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30th May 1999

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Focus on RightsFicus on Rights

Challenging gender bias in Sri Lanka

By: Kishali Pinto Jayawardene

The Controller of Immigration and Emi gration (and sundry staff serving under him) are to be congratulated. For observing the rules of an anachronistically sexist logic with such dogged and beautiful aplomb, that is. Consider this astonishing statement of official policy divulged before the Supreme Court on Monday in an action challenging the refusal of the Controller to grant a residence visa to a German male national married to a Sri Lankan female citizen. Documents before the Court relating to guidelines for Residence visas and stamped "Secret- for official use only" made very clear why there was state hostility towards alien men married to Sri Lankan women. As clause four of the guidelines read with breathtaking simplicity "Sri Lanka follows a patriarchal system; hence Residence Visas are normally granted only to female spouses of Sri Lankans". Thus, the deserved congratulations. What else indeed is fitting to greet this most enlightened and logical statement to emerge from the Sri Lankan bureaucracy this side of the Millennium.

The Court was however not amused. Discriminatory cases of this nature had been coming before the Supreme Court for quite some time, characterised by the unashamed and unapologetic willingness of the Controller to come to a settlement in each case while maintaining the discriminatory practice. This time around, it was not that easy. In a testy order delivered from the Bench, the immigration and emigration authorities were directed to put their house in order by halting secret and discriminatory practices in awarding residence visas. The petitioner, a German national by the name of Bernard Maximilian Fischer was awarded his residence visa and the right to work in the country.

It is devoutly to be hoped that Monday's order by the Court would put an end to the long distasteful question concerning the granting of residence visas to foreign male spouses of Sri Lankans. While foreign women married to local men need only establish the fact of marriage to be given residence visas, the opposite is true for their unfortunate counterparts. To satisfy eligibility, foreign men must show their ability to earn a fairly substantial amount of US$ 9,000 each year besides depositing a sum of US$ 25,000 in a bank that cannot be released except with the recommendation of the Controller. Forbidden to seek employment in Sri Lanka, they cannot be dependent on their wives, who are in turn looked upon as being totally and insultingly incapable of being financially independent and supporting their husbands. Caught up in this situation and refused a residence visa (literally) on the basis that he was unfortunate enough to be born a male instead of a female, Fischer decided to go to court for several reasons. Having come to Sri Lanka as a tourist in 1996 and fallen in love with a Sri Lankan girl, he married and then returned to Germany shortly thereafter. Their stay abroad however was short lived due to the fact that his wife became homesick and within a few months, they returned home. He then applied for a residence visa which signalled the start of his troubles. Unable to show financial stability to the extent demanded by him, his efforts to explain this discrimination to the staff of the Department of Immigration and Emigration were of no avail and letters written by him to the Controller went unanswered. The final indignity of being informed that his tourist visa would also be cancelled within two months was what finally decided Fischer to come to court. He was indeed amply rewarded for his efforts.

Meanwhile, the disclosures in Court on Monday of a secret and unashamedly discriminatory policy regarding the granting of residence visas in Sri Lanka is bound to have ripple effects in the months to come. For the past several years, the country had been questioned on these practices by international monitoring bodies, most notably before the Human Rights Committee in Geneva. State representatives had cried themselves hoarse denying the official existence of such a hostile policy, while admitting only a few individual cases of "chance discrimination". In the face of documents now part of the court record in the Fischer case, such protests will no longer be valid. It will be wise therefore for the Immigration and Emigration authorities to acknowledge mistakes of the past and publicly amend residence visa guidelines before Sri Lanka's 4th periodic report comes up for discussion before the Committee next year.

This is not all that is wrong however. Along with discriminatory practices relating to the issuance of residence visas, gender bias continues to be horrendously apparent in the very manner in which Sri Lankan citizenship is transmitted to children. Following strong national and international pressure that Sri Lanka amend its Citizenship Act in order that Sri Lankan women be able to transmit citizenship to their children, a privilege currently reserved only for Sri Lankan men, proposals made by the Law Commission some five years back suggested that Sections 4 and 5 of the Act be amended.

" ………….these provisions are an infringement of the fundamental rights to equality before the law and freedom from gender based discrimination………….the principle of gender equality is now widely accepted and steps are being taken in many fields to ensure it. Furthermore, the State has pledged itself through the Women's Charter to take all appropriate measures including legislation for the purpose of assuring to women 'human rights and fundamental freedoms on a basis of equality with men'" the Commission reminded in a tightly worded discussion paper on reform.

