“One is not born a women, but rather becomes one”-Simone De Beauvoir
What does the International Women’s Day signify? International Women’s Day is remembered as a day which recognizes women’s struggle for rights, equality, freedom and is a celebration of political, social, economic and cultural achievement of women. In Sri Lanka there are many conferences, gatherings, exhibitions and festivals to celebrate this date, however it can be noted that none of these has had any positive impact on Sri Lankan Women.
The United Nations has chosen the theme “Be Bold for Change” as the International Women’s Day campaign slogan. However, it is my opinion, that for a better tomorrow, this theme is not sufficiently representative of the problems of women and girl children of the world.
Boldness is not to be confined to women only. Men and society too should participate in this effort. This change should not be confined to the women and girl children only, but should represent entire mankind. Men, Women with society in general should combine into a single unit if this object of a better future for women is to be attained. Women only being bold is insufficient to make any positive change. It is only if all segment of humanity realize and combine as a body that the true liberty and rights of women can be attained.
The World Economic Forum has predicted that gender discrimination will be truly eradicated only in 2186. Must this injustice prevail so long for justice to raise its head? The time is right to make this change.
Compared to other South Asian countries, Sri Lankan women are far advanced in education, literacy, cultural, social and professional standards. Sri Lanka is the first country in the world to have elected the world’s first female Prime Minister.However, there are yet certain fields where gender discrimination is practiced. It is essential to make bold changes in such areas. This should be the main object and theme of our women’s Day.
When we consider Sri Lankan society, it is still full of stereo- typed traditions which affects women. Traditional norms and values based on culture and religion still harm Sri Lankan women. We talked about gender equality and women’s empowerment, but yet we still insist in asking our females to submit shamelessly to a virginity test on the most unforgettable day of her life. My opinion is that Sri Lankan society should be bold enough to change this humiliating practice. We still see Sri Lankan parents seeking brides with dowries for their sons, as if a girl who is well educated and employed with a reasonable salary is not equal to a dowry. Another, traditional habit is the celebration of puberty of girl child. This tradition only celebrated by the Sinhala Buddhists and this practice is not prevalent among other religious groups. During this period a young girl is actually subjected to confinement which amounts to imprisonment. She is not allowed to have non- veg food and not permitted to see or meet any male. Her period of detention is determined by astrologers. At the culmination of this confinement a big party is held and usually all friends and relations are invited. This party in another word is an announcement of now having a marriageable daughter. These trends persist today since it is a tradition which originated a long time ago. We should be bold enough to stop these adverse notions and to face realities.
The representation of women in Sri Lankan politics, is pathetically low. In parliament, there are only 13 members (6%) female members out of 225. In provincial councils, female representation is 4% and in local authorities it is only 2%. This shows the nature of male dominance in Sri Lankan politics. The women voters themselves do not support women candidates. This is strange, for the voting population in Sri Lanka is 51% female according to the calculation done by the Department of Census and Statistic. I feel that a system should be adopted so that representation in parliament will be according to the gender population in the country.
Considering the judicial system of Sri Lanka, it can be seen that there are certain Customary Laws, Personal Laws and Family Laws that are discriminatory against women. The Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act, the Kandian law and the Thesawalamai law are clearly discriminatory against women. Not only that but also the Land Development Ordinance discriminates against women’s public land right. Moreover, the Vagrant Ordinance and Brothel Ordinance and Section 365, 365(A), 399 of the Penal Code discriminates against lesbians and Transgender women.
Under the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act, Muslim women are largely discriminated where marriage, divorce, inheritance and property right are concerned. Under the Kandian law, Sinhala women are discriminate in respect of divorce and property right. Under the Thesawalamai law too, Jaffana women’s property right have been violated. It is essential that there should be a courageous stand to step down the discrimination against the Sri Lankan women.
Our country is heading towards a new constitution. The government has appointed a committee for that. This committee is named as “Public Representative Committee on Constitutional Reforms.” This committee includes 20 members but sad to say only three of them are women. Apart from that the constitutional assembly has appointed a sub committees to deal with Fundamental Rights, Judiciary, Law and Order, Centre Periphery Relations, Public Finance and the Nature of the State. But unfortunately, women representative in those sub committees are minimal. The subcommittee on Fundamental Rights have proposed a Bill of Rights which cover the rights of Child, Disability rights, Elder’s rights, but has unfortunately forgotten the women’s rights.
In June, 2016, Sri Lankan government declared an action plan to prevent gender based violence. This was to be in force from June 2016 to the year 2020. The action plan was named as the “Policy Framework and National Plan of Action to address Sexual and Gender based Violence (SGBV). However, nothing is mentioned with regard to commercial Sex Workers and LBT(Lesbians, Bisexual, Transgender) communities ,which face violence and harassment in Sri Lanka. Under the “Vagrants Ordinance” and the “Brothel Ordinance”, the Police often arrested Female Sex Workers. However, when such an arrest occurs, the police never arrest the males who were the Clients. Trans Gender People are harassed by the Police whenever they appear with their partners in Public places such as restaurants and beaches. They are charged for “Public Indecency” under the Vagrants Act. Such inconsiderate and discriminatory action against these people is commonly practiced in Sri Lanka It is imperative that these humans should have their own rights and that the public as a whole should address themselves to this problem.
It is an accepted fact that Sri Lankan Women working in foreign countries earn a greater proportion of our country’s foreign exchange. However, they do not have any social security or labour rights. The Sri Lankan government has not signed MOU with these countries which employ our labours with regard to their labour rights. The time is ripe that the Sri Lankan government take a firm and decisive step regards this issue.
In Sri Lanka there is a disparity in the Private Sector, in that female employees doing the same duties as their male counterparts, are paid lower salaries. This disparity should be immediately abolished. For this to be effective, the Sri Lankan government should have some degree of control over the “Private Sector”. It is oftenly reported that in the Private sector, certain male officials demand sexual favours from the female counterparts whenever a question of promotion or new appointment arise. This is a despicable act and should addressed immediately. It is clear that an effective and bold change in the administration of the Private Sector is imperative.
The general trend in today’s education is to foster traditional methods and system of life. This has become a big hindrance in today’s curriculum. One thing lacking in our school is Gender Education. Perhaps, some leader in our country may arise and be bold enough to make these changes. If the students are moulded correctly through gender education in their schools, most of the problems in this respect in our country will be eliminated.Students of today are the adults of tomorrow.
“There is definitely a light at the end of the tunnel and we are here for the long haul” -HoldaElsadda , Global Fund For Women Board Member, Egypt.
The time has come for not only women but everyone to be “Bold enough for change”. We are carrying on a legacy of the old “Colonial Rule” still. “The old order should change, yielding place to new”. Till such bold change is made in the setup of our society, in our country’s administration, nothing but fear and injustice will prevail. Both male and female citizens should consider this as their bounden duty.
Surangika Jayarathne is a Research Associate and a Lecturer at the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies, Colombo, Sri Lanka.She holds a Master’s Degree in International Relations from South Asian University, New Delhi, India and Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations (Hons.) from University of Colombo. She previously worked as anEconomic Officer at the Royal Thai Embassy, Colombo. Her works focuses on Gender and International Relations, LGBTQ Rights and Body Politics in South Asia.