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Redoubtable ‘wisdom’ of our lawmakers

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In a move of unadulterated foolhardiness, the powers-that-be published a gazette notification recently to revise Sections 363 and 364 of the Sri Lankan Penal Code. It attempted to lower the girls’ age of consent for sexual intercourse to 14 years and the punishment to be levied to the accused male who has engaged in such sexual activity to be considerably reduced if the accused male is under 22 years of age.

This initiative on the part of the government, set in motion a flurry of heavy and resounding protests by the general public, women’s organisations, and medical professional institutions, against this contemptible attempt to amend the Penal Code by publishing the gazette notification. All these protesting groups have made it very clear that this move is a very retrograde step and does not stand up to any kind of reason or wisdom. Confronted by an avalanche of such drastic objections and protests, the government has given in and withdrawn the said offensive piece of legislation. However, there was a vague suggestion that the ministry concerned would initiate discussions with all the stakeholders on this matter.

It must be pointed out that there is no universally recognised international upper cut-off age limit when a person stops being considered a child. The definition of a child varies across different contexts, cultures, and legal systems right around the globe.

However, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) defines a child as “every human being below the age of eighteen years, unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier.” This convention has been ratified by a vast number of countries, including Sri Lanka, and the age of 18 is widely accepted internationally as the cut-off age for childhood. As just one example, all the banks in Sri Lanka consider anyone under the age of 18 years as a minor and one can get a driving license in our country only when one has reached that magic age of 18. That said, some countries may have different legal definitions and ages for transitions from being a child to being considered an adult. These ages typically range from 16 to 21 in several different jurisdictions.

The minimum age of consent for sexual intercourse is the age at which someone is considered capable of making that decision. The unbiassed objective of the imposition of a minimum age of sexual consent is to protect adolescents from sexual abuse as well as the potential consequences of early sexual activity on their rights and development. Many medical professionals and their organisations have seriously objected to the proposed amendment of the age of consent for sex to be reduced to 14 years from the current age of 16 years, for quite a few compelling medical reasons.

It has been clearly shown by scientific studies that a child of 14 years is not intellectually mature enough by any stretch of imagination to give informed consent for an act such as sexual intercourse. This is simply because she does not have the necessary and adequate understanding of the given situation. To make matters even worse, in this land of Sri Lanka, where acceptable sex education is not provided, a child of 14 years who consents to sexual intercourse is not intellectually empowered and is most likely to be significantly ignorant of the possible repercussions of the sexual act, such as unwanted pregnancy, as well as the potential exposure to sexually transmitted diseases. In other words, that so-called consent is not one which anyone would call fully informed consent.

A child of 14 years is not physically and mentally mature enough to be a mother to a baby she may give birth to, following the sexual act. In addition, such adolescent mothers are a medically high-risk group to develop various complications of pregnancy. These include medical disorders of physical as well as mental nature. The offspring too would be at risk due to inadequate nurturing, as well as to have a propensity to develop physical, intellectual, and emotional problems, well into the future.

It has to be considered that in the proposed amendment, the male culprit’s age is mentioned as under 22 years to qualify for a more lenient judicial sentence. The attempt is to increase it to 22 years from the current limit of 18 years.

Is it the contention of the government that giving in to carnal desires against the law would warrant leniency simply because of an age-related Romeo and Juliet phenomenon? If this is allowed to sail through, there is no guarantee that the upper age cut-off for the male culprit will not be increased further in the future. A wag remarked that even an octogenarian might qualify for a more lenient sentence in the future. All these contentions make one begin to wonder whether there is some ulterior motive behind this.

It is quite interesting to note some of the antecedent events or even the woeful lack of them, before the gazette was published.

We need to carefully assess the policy-making processes, if any for that matter, that were followed before the decision was made to amend the relevant sections of the Penal Code.

It is vital to unravel the processes followed before the authorities jumped in at the deep end to introduce such an offensive bill. One wonders which ministry initiated the process in the first place and wanted the amendments in question effected to the law. We have to examine the exact processes that took place. What was the specific trail that was followed?

