the attitudinal and perceptual inconsistencies that lead to serious problems in our society.  To change, I’ll raise my glass.  Hope you will too.



Readers Comments (1)
  1. Blanc says:

    Laud what you did as a social experiment.. very awesome! Thats true of probably most Asia.. wonderful writeup.

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