As part of our ongoing analytical investigation into the cyber-bullying and cyber exploitation crisis that seem to be gradually on the rise in Sri Lanka and around the world, we decided to talk to the pros in the battlefield; The Grassrooted Trust, an organization that was established with the purpose of providing a “safe space” for marginalized communities both online and in reality.
Meeting Hans from Grassrooted (despite his hectic schedule) at Java Lounge, I immediately feel comfortable and catch a vibe that this gentleman knows what he is talking about. Over copious amounts of caffeine we sit down to discuss the plight of today’s youth in Sri Lanka and the efforts of Grassrooted to change not the situation but the root cause: mindsets.
Q: Sex, Drugs, Culture…why this tagline?
Hans: When we set up Grassrooted it was to have open and frank discussions. These are inherent parts of our culture. All drugs, not just the illegal ones. They can be licit and illicit. It’s not just about cocaine or heroin. It could also be alcohol. Drugs can lead to domestic violence. We talk about all of these parts which are actually a part of our culture.
Q: Tell us a bit about Grassrooted, your vision and how the team came together to achieve your goal
Hans: We got together as a team of consultants, in 2010. Focused on HIV and sexual and reproductive health education. We provide peer-educated training with community-based organisations and young people working with platforms such as UNFPA, International Labour Org., UNICEF. The approach was limited by project cycles; there would be no continuation after the project. We look at 2 key areas – education and support of marginalised communities. We are looking at relationship education as well; things like how to coexist, how to treat people, learning behaviour, and making adults aware about children emulating them. Kids have access to so much info and a sensible approach is needed to curb the negative influences. That’s a strong part of what the government should be looking at. We advocate on this.
Q: “Investigating the nude culture of Sri Lanka” – could you elaborate on what has been done so far, and how. What has been the general outcome?
Hans: When in 2015, the 70 school girls approached us on this issue we took it to the Child Protection Authority and the Cyber Crimes Division took it up. Subsequently, the NCPA set up a task force, got us involved in it and the Ministry of Education as well. There was a discussion around prevention in schools and a poster was also printed. NCPA then carried an online campaign which elicited a lot of feedback from kids looking for support. But, my main concern is that we still don’t have a centralised support system; a place where victims could go for help without fear or judgment. Cyber exploitation is a vast space and each case is different. It could range from threatening messages to forced meet-ups which is why each case needs analysing personally and individually. There has to be a response system and the government really needs to work on this.
Q: How is this process handled currently?
Hans: When we spoke with the CID Cyber Crimes Division, currently, the methodology is you write a letter to the Director of CID and go from there. When I spoke to the Chief Inspector there about 10 days ago, she said that the best thing to do is to put it on a CD with all the proof including screenshots and send it in all at once. However, if anybody comes to us we will hand-hold them through the whole process and guide them in the correct direction including approaching the right authority. This needs to be nationally coordinated because we are based in Colombo and people come to us through FB in reaction to our posts reaching out to victims offering help. Recently I went to the hospital to just sit with a girl and help her calm down.
Q: When sensuality is suppressed, perversion comes to the forefront. Our education systems, social norms and culture all teach us that sex is taboo. You can’t speak about it. You can’t even teach the chapter on Human Reproduction in the Grade 8 syllabus. Does this tunnel-vision propel the urge for young men to develop a perverse or misguided image of the female body?
Hans: See, just look at the words used to refer to girls these days; “kella” or “baduwa”; I mean it’s all objectified so where do we go from there? From the Sigiriya frescoes to ancient culture, nudity has been celebrated in SL. This Victorian Buddhist approach and the “culture” or “Sanskruthiya” point, needs introspection. It’s very important not to judge and demean. One girl, who made a complaint to the authorities was been asked questions like “Did you actually send this? Were you forced or did you send it?” this was repeated so many times that the girl just gave up as she felt uncomfortable. I could be digressing but this is the issue, there is so much tunnel-vision, so much judgment and so many things we call taboo that we are in fact pushing kids these days to have a very jaded image of sexuality. The arising curiosity is unhealthy.
