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Serenity emanates from her like a visible presence. One senses a calmness, a tolerance and a going peacefully amidst the noise and the bustle that is today's world.
Renowned counsellor Anne Abeysekera pauses for a brief while before expressing her thoughts on our times and our morals.
"Yes, times have certainly changed," she says thoughtfully.
"Social barriers that earlier inhibited individuals do not wield as strong an influence now. What one should or should not do is defined more by one's individual consciousness rather than by a collective consciousness. We are still adjusting to all this. We are in a period of transition," she says.
We are discussing the paradox of change. The nineties is seeing the culmination of an explosion of thought that brought many issues out of the close for open debate and discussion. What was unmentionable before like homosexuality, ordination of women as priests, wife battering and even to a lesser extent, social realities such as divorce and abortion has now become part of the everyday conversation of people. There is a greater honesty, a greater willingness to confront and come to terms with the evil that men and women do as well as the good. On the other hand, however, the old values are no longer relevant, society sees less stability and order, and nobody is quite certain as to where this new age of sexual, ethical and religious freedom draws the line.
While Western societies in a sense, heralded this revolution of individual freedom, it affected the East in different ways as well. The influence of the global village has been glimpsed less in other South Asian countries with their fundmentalist religious traditions there in Sri Lanka which welcomed this new ride of information sweeping in with mere ferver than caution. In the villages, in particular, the advent of television put forward hitherto alien and startling ideas and suggestions into impressionable minds. Meanwhile, society was also seeing the breakdown of the extended family structure and established traditions and values instilled by family elders and the priests. Add to this, the total absence of any well planned educational system that attempted to teach young persons to make rational choices and one gets a truly explosive social mixture that is made all the more dangerous by the existence of a protracted war within the country. Small wonder it is then that Sri Lanka records the highest rate of suicide in the world.
"Quite recently, a visitor to Sri Lanka asked me as to how it is that young people in this country do not seem to see any other option to their problems than suicide. It was difficult to answer her. As a society, we seem to have failed pretty badly, "comments Anne Abeysekera.
The one time journalist who says she went in to counselling simply because she "liked people and wanted to help them out with their problems," has seen several transformations taking place in Sri Lanka's national psyche in her lifetime. She cites certain changes that she sees which gives her a fair amount of disquiet. She points out that today, there appears to exist a culture of instant gratification. In many instances, the argument is that the end justifies the means, however unpleasant and questionable that might be. Very little appears to defer many of todays adults in their pursuit of what they feel is necessary for them, even another person's happiness and peace of mind. Casual infidelity, for example, has become very common in Sri Lanka now. For Anne, born in the twenties and growing in to womanhood in the forties, what is most troubling is the manner in which these once deadly social sins are casually accepted as a matter of course now.
So, society has changed. Perhaps for the worse, than for the better. But what about the argument that women's emancipation is one factor that has led to this situation? How credible do you think this argument is?
Anne dismisses the idea with vigour. "That is nonsense. It is true that specially in this country, women are changing rapidly. They are less willing to put up with what their mothers might have just accepted before. Reliable contraceptive methods have given the young woman a greater sexual freedom. But these are healthy developments. What should be emphasized with today's adults is that this kind of freedom.is best exercised responsibly,"she says.
She points out that today's marriages are a partnership effort rather than a domination by one partner of the other. Most Sri Lankan men have not however, yet become accustomed to this change in the attitudes of women, though they may belong to the same generation. Men are still patterned in the behaviour and thought structures of their mothers. This is where much of the conflict arises. In this too therefore, Sri Lankan adults are in a process of transition.
The majority of problems that Anne Abeysekera has had to deal with through individual counselling and the highly popular Problem Page in the Lanka Woman concern dysfunctional families. Some particular instances that strike her as being peculiarly poignant concern children.
"It is tragic that adults do not realise how much responsibility they have to take in deciding to bring children into the world," she muses.
"Very often, parenting is entered into casually. When the parents have problems, they use the children against each other. The resultant trauma on the children is sometimes irreparable." she says.
She talks about one case where a child had been involved in a bitter custody battle in a divorce action between the parents. The child was told that she would be summoned to court to give evidence as to which parent she would prefer to live with. Meanwhile, the parents had vied with each other to buy her support. When the father bought her a book to read the mother bought her five books, the grandmother gifted her jewellery quite unsuitable for a child of that age.
