For a country which boasts of being the first in the world to have a woman Prime Minister way back in 1960, "urgings" by a top UN watch-dog on the rights of women come as the proverbial drop of cow-dung in a pot of milk.
The urgings by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) on joint land ownership for both men and women whenever state lands are distributed to families have been made at its 48th session held from January 17-February 4, this year.
While urging Sri Lanka to recognize joint or co-ownership of land, CEDAW has also stated the need to speedily amend the Land Development Ordinance to ensure that joint or co-ownership is granted to both spouses when the state allocates land to married couples.
|'Head of the household' concept being discussed at Bogawantalawa. Pix by M.A. Pushpa Kumara
The focus on joint or co-ownership whenever state land is distributed not only under routine schemes but also when families are displaced by conflict or disasters or land is allocated to the plantation workers has been lobbied by many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) which see the plight of women left in the lurch without home and hearth, the Sunday Times learns.
However, amendments to the archaic Land Development Ordinance have not gone beyond Parliament, though these crucial issues have been discussed at length, it is understood.
This was the first time that the issue of joint or co-ownership of land was taken up at the CEDAW sessions in Geneva, following a shadow report presented by the NGO, Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), which had formed a lobby group in 2009 to advocate this matter.
The lobby group consists of international NGOs CARE International and Oxfam Australia; the grassroots network Praja Abhilaasha; the women's organizations Women and Media Collective and the Muslim Women's Research and Action Forum; and the Estate Community Development Mission representing the plantation sector.
Explaining that joint ownership of land whenever the state distributes it to families would help in ensuring equality between married couples, it may contribute to the prevention of family disputes as the woman is also empowered, COHRE's Shyamala Gomez, the Senior Programme Officer for Women's Housing Rights stresses. Single ownership in these instances violates the core right of every person in this country which ensures equality before the law.
Whether the land is given to the man or the woman, there is discrimination in single ownership, she says, adding that most often it is the man who gets the land because he signs all the documents and applies for the land. Although there's no bar to women applying and in some instances they do, regrettably the majority either due to the inherent culture or pressure by men tend to allow the men to sign the papers. Thus the women get disentitled.
"If men and women are equal as ensured categorically by the Constitution, then public officials when alienating state land must do so under joint ownership," says Ms. Gomez, pointing out that when COHRE approached the Commissioner-General of Land the counter argument put forward was that the law prohibits joint ownership. "It was an uphill task," she says, adding that they then sought the opinion of the Attorney-General and also went to the grassroots not only talking to the women (see box) but also government officials.
The Attorney-General's opinion was clear - the issue is open-ended, she says, with no prohibition of joint ownership. But in practice it was a different matter, even after the Commissioner-General of Land was informed. The AG had stated that the law……"does not contain any prohibition against making of grants or other dispositions creating co-ownership……"
Think of the consequences of single ownership, urges Ms. Gomez, pointing out that in this patriarchal society, the man will sign all the documents and once the land is given in his name, the woman will be at his mercy.
COHRE's shadow report quotes research that discloses how women are not given equal access to state-allocated land. An example is the Mahweli area where although 20% of the land in the old villages had been owned by women, in the newly-settled villages the land is almost entirely owned by men.
Why is joint ownership such a vital issue? "Without a piece of land to call their own and put down roots, women have been left high and dry. They are not empowered because even to find some economic security or begin a self-employment project they can't get bank loans. If they had joint ownership, the land could be used as collateral," says Ms. Gomez.
COHRE and its partners are not fighting for the sun and the moon for women, only an equal place in the sun for both men and women.
Joint ownership while promoting equality may very well contribute to a reduction in domestic violence in the country because the women will be empowered, says Ms. Gomez whose battles have been justified by CEDAW.
Her plea is simple - give the humble women of Sri Lanka their rightful place in the family by granting joint ownership of state land because with it will come dignity as well.
This plea is silently echoed by the thousands, nay millions of women who toil alongside their husbands not only to ensure the wellbeing of the family but also the development of the country.
No discrimination in distribution of state land
Nearly 50% of the 1.2 million land parcels allocated by the state under the Land Development Ordinance are owned by women, stresses Additional Secretary (Lands), S.D.A.B. Boralessa of the Lands Ministry when contacted by the Sunday Times, pointing out that it is the family unit that is taken into account in such allocations.
