By: S. Somitharan
Source: Northeastern Monthly - August 2005
Dusk had fallen when the teenage sister of a friend of mine came briskly to where her brother and I were seated talking. “Ammah wants me to get a few groceries, will you come with me?” she asked her brother.
“How can I come? Can’t you see I am talking to a friend?” he replied with some asperity. “Then I am not going. I’m afraid to ride alone,” she announced petulantly.
I was surprised. It was hardly seven in the evening. “You are just a scaredy cat, who is going to catch you?” I teased her.
“Just shows what you know! Do you think anybody allows young girls to cycle alone after dark in Jaffna?” she sniffed derisively, and left in search of a more amenable escort. Girls who step out of their homes after dark in Jaffna, do so, well aware of the risk they run. Only the direst necessity would compel them to go unaccompanied. What is the monster that lurks in the streets during the hours of darkness? The army? The Tigers? Armed bandits?
What serves to dissuade these young lasses from venturing out alone are none of these. The threat emanates from what appears to be an innocuous source, but whose menace has become so pervasive that it is causing grave concern to the public. The threat is simply – boys!
Jaffna that was once famous as a strict, self-disciplined society is today facing herds of young men and boys who apparently have nothing to do but hang about and cast lewd remarks and even physically accost women – especially young girls. What is worse, this antisocial behaviour seems to be linked to the stoicism and rigid code of conduct that characterised Jaffna society in the past, and an inability to cope with the tensions and demands of the contemporary world.
Despite standardisation in education cruelly depriving the upwardly mobile, middle class youth in the 1970s of their dream to enter university and that too for the prestigious professional courses such as medicine and engineering, these expectations are yet to be banished from Jaffna society. The very people that suffered because of standardisation are forcing their children down the same straight and narrow path of university education. The ambition of most Jaffna students, even today, is to enter the University of Jaffna to read for a professional degree offered by that university, or go to universities elsewhere in Sri Lanka.
Although there are a number of private institutions offering courses in accountancy, information technology and marketing, including the Open University, Jaffna’s youth remain narrowly focused on studying in traditional residential campuses. Entering such universities however remains a highly competitive exercise for the simple reason that there is insufficient number of such institutions of higher learning to cater to the demand. “The dream of Jaffna’s youth remains studying engineering and medicine even today. When they are unable to find a place at a university they do not seem to know what to do,” said V. P. Sivanathan, associate professor, Department of Economics at the University of Jaffna.
One reason for institutions of higher learning, other than universities, for failing to attract youth is no doubt the ‘English factor.’ The introduction of ‘swabasha’ as the medium of education, and Sinhala as the sole official language (though Tamil was also made an official language with the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord) led to an alarming dearth of English teachers all over Sri Lanka. In the northeast, including Jaffna, the situation was exacerbated by the brain drain caused by years of conflict.
While finding teachers who are conversant in the English is a problem, even those who are at home in the language are uncomfortable to teach in that medium because while fluency is one thing, using it for pedagogy is another. “But even if teachers are able to instruct students in English, today’s youth come from monolingual Tamil-speaking homes. Acquiring fluency in English under such circumstances is almost impossible,” said a principal from a prestigious girl’s school in Jaffna, who did not wish to be named. But while a want of fluency in language debars students from institutions that instruct in English, the bigger impediment is the inability of Jaffna society to transform with the times and overcome conservative thinking that engineering and medicine are the be all and end all of education.
Speaking to this writer in a different context, A. J. Canagaratna, member of the editorial board of the Saturday Review and editor of the first volume of The Selected Writings of Regi Siriwardena said, “People are interested in education only as a vehicle propelling them to become an engineer, doctor or an accountant. They go on to use the prestige of the profession to marry with a fat dowry.”
Whether it is a quest for dowry or innate conservatism, it has resulted in parents driving their children to go through hell or high water to enter university. And in a bid to bolster students’ performances at the GCE A/Ls and O/Ls, Jaffna parents rely on that modern day mantra – private tuition.
While private tuition might propel children into the hallowed portals of a university and thereby help to secure a profession, or ensure a steady rise up the social ladder, the negative fallout of such a system is the stunting of emotional growth, which results in enormous psychological damage.
