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New Social Compact

Talking about Sexual Attitudes and Behaviors: A cultural and Social Taboo in Afghanistan

Hamidullah Bamik

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Photo Credit: Rumi Consultancy/World Bank

In June 2018, Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies (2018) published its latest survey entitled “Transition to Adulthood; Sexual Attitudes and Behaviors of Youth in Afghanistan.”The survey has been conducted in a conversation with 1,350 people aged 15 to 34 in 10 largest provinces of Afghanistan. Sediqa Bakhtiari, one of the researchers (2018), articulates that in the survey, the attitude and sexual behavior of youth and adolescents after childhood have been examined.This study echoes that most Afghan youths do not have information about the healthy sexual relationship.In this survey, 36% of the interviewees had no information about AIDS, and only 20% were familiar with safe and healthy relationships. And, 90 percent of those interviewed in this study said that there is a pressing need for sex education in Afghanistan.

The research shows that ignoring the debate on sexual issues has led Afghan young people to go to other sources for obtaining information about sexual matters that do not provide the right information to them. For example, according to this study, 60 percent of Afghan youths use sexy content such as movies and photos that address their sexual instinct. The researchers of this survey argue that using such objects for tackling the sexual needs can have personal and social damage. Its personal damage includes imitation of patterns of misconception, depression, and frustration, mental disorders, and addiction to such content and social damages are encouraging the youth toward committing rape, violence, street harassment and, in some cases, avoidance of marriage (Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies, 2018)

Studies project that widespread rape, honor killings, sexual violence, and child abuse in Afghanistan are the malicious results of lack of information and public awareness about sexual attitudes and behaviors. According to Ruhollah Amin, a psychologist in Afghanistan (BBC, June 29, 2018), talking about sexual needs and issues has a very negative connotation in Afghan society. He argues that even among couples, talking about a sexual relationship is interpreted as bad, embarrassing, and heinous and should be kept secret. In his opinion, this social and cultural censorship has become a self-censorship that causes disorders for a person, and finally, the consequences of such self-censorship rise in other ways that are inconsistent with the cultural and social norms of the society. For instance, jokes and poems that have sexual content and violence are indicative of such cultural censorship in the society (BBC, June 30, 2018). He emphasizes the need for a social and cultural campaign in Afghanistan regarding sexual attitudes and behaviors so that individuals can become aware of their sexual needs legally as a human.

Lack of Sex Education at Afghan Schools

Afghanistan is a traditional country and its people are religious who strongly believe in the traditional Islamic and religious principles. The contents and subjects of school curriculum in Afghanistan are also designed based on these Islamic principles and traditional values of the people(Compilation & Translation, 2003). In 2016, the city of Kabul witnessed a public campaign that broke many of the taboos and traditions in the country.This campaign was specifically talking about sexual attitudes and behaviors of youths and the problems and inadequacies surrounding them in Afghanistan (Horizon News Agency, Oct. 23, 2017).Holding such public awareness programs are very pivotal and vital in this regard but not adequate. Because, first, such campaigns only take place out of schools by private organizations in Afghanistan. Second, these kinds of social and cultural public awareness programs occur in big cities of Afghanistan where far-reaching provinces are not witnessing such campaigns. Third, schools that are considered to be the main training centers for children don’t have any clear and specific programs regarding educating the students about their sexual attitudes and behaviors, unfortunately.

Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission’s annual report (2017) shows that violence against women in Afghanistan has increased by 8.6%. The report states that 5575 cases of violence had been registered in 2017. This figure was 5132 in 2016. Of the total recorded violence, more than 1,500 cases of physical violence, more than 360 cases of sexual violence, more than 1,800 verbal and psychological violence, more than 1,100 cases of economic violence and remaining violence have been reported in response to behaviors that are traditionally are disgraceful. In the reported physical violence section, more than 1,200 cases of beatings, 10 incidents, 57 injuries, 45 forced labor and 234 deaths were included. The Independent Human Rights Commission argues that the statistics do not show the full reality due to the extent of this problem, and many cases of violence against women are likely to remain hidden for reasons of custom and lack of security.

Given the above reasons, it is argued that one of the key factors of violence against women increase in Afghanistan is the shortage of sex education at Afghanistan’s schools. For example, several studies echo that presenting guidance by the teachers about sexual attitudes and behaviors of students at schools will reduce the occurrence of sexual assaults and gender violence in the society. Because girls and boys as teenagers will learn about their sexual attitudes at schools. In other words, sex education will help students how to tackle their sexual problems appropriately, how to respect their opposite sex’s sexual characteristics and not to look at their opposite sex as a physical and biological object but as a human being(Raphael, 2015).

