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Effect of our culture

Dirk Jena
Tuesday, January 15, 2013

THE United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) mandate — maternal health, adolescent sexual and reproductive health, gender equality and reproductive rights and population dynamics — covers some of the most sensitive issues in our society today.

Apply this in the context of cultural practices and you can imagine the "natural" barriers we need to negotiate to ensure that everyone — whether rural-based or urban-dwelling, regardless of ethnicity, age, gender, religious or political affiliation — counts in decision-making, in accessing basic amenities, in enjoying their human rights, etc.

For UNFPA culture is what impacts on and informs the way we think, how we act and what we believe. The nature of our work requires us to be culturally-sensitive and we do not take lightly the fact that 70 per cent of people identify themselves as members of a spiritual, religious or social group.

We work in an environment where for example a country has criminalised female genital mutilation but the practice persists because of how deeply embedded it is in people's minds and customs. Another example is the pervasive nature of violence against women, because of inequality and inequity, and most likely another host of causes which we haven't yet understood. This is why globally-speaking, you will see us approaching gender, culture and human rights together.

Culture is created by people and can be changed by them as well. An example I could borrow from Fiji is the trend of an increasing number of iTaukei families who are organising funerals in one day as opposed to elaborate ceremonials marking the burua, the tuva ulu, the fourth night, etc. The longer this simplified version is practised by more Fijians, the more likely it is that this change could become "the culture" - only time will tell.

Cultural traditions and beliefs are often stronger than laws; while the latter is critical for maintaining societal law and order it does not necessarily bring about behavioural change. For this change to actually happen, it has to become the object of one or another socialisation process, thus generated from within individuals, households and communities as a whole: to be effective, people must internalise and own their change.

In 2012, the UNFPA decided to take a step into the field of education although among our United Nations (UN) sister organisations, we are not really the authority if you will on education - this would be more UNESCO's cup of tea.

The intricate linkage between socialisation, the social norms and values shaping sexuality and human reproduction, and the role of our schools therein pushed us into this field because as the UN agency that is primarily concerned with adolescent sexual and reproductive health issues, we felt obliged to salvage a dying project to ensure that an educational component close to our mandate survived.

The decision was also very much in response to the countries' interest in the family life education program — to salvage what countries had retained from many decades of co-operation in sexuality education or develop from scratch.

Capacity-building for both Ministry of Education staff who would write family life education curriculum and teachers who would deliver the syllabus was initiated and we worked with the education ministries to create an enabling environment (through policies and national education frameworks) for the integration of reproductive health education.

The main difference between the content of family life before and now is that instead of a clinical, factual approach that is typical of science subjects, the new format is bolstered by life skills components creating a holistic education for the child. This is why the curriculum-writing and teacher-training stages are essential - those involved have to be oriented and appreciative of the curriculum to effectively implement it as there are aspects that will challenge teachers and curriculum writers' worldviews, particularly their cultural beliefs.

The vigour with which the countries have taken on this particular issue has been phenomenal to say the least and we acknowledge the courage of decision-makers who have chosen to act on trends like how our children are beginning to reach puberty earlier. Primary school intervention is critical in this context - it is best they learn of the emotional and physical changes they are feeling before it occurs. As well, early intervention will give children confidence to talk about incidences of touches or advances they are uncomfortable with.

We at UNFPA are under no illusion that it will be easy from now on. There are still attitudes which may need to change, considerate of this day and age of information that exposes our children to knowledge that we cannot always control. We believe however that it may be much safer that children learn age-appropriate and culturally-sensitive life skills from trained teachers rather than develop a worldview informed by prejudices and misinformation.

And what does all this have to do with culture? As a people and a region, we have an opportunity to develop a regional culture where our children grow up as responsible and respectful adolescents because their education delivery system was holistic, and through centuries of trial and error, in oneness with their habitat.

We are also, as a region, at the cusp of changing the status quo of pedagogy to be a lot more reflective of our needs and realities. It depends on us today to decide on cultural positives we can carry on and to identify areas that need bold decision-making in support of resource utilisation and a sustainable ecology, to leave behind a legacy of a culture that future generations will be proud of.

But we all will have to want it; you have to own it if you are to create a lasting culture of mutual respect regardless of ethnicity, age, political or religious affiliation and/or gender, nurtured through our school systems.

Decades of experience with sexuality education in particular and development co-operation in general have taught us that new challenges will come up which may undo many of the well-intentioned investments we have made. In the area of sexual and reproductive health, the emergence of the HIV&AIDS pandemic is a case in point, it challenged many of the successful investments that we'd already made in what was called family life education.

In the area of food security, culturally-appropriate ways of feeding have been challenged by industrial food production to the extent that the incidence of non-communicable diseases needed to be declared as a state of emergency in the Pacific.

Time has therefore come for a third generation of sexuality education that is truly inclusive of how we are all required to appropriately deal with global changes in the way we often inappropriately deal with many of our basic needs.

The right of our children to a responsive, comprehensive, relative curriculum must cease being a mere statement of intent: it should and we can make it a reality in the Pacific; what this can do to the future leaders and people of this region is anyone's guess.

My plea therefore is that all concerned UN agencies would come together in a single UN Joint Program on Basic Teachings for Life to recombine the intricately-linked series of contemporary hazards to ourselves and our children into a meaningful whole, and above all to turn us into critical consumers of the many goodies offered at the altar of capitalism.

* Dirk Jena is the director and representative of the United Nations Population Fund Pacific sub-regional office.