Thursday, August 24, 2006

The need for changes in behaviour and lifestyles

Traditions: I am always impressed when I witness signs of respect toward older generations of Sri Lankans. The traditional bowing and touching and elder’s feet; addressing elders as an older family member regardless of whether they are related or not, the number of households that take elderly parents and grandparents into their homes - all are widespread and remarkable traditions.

In my opinion, while this respect is incredibly admirable and worthwhile, I wonder whether elders could use their influence to show respect to younger generations. By listening to youngsters’ knowledge and trying to understand their way of life could elders encourage communities of young people to make a contribution to “sustainable development” in the villages and cities of Sri Lanka?

In my conversations with both villagers and Colombo city-dwellers, I have heard from all generations that Sri Lankan society is slowly adapting to the times, but not without challenges, especially opposition from older generations.

I once interviewed a group of women, ranging between 19 and 50 years old from several villages. These women had just sat through a seminar on how to deal with social challenges in their daily family lives.

All admitted to learning new and important information that they would like to use at home. For example, they learned strategies for how to resolve disagreements with their family members and information on health care in the household.

Yet when asked if they would share knowledge they had learned with their family members or neighbours, they agreed unanimously that sharing and even using the information would not be very successful. The group explained to me that people who are used to a certain way of doing things tend to judge those who do things differently.

The 19-year-old in the group, who is pursuing her university degree, conveyed to us her experience of her parents forbidding her to be friends with males in her class. At first, her parents approved and trusted their daughter to pursue genuine (and innocent) friendships. The young woman had trustworthy friends, both males and females, as a result.

Eventually, neighbours began to judge and create rumours about this young woman and her family because of her friendship with young men in her class.

This made it difficult for the family members to conduct their daily lives and ultimately
influenced the parents - who otherwise approved of their daughter’s behaviour - to impose protection of their daughter by controlling her life and choosing whom she should spend time with.

The young woman told me that educating people to think for themselves was a good thing. Still, she asked, “How is it possible to make change if only a few do it at a time and it results in always being judged - or reverting to how things were done in the first place”

The women of the group all agreed that this situation was unfair. They also established that in
today’s society change cannot happen from within a community because people fear their neighbours will judge them as different - and associating with neighbours is an integral part of daily life.

Alternatively, they said if someone takes a stand within a community against what is accepted as the norm within the culture others who do not recognize the purpose of the stance in the first place may think it is simply invalid or assume that the information is meant for specific people in a community - and is potentially insulting to them.

“Change and sharing information must happen from people outside the community,” I was told by the group.

They explained how they enjoyed having educational classes available on ANY topic and how they hoped to have more in the future. They appreciated in particular the topic of managing their daily interactions within the household. Yet, I wondered whether it was sustainable for outsiders to tell a community how to handle life.

Once the seminar is over, then who will pass on the information? Shouldn’t knowledge come from within a community? Will members of a community accept ideas that deviate from what has been done in the past?

UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization) has declared a plan for “Education for All” as part of the Millennium Development Goals that lays out six goals to achieve by 2015. In the third goal, UNESCO raises the importance of “Promoting Learning and Skills for Young People and Adults.”

This goal reminds us that “education is about giving people the opportunity to develop their potential, their personality and their strengths. This does not merely mean learning new knowledge, but also developing abilities to make the most of life.” Creating opportunities for people within a community must include a willingness to accept new information and change.
This group of women - along with their fellow community members - want opportunities and choices in their lives. They hope to gain more knowledge through education and to have the freedom to share what they know with their family and neighbours - without fear of being judged for having ideas that are different from the traditional way of life.

UNESCO’s report on “Educating for a Sustainable Future” highlights that achieving the goal of sustainable development will depend on a transformation of ethical values through adapting traditional ways of life in order to bring people within a society together and achieve their potential for development.

The document declares that means for sustainability in a society requires “changes in behaviour and lifestyles, changes which will need to be motivated by a shift in values and rooted in the cultural and moral precepts upon which behaviour is predicated.”

The women with whom I met - and others like them - have the potential to make real changes happen. In order for socio-economic sustainable development to take place, UNESCO also calls for governments to “recognize and actively advocate for the transformational role of education in realizing human potential...”

My impression is that in Sri Lanka, while educational programs are essential, support for communities reaching their potential will burgeon once a mutual respect from all generations overcomes judging others who try to do things differently.

In order for change to take place, young generations will have to face the challenge of standing up for what they believe in, while older generations will have to invite youths to think for themselves whether they like them or not - learn to accept the new ideas and ways of life that might come up.


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