Despite the high literacy rate of 96.7% in Sri Lanka, there is a widespread lack of knowledge and awareness in respect to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) in the country. This was reflected in a survey conducted by the UNFPA in 2017 which concluded that the SRH care and rights knowledge is not up to a ‘standard level’.
Also other studies show that 50% of young people are unaware about most aspects of basic sexual and reproductive issues. National Youth Health Survey 2013 & 2014, the Sri Lankan government, UNFPA, UNICEF and 66% of girls in Sri Lanka are not aware of menstruation until their first occurrence – (Menstrual Hygiene Management in Schools in South Asia, UNICEF, WaterAID, 2015).
Such rates are much greater in the marginalised communities, especially people living with disabilities. 8.7% of the population of Sri Lanka are living with disabilities . It is the obligation of all States to ensure that all people have access to quality, comprehensive SRH care and rights.
While major progress has been achieved in the recent past, the marginalised communities, particularly people living with visual and hearing impairments undergo numerous difficulties in communicating knowledge regarding their SRH. Such issues were commonplace during the time of the island wide lockdown imposed as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Having the above issue in mind, the Youth Advocacy Network Sri Lanka (YANSL) in 2015 initiated the ‘We Hear You’ project in 2015. The first Phase of the project was the development of a sign language glossary with the support of UNFPA Sri Lanka and the Ministry of Social Services.
In 2018 YANSL expanded the initiative further and collaborated with the Ceylon School for the Deaf, Ratmalana, organised a series of programmes of awareness for both present and past students as well as teachers on matters regarding SRHR, GBV and HIV. The first of the three phases was to educate both youth and adults pupils of the Ceylon School for the Deaf on issues and clarifications pertaining to SRH care and rights.
The second phase was several mobile health consultancies with healthcare professionals to enable individuals with hearing impairments to have one-on-one sessions with medical professionals to clarify matters regarding hygiene, sexual health, relationship matters, SGBV and issues pertaining to STIs.
The British Council Sri Lanka supported this venture and the YANSL extends its gratitude for the support rendered. A large number of individuals made it an opportunity to reach out to the healthcare experts to get support and services for stress, depression, difficulties pertaining to mental health which such individuals had to endure at home or the workplace.
Both phases one and two took place at the Ceylon School for the Deaf, Ratmalana, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The YANSL commends the remarkable efforts of the Past Pupil’s Association of the Ceylon School for the Deaf, Ratmalana, the interpreters and medical professionals for making the first two phases a great success.
The above was followed by the third phase to restructure and convert modes of communication on SRHR related matters in which individuals with hearing impairments are better able to access such information. This was contemplated to be a long-term initiative, thus the YANSL made arrangements to create an online platform for the benefit of individuals with hearing impairments to access information regarding SRH care and rights.
The website was launched at the Hilton Residencies in Colombo on April 3, which was graced by a number of dignitaries. The event was held with strict adherence to COVID-19 safety regulations and health guidelines.
This website will cater specifically to people with hearing disabilities to find information on SRHR and related services, the website will also be accessible for the general public and other young people who may wish to find information on SRHR.
Speaking at the event Ms. Maarya Rehman, the Country Director of British Council Sri Lanka stated, “Sri Lanka women and girls experience gender based violence, cyber bullying, harassment and low female employment. British Council is proud to support Youth Advocacy Network Sri Lanka through this grant focusing on supporting access to sexual and reproductive health rights and information so women and girls can make informed choices. This project will reduce vulnerabilities and overcome barriers and stigma. Through this digital nature of the project, the potential for longevity and sustainability through its wider reach. British Council hopes more parents will engage with this project in the future”.
Further, Dakshitha Wickramaratne, the Co-founder of the Youth Advocacy Network stated, “There is a lack of information on sexual and reproductive health rights as it is a taboo topic and specific challenge for the deaf community to access this information. The ‘We Hear You Project’ is a defining moment in the sexual and reproductive health rights movement in Sri Lanka. While there is work done by the Ministry of Health, other youth led organizations, it is defining because Youth Advocacy Network Sri Lanka has approached the project with an intersectional angle rather than silo perspective”.