According to specialists working with children, hour after hour of ‘cramming’ at private tutories becomes a huge obstacle to freedom and leisure that adolescents need to enjoy for healthy growth. A child’s school day usually begins with classes in the morning, which continue till early afternoon. It is followed by a short break just enough to grab a quick lunch. Then the more vigorous part of the day’s learning programme starts, with wearying tuition going on, at times, till 10 o’clock at night, depending on the number of subjects in which the student wishes to be coached.
“Children who spend their evenings in tuition class have very little freedom. And when the natural urges of the adolescent are suppressed and thwarted it leads to aggressive and antisocial behaviour,” said Dr. R. Surendrakumaran, lecturer in community medicine, University of Jaffna and co-chairperson of the District Child Protection Committee (DCPC).
He says the daily grind of the tutory suppresses initiative and the ability to handle freedom with responsibility whether it is in thinking, sports or entertainment. It is only exacerbated by the tensions children experience when they are also driven to compete fiercely to enter university.
While psychological pressures are an important reason for antisocial behaviour among the Jaffna youth, Surendrakumaran is also quick to note certain environmental and infrastructure defects affecting the health of the community. He says that urban planning in Jaffna has not taken into account the vital need for public space to relax and ‘chill out.’ “Old Park remains mined and unusable. Subramaniyam Park is an open space with hardly any trees, the only substantial vegetation being beds of flowers. Without protection overhead people do not feel like relaxing, nor do the children want to play,” said Surendrakumaran.
With Jaffna’s urban architecture not providing an environment conducive for the youth to gather and enjoy themselves, and society, in general, too conservative to entertain males and females in each other’s homes unless they are betrothed, tuition classes are about the only place where young people meet.
Therefore, tutories perform a dual role of killing the freedom of adolescents through their oppressive and disciplining function, while at the same time being the place for young people to meet each other. No wonder they have become venues for young girls to be physically and emotionally tormented.
To young males deprived of entertainment or fun, gathering in droves in front of tuition classes and preying on defenceless young females has become a popular pastime and entertainment. Though teasing and harassment takes place within the classroom too, it is more deadly outside. What is more, perpetrators are both fellow-students as well as outsiders who hang about before and after classes, morning, noon and night.
“Female students are not only harassed by fellow-students and outsiders, but also by young lecturers. Knowing the hierarchical relationship between teacher and student, teachers exploit young girls and take advantage of them,” says a university lecturer who was earlier a teacher at a private tutory. He wishes to remain anonymous.
Though teasing, harassment and abuse of young females has never been totally absent in Jaffna society even in the past, its heightening in recent times has led people to question the factors behind it. Though falling standards of law and order due to indifference by the police is an obvious reason, the explanation is not good enough, say social commentators. Curiously, most of the young bucks frequenting the entrances of tutories have with them distinctive paraphernalia, which could be an indication of the root of the malaise. The paraphernalia, almost always, includes a motorbike (which is usually the latest model in town) and the mobile phone, and sometimes sunshades.
The youth are also variously engaged. Some have passed A/Levels and are waiting to go overseas; others are awaiting examination results, while yet others are plain unemployed. But they have a single factor that binds them – time hanging on their hands.
“The deadly combination of unlimited leisure as well as foreign money coming into the average middle-class Jaffna household is one of the primary causes for this type of anti-social behaviour,” says P. Akilan, a well-known writer and critic.
Large amounts of liquid cash – mostly modest amounts of foreign currency converted into Sri Lankan rupees – for which they do not have to work appears to have turned the heads of Jaffna youth. It has increased spending power, which they use to purchase the latest trinket – mobile phone, fast motorbike or camera. (Otherwise these come as gifts from relatives visiting home from abroad.)
Trinkets themselves seldom cause problems – it is how they are used. Young men familiarise themselves on how to look macho and flashy through instruction by peers visiting Jaffna from Colombo or overseas. And, understandably, such instruction comes adorned with tales about life overseas and the pleasures of more permissive societies.