Generally speaking, new laws are formulated by relevant ministries, extensively discussed, then sent to the Attorney General, followed by the submission of it to the Legal Draughtsman and finally presented to the Cabinet of Ministers. It is quite clear that none of these formalities were adhered to, as many of these institutions, including the Parliament, have denied any knowledge of this bill that was hastily sprung through a Government Gazette notification.

It is necessary to look for the reasons that prompted this despicable attempt. More than anything, such a detailed analysis would help to guard against and even prevent recurrences of this kind of tyrannical behaviour on the part of the powers-that-be in the future. It has been claimed that the motive behind this is to ensure some legal requirements but one would argue that drastic changes such as the attempted amendments to the Penal Code should only be presented following open and frank discussions with all stakeholders. It is quite obvious that this was not done.

As indicated by a statement in the Parliament on 01 April, 2024, the proposal to amend the relevant sections of the Penal Code have been “withdrawn”. Yet for all this, the Ministry of Justice is now planning to have a so-called dialogue with interested parties in the immediate future regarding these proposed amendments to the Sri Lankan Penal Code.

The implications are that the so-called bill has not been withdrawn once and for all; at least not as yet.

To make matters worse, it is likely to be presented again and rushed through the parliament. There have been many instances where the authorities withdrew some controversial legislations following intense protests only to present them again a slightly modified form and pushed through the legislature. So, watch out people …, we need to remain intensely vigilant.

Concerned Sri Lankan



Opinion

Unsung workers

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Those who write about other people to the newspapers generally select doctors (benevolent), lawyers, writers, poets, film makers, engineers, etc. Sometimes it would be about foreign personalities or films.

For my piece I thought of writing about very little-known persons who have to work in the sun and rain to do their job properly and most of the time without any supervision. These are the groundboys who attend to the maintenance of the playgrounds. In the good old days in fact, they used to do everything connected to the sports activities of the school or club where they were employed. And they attended to these activities without anybody supervising. Almost all of them looked after the playing fields and the various sports gear of the college or club as if they were their own.

I will start with the ground boy at my alma mater, Kingswood College, Kandy. He was Viyay and he was the brother-in-law of the college watcher, Hendrick, who was married to Viyay’s sister. Vijay would have been employed because of this relationship as Hendrick was a very honest and diligent worker who looked after the school single -handedly during school vacations as well as after school till the following morning.

Vijay took over the job of ground boy and gradually did almost everything in respect of the playground as well as the sports equipment. The cricket pitch was a matting wicket. The matting had to be taken from the pavilion by wheelbarrow and laid on the pitch and nailed on the sides. The transporting of the matting up and down was done most of the time with the help of the boys who were sportsmen. The versatility of the person was seen when he single- handedly marked the ground for hockey matches, then football and also the lanes for the races at the sports meet. In addition to all this he used to season the cricket bats applying linseed oil and then hitting a cricket ball hung in a sock from the roof. He also used to bind the bats when they gave way in certain places. Vijay used to accompany the teams for matches with the sports gear in a bag. All this and he used to mow the grass in the two pitches at college.

I am not aware of the ground boys of other schools in Kandy at that time except the famous Marthelis of Asgiriya grounds of Trinity College. He had to be in charge of the maintenance of the turf wicket. Just like Vijay, Marthelis too used to attend to all work pertaining to the Asgiriya grounds.

The universities too had ground boys to look after the playgrounds. I remember Peradeniya had Samarakoon who handled the cricket pitch of the circular cricket ground. This had a turf wicket, which however had to be abandoned and a matting had to be laid when matches were played.

The University of Colombo too had three ground boys, with the tall Piyasena, who came from Veyangoda in overall charge of the playground. The short Piyasena who came from Kirulapona assisted him. They too had to get the grounds ready for cricket, football, hockey and athletics. The ground boy in charge of the tennis courts was an expert. By 9.00 am he used to finish mending the tennis courts. When he resigned Jinadasa took over the job and he too did a very good job. The other ground boy who came from Piliyandala did a good job with the cricket pitch. He also mended the damaged matting.