Since there is not any formal education about sexual attitudes and behaviors at schools in Afghanistan, most of the Afghan teenagers and youths obtain information about sexual issues secretly via internet or friends. The Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies survey(2018) projects that this kind of approach toward knowing about sexual matters leads to watching porn movies that eventually result into porn addiction.Moreover, researchers believe that the lack of education at schools and the lack of proper education of parents regarding sexual attitudes and behaviors of youths may create serious cultural and social problems for the health of the entire society. They argue that embedding the topic of sex education in school curriculum can acquaint the children from the stage of childhood to sexual issues. When they grow up, they don’t feel shy talking about their sexual problems and needs in families, among their friends, or referring to a doctor because of their sexual problems. Furthermore, addressing sex education in an integrated education system may provide information for children and adolescents that won’t provoke them toward inappropriate solving their sexual needs. Additionally, providing sex education through schools can help students not to look for other misleading channels for obtaining information about their sexual attitudes and behaviors.

Afghan Society and the Taboo of Sex Conversation

Traditional values that may restrict access to knowledge about sexual attitudes and behaviors might be the main barriers on debating regarding sexual issues among the families and youths in traditional societies(Heinemann, Atallah, & Rosenbaum, 2016).In Afghanistan, there are many reasons that why parents don’t educate their children about sexual issues. First,only 31.741 percent of Afghan adults aged 15 and above are literate that is why most of the parents are not aware of sexual issues due to not being able to read regarding sexual topics (The World Bank, 2011). Second, parents feel shameful and discomfortable of conversing about sexual issues with their progenies thus they have a negative attitude to sexual attitudes and behaviors. Third, most of the parents in Afghanistan feel that if they talk about sexual issues with their children, the respect between them and their children is broken, thus, they neither want nor can to talk about sexual matters with their progenies.

Lack of information about sexual attitudes and behaviors often lead to misconceptions about sexual issues. This ignorance usually manifests itself in the form of shameful, impolite, and culturally abnormal conversation among the families in Afghanistan. Dr. Haidari Nasab, a consultant and member of the family and sexual health group (2017), believes that the question of how to answer children’s inquiries about sexual attitudes and behaviors is a cultural issue. It depends on the culture of each community and the family how to respond and to get acquainted with sexual issues. He argues that the crucial point is that parents and teachers step by step should acquaint the teens and adolescents with sexual attitudes and behaviors. Sexual information provided to a 3-year-old child is very different from that of a 13-year-old girl. On the other hand, the lack of awareness and refusal to answer of puberty and sexual questions can provoke the curiosity of the newly-raised teenager, therefore, the family is the most important social elements that should give enough information and guidance to their teens in this respect.

In Afghanistan, since there is no formal sex education at school, and parents are not talking about sexual attitudes and behaviors with their progenies either, there is a risk that Afghan youths may become familiar inappropriately with sexual issues out of the home. Studies hold that educating teens and adolescents about sexual issues by parents and schools is a safe and healthy way. While gaining information about sexual needs and issues via friends and Internet may provoke teens and adolescents to commit sexual violence, rape, teasing their opposite sex in the society, and other abnormal deeds.

Recommendations for Policy Implications

First, as schools are the main hubs of education for children, scholars are in this belief that school teachers should instruct the students that sexuality is a natural, normal, and healthy part of life. They should provide value-based education and offer students the opportunity to explore and define their individual values as well as the values of their families and communities. The discussion between teachers and students should include a wide variety of sexuality-related topics, such as human development, relationships, interpersonal skills, sexual expression, sexual health, society,and culture. The conversation should be based on the accurate and factual information.

Second, since most of the families in Afghanistan, particularly in the countryside, don’t have information about their sexual attitudes and behaviors, Ministry of Education in collaboration with Ministry of Public Health through school administrators should start public awareness campaigns in this regard. These campaigns should be held at schools and mosques. The campaigners should discuss the importance of knowing sexual attitudes and behaviors with the local people. They should tell the families that having information about sexual issues is not shameful and bad culturally and socially, but very vital and important for the health and social safety of their families and communities. Because, it is necessary for the parents and teachers, first of all, to receive the appropriate information for instructing teens, and then they can answer their questions related to sexual attitudes and behaviors.

