Not all examples from India are worthy of emulation, but a recent action merits consideration. In the Budget presented this week, the Manmohan Singh Government has proposed the setting up of a bank of women, by women and for women. That the proposal came during the week of International Women’s Day (March is probably coincidental, though [...]


Look after women who look after us


Not all examples from India are worthy of emulation, but a recent action merits consideration. In the Budget presented this week, the Manmohan Singh Government has proposed the setting up of a bank of women, by women and for women. That the proposal came during the week of International Women’s Day (March 8) is probably coincidental, though accusations that it is an election gimmick may have some basis. The bank seeks to empower women, and through them their families.

The downside of women in India is not just the economic poverty of millions, particularly rural folk, but also the increasing incidents of rape and sexual harassment they face. In a country of more than a billion people, the number of rape cases that gets highlighted is probably a drop in an ocean of tears and anguish, but what is worse is the increasing cruelty that accompanies such barbaric acts and the extreme lack of energy on the part of India’s political leadership at all levels of government, and the police to arrest this wave of crime.

In Sri Lanka also, the numbers are staggering. Reported cases alone average three a day. Due to the complexity of proving a case, prosecutions and convictions are few and far between, and in any event, punishment has not acted as a deterrent.

Rape is indeed a global phenomenon, and as old as history, but the recent cases in India have spurred a global movement ‘One Billion Rising’ that has gripped the attention of non-government organisations worldwide, and the conscience of middle class India. This campaign has spread to Sri Lanka as well, generating a greater awareness of the need to tackle this menace.

However, there are several other matters that concern Sri Lankan women, and chief among them is the plight of Sri Lankan women working abroad, especially in West Asia. Women workers, particularly garment factory workers and the plantation workers, too face many hardships but that must be dealt with separately. Women migrant workers total about one million, 85% of them being female domestic helpers whose minimum wage is around Rs. 30,000 a month. They remit US$ 6 billion (Rs. 763 billion) income that largely enables us at home to import our foodstuffs, oil, vehicles, fertiliser – and to run our loss-making public institutions. Do they get a raw deal in return? The answer is; “Yes they do”.

The beheading of the young Rizana Nafeek brought into terrible focus the predicament of Sri Lankan women working miles away from home in a hostile environment to better the lives of their families. Many of them are modern-day slaves, part of a modern-day slave trade.

Many of them have for long complained, to deaf ears, in successive governments pleading for adequate representation in our embassies in West Asia.  The majority of those who join our Foreign Service are reluctant to serve in those desert lands. They opt for postings in the West where they can live comfortably and educate their children. Take the statistics. There is not a single female diplomatic officer or political appointee as head of mission in any of our 10 embassies in West Asia, especially the Gulf states, including the newly opened one in Bahrain.

In the ten such embassies only one female Foreign Service officer serves — that is in Qatar. No other mission has a woman to look after the welfare of these women. Even the Sri Lanka Foreign Employment Bureau (SLFEB) does not send female officers. In the Foreign Office, there are some 60-70 female career officers, but the joke is that postings of the female cadres are known as the ‘Goya postings’, after the Goya perfume, which bears the legend –’London, Paris, New York’. It is also a case of reverse discrimination — the men are the ones who are sent to these ‘difficult stations’.

Having celebrated International Women’s Day this week, we need to spare more than a thought for our women enduring the searing heat and often bitter winters; medieval laws; and the lack of Government support while they remit petro-dollars to fuel this country’s economy, and keep many hearths alight.

One of the more laudable developments in recent times is where the countries sending workers especially to West Asia — Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, Nepal, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand etc — have banded together for a still little known exercise called the ‘Colombo Process’. This is a regional consultative process on the management of overseas workers of Asian origin. Clearly, there is much more to be done for the nearly 2.5 million workers who are estimated to travel annually from their homes for work abroad, many of whom are women.

The fact that they have, after years, joined together is good, but joint action is also required. This is not to say that they must take a hostile approach to the questions that these workers face but it was time that West Asian countries realised, if they have not already done so, that their cities were built by the hands of these construction workers, their hotels and malls are serviced by them and their homes are looked after by them.

Arguably the most inhospitable of all West Asian countries, with their often rigid laws exercised on the sole interpretation of someone called a judge – is Saudi Arabia. At least the cruel Rizana Nafeek beheading in that country has jolted the Ministry of Foreign Employment into some form of action in placing certain restrictions on recruitments.

But reports are rife of corruption at the Ministry and the Bureau under it from top to bottom. There are reports that ‘job agents’ are forced to fund sports activities, like volleyball matches, and such events in the constituencies of politicians. There is a competition to award ‘stars’ to best performing job agents, but it is well known within the foreign employment business that these stars are awarded very much on the basis of financial donations rather than on merit. Political interference in preventing job agents getting ‘blacklisted’ is rampant.

There are, no doubt, schemes to raise the skill level of those going overseas for employment with all good intentions to have these workers at a junior managerial level rather than on the labour scale. That however is a long shot away. Right now, there is an urgent need to set our own house in order to ensure these women get some service and support from the State in return for what they provide in terms of such a volume of foreign exchange.

Only then, could it be said that the State is looking after those who are looking after it – looking after their wellbeing and welfare. Perhaps then too, the tragedies of those like Rizana, could be averted.

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