Education in Sri Lanka: Financial Bribes vs Sexual Bribes

‘Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.’ – UDHR Article 26:1

Sri Lanka has incorporated Article 26:1 of the UDHR into the Constitution of 1978, through its Article 12:1 & 2 ‘All persons are equal before the law and are entitled to the equal protection of the law. No citizen shall be discriminated against on the grounds of race, religion, language, caste, sex, political opinion, place of birth or any one of such grounds.’

Sri Lanka is a country that has the highest level of literacy [99%] among its South Asian neighbors. In Sri Lanka education is free; from Primary Education until the completion of the first degree in the national universities – where access to it, is not discriminated based on gender. Having a compulsory education system makes the parents to invest much money to educate their children – regardless of their gender.

Even though the education is free, admissions to reputed leading schools become a challenge. Parents realizing the importance of having their children schooled in prestigious environments, with advanced learning facilities, that would support to high ranks, and pave the path for university admissions, become willing to pay high amounts of money to concerned authorities to obtain admissions from these schools.

High ransoms are an indirect demand from the authorities of the Department of Education, and of the Principals of the particular schools. These amounts can range from 200,000 Sri Lankan rupees, to even a million or more. Since many cannot afford to send their children to semi-government schools, private schools or international schools, where admission and term fees are very high, they decide to pay ransoms to the authorities instead.

Authorities receive these ransoms that could be termed as ‘bribes’ under the pretext of developing the particular school. Yet, the bribe money never reaches light, but stays safe in the bank accounts of the officers, including that of the principal.

Though many cases in this regard have been taken to the Commission on Bribery and Corruption, yet no action has been taken because these bribes taken by Principals are termed by them as ‘Public Gifts’. And public gifts are considered to be gifts of appreciation and gratitude from parents to the school for the services provided to their children. Since every child’s future lies in the hands of these education authorities, more than majority of the parents show a great extent of tolerance with everything related to school and education.

But not all parents could afford to pay these bribes to the authorities. Widows, single mothers and elder sisters who head the families with no male support, do not fall into the position of paying extra money to authorities to get their children or siblings enrolled to a good school. Due to this reason these women face serious humiliation, embarrassment, disrespect and violation of their fundamental rights to be treated with respect and dignity.

This pain was worse than the pain I went through when I lost my husband’ began Nalini [name changed], 39 years, a mother of two girls. Nalini lost her husband two years ago due in a road accident. She is a pre-school teacher. As she finds it hard to fulfill her family needs, she also undertakes orders for dress-making, to make ends meet at home. “I want my girls to be well educated; hence I wanted to shift my eldest daughter to a school that had better learning facilities. The principal demanded a high amount of money for enrollment. As I explained to him that I am a widow without a financial stability, he smiled at me, and asked if I would like to visit him that night in a particular hotel; he said if I could satisfy his desire, he could admit my daughter into the school.” Tears roll down Nalini’s cheeks when explaining the incident. She was sexually abused. She wanted to bring the principal before law. But she didn’t want her daughters’ lives to be ruined. Hence she decided to remain silent. Nalini’s daughters still study in the same old school with fewer facilities.

‘Sexual Bribes’ is a form of bribe that is never talked about in societies. As it is the women who face this challenge, they tend to hide their emotional sufferings from the society, because they are aware of the negative scrutiny they would receive from those around them. The society blames a woman for every happening, and this leads men to escape from their act of misbehavior. In Sri Lanka, it is noticeable that many male principals and educational authorities demand for bribes. And when the female parent is not able to pay this financial bribe, she is asked to replace it with a sexual bribe. There has also been a very few instances when these authorities refused to accept financial bribes even when it was offered, and instead asked the female parent to replace it with her body.

In 2013, three cases were reported at the Commission of Bribery and Corruption on sexual bribes. There are also cases that go unreported due to fear, threats, shame, and cultural/family barriers. According to the National Human Rights Institution, the highest reported bribes and corruption cases are on education, and against the education authorities. There have also been some situations where divorces have taken place due to both financial and sexual bribery that relates to education. According to the Corruption Perception Index [CPI] in 2013, Sri Lanka was ranked as 93 which is seen as the highest in the area of education in the history of Sri Lanka. Financial and Human resource disparity is another cause for corruption to increase in the education sector in Sri Lanka. Also while

Devika [name changed], is from a village in the South of Sri Lanka. She was angry with her husband for not keeping his word, and divorced him. “I had asked my husband what I should say to the school authorities during the parents’ meeting, and he told me I could say yes to the demands of the school; and hence, I agreed to pay the money to the principal for the admission of my son because I wanted him to be educated in that school as it would be good for my son’s future. But my husband changed his word and refused to pay the principal. I didn’t have money of my own. I couldn’t face the school authorities. Why do I need a non-trustable husband; so I divorced him.” Devika lives alone with her son, and works as a sales woman in a shop to take care of the household needs.