Finally, parents and teachers should create a sincere and faithful relationship with children in conversing with them regarding sexuality and sexual issues. Because as long as there is no trust between parents and teachers, teens and adolescents can’t share their sexual problems and issues with them. Doing so, parents and teachers can reduce the risk of referring teens and adolescents to illegal and inappropriate channels for seeking the answers to their questions related to sexual attitudes.

Hamidullah Bamik is a Fulbright Scholar, education policy analyst, and a social development researcher. His research focus is on girl’s education and women empowerment, gender equality, good governance, and socio-economic development in South Asia but particularly Afghanistan. He has worked with World Bank Capacity Building Projectsat Supreme Audit Office of Afghanistan from 2013 to 2018 as a capacity building consultant. Currently, he is working as a social development researcher at Asia Culture House, a non-profit cultural and art organization based in Kabul, Afghanistan. Additionally, he is a frequent contributor on sociopolitical, socioeconomic, and social developmentissuesto Outlook and Etilaatroz, the two leading Newspapers in Afghanistan, and Modern Diplomacy, a leading European opinion-maker with far-reaching influence across the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.

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New Social Compact

Joker &the Pathology of Violence

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image: Warner Bros

JOKER, director Todd Phillips and renowned actor Joaquin Phoenix’s new take on an infamous comic book villain, will hit the big screen this weekend.  It has garnered prestigious awards (such as the Golden Lion), laudatory critic reviews & is expected to attract hordes of eager moviegoers.  However, JOKER has also inspired ominous think-pieces from publications such as The Atlantic and Vox.  Additionally, the US military and the NYPD have expressed concern that the film could inspire violence.

These detractors of JOKER are arguing that the film glorifies “incel violence” and is thus likely to inspire acts as incel violence.  This logic has been used ad nauseam to condemn everything from comic books, to video games, to martial arts, to Marilyn Manson to hip-hop.  No credible study has proven that art that portrays violence causes real-world violence.  Some people may point out that extreme outliers, like white-supremacist music, could cause violence.  However, it would be more logical to argue the opposite: people who compose and listen to white-supremacist music were already enmeshed in a violent ideology.  Likewise, genocidal propaganda tends not to focus on explicitly glorifying violence for violence’s sake, but in portraying groups of people as sub-human (Tutsis being compared to roaches, Jews being portrayed as greedy and treasonous, etc.).  It’s thus a process of long, gradated inculcation.  As Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels realized, there’s no reverse-Ludovico Technique that can magically turn people into killing machines by quickly showing them a two-hour film.

Now, it is true that a few violent criminals have cited works of art as inspiration for their actions.  This is statistically inevitable, but insignificant.  There are bound to be a few outliers who have bizarre interpretations on art, just as there are a few people who have been inspired to commit acts of terrorism based on personal interpretations of religion or politics.  It’s no more logical to suggest that we ban violent video games or art because of mass shootings than to suggest we ban Buddhism because of Aum Shinrikyo’s gas attack on the Tokyo subway, or that we should ban Irish patriotism because of the IRA.  Furthermore, some violent lunatics have been inspired by works of art, such as John Lennon’s killer citing Catcher in the Rye, that aren’t even violent in nature.  Clearly, the people who commit mass killings are incredibly unhinged individuals who are in a violent frame of mind, regardless of what media they consume.  Likewise, 99.99% of people who play FPS games or who watch slasher flicks aren’t going to go on a shooting rampage or create a torture dungeon in their basement.

To return things to JOKER itself, the film in no way “glorifies” violence.  For starters, half of the violence is inflicted on the main character (the “incel hero”); there are two scenes where The Joker gets jumped mercilessly and a third scene where he gets sucker-punched in the face.  The violent acts that The Joker himself commits are portrayed in a very gruesome manner (in one scene with The Joker and a neighbor of his, the violence isn’t even shown, but is merely implied).  When The Joker bashes someone’s head in or shoots someone point-blank, there are no crass jokes, inspirational music or voiceovers quoting The Art of War. The plotline doesn’t imply any justification for the killings.  When someone gets killed in the film, audience-goers don’t hoot and holler like they would in a screening of a zombie film or a Nazi-revenge flick like Inglorious Basterds.  Rather, there is an awkward pall of silence in the theater at the nihilistic spectacle.

