Hans Billimoria in conversation: Teens, Sex-ed, HIV and Online Behavior.

Hans Bilimoria of Grassrooted Trust in Sri Lanka shared much-needed timely insights on a number of social issues that young people are facing today. Hans has played a key role in implementing interventions across various sectors of society, especially through his innovative approaches to HIV prevention and awareness. He holds a BA in philosophy and psychology from Madras Christian College in India and an MPhil in philosophy from the University of Dundee in Scotland. Excerpts from the interview are given below. Please listen to our podcast episode #1 for the full discussion.

Varuni: Hans, with all the work that you're doing with the youth of Sri Lanka, have you seen anything different after COVID, relating to social media usage? Are there any emerging trends that you might want to discuss?

Hans: Our work in the space of social media generally deals with violations that happen on social media. So at Grassrooted, what we do is respond to instances of cyber exploitation, cyber violence, and cyberbullying. Having said that, we generally see great value in the online space as a space for learning. Especially where we work in Ibbagamuwa, working rurally with young people. Here we see real value - even in the smartphone, which is now the number one device in terms of connecting online. So if you take a look at the data, for example, over 70% of any age group, even the young ones, connect with the Internet on a smartphone device. Connecting to the Internet is very affordable. So we see benefits in those areas in terms of learning, and there are real positives there that I want to highlight right at the outset. 

Now in terms of the violations, [during] COVID, we saw a spike from 2019 to 2020 of over 400% in violations on social media. When we look at violations, when we look at exploitation, when we look at the violence online, it really mirrors the violence offline. It's like another manifestation of intimate partner violence and gender-based violence, but now in the online space. So for us, it is about attitudes. It is about how we treat each other. We are very reluctant to point a finger at social media and say this is the reason for all our ills, but rather, the attitudes that we engender within our society, how we bring up our young people, the existing, let's say, objectification of young women, for example, the lack of understanding around what consent means, the lack of understanding around what it means to respect and value another human being. These are the areas that are most at play, even in the online space. So, when we work with schools, young people, or with children, we fundamentally look at how we treat another human being. How do we help children understand the social [and] emotional learning models? That forms the basis of any intervention that we do in terms of how we treat each other online. So social media per se, we don't perceive to be an evil. It is the attitudes and the behaviors that we generally exhibit, now manifesting online, is where we see as the problem.

Varuni:  Especially when it comes to the meaning of ‘consent’,...it seems like we are lacking in certain value systems. A recent qualitative study on this topic talks about how so many women feel trapped between conflicting messages about appropriate sexual behavior and online behavior. They put themselves into a position where, if they don't comply, it means the loss of a relationship. Sharing nude photographs is a way of keeping or holding on to a relationship. Why this is so widespread amongst teenagers…I think in the teen years there is a need for romantic relationships as well as an aversion to any kind of social criticism. So, when you put these two together, it's not very easy for a young woman to actually say no. Could you speak a little bit more on this trend of sharing nude photographs?

Hans: I think fundamentally it's the patriarchal construct that you are outlining, and you are right to say that it is a global construct now (within this patriarchal construct), the objectification of the girl goes hand in hand with the entitlement of the boy. We are bringing up our boys and young men to feel that they are entitled to objectify and then there's a sense of ownership.

What are the key messages that we are giving young people in Sri Lanka? Now one of the things I like to do when I go anywhere, whatever the forum, including police or politicians or whoever, I ask about how we were brought up to objectify [girls]. For example, the terms, ‘‘baduva / බඩුව’’ and ‘kalla / කෑල්ල’, right? And how ubiquitous or common the usage of these words are, and whether there are any men in the forums that I have attended who have not used these terms. And in my experience, there has not been one man who has put his hand up, or one boy who has put his hand up and said “no, I don't use these terms”. Once, a young boy at a lama samajaya, or a children's group in Beruwala put his hand up and he said “what is that, sir? I don't know what those terms are.” This was a group of about twenty boys aged 10 to 14. Before I could respond, the rest of the class responded and said, “ඒක දන්නැද්ද ඕයි? වඩක් නෑනෙ ඕයි. තමුසේ පිරිමියෙක්ද ඕයි? hey, so don't you know that?, Are you even a man?” The ‘maleness’  that is associated with this entitlement needs careful scrutiny, and I think it's really tied to the lack of understanding around consent.

Also, if you take a look at the harassment in public spaces - on public transport. When we speak at these forums, we ask women - "have you never been harassed on public transport?" There has not been a hand that has gone up. I'm talking about all our work. Within factory settings around the country, within school settings around the country, with teachers, with politicians, with doctors, with nurses, wherever we go, these are two common questions we ask, and these are two common answers that we get: All men objectify, and all women have experienced sexual harassment on public transport.

Maybe since 2015, we have been doing this around cyber exploitation environments. Our findings are 100% not 90% that is in the studies. What I'm trying to get at here is that, it is our culture. It is this patriarchal construct that we are up against. We are also up against the construct of ‘asking for it’. Now this is not new. These are not new attitudes. These are not new notions that we have. For example, if a girl is raped, she is somehow responsible for the rape. I'll give you an example. An 11-year-old girl was gang raped by four men. The perpetrators were aged 17 up to around 60. This happened within the Gokarella Police division and came up at the Kurunegala Magistrates Court or High Court. I'm not quite sure which one. And at that point, the defense lawyer happened to be a woman. [She] went on the offensive saying, “…she may be 11, but she doesn't behave 11. Look at her. She is responsible for what happened. She egged them on. She is the one who instigated this..,” So now that is expected. A defense lawyer is going to do that now. But my point here is consent. There is no real understanding. If you take a look at the police grave crimes abstract, that is a stark reminder to us all of how consent is misunderstood in this country. If you go to the grave crimes abstract of the Sri Lanka police, up to 2014, rape data was collated as rape / incest. That also gives you an indicator of the number of rapes that were incest, for police to collate data in that manner. From 2015, they disaggregated the data. From 2015, when they desegregated the data, they had three sections: 11, 11A and 11B. 11 is rape of women over the age of 16 (because also remember the rape law in Sri Lanka is penile vaginal rape).

So rape of women over 16yrs old - that's statutory rape, because 16 is the age of consent. Statutory rape,  without the consent of the victim and with the consent of the victim. Now in what country do you have statutory rape with the consent? I mean, how can you have statutory rape with consent? That oxymoron in itself is an example of where we are in our understanding of consent.

The above is an excerpt from the interview with Mr. Hans Billimoria. The discussion covered nude photo sharing, weaponizing romantic relationships, March madness and cricket season, hidden camera menace, HIV and sex education, and gender and socialization issues. Please listen to Psychology Quarterly podcast episode #1 for the full interview.

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