In Sri Lanka, bribery and corruption are serious problems. First it was the politicians and their networks who involved in giving and receiving monetary commissions. Yet today the people of Sri Lanka have got familiarized to give and receive, and also to directly and indirectly ask for ‘bribes’. This negative act of the adults is taken forward by the young generation, as children see their parents giving money to someone or the other for diverse purposes. While giving bribes cannot be justified, some are forced to give this ransom in order to survive and for the benefit of their children, or sometimes even in order to be safe and secure.  Many government sectors receive bribe not only from the general public, but also within the sector, for transfers and promotions, monetary bribes are given. Apart from this, the corporate world has also begun to demand high amounts of money under different tags. Parents, who want their children to become bankers, pay huge amounts to the banks to get the jobs.

Starting from offering a small currency to a traffic police constable on the street, to the giving of larger notes to the leaders in the government, money plays a big role in Sri Lanka today. Bribery today has become part of life for the people in Sri Lanka. And while those who have are able to offer without hesitance, the others who are less privileged economically, face even bigger problems, and undergo basic human rights violations.

Education is not only a basic right, but also considered as a number one priority by the Sri Lankans. Yet only 1.6% of GDP of Sri Lanka is spent on education, while the United Nations Standard is 6%. Due to this there are number of schools that have been neglected for many years, with no teachers, poor infrastructure, and with no proper water and sanitation facilities.

Out of more than 200,000 qualified and eligible university entrance holders, only 23,000 are given admissions to the universities in Sri Lanka. And this too is based on the ranks. And this creates a situation for the parents to want their children put into the ‘best’ schools – so that they get the best teachers, and favourable environment which enables them to get high ranks during the Advanced Level examinations, and thus, for this reason, they choose to pay a high price – which in turn is a ‘bribe’ – which leads to corruption.

In Sri Lanka, education is a responsibility of the mother. Hence women bear this burden of their children’s education, and involve to a great extent from finding suitable schools, taking them around for extra classes, and until the time the children enter universities. Though, women who hold high positions, and have the finances find it easier, the women with economic issues, and women who head the households, struggle to. Due to the ended past war, Sri Lanka has many female headed households, where women are either widows, or women with sick/disabled husbands, or they are single parent.

Even in this country that offers free education, education has become a huge problem; and a threat to women especially in diverse forms, mainly because the largest corruption in found in the education sector – not just the monetary bribes, but also sexual bribes.

Women are being traumatized by the question from the school authorities “will you satisfy me in bed, so I can admit your child in this school”. These authorities forget that these women are also wives and mothers. They, who have their own children being educated in prominent schools, or abroad, fail to understand the pain of these women who become vulnerable from all sides. Many women hide these incidents from their husbands, due to shame, fear, and to maintain the honor and peace within the family.

I wanted to slap the principal; but I knew the consequences well. One day he will be transferred, and that might be my time to try again for admission. Hence, I sat opposite that man patiently, with my head bent low. He was like my father in age. I didn’t tell my husband, as I knew he was short tempered. It is always the mother who has so much to think of in a family. We women have to bear so much in this society, we have to hide our pain and smile, and we have to balance, work, family, society, and the evil happenings around us. Yet, we are considered to be weak persons. We are not weak. We are patient. Our inner strength makes us patient, and helps us to tackle the negatives around us for the future of our children”, explains Rita [name changed] who is an educated mother of two, holding a high position in the corporate field.

If change should happen in Sri Lanka, everyone one of us have to start thinking of our own values and morals. We all have a responsibility towards this country and the future generation. We have to be accountable of our acts, and the moral decisions we make. As long as we are willing to give, there is someone out there to take. We have to stop giving. And when we are demanded of it, we have to rise against it. By giving bribes we are not only breaking our morals, and encouraging corruption, but we also humiliating our own mothers, wives and sisters, whose dignity and respect is challenged by evil doers of the society.

Oviya Balraj  |  Sri Lanka