Television channels broadcasting round the clock, and the plethora of cinemas that the ceasefire agreement has so helpfully spawned, buttress the tales that reach the ears of Jaffna youth through their friends. The daily diet of Tamil and Hindi movies on various local and Indian channels are fast becoming the primary source of education of young people about the ways of the world. The print media and pulp fiction do the rest.
It would be wrong to say that stories about life in foreign countries and social mores in other communities are only of interest to young males. Even the girls – quite naturally – are influenced by stories their friends tell them and the entertainment that comes to their living rooms daily via television.
Whether illusory or otherwise, media and personal accounts have tended to heighten expectations of young females from their own societies. And one such expectation is to be free of the narrow confines of a traditional, conservative society and the restrictions the 20-year conflict has imposed on its youth. But girls are in a worse quandary than the males because women are seen as repositories and transmitters of culture, making it more difficult for them to fulfil their aspirations and dreams.
“The mismatch between their aspirations and the narrow thinking in their community has impacted on girls psychologically,” said Akilan.
Whatever might be popular perception on how youth, both male and female, behave, responsible social critics that raise such concerns do not view the younger generation through puritanical glasses. They agree that contact with life overseas and the media naturally enhances the awareness today’s youth have of the world.
But while this is essential and welcome, what worries social commentators is that the community, dislocated by displacement and death caused by war, has deprived youngsters of guidance and wisdom traditionally imparted by parents, teachers and even peers and siblings, in well-integrated and functional communities.
“Dislocation caused by the war has led to older people, be they parents or teachers, not being in a position to guide youngsters. While this is a tremendous setback in any community, Jaffna suffers more acutely because, traditionally, Jaffna society was very closely knit and such guidance was freely available,” said Sivanathan.
While urban Jaffna tries to cope with the antics of the swashbuckling young buck, the less fortunate in that community are relegated to the shadows because war has forced people to live in cramped, inhuman conditions as IDPs in welfare camps. The shortage of space compels families to literally live cheek by jowl. This has resulted in a lack of privacy leading to heightened sexual activity among young persons that have created enormous problems in these communities. One of these is teenage marriage to legitimise and legalise unwanted pregnancy.
“People who are affected by this sort problems need counselling, clinics and social care. At the same time society at large needs to be taught about sexuality. But the system in Jaffna does not permit this,” lamented Surendrakumaran.
The dire need for this is most starkly seen in the alarming increase of AIDS in Jaffna. It is officially estimated that Jaffna has the third highest number of people affected by AIDS in the country. “There has to be awareness of how AIDS is transmitted and its prevention among wide sections of Jaffna society. We cannot hide behind slogans and live in denial,” Surendrakumaran said.
The consequences of a lack of awareness in a conservative society become more alarming due to reported increase in the incidence of prostitution in Jaffna. Increasing trends in prostitution began with the takeover of Jaffna in 1995 by the army. Though poverty caused by conflict could be a reason for women to take to prostitution, no concrete evidence or comment is possible because people are unwilling to speak about it openly.
However it is common knowledge that there has been a marked decline in prostitution from what was prevalent before the CFA was signed. It is said that a group calling itself Group for the Preservation of Culture ‘purified’ Jaffna by ‘disciplining’ sex workers and procurers. But questions are raised as to whether moral policing is the answer to such problems.
The war has also given rise to women being widowed at comparatively early ages, as well as making others, whose husbands have gone overseas, single. Though there are no doubt instances of sexual liaisons between consenting adults, there are also numerous instances where women have been subject to violence and abuse by unwanted paramours seeking favours from them. At the same time, when details of such liaisons have become known, it has led to social stigma for the woman and violence within families, neighbourhoods and communities.
Whether it is harassment and abuse of girls by young males who have grown to hate the narrow, restrictive circumstances in which they live, or the young widow whose indiscreet liaison causes social stigma and ostracism, Jaffna’s rigid codes of conduct and inflexible social values are finding it difficult to cope with new mores the war and globalisation have sprung. And unless society is willing to slough off the cloak of denial that is the coping mechanism of most conservative communities, there will be no opening for therapy either.