"The child was eventually brought to me because she had psychological trauma. She kept on saying, "This is crazy. Why should I choose between my parents. I do not understand", says Anne.
Very often morever, children emulate the way their parents behave. They look on their parents very naturally as role models. In another instance, a boy was brought for counselling by his father who complained that the boy was rude, rebellious and out of control. It was only after Anne talked to the boy himself and to his mother that she realised that the boy was imitating the father.
"But I could not get the father to understand this. He would not acknowledge his own fault," she explains.
In all her experience gained through years of counselling, she feels that children instinctively prefer their parents to stay together even in an unhappy marriage. For instance an eighteen year old girl had once come for advice regarding her father who had an illegitimate child through an extra marital affair. The child still wanted the father to stay on in the marriage inspite of all this.
"One cannot make a general judgement and say that it is better for warring parents to stay together just because the children wish then to. The effects that their fights may have on the children may be ultimately as bad or worse than their breaking up. It all depends on the individual case, "she adds. She counsels however, that parents breaking up should be honest with their children. It should be explained that adults too have problems and that these problems are the reason why the marriage partnership is breaking up. Children need to be continually reassured that they are not the reason why their parents marriage no longer exists.
Perhaps the best method of damage control in Sri Lankan society today would be a healthy education on human development in schools. Sex education in schools is only very reluctantly taking off the ground. Many teachers resist the change, fearing that exposure to such facts might lead to a greater liberalism. But what opponents of this fail to realise is that today's teenager is in any sense sexually aware. in this context it is best that this awareness should be moulded in a healthy manner rather than left to develop willy nilly.
"What is most tragic is that though we have the four great religions in this country, somehow the values taught in the religious traditions are not being properly filtered down to the young," says Anne.
I asked her whether the practice of seeking advice by going to a professional counseller is widely prevalent in Sri Lanka. Most often, the attitude is that one goes for counselling only when one has a nervous breakdown and that there is something wrong about those persons, who seek professional help. She agrees that this attitude is still very prevalent in Sri Lanka.
"This is a totally wrong perception. Counsellors actually do not give advice. What we do is help people to explore the options available and decide on what is best for them in their situation. We help them to help themselves." she emphasizes.
Very often, mere talking about a problem that vexes one's mind has a healing effect. Anne remembers an instance where an old man who was now living on his pension had travelled from his village to meet her. 'He sat there for an hour pouring out all his problems and saying that his family which included his wife and children now totally ignored him. I felt so sorry for hm and I told him that I felt verry inadequate, not being able to do more than listen. Immediately, he replied, "But, that is not true. You have helped me in every way you could by just letting me talk to you," says Anne.
Anne Abeysekera is nearing her seventies now. She smiles as I disagree strongly with her when she wonders about as to whether she should give up counselling because she is getting to be too old. One can only wish for mere voices like hers in the chaos that passes for life today.
As dusk falls over the city and suburbs, households are assaulted by swarms of mosquitoes. Avoiding the little insects is near impossible. Everyday thousands of coils are burnt in a vain effort to keep away the mosquitoes, but many complain that now many brands of coils have little effect on these insects. Those people used to sleeping under electric fans to avoid mosquitoes are rudely jolted from their sleep with the power cut.
Sprays, insecticides, electric mosquito pellets and body lotions are also used to prevent the menace but never so successfully as to avoid the stings completely.
Simultaneously, there has been a notable increase in the incidence on mosquito-spread diseases like filaria and dengue hemorrhagic fever in the city and suburbs. The Dehiwela Mt.Lavinia area especially has a very high number of filariasis cases reported.
"Every day we have to use about five coils." Lekha, a mother of three children said. "This means we have to spend an extra Rs.10-12 every day. It is impossible to keep out the mosquitoes otherwise. As soon as the coil burns out the mosquitoes are back again."
Ranil Fernando, residing in Wellawatte said that two of his children had to be treated for filariasis during the last three years. "We use coils, mosquito nets and asked the municipality to spray the area, but the problem still continues. I am very worried because it is a recurring disease and the doctors warned to keep the mosquitoes away." he said.
We learn that the Secretary of the Ministry of Health, Dr Dudley Dissanayake has now initiated an action programme with the aim of eliminating the mosquito nuisance from the city. With the co-ordination of the Anti Malaria Campaign there is a programme to educate the public and eliminate breeding places. But The Sunday Times was unable to gather the relevant information regarding the control programme due to the reluctance of the relevant officials to divulge any information.