All clubs in Colombo had ground boys. I remember only one of them, that is Deen of the Bloomfield Club. I came to know him as a result of my association with the University of Colombo. When the building for the Faculty of Arts was to be constructed, I went around to inspect the land that would be required for the purpose. I found a wattle and daub shed within the area. When I inquired from the who was occupying the shed, he told me that he was Deen, the ground boy of Bloomfield Club. They had the audacity to construct this contraption on the other side of the road in someone else’s property! I told Deen that the following day a bulldozer is scheduled to come to demolish the shed and asked him to take his belongings and leave. The President of the club at that time, Mr. Shelley Wickremasinghe came and met me and stated that the club had no funds to construct a shed and for the university to do so using old, discarded material. This was done and Deen shifted. I know Deen used to do a very good job of maintaining the Bloomfield playground.

All the other clubs too had ground boys who were devoted to the club and looked after the playgrounds well. As the clubs played many games the ground boys had to be fully conversant with what had to be done.

I also must mention about the ground boy at St. Peter’s College. He comes early in the morning and works in the blazing sun with only a hat to protect himself. He mows the grass on two pitches which adjoin each other, one for cricket and the for Rugger. He does the cricket pitch too which is a turf wicket, watering it and covering it in the evening. I see all that he does from the balcony. It is very rare that you get workers like this nowadays.

When Don Bradman’s team stopped in Colombo on their way to England in 1948, they were surprised to see two women attending to marking the pitch for the match. At that time, it was only in Sri Lanka that there were women attending to playgrounds.

HM NISSANKA WARAKAULLE

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Can mindfulness enhance overt questioning?

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Image Courtesy: HIH, US Department of Health and Human Services

by Susantha Hewa

Mindfulness is explained as the “basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.” According to the practitioners and experts, mindfulness has many benefits for the individual although some are unenthusiastic about it. However, it is said to have benefitted those who have a natural liking for practicing meditation for religious, spiritual or other more earthly purposes. For example, many people practice it to tackle stress. Students who are continually swamped with work and pressured to keep up with deadlines, top-level executives for whom tension is a regular visitor, and anybody who is caught up in the rat race are advised to do mindfulness exercises.

According to practitioners and experts, any form of meditation is beneficial for many, as it is supposed to help temporarily break the unrelenting pace of life. In her article titled, “‘Mystery’ behind mindfulness: you become what you think”, which appeared in The Island of May 6, Jeevani Senevirathne (JS) enumerates and explains many benefits of practicing mindfulness including, the boosting of memory power, resilience, moment to moment awareness, concentrated attention, capacity for looking at problems in new ways, and, last but not least, allowing relief from stress.

Avoiding or taking the edge off the continuous stress in life is one of the most useful competencies in these troubled times. Today, stress is a constant companion in life not only of adults but also of the young. All individuals – from labourers to top executives, from students to undergrads and professors, from the penniless to the filthy rich and people from every station in life have to regularly cope with anxiety, disaffection and stress. As such any technique or activity, including mindfulness, may go a long way in helping live a comparatively stress-free life. As psychologists and health experts would agree, equally effective are- hobbies such as music, painting, dancing, reading, socializing, travelling, and physical exercise, which are widely accepted as excellent methods of coping with stress, which is only one of the many benefits.

Among the day-to-day situations that make you feel keyed up are- transport problems, traffic jams, meeting deadlines, office politics, rude behaviour, harassment, exams and interviews, sickness, litigation, etc. There are also more fundamental issues like, poverty with all its associated evils, lack of employment, constant competition, social insecurity, unfair treatment based on race, ethnicity, religion, level of education, income level, social status, etc. There is no doubt that coping mechanisms, including hobbies, socializing, meditation and mindfulness would be helpful in mitigating those stresses resulting from the above problems.

It’s a fact that using any or several of the above as relief from stress can make you feel better. However, mindfulness is said to be of special value in relieving you from tension and stress. As JS states, “mindfulness provides students with tools to mitigate stress by cultivating present-moment awareness and developing a non-judgmental attitude towards their experiences”.  She goes on to say that mindfulness training will help tackle discontents graciously, “with greater resilience and bounce back from difficulties more effectively to cater for the demands of their lives.” In other words, mindfulness is in a class of its own when it comes to boosting “resilience” which would enable you to quickly get over your hang-ups and face up to the constant challenges of life.

