Plus - Letter to the Editor

Put family first in order to empower our women and serve our children

We have a new minister and a new deputy minister – Tissa Karaliyadde and N. L. A. M. Hisbullah – for child development and women’s empowerment, respectively. Both ministers are men, and it is just as well. They are starting with a clean slate, and by all accounts they are eager to learn and ready to implement new ways of achieving real development for children and the empowerment of women.

In my opinion, efforts at child development and women’s empowerment should begin with an effort to understand the aspirations of women and the needs of children in Sri Lanka, and mainstream those as issues affecting not only women and children but families as a whole.

Secondly, the functions of the ministry, as listed on the ministry website, suggest an approach where women and children’s issues are isolated from other development issues. What is needed is a consistent effort by the ministry to bring the concerns of women and children into all areas of policy making.

Thirdly, the entry of women into positions of decision-making, political decision-making in particular, appears an uphill task at present. While working on long-term goals, the ministry should, in the short term, create platforms for accomplished women to influence policy and contribute to development at the local, provincial and national level.

This letter concerns the issue of putting family first. I do not claim to be an expert on either child development or women’s empowerment, but I have had the opportunity to learn about women’s issues first-hand through volunteer work over the past 12 months or so as co-convenor of a campaign for political representation for women. It was a most rewarding experience to associate closely with women political leaders in local and provincial governments.

I learned that women flock to these women leaders on any given day with their various problems. These range from joblessness (both husband and wife); “ranaviru” family members in need of pensions; sick children; alcoholic spouses; poorly staffed schools and absent teachers, and a myriad other matters that concern a family. Taking my own feelings into account and generalising from there, I believe that, for all of us, the welfare of the family comes first.

Women seem more genetically and socially programmed than men to put family above all else. I would venture to say that women are happiest when their families are functional.

Functionality can mean different things in different family units. In a traditional family, functionality means that men do the providing, the children learn and grow, and the women develop as individuals, while playing the role of family nurturer and mainstay.

What we lack are good statistics on the state of families in our society. According to the Consumer Finance Survey of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, more households than ever have houses with proper roofs, cement floors, latrines, electricity, water, and so on.

But we don’t have statistics that tell us whether those households are functional as families. How well are the mothers in those households doing? How are things with those children whose mothers are employed overseas, looking after other people’s children? How are the fathers doing?

How do the fathers feel about having to send the mothers away to do the work, while they stay home, unemployed or under-employed? Is intimacy lacking between spouses in our society, and is that a reason for drinking and drugs and other ills?

Is it correct to say that love and intimacy between the mother and the father is the bedrock on which a family rests? Or are Sri Lankan norms different?

Indirect evidence points to certain serious concerns. A 2009 survey conducted by the Ministry of Justice showed that 27 per cent of the cases pending in our high courts concern child abuse. Often, the offender is a family member, or a person known to the child. In some rural areas, the percentage of child abuse cases is as high as 45 per cent. According to the statistics, alcoholism is on the rise, as well as suicides. But are those statistics any worse than those of other countries in similar stages of development?

We can have all the legislation on women’s and children’s rights, and all the children and women development programmes in the world, but unless we understand family dynamics and design our programmes with the whole family in mind, we will not be able to truly develop the child or empower the women.

Sujata Gamage, Co-convenor, Campaign for Women’s Representation in Local Government

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