International Women’s Day has come and gone marked locally by the Prime Minister announcing that there should 25 percent women’s representation in local government bodies. Not to be outdone, a former President, the first woman Head of State of Sri Lanka, said it should be 50 percent. Fortunately, the incumbent President didn’t enter the bidding [...]


Parity for women, take practical steps


International Women’s Day has come and gone marked locally by the Prime Minister announcing that there should 25 percent women’s representation in local government bodies. Not to be outdone, a former President, the first woman Head of State of Sri Lanka, said it should be 50 percent. Fortunately, the incumbent President didn’t enter the bidding fray with a higher offer.

In Canada, newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, son of the dashing premier of yesteryear Pierre Elliot Trudeau, won even more female hearts by having half his Cabinet comprise women though the proof of their success lies in their work ahead. In Sweden, they like to call themselves a ‘feminist” Government, but of the 30 topmost blue chip companies in the country none of the CEOs is a woman. In the US, there’s every chance that the Americans would see their first woman President by next year.

And so the struggle for the emancipation of women goes on. But how much of the issues confronting women hinge on their participation in politics? In Sri Lanka, most of the women in politics have had some kind of dynastic element. They are either widows of assassinated husbands who were in politics, or their sisters. Few have made it without these credentials. For a country that produced the world’s first woman Prime Minister and woman Head of Government one would think that Sri Lanka by now should be up on the ladder of women breaking the so-called ‘glass ceiling’ and giving political leadership without having to enter on some quota basis.

And yet, a research paper by published in this newspaper last year pointed out that while women MPs constituted a mere 5.8 percent of the last Parliament their contribution to all debates in the House was a pathetic 2.6 per cent.

The harsh reality of it all is that a large number of Sri Lanka women are breaking their backs in inhospitable West Asian countries doing menial jobs. They have left their families and a string of social problems back home. In the Eastern Province, ask the police and they will tell you that child abuse issues are on the rise and this is directly linked to absentee mothers working in West Asia. In the plantations, where women traditionally worked in the fields in equally harsh conditions, the new generation of young adults does not want to follow in their mothers’ footsteps. Armed with a basic education, they have abandoned the line rooms for employment in the air-conditioned comfort of beauty salons, supermarkets, restaurants and foot-massage parlours of the cities leaving a gaping hole in the work force on the plantations.

Most other women are in the garment factories behind juki machines or work as nurses, or are in government service doing clerical work, or as teachers. The country’s vastly networked health care system that exists today, much admired by many countries, has been largely attributed to Universal Adult Franchise that the people of Sri Lanka obtained way back in 1931. Sri Lankan women were early recipients of this privilege, even before the women of France, for instance. Elected representatives at the time were not necessarily women, but the voice of women voters resonated, and their demands for better health services, especially in child care needed to be heeded. What is therefore required now is not so much women’s representation in elected legislative bodies, but the voice of women as pressure groups.

It is not that the voice of women is unheard. Several NGOs plead their cause. There is, however, a deficiency in them being in a position to mount a sustained campaign such as ‘equal pay for equal work’. Even the nurses union, arguably among the more vocal, is headed not by a woman but by a Buddhist monk.

Sri Lanka is well placed in the United Nations Millennium Goals relating to gender parity in the health care system and in education compared to several countries, especially in South Asia, but that ought not be the standard. Further efforts are required to raise the share of females in wage employment in the non-agricultural sector.

To mark International Women’s Day with a simplistic proposal to increase women representation in elected bodies is not the answer. There are many things that need be done and can be to improve the lot of the marginalised women. Take for example, the situation with Sri Lankan women in West Asia numbering more than half a million. We have said ad nauseam that the number of women diplomatic officers and counsel in our missions in West Asia needs to be increased to cater to the multifaceted needs and issues of those women workers. This call has fallen on deaf ears – for years, at Government level.

If the Foreign Ministry cannot send its women career officers there for reasons best known to it, the Prime Minister’s Global Affairs Committee at least must take the lead and look at this discrepancy. There are so many practical steps that the Government must take — and can take, and that are not being taken, purely on the widely held belief that greater representation of women in elected bodies will be the panacea for all issues facing the women of Sri Lanka. That will be the furthest from reality.

HIV: The home truth
The recent incident involving a six-year-old boy being deprived of a school because of a ‘rumour’ that his parents had HIV has been an eye-opener in more ways than one.

It showed that awareness of the facts of HIV has not reached, or seeped into areas like Kuliyapitiya where the boy is from, even though that part of the country is no longer the backwoods. The incident itself became world news and displayed the weakness in the social fabric of a country that once boasted a close-knit, caring, compassionate society and how modern day prejudices have taken over.

Sections of the media have come in for criticism for identifying the boy. This is always a difficult test for the media to differentiate between sensationalism and public interest. To the schools that came forward as Good Samaritans must go the credit for their enlightened approach. One hopes the boy will turn out to be a fine all-round student.

Meanwhile, the Joint UN Programme on HIV and AIDS reports an alarming statistic; that three individuals in Sri Lanka are diagnosed as HIV positive each week. Cumulative deaths due to AIDS is 380. In 2014, as many as 900,000 potential HIV carriers were tested.

Amidst all the brouhaha, what needs to be stressed is that those living with HIV have equal rights in Sri Lanka regardless of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion – or HIV status. The Ministry of Education will do well to send out a circular to educate the educators on this subject. The case from Kuliyapitiya, the Minister’s own constituency has been a blot on Sri Lanka’s age-old prestige as a caring nation.

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