Women as Agents of Change

Awards, accolades and ceremonies across the country marked International Women's Day last Thursday - in some cases mere token gestures. Is it adequate to honour and place on centre-stage Sri Lanka's women on just one day of the year or should there be more serious thought given more consistently to the due role they should be playing, alongside the menfolk?

Further to "dedicating" a day each year, it is already past time when the country ought to discuss, debate and find solutions to the numerous issues that women are confronted with throughout the year.

The fact that the country's coffers are being filled by the sweat, blood and tears of three categories of women - garment, plantation and migrant workers - has been highlighted over the years. A comparative economic study of how much women in these three sectors contribute to the economy will show that it far outweighs the contribution by governments and society towards their recognition and welfare.

What has the country given in return not only to them but to each and every woman who in her own way is contributing her mite silently? Take the case of the migrant workers. Half of Sri Lanka's migrant worker population numbering some 1.5 million are women, 90 per cent of whom toil in the Gulf countries, having left their homes and families, in most cases young children, to better their lot.

The earnings of migrant workers amount to Rs. 420 billion for us annually and presuming that half of this sum is contributed by women, it is indeed a sad indictment that as yet there are no women officers from the Foreign Service or Employment Bureau in our missions in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, the UAE, Lebanon, Kuwait and other countries to look after their interests. It is left to the male officials to help them when they encounter difficulties.

Women in the Foreign Service do not like to serve in these stations -- they prefer to be posted in London or Geneva in the West. There is also no commensurate support from Colombo for these often forgotten women of Sri Lanka. In our Editorial on Workers Day last year we raised these issues - but little or no action has been taken and the horror stories of the Sri Lankan maids who suffer all manner of problems still continue to dominate the headlines.

Back home, there is equally little recognition for the 'unrecognised' urban woman who as a multi-tasking wife and mother wakes up at the crack of dawn, prepares not only the breakfast but also the lunch of her husband and children, sees them off to work and school and then either continues to toil at home throughout the day as an unpaid worker or herself goes to work.

If there is a crisis while the child is at school, it is the mother, most often who has to leave work and rush there. It is also the mother who will generally pick up the child after school, feed him or her, while sometimes not even having her meal, and take the child to tuition while lugging his or her heavy schoolbag with her. Sitting around till the child finishes his or her lessons, she will head back home with the child not to rest her weary feet but to rustle up some dinner, snatch a few hours of sleep and then start the rat race once again next morning.

On the other hand, even in this day and age of modern technology, the 'unsung' rural woman's situation is such that she may have to walk several miles to bring back a pot or two of water for her family's needs. Be it in the urban or rural areas, hers is a full-time job, ironically though an unpaid job, without wages or overtime or leave for that matter.

Sri Lankan women tip the scales in the population statistics, accounting for 51%. That figure is bound to go up with the ongoing census, as it is mostly men who have died in the conflict particularly in the north and the east. There are dozens of female-headed households in these two regions.

Therefore, women drive the country's economy not only through their work as tea pluckers, garment workers and domestics overseas but also in their humble homes. For such an important person in society, how equal is she treated? Outside her home too, violence awaits in the form of sexual harassment, abuse and rape not only in public places but also in the workplace, with lethargy being evident on the part of the authorities to crack down, and crack down hard on such crimes.
Take sexual harassment. Many women are reluctant, embarrassed or fearful to complain not only because there is no culture of complaining but also because they may be accused of 'bringing on' such overtures.

Unfortunately though there is a plethora of groups that fight for the rights of women, every year we witness the issues growing by leaps and bounds. This signals that something is wrong somewhere and may be an indication that women's groups, without carving out their little territories and interests and campaigning and fighting in isolation, should pool their resources and battle for a single cause.

At a discussion on 'Critical Women: Women as Agents of Change through Higher Education' organised by the Association of Commonwealth Universities and the Centre for Gender Studies, University of Kelaniya, last Tuesday, the keynote speaker pointed out how when setting up the University of Fort Hare in South Africa, two women had been among the first batch of undergraduates who wished to pursue their higher studies.

The authorities, however, were in a quandary and about to refuse them seats because there was no accommodation for women. It was then that the matron had stepped in and assured that the two women could "lodge" with her. The matron, according to the keynote speaker, was a "critical" woman who was an agent of change.

'Agents of Change' are what Sri Lanka needs if women are to play their role to their full potential in the home, in society and in both the government and private sectors.

The 'Agents of Change' should not only be women but more importantly men to ensure the rightful place of women be it at home, in politics, in government or in breaking through the glass ceiling of the male-dominated corporate sector. Then and only then will gender equality and true empowerment of the Sri Lankan woman ensue and celebrations to mark International Women's Day be even more meaningful.

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Editorial Archive 2012 
01st January 2012 - The hopes and fears of 2012
08th January 2012 - Education fails
15th January 2012 - Ties with India vital but not at any price
22nd January 2012 - Handling India the President's way
29th January 2012 - Political stability - not autocracy
05th February 2012 - Freedom struggle continues overseas
12th February 2012 - Lesson from the Maldives: Listen to the people
19th February 2012 - Belt-tightening must start at the top
26th February 2012 - Good governance the answer
04th March 2012 - Treasury acting like the Kremlin
11th March 2012 - Women as Agents of Change
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