JOKER makes it very clear that the title character’s violence is motivated by nothing but his utter insanity.  The Joker descends into a killing machine after being released from an asylum and after he stops taking seven different psych meds (which weren’t helping him much, anyway).  When being interviewed, he admits that he isn’t compelled by any ideology whatsoever.  Rather, The Joker literally views the act of killing as a joke. 

Nor does The Joker gain any tangible reward for his violence; he gets fired from his job, arrested, hit by an ambulance and committed to an asylum as a direct result of his actions. Joaquin Phoenix’s character gets a thrill from the media coverage that his killings elicit (and a standing ovation from fellow thugs in the film’s penultimate scene), but that not’s a real reward, but rather a feeling that many real-life killers in fact get when they are portrayed in the news.  For instance, the as-yet unidentified Zodiac Killer literally played games with Bay Area news outlets, sending them letters that boasted about his kills, contained cryptic puzzles and threatened to blow up a school bus if he didn’t receive even more media attention.  Many other serial killers who were apprehended were found to have hoarded newspaper clippings that documented their crimes.  Similarly, coverage of a mass shooting often inspires “copycat mass shootings”.  The takeaway from this is that the media should be careful about inadvertently turning stories about mass shootings and terror attacks into personal biographies of the killer.  When covering these kinds of attacks, some news outlets, like The Young Turks and The David Pakman Show, deliberately choose to blur the killers’ faces and avoid naming them, so as not to give the killers the attention that they wanted to garner and to avoid inspiring other violently-deranged individuals who crave attention.

The fact that JOKER doesn’t merely portray the villain as an Evil-Incarnate caricature doesn’t mean that it is therefore glorifying violence.  The audience is meant to sympathize with The Joker when he get jumped without warning or when he talks about the crippling depression that he has felt for literally his entire life.  There are scenes showing The Joker comforting his mother and entertaining sick children.  The mere fact that The Joker is portrayed as a full human being, good traits and bad traits, doesn’t mean the film is justifying how he releases his violent rage.  No human is evil 100% of the time: there is no villain who tortures hamsters 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  It is only by studying the causes of violent criminals’ various motivations that we can ever hope to ebb the tide of violence.  Most violent criminals have suffered from childhood abuse, childhood poverty, a missing parental figure, bullying and/or mental illness (The Joker had to deal with all five of these traumas).  By empathizing with these plights, we can create programs (drug treatment programs, stamping out bullying in school, removing children from abusive households, etc.) that can reduce violent crime.

It’s not comfortable to acknowledge that history’s most evil people had humanity or that societal norms (like persecuting people, tolerating child abuse or underfunding mental illness and addiction treatment programs) can fuel violence.  It’s evident that Todd Phillips, through his direction and screenplay, and Joaquin Phoenix, through his tortured portrayal of The Joker, meant to give us a glimpse into the mind of a demented killer, not so we can sympathize with the protagonist’s brutal violence, but so we can sympathize with the myriad factors that drove the protagonist to criminal insanity.  The nearly uniform media portrayals of mentally-ill individuals as Pure Evil only serves to misinform the public and to scare those suffering from mental disorders from seeking help.  Hopefully, the discussions being generated by JOKER will encourage people to learn more about complex diseases like schizophrenia and to be more proactive in reaching out to loved ones who are displaying signs of mental anguish.

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New Social Compact

Women outnumber men in higher education but gender stereotyped subject choices persist

MD Staff

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Education is essential to achieving gender equality. From the earliest schooling to the highest levels of post-graduate study, education influences the opportunities that can shape people’s lives.

This is why education and training of women is one of the 12 critical areas of concern in the Beijing Platform for Action, while target 4.5 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) calls for the elimination of gender disparities in education by 2030.

In the UNECE region girls tend to outperform boys in terms of learning outcomes in schools, and women outnumber men in tertiary education (university level and beyond) in almost all countries of the region.

Women remain in the minority, however, as students of stereotypically “masculine” subjects such as ICT and engineering, although in recent years they have begun slowly gaining ground.

Tertiary level graduates

In 39 out of the 47 UNECE countries with data, more than 55 per cent of tertiary graduates are women. Iceland has the highest share, with 66 per cent women.  Seven countries are close to gender parity, with the share of women ranging from 48 to 55 per cent, and only in Uzbekistan are women in a clear minority, with 38 per cent of tertiary graduates.

After decades of increase in women’s participation in higher education, women substantially outnumbered men among tertiary level graduates in most countries by 2012. Since then, women’s share has declined in 32 out of the 47 countries with data. Whilst in Azerbaijan and Turkey fewer than half of tertiary graduates were women in 2012, more women have entered tertiary education in these countries since and the 2017 data already show gender parity there. 