However, one may be tempted to ask whether this ‘resilience’, creditable and useful for almost everybody continuously fighting stress, is likely, to instill in you, unwittingly, a mindset of indolence – an inclination to doggedly endure and accept any pressure being exerted by the status quo, which will perhaps make you, so to speak, a ‘proud’ victim of your own resilience. There is no doubt that people with vested interests would love and applaud you for your buoyancy, which would be a great advantage to them. Can there be other techniques you may use to empower yourself to counter the relentless and, often, unreasonable demands on your resilience? Are you going to be forever dependent more and more on mindfulness or any other coping mechanism, for that matter, to keep yourself from sinking?

Though bracing yourself up for increasing challenges in your area of work is welcome, one may be wary of being too fixated about adapting yourself to whatever worsening condition, taking pride in the fact that you can be tough enough to accept anything and everything. Such an attitude would let yourself be easily exploited by others who wield power over you. It’s well and good, if mindfulness helps in any way to think out of the box, to question and look for alternative methods while enhancing your resilience. If not, it would be important, or, even absolutely necessary, to cultivate the habits of questioning, critical thinking and demanding the required and more constructive changes.

Just take a few examples. True, mindfulness may help you keep calm in many instances. In a traffic jam, a person who regularly practices mindfulness may tolerate the frustrating immovability more easily than the average person. However, in addition to using your better developed endurance to more easily reconcile with the situation, if you can think of the reasons for such traffic jams and put your mental energies to explore ways and means of averting such holdups would be an entirely different exercise that will be monitored by another part of your brain. A person who is doggedly bent on practicing stress reduction may continue to bear the stress with less vexation, but would he be equally keen on pressuring the authorities for finding solutions? It may be possible that asking nonconformist questions belongs to a realm which is different from the one focusing on what’s happening from moment to moment. What prompts social progress is the process of thinking out of the box, which involves looking for answers to those somewhat ‘troubling’ questions. Enhancing resilience alone, without turning your mind outwards to observe and understand the world of lived reality, may perhaps make you too reclusive and complacent about the status quo.

A person who is narrowly focused inwards, is less likely to invite change than a person who is full of curiosity about the active world out there with its constant changes. Critical thinking cannot occur in the absence of information to be had from outside. As a general rule, those whose minds are focused inwards are likely to be followers who would toe the line rather than deviate.

Rulers, who tend to be repressive, would adore any programme which would train people to endure and accept how things stand without questioning or saying enough is enough. That is, they want people to be compliant and keep tightening their belts eternally. That’s why they will applaud any scheme that would keep people endlessly adapting to and accepting any ruling without demur. How many of those who had joined the mass protests in 2022- surely, having exhausted their resilience- could have got their spirit of defiance from practicing speculative techniques including mindfulness? It’s worth a survey.

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Opinion

Jayantha Wannisinghe – an appreciation

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Jayantha

When I published earlier this year a book about my former students who had later become colleagues in subsequent educational innovations, I little thought that in few months one of them would die, in his early fifties, at the height of his career.

Jayantha Wannisinghe was one of the first students I registered at the Belihuloya Affiliated College way back in 1992. He was the first to be recruited to a university position after his degree, which he obtained from the Sabaragamuwa University, which had been set up through the combination of three AUCs that had specialized in the English Diploma course.

The AUCs were the brainchild of Prof Arjuna Aluvihare, the then Chairman of the University Grants Commission. They were set up to encourage job oriented tertiary level courses at a time when the established universities still dwelt in the ivory tower, they thought the only model of university education, clinging to outdated British notions that the British had long overcome. With regard to English, Arjuna wanted to allow students without Advanced Level English to get first Diplomas and then degrees in English, the only way of producing more and better English teachers for the country, given that the products of the traditional universities were steeped in literature that would make no sense in our schools.