Q: Is this nude culture limited to the school children, or does it run far and wide?
Hans: The school children seem to be under a lot of impact. However, it runs far and wide in reality. What’s disturbing in the youth is that there are cases where the boyfriend forces the girl to send din nudes or records videos of them. This then gets shared with friends of the boyfriend. See, the messages our kids get about nudity are conflicting ones. They have Miley Cyrus saying “free the nipple”, they have Kim Kardashian taking nude selfies in front of mirrors and the influences can be seen in the nudes been shared among kids of their girlfriends. The pictures are similar to those they see online.
Q: The fear of being judged and victim-shaming, keeps the inflicted away from getting help or approaching the authorities, what can we do about this? Also, the majority of parents may not be open to having “that conversation” with their kids. Instead, how can we educate siblings and peers to open up and provide a sort of discussion forum on a personal level so that such matters can be nipped in the bud?
Hans: See we must admit that our kids are sexually active. Look at the teen pregnancy rate. If I’m not mistaken it’s as high as 14% in Wavuniya. One school when I asked the kids where you go to have sex, they said “Solid” which are rooms which can be found online for hourly payment. I also came across a Yamu.lk discussion thread where somebody had asked for recommendations on where to go with their girlfriend. Yamu had not replied but other viewers had; some saying go here food is great others saying go there they don’t ask questions. So access to info is so immense. What about prevention? Why aren’t we still talking to our young kids? How much more needs to happen? We did a research via bakamunu.lk on pornography searches and over 900 responses were received with details of how long, how often and what type of porn they watch. So, we cannot further suppress this. We have to admit our kids are sexually active and talk openly about it so they do not get a deluded fantasy about sexuality. Very important for parents to be open minded and develop and environment where kids are actually able to talk.
Q: About finding solutions, I personally feel that the lack of self-respect among young girls in our current society, the mentality that you must give in to your boyfriend’s wishes or lose him, propels this exploitation. Is that the case?
Hans: Yes, it is to a great extent. We definitely need to empower girls and even boys for that matter to say NO. We need to educate them to stand up to the pressure. Also, boys seem to think that the girl giving consent for them to have their picture means they can share this image with anybody and everybody. I have been educating boys saying that this consent, this “yes” was only for the respective boyfriend and not for anybody else and by sharing intimate content, they are directly violating the respect, trust and privacy of this girl. In addition, it’s also cyber crime to do so. We have been talking to them about, our understanding of a girl, how do we treat them? respect for self, respect for others and respect for difference
Q: The social media craze. Has the increase in usage of social media got anything to do with this nude culture?
Hans: Well yes, it has certainly helped a lot. The amount of information out there is massive and anybody has very easy access to it. The probability of influence via social media or otherwise is very high. For example, Snapchat. It became clear to me while talking to kids that many were not aware that screenshots could be saved on Snapchat. However, one boy took me through the elaborate steps of using Snapsaver ie. How to take screenshots and save it and actually nobody would get to know as well.
Q: How are these issues addressed by media? How do they cover it?
Hans: Well. It appears that they are changing the stereotypical methods now and becoming more progressive gradually, but, it would take some time before covering these incidents will be done on a satisfactory level in the right way.
Q: Are LGBT communities also turning out cyber-exploitation cases?
Hans: Yes, but very rarely. It is not showing up as often and even if it does there are just a handful of recorded cases with evidence.
Q: Finally, what is Grassrooted’s next step? Can we all as Sri Lankans help?
Hans: It’s an ongoing process. We need to implement prevention. We need to implement a coordinated national support and response system that gives victims a non-judgmental, reliable, efficient and effective safe space. Everyone can help. Families need to educate and be open with their children and so do schools. The government needs to understand the situation and work on a mechanism to overcome this.