Subject choices of women and men

The subjects studied at tertiary level by women and men can reflect stereotypes of “masculine” and “feminine” subject areas. Some subjects may be preferred by potential employers and may affect occupational segregation once graduates enter the labour market. Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and Engineering, Manufacturing and Construction (EMC) are two broad groups of subjects where male students have historically predominated.

Women remain a minority among ICT students in the UNECE region, with percentages ranging from 11 in Belgium to 33 in Greece. The four countries with the largest share of women among ICT students are all in the Balkan region. Among students of EMC, the share of women is somewhat higher, but still falls far short of parity, ranging from 14 per cent in Georgia to 44 per cent in North Macedonia.

In both of these subject groups, the recent trend shows small gains for women in some countries but reductions in others. Overall, progress towards gender equality in these two typically male-dominated subject areas is uneven and slow.

UNECE Beijing+25 Regional Review Meeting

Progress in achieving gender equality in education will be one of the areas in focus at the upcoming Beijing+25 Regional Review Meeting for the UNECE region, with a particular emphasis on how women and girls can enter currently male-dominated fields.

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action of 1995 (Beijing Platform for Action) is the most ambitious road map for the empowerment of women and girls everywhere. In 2020, it will be 25 years since the Beijing Platform for Action outlined how to overcome the systemic barriers that hold women back from equal participation in all areas of life. 

The Beijing+25 Regional Review Meeting (29-30 October 2019) will take stock of where the UNECE region stands on keeping the promises of the Beijing Platform for Action. Bringing together government representatives and key stakeholders from the UNECE region, the meeting will tackle a number of obstacles that keep girls and women from realizing their full potential. UNECE is joining forces with the UN Women Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia to deliver a two-day multi-stakeholder meeting to exchange concrete policies to accelerate the realization of gender equality. The outcomes of the meeting will feed into the global review of the Beijing Platform for Action taking place at the sixty-fourth session of the Commission on the Status of Women in New York from 9 to 20 March 2020.

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New Social Compact

Call for Action from Leaders and Business on Violence against Women

Newsroom

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Spiralling levels of violence against women in Africa require immediate action from governments and businesses, including tangible measures to create safe spaces, experts from across the continent told the World Economic Forum on Africa today.

Protesters in South Africa have taken to the streets and social media to demand action, following the rape and murder of a Cape Town university student who was attacked in a post office. Uyinene Mrwetyana was just the latest of many victims of brutal assaults in a region where approximately 45% of women and girls over 14 years have experienced physical or sexual violence.

“I’m dumbfounded by the idea that we can continue with business as usual,” said Namhla Mniki-Mangaliso, Director of African Monitor, who urged technology companies to take a lead in delivering solutions. “It would take a click of a finger for a tech company to say we are going to deploy a software that can assist us with an emergency response system for poor women in South Africa free of charge.”

The potential for technology to help in the fightback highlights the need for businesses to think creatively, given that cyberbullying can also contribute to discrimination in the first place. Mniki-Mangaliso said the wider business community should also step up to the plate by backing a gender-based fund to address the deep-rooted problems behind the rising tide of physical and sexual assaults.

Hafsat Abiola-Costello, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Women in Africa Initiative, said Africa could learn from China, where decisive action was taken to ban harmful practices like foot binding and polygamy. African governments, by contrast, too often fail to enforce bans on polygamy or genital mutilation, thereby reinforcing a culture of discrimination against women that becomes embedded from childhood.

The failure to protect women is not just a moral issue; it also comes with a high economic cost. “Who drives African communities? It’s our women. Our women can drive Africa’s development, if given the chance, if protected, if their rights are respected,” Abiola-Costello said. “Africa missed the first industrial revolution, we missed the second, we missed the third. If we don’t address this issue, we will miss the fourth.”

Obiageli Katryn Ezekwesili, who spearheaded the #BringBackOurGirls campaign in Nigeria and is a fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy, said calls for women to help drive African development will simply ring hollow if violence is not addressed. “The world lacks the moral pedestal to stand on to ask girls to aspire if we cannot have the back of those who are vulnerable,” she said.

With 16,000 deaths due violence against in women every year in South Africa alone, Akudo Anyanwu, Associate Dean at Johns Hopkins University, said: “Our presidents and the leaders in government need to come out and take a position. We need to have our leaders come out and call crimes a crime.”

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