Concerns were raised about practical difficulties confronting Sri Lankan women who marry foreigners but who cannot bring up their children as Sri Lankan citizens even if they are subsequently divorced, separated or widowed and resident in Sri Lanka.The proposals of the Law Commission were met with disfavour by the authorities precisely for the same reasons that are now publicly revealed as compelling discriminatory practices relating to the granting of residence visas. The Ministry of Defence (the ministry in charge of citizenship, immigration and emigration) warned against marriages of convenience where Sri Lankan women would sell themselves to foreigners. The reform proposals have now been forgotton and the discriminatory provisions in the Citizenship Act continue regardless.

The catch is that unlike administrative practices ruling the granting of residence visas to foreigners which have now been legally challenged, the offending provisions of the Citizenship Act cannot be brought before the court. This is because the Act was in existence before the present Constitution, the provisions of which keep in force all existing laws and bars court interference, even though the laws in question may be highly unconstitutional. Reform can only be through Parliament and in the absence of strong and sustained pressure, this possibility seems unlikely.

inside the glass house:

Balkan crisis-a distraction

By: thalif deen at the united nations

NEW YORK— A rash of wars, border disputes, ethnic conflicts and separatist insurgencies have continued to sweep across parts of Africa, Asia and Europe.

But international interest in these deadly conflicts is being dictated— and manipulated— primarily by the world's news media.

"We need headlines before we take action," complains Hilde Johnson, the Norwegian Minister for International Development and Human Rights, who points out that international news organisations seem to have the ability to handle only one global crisis at a time.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan admits that the war in Kosovo has completely marginalised the ongoing conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa.

The mainstream media — including some of the major US television networks— have been leaving Africa in droves and pitching their tents in the world's new battle ground: Yugoslavia.

Addressing a press conference last week, Annan appealed to journalists to get engaged in what he called "preventive journalism."

"When you identify an issue that is likely to blow into a crisis leading to bloodshed and conflict, keep reporting it, thus forcing policy makers and leaders to act on it before it explodes," he said.

"Stick with the story," he advised reporters, "Don't go away when the blood stops flowing."

But in Africa, the news reporters and TV crews have bailed out even before the blood-letting has ended.

"In these Kosovo-dominated times, it is vital to ensure that catastrophes and conflicts affecting thousands and millions of people in other parts of the world are getting their rightful attention," Johnson told a seminar on conflict resolution last week.

She said that although the media seemed able to deal only with one conflict at a time, the international community had an obligation to address the magnitude of human suffering.

Annan said the world has "completely ignored" the fighting in Congo-Brazzaville, Angola, Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea— although these are wars "hardly less murderous" than the conflict in Yugoslavia.

Africa had the largest share of conflicts, but "our minds are focused especially on what is happening in Europe," he said.

Annan admitted, however, that the genocide in Rwanda and subsequent conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo "have at least received world-wide publicity, even if far too little effective international action."

All other wars in Africa had been neglected by the international community, he declared.

The 14-year-old conflict in Sri Lanka pales in comparison with the death and destruction in sub-Saharan Africa.

In the first four months of this year, renewed fighting in Angola had displaced 780,000 people, bringing to some 1.5 million the number who had been driven from their homes.

The conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, "where human wave attacks have produced thousands of battlefield casualties and deaths", had displaced more than 550,000 people.

During the eight-year conflict in Sierra Leone— "characterised by brutality, rape and murder"— about 440,000 refugees poured out of that West African country into Guinea and Liberia. A further 310,000 people were displaced within Sierra Leone.

Since 1983, Africa's longest running civil war in Sudan has caused nearly two million deaths.

"In Africa as a whole, there are now some four million refugees, and probably at least 10 million internally displaced persons," Annan pointed out.

The present humanitarian crisis in South Eastern Europe "acute and tragic as it is, must not divert attention and resources from other emergencies in Africa, in the Caucasus, in Central Asia and elsewhere," he said.

"Nor must it detract from our attention the consequences of a great many natural and environmental disasters worldwide."

Africa accounted for more than half of all war-related deaths in the world. Breaking the vicious circle of violence poses formidable challenges.

Besides the two million deaths since 1983, Sudan accounted for some four million internally displaced persons and one million refugees. It far exceeds the total number of people affected, for instance, in the Balkans till now.

Last week Annan also wrote a letter to the leaders of the world's major industrial nations— who will be holding a summit meeting in Germany in mid-June— warning them that the crisis in Yugoslavia should not also detract them from the global economic crisis that is threatening the stability of the world's developing nations.

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