The International Day for Women was marked worldwide last week, but the unfortunate events in Kandy and its environs took the focus away in Sri Lanka. Much is said on March 8 each year to celebrate the usually underplayed role of women in society as well as their trials and tribulations all over the world. [...]


Women’s Rights; and the wrongs


The International Day for Women was marked worldwide last week, but the unfortunate events in Kandy and its environs took the focus away in Sri Lanka.

Much is said on March 8 each year to celebrate the usually underplayed role of women in society as well as their trials and tribulations all over the world. Women in each country have their own issues, and then there are those common to all womankind. Given the fact that Sri Lankan women got the right to vote before many women in other countries, it is ironic that in Sri Lanka there is currently a complicated headache over getting a quota of women representatives into local government councils. That men had to work out the mathematical solution to this may well be the reason.

Receiving Universal Adult Franchise as far back as in 1931, Sri Lanka was way ahead of its time. It was a remarkable achievement in that era, when even Indian women had to wait till the country gained Independence to get their right to vote. Women in economically advanced countries like France, Italy, Switzerland and those like China and Brazil, won that right long afterwards. Some West Asian countries have yet to grant it to women even now in this 21st century.

But it was only after a long and somewhat bitter struggle by suffragettes in Britain and the United States that this right was won not long before it was granted to Sri Lankan women. It was the Donoughmore Commission under British colonial rule that said; “though the position of women in the East has not, till recent years, been suitable for the exercise of political power, that position is rapidly changing and the demand for the vote was put before us by a large and representative deputation of Ceylonese ladies……the procedure we contemplate will establish the principle of sex equality…. There is much to be said, moreover, in favour of a procedure which will throw on to the women themselves the responsibility for making efforts to influence public opinion in Ceylon…”.

The franchise given to Sri Lankan women has been internationally acclaimed for the many progressive achievements, not least the fact of low infant mortality rates, child care and a well-organised midwife system. It was therefore not surprising that women politicians of yesteryear especially from the Left Movement came to the forefront in public affairs and Sri Lanka could eventually boast of having the world’s first female Head of Government.

Yet by and large, national politics was left in the hands of men. The rot that set in, however, cannot be entirely blamed on those men considering the fact that we had a woman Executive President as well.

Women in Sri Lankan society now have multiple issues before them. Gender inequality; conditions for women in employment; promotions in the corporate ladder; equal pay for equal work; sexual harassment and sexual exploitation are no strangers to Sri Lanka as much as they are issues around the world.

It is reported that the world’s ‘sex slave’ trade made US Dollars one billion in profits annually which is more than the profits of Intel, Google, Nike, Microsoft and Starbucks combined. The refugee crisis in Europe has added to the numbers. In Sri Lanka, a separate ‘night economy’ is flourishing with spurious spas and health clinics where women are exploited operating with the connivance of the local Police. Yet it is only when women are allowed to buy a bottle of beer that political high-ups move at the speed of summer lightning to stop it.

A fortnight ago, this newspaper published a detailed report by the United Nations Population Fund (formerly the UNFPA) and the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Kelaniya which did the first ever study on ‘unnatural deaths of Sri Lankan women’.

The report came out with some startling hitherto unknown facts about a dark part of Sri Lankan society. It said that 36 percent of homicides of women were caused by husbands, lovers and ex-lovers and 21 percent by blood relatives. Eight percent of the victims had reported IPV (Intimate Partner Violence) at least once, and three percent more than thrice.

These statistics point out to most homicides of women being connected to family disputes, robbery and/or previous enmity. Suicides were also related to these issues common in Sri Lanka. Sometimes family disputes extended to matricide and even infanticide.

With this data under their collective arms, all women activist groups must band together to take a holistic view of the situation and pressurise Governments present and in the future to act, faster.

While most of the above issues deal with the women here at home, those often forgotten are the hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankan women working abroad, especially in the harsh somewhat inhospitable West Asian countries. Just last week, newspapers reported the death by shooting of a Sri Lankan housemaid at the hands of a mentally deranged employer in Saudi Arabia.

We have said repeatedly that successive Governments have not done enough for these women who work overseas, for decades. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been a total let-down in not sending the required number of Foreign Service cadres to Sri Lankan missions in West Asia. Recently, when the Government took the correct step of appointing a woman Minister for Foreign Employment, she was removed in the recent reshuffle for no reason other than to give a vociferous young Minister with two important ministries already under his belt, a third, because he kept complaining he couldn’t give jobs to anyone from his district.

Foreign employment is not about politicians doling out jobs. It is largely about the welfare of these workers, who send about US dollars seven billion annually in foreign currency back home and without whose labour, the tottering Sri Lankan economy would sink. Last week, our Business Desk referred to the Government missing the woods for the trees by giving awards for job agents rather than looking into the welfare of the workers. Everyone knows this is for the politicians to cosy up to job agents to give employment to their supporters.

Sri Lanka’s Women’s Affairs Minister addressed the UN and the Human Rights Commission marked International Women’s Day with the theme a ‘World without Her’ rolling out statistics that 60 percent of the University students are now women and so is 35 percent of the labour force. The informal sector (garments and estates) is dominated by women. It will be timely if they draw inspiration from those courageous “large and representative deputation of Ceylonese ladies” of yesteryear, who prevailed on the colonial Donoughmore Commission to win their rights, and pave the way for women to take their rightful place in Sri Lankan society.

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