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(This piece first appeared for a fortnightly column entitled 'The F Word: Lets Talk Feminism and Gender' that I am writing for The Weekend Express of News Express Ltd)
On the 28th of February and the 1st of March at Cinnamon Lakeside, The British Council hosted the annual Schools Now! conference under the Partner Schools Global Network banner. This involves the gathering of education leaders from around the world for two days of sessions, key notes, seminars, and discussions. The goal is to encourage thought leadership in the education sector through interaction, the exchange of ideas, and collaboration; and the focus for 2017 was ‘life beyond school’.
On the morning of the second day, Hans Billimoria (Director, The Grassrooted Trust) delivered the opening key note entitled, ‘Cyberspace Risks: A Sri Lankan Story’. For about an hour, Hans took the audience through Grassrooted’s journey grappling with Sri Lanka’s ‘nudes’ culture (i.e. the sharing of naked pictures and videos between partners and now subsequently a wider audience), based on discussions around cyber exploitation with students, parents and teachers in urban and rural Sri Lanka. This culture has now escalated from this material being circulated around and the girls being blackmailed for more images, to the images and video’s being contributed to the global pornography industry. To quote Hans “Photographs intended exclusively for their boyfriends, are now public masturbation material”. In an article written on the subject, he describes “With a burgeoning home-based porn industry, with girlfriend porn and hidden camera porn being popular categories, perpetrators soon transitioned to selling/uploading nudes and videos to porn sites. Google Sri Lanka naked girls or Sri Lanka porn for evidence. Popular porn site xhamster.com now has a Sri Lankan category. Complete with a little flag icon. All these are filmed on a smartphone or webcam. In a struggling economy, a few dollars help. Not all parents can afford to give their kids pocket money. Young people need to be industrious”. The article can be found on bakamoono.lk. but for this week’s column I wanted to highlight a few elements which to me offered key insights into how we view and treat female sexuality (spoiler – as a threat, something dangerous, and something to shame women with).
School going kids with access to smartphones and little to no comprehensive sexuality education have engaged in the practice of exchanging naked pictures and videos (primarily the girls being the senders and the boys the receivers): We refuse to discuss sex in an age appropriate, sensible, healthy, realistic, and open manner and this has resulted in kids (who have incredibly easy access to the internet) using porn as their primarily teaching tools about sex, resulting a warped world view. Mainstream pornography is hugely misogynistic and often derogatory towards women, and young people become easily colored by this world view.
The sharing of the images locally takes place in 3 forms; among boys for purposes of masturbation, viewing pleasure etc.; among girls to express shock, horror and as a form of shaming; and among parents as what is called the ‘aney sin’ share or the vindictive ‘I’m glad this wasn’t my child’/destroy the reputation of a child and parents share: One of the quotes that stood out to me was a parent who attacked another saying, “This wouldn’t have happened if your daughter wasn’t such a whore”. Another gem comes from a father defending his son for circulating the image saying “What do the girls expect if they take a picture like that?”. Sound familiar? The blame is always directed at the girls, for taking the pictures, for sharing them, for expressing their sexuality. Describe what is going on to 10 people and at least 8 will ask “why did those girls take and send the pictures in the first place?”. It is the boys will be boys culture, and the burden lies on the victim never on the perpetrator. Women and girls must deny, hide, and refute their sexuality – while men are expected to strut and flash theirs.
Baduwa (object/prostitute) and kalla (piece – tits, ass, legs etc.) are part of common parlance in Sri Lanka when referring to women and girls. Popular baila is replete with sexist, misogynist, and sexually violent references: And that is just the beginning. Combine this with teenagers, raging hormones, little to no conversation or information about sex and sexuality and throw in some myths about your virginity being tied to your honour and values. We have continually treated our women and girls like objects when it comes to their sexuality, and shamed them for it. Now, it has become real. Our girls have become commodities to be sold on the global porn market worth $97 billion.
Many of these cases have not been taken up legally. Why? To get evidence a court order is needed, and for that the victims must come forward. To do this they are too scared. Who are they scared of? In most the cases – their parents: There are several ways to take this point – from safe spaces for victims, parental support, and a non-judgmental environment. We cannot however discount that how parents raise their girls and attitudes to their sexuality plays a huge key. All too often girls are taught to be the victim, the ‘ruined’ one, the one who needs to dress, sit, stand, and walk a certain way. Parenting can play huge role in how young girls and women view their self-worth, their ability to stand up to those that victimize them, and their bodies. The shame is not on them.
If the victim happens to be Under 18, then the National Child Protection Authority may offer support. In the case of over 18’s proper channels include writing a letter to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) Cyber Crimes division and requesting a meeting. Meanwhile the picture or video link is travelling from WhatsApp group to WhatsApp group. Sri Lanka CERT can block the site, but once uploaded onto one porn site, those pictures and videos are soon appropriated by other porn sites: In the 18 months that The Grassrooted Trust have flagged this issue, they have compiled dozens of case studies, found hundreds of victims and in some cases even been able to gain access to some of the blackmailer’s social media accounts. Yet, a single case has yet to be prosecuted and a single victim is yet to be protected. We lack political will to protect our girls – we lack the drive and the higher channels are still driven by patriarchal values. They still believe limiting access to the internet, telling girls not to send images, and policing female sexuality works. They have missed the bigger picture, the bigger issue, and the root. We need safe, sensible, age-appropriate sexual and relationship education in our schools. We need safe spaces for our children to access. We need a functioning system that puts the protection of our children above all else.
As we grapple with these realizations and questions, we must not forget that this issue does not sit in a silo. It sits in a larger culture of how we view, treat, and shame women and girls. As Hans reflects,
“Cyber exploitation must be understood within the framework of gender-based and intimate partner violence. Any culture that struggles with notions of shameful nakedness allows for this violence. Ultimately, gender equity must be our focus. Human dignity through education must be our collective goal, and human dignity has no place for shame”.
Images Courtesy: The Grassrooted Trust