The traditional universities had scorned this, so for Colombo by recruiting Jayantha to have acknowledged the transformation we had achieved was most satisfying. Jayantha, having done well in the Diploma course, then joined Sabaragamuwa University to do his degree, spending two years more on the Major Minor combination that its first Vice Chancellor Prof Somasundara had introduced. He was already in place when I joined the University as Professor of Languages, and worked hard to get a very good degree. Within a year recruited by Colombo University, he taught at its Sri Palee Campus, Horana, where he worked well with its Rector, Tilak Hettiarachchy, who later became Vice Chancellor of the University

I was delighted but also surprised when Colombo selected him, for one of the senior members of the English Department had been one of the most critical of the Affiliated University College English programme.

I asked her how Jayantha had been chosen, for I knew that a former lecturer at Sabaragamuwa who had a doctorate from Norway had also applied, but was told quite simply that he had been the best candidate. This seemed to me high praise, for the course as well as for him.

Jayantha was the son of a farmer in Amparai, and his commitment to English was astonishing, given the deprivation he had suffered in this regard at school. But he was determined, as indeed I found when he was in the forefront of opposition to the practice I had instituted of making students pay for textbooks. But when I explained that they were charged simply the cost, Rs 10 in those days, so that I could arrange reprints without asking again for aid—it was through Canadian support that I had initially printed the attractive books we were able to supply to students—he thought for a moment and then agreed that what I argued was acceptable. Given his natural leadership qualities, I had no difficulties after that with the principle I laid down.

Soon enough he was not just a student but also a good friend, and his wife reminded me when I went to condole of how he had been amongst the good students I had invited to tea, on Oxbridge lines which I had been told would not work at Peradeniya when I joined that university. Indeed, they did not work at Sabaragamuwa for the student union objected in time, and when I was opening up this social event to less able students, they forbade them from attending.

Jayantha in time confided his financial difficulties in me and, though I could not help him direct while he was a student, I was able to do so after his degree. I realized he would be at a loose end with no financial support at all when the course ended, and so I asked him then whether he would care to look after the bookshop at the British Council which had been handed over to the English Association when the establishment there decided that it was not the business of the Council to take bread from the mouths of British publishers, as one character memorably put it to me. Why they used this argument when all we were doing was providing material to encourage reading in English to those who could not afford foreign publications was beyond me. But the decision was a great boon to the English Association, and also provided temporary employment to several youngsters who needed support.

Before Jayantha, all those who had worked for the English Association at the bookshop had hailed from Colombo. So, I was particularly happy to have him work there. Since he needed accommodation, I put him up at my house, which was round the corner from the Council, and where he provided company for my father who was still suffering from the loss of my mother. Those were days in which I was away from Colombo a great deal, at the university and also in looking after the GELT course, and with other work too at various places. So, it was good for my father to have someone with him during meals, and Jayantha would tell me that he learnt much from him.

But, of course, this was no career for him, so it made sense for him to apply for academic positions. I was not sanguine about this, but then Colombo selected him for a lecturer position at its Sri Palee Campus and after that he went from strength to strength. Having got the job, he got married, to his girlfriend from AUC days, and so fond was my father of him that he provided his car for the occasion. I had forgotten this until his distraught widow mentioned it.

Over the years he got his doctorate, from a university in Hong Kong. He fell prey there to changes of supervisors so that he had to deal with different demands for changes, and I was happy to help when he turned to me for advice, and I think what I said enabled him to make the thesis more coherent, and get the degree. And with this under his belt, he could contribute to the Master’s Degree in English and Education which had been resumed at Sabaragamuwa University after a lapse of several years since I had got it going. It was immensely satisfying to have as colleagues taking modules on that course, apart from Sabaragamuwa staff, former students at both Colombo and Kelaniya.

Jayantha was able himself to innovate at Sri Palee to take his students forward. He made English compulsory for all students in their first year, and it is available for credit in the next two years. And as importantly, he also started a new degree programme in English Language Pedagogy and Practice. Most satisfyingly, he understood the need for soft skills, and introduced on this course modules in Guidance and Counselling and in Entrepreneurship and New Venture Creation.

He never forgot his past, and how well he had done in comparison with what would have been his most optimistic expectations while he was at school. Like any good educationist he strove to give even more opportunities to the students committed to his care. Though it is said that no one is irreplaceable, I fear that the Sri Palee Campus will not be able to do as much for its students in the future as was accomplished by him.

Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha

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