The municipalities and local authorities are involved in mosquito control programmes in their respective areas. These progammes involve spraying breeding places with larvicide and various awareness campaigns to try to eliminate breeding spots in households .
Ranjith Wickremasinghe, Health Officer at Colombo Municipal Council said that they spray an insecticide called Baytex to destroy mosquito larvae. But it is difficult to control the breeding because there are certain areas of canal-ways and the drain system which are not accessible to the labourers of the municipality who go about spraying the city.
Certain canals are completely blocked by garbage. "The stagnant waters of these canals breed enough mosquitoes for an entire city," said Wickremasinghe at the site of the Vanatamulla canal.
"The drainage system of this country is such that there are many underground drains. These get blocked by garbage and the waterways stagnate underground, making it difficult for the spray to reach the spots," Wickremasinghe said.
Some houses are built upon drains thus blocking access to them.
"I do my best. But because of these factors it is impossible to completely eliminate mosquitoes breeding."
The larvaecide spray used is an expensive formula costing Rs. 175000 for 100 gallons. Therefore it cannot be used in liberal doses, Wickremasinghe said.
The municipality also does random sample checks to see whether the larvae has responded to the spraying.
The Dehiwala-Mt. Lavinia Municipal Council has also implemented a programme under which the households are individually checked for mosquito breeding places.
Dr. A.P. Hemachandra of the Municipality said that they have a mosquito committee that includes the health officers, the PHIs, the midwives, Samurdhi niyamakas and the police in order to clear the area of mosquito breeding.
"We will issue each household a card. The visiting health workers will list the potential breeding places in that household and then go for regular checks to see if these places have been eliminated."
Even open cess pits could breed mosquitoes, Dr. Hemachandra said. The filariasis mosquito breeds in water that is stagnant and polluted like septic tanks.
She explained that the municipality area had a problem of unplanned urbanization and slums, where there are many potential breeding places, like tyres, plastic cups and open pits. This area also has a problem of garbage being carelessly thrown into canals, marshes and roadside drains creating ideal breeding places for mosquitoes.
During the past one-gand-a half years there had been four cases of Dengue reported from that area. Statistics relating to the incidence of filaria in the Dehiwala -Mt. Lavinia area could not be obtained from the Anti Filaria Campaign at Kalubowila without the written permission of the Secretary of Health - who could not be contacted over the telephone.
The Colombo Medical Faculty research on mosquito related diseases also has a study on filariasis. Dr. Abeywickrema, who is involved in this research work, said that there study in the Peliyagoda area showed that 3-4 percent of the population have been infected with filaria. He said that the Faculty was in the process of testing a new drug for the filaria infection.
Disease is only a part of the mosquito menace. The urban areas are swarming with nuisance mosquitoes who are not disease vectors but are yet, not pleasant companions in the evenings. Their bites could result in allergies and wounds.
Industries that thrive under these circumstances are those manufacturing or exporting chemicals used for mosquito control.
Manufacturers of mosquito repellent coils are doing good business. Hayleys, who market Baygon coils said that their sales have been soaring for the past year or so. They said that their products are tested by the Sri Lanka Standards Institution for the correct percentage of ingredients. The active ingredient in coils is D-allethrin and coil manufacturers claimed that there is no problem of mosquitoes developing resistance to the substance. Regular tests on the level of D-allethrin in coils is being carried out. "If there are complaints of resistance, it must be due to wrong usage," one manufacturer said.
The focus of most mosquito control programmes is towards creating awareness. "The best way to tackle this menace is to educate people and make them clean up their own households." Dr. Hemachandra said. "By controlling mosquito breeding in houses we can reduce the mosquito population by half," she said.
To test the success of their programmes , the Municipality health officers make random checks on the sale of mosquito coils in the area. The number of coils sold is an indication of the problem. As the control programme was still at its initial stages the results are not so obvious, Dr. Hemachandra said.
Although awareness appeared to be a key issue, it was disheartening that the Ministry of Health was not forthcoming with their message to the public. Several attempts made by The Sunday Times to obtain an interview with the relevant officials of the mosquito control programme during the last three weeks was of no avail.
It is certain that the urban populace will have to suffer through the mosquito menace for several years to come. Until the underground drains and stagnant canals are all cleaned and flushed out, no amount of projects, programmes and meetings would help. The root of the problem has to be addressed until then there would be no real relief from the mosquito.
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