Explaining that there is no discrimination against women in the first instance, as either spouse who signs the application will get the land, he says that the problems arise thereafter when the parcel goes to the next generation if the owner has not nominated an inheritor.
Tracing the inheritance policy as specified by the Land Development Ordinance, the Additional Secretary says the person who signs the application, most probably after discussion with the spouse gets the land, with life interest being assured for the spouse, be it a woman or a man.
Joint ownership will also cause problems about a clear title, and to pinpoint who will be responsible in developing the land, which is mandatory, will be difficult. Under the Land Development Ordinance, if the lot is not developed it can be taken back by the state.
If the owner dies without nominating an heir, then according to the Third Schedule of the Ordinance, the land will go to the first category, the sons. The daughters come after that. This is where we have got many complaints and that's why an amendment seeking the first heirs as "children" and not "sons" followed by "daughters" is being sought from Parliament, he says.
But amendments have run into snags because land alienation is devolved and subject to restrictions and Provincial Councils have a say in it, the Sunday Times understands.
For Mr. Boralessa, however, the discrimination against women comes not in the allocation of state land but in the inheritance of private land under the civil law. Although 80% of the land in Sri Lanka is state land, we have distributed only 1.5 million parcels (1.2m under the Land Development Ordinance to landless peasants and 0.3m under the Crown Lands Ordinance to those in urban areas), he says, adding that although the balance 20% is owned privately, there are 20m land parcels which cause much discrimination to women under the civil law. "We must first look at the civil law."
With regard to issues that may have arisen when distributing land after the tsunami, Mr. Boralessa said that they held workshops with Divisional Secretaries in those areas and advised them to issue the land permit in the wife's name if a report from the Department of Probation and Child Care indicated problems of harassment of the wife by the husband.
Away with the “head of the household”
Another bone of contention that CEDAW has dealt with is the "head of the household" concept, urging Sri Lanka to abolish it.
This is the second issue that COHRE has taken up, pointing out that though the gruha mulikaya concept is gender neutral, in administrative practice it has led to the discrimination of women.
COHRE's shadow report points out that the only existing definition for the head of the household seems to be that of the Department of Census and Statistics which states, "the person who usually resides in the household and is acknowledged by the other members as the head".
It states: "According to historians, the origin of the concept of the head of the household is connected with land ownership………The usage of the concept by the colonizers was an unfortunate consequence….……the continued use of the concept seems to have granted it social recognition and facilitated its entry to formal, legal and administrative structures of the state."
Ms. Gomez argues that this concept has resulted in discrimination against women and cites the example of the tsunami and the allocation of state land to those who lost their land. "When the state allocated new land to those who had lost land (in the tsunami) it gave it to the person who had signed the relevant form as head ……….A study of 100 cases conducted by COHRE reveals that 85% of women state that new property was given in the name of the spouse even though property was in their names prior to the tsunami," the shadow report states.
The Sunday Times last year sat in on a session held by COHRE for estate women in Bogawantalawa to get their views on the head of the household concept.
There were jokes and laughter. There was also healthy debate and serious discussion.
"I am the one who goes for the meetings when my children's school summons us. I go for work. My husband stays in the town and doesn't know anything that's happening. I am the head of my family. I can do anything that he does," says S. Yogaluxmi, the most talkative in the group.
The others nod their heads in vigorous agreement, and quietly murmur that whenever a form comes from the government it is the husband who signs it.
Sometimes, even though the husband doesn't work, he signs the documents and if I question he comes drunk and assaults me, another woman tells the Sunday Times.
To the crucial question: Who is the head of the family, the answer is prompt. It should be the person who works. If both husband and wife work - the logic is simple. Then it should be both the husband and the wife.
But what is the ground reality? Invariably, the women say, they will either give the name of their husband or son, for that is the way things have been happening.
Whatever the men do, we can too, says another woman, adding however that most women don't go for meetings because they are in the evening and they can't come back alone at night. "That's why the men go for meetings and not the women. That is the reason why men get all the benefits offered by the government and not the women," she says.