2021 Mar 8
A red-letter date for any feminist is International Women’s Day that annually falls on March 8th. This year, the theme for International Women’s Day is “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world”. It is to be a day of celebration. However, as we try to survive the troubled waters of COVID-19 and a doomed economy, the apparent obstacles and threats we as women face, cannot be ignored.
Here are seven issues plaguing the journey towards true gender parity, you ought to know.
1) The plight of the female labour force; migrant workers, garment factory workers and estate sector workers.
MGI’s report has estimated that $12 trillion can be added to global growth by advancing gender equality. Sri Lanka specifically has the potential to add $20 billion a year to its GDP by 2025, which would increase its current economic growth trajectory by about 14%.
According to a 2016 publication by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), Sri Lanka’s female labour force participation has remained between 30% – 35% in the past 2 decades. Increasing and retaining women’s participation in the workforce, as well as the way in which they are treated amidst a global health crisis is another issue that requires immediate attention. The Free Trade Zone (FTZ) workforce, predominantly made up of women who work in garment factories, were left stranded for several days in their private makeshift boarding houses during nation-wide curfews imposed to combat the spread of COVID-19, and were subsequently loaded into buses to return to their hometowns, allegedly without having received their monthly salaries.
Furthermore, Sri Lanka’s economy is heavily reliant on remittances from migrant workers (one of the country’s top sources of foreign exchange) and a large portion of these remittances are sent by female domestic workers employed in the Middle-East; unfortunately, little has been done to ensure the rights and safety of these migrant workers.
2) The untethered beast that is domestic violence
A 2020 report carried out across 25 districts reveals that, overall, one in four (24.9%) women in Sri Lanka has experienced physical and/or sexual violence by a partner. Meanwhile, two in every five women (39.8%) have suffered physical, sexual, emotional, and/or economic violence and/or controlling behaviours by a partner.
One of the main reasons that not much has been done to curtail the prevalence of domestic violence against women is the Sri Lankan society’s attitudes and perceptions towards the issue.
Many do not see violence against women as a problem.
The above-mentioned report reveals that nearly half the respondents (47.5%) agreed with the statement that “a man should show he is the boss”, while 46.5% agreed that “a good wife obeys her husband even if she disagrees.” Moreover, two in five (39.5%) women felt that women were “obliged to have sex with their husbands when [they do] not feel like it” and over one third (35.3%) felt “men can have a good reason to hit their wife.”
These results point to the deeply ingrained sexism, internalised misogyny, and patriarchal views that govern Sri Lankan society. Girls and women are taught from a young age that men are superior to them and the role of a good wife is to be subservient to her husband; therefore, they grow up believing that violence against women by intimate partners or male family members are acceptable and a natural part of family life. As they do not see it as a problem, they do not take action against such violence, whether committed against themselves or women around them. This has led to a culture of tolerance and acceptance of violence against women, with dire consequences. Due to this, most women who experience or have experienced violence suffer in silence, rather than seeking help.
Furthermore, Equal Ground shows that there is a high prevalence of violence committed against the LGBTQI community, particularly LBTQ women. They are doubly marginalised – both due to their gender and their sexual orientation. This means that when it comes to violence and domestic abuse, they are worse off than cis-gender, heterosexual women.
Apart from violence from partners and non-partners, LBTQ women also face the challenge of being forced into heterosexual marriages by their families to “cure” them of what is seen as deviant/impure desires. While there are no research findings on this issue, it is clear that LBTQ women suffer greatly due to the prevalence of violence against women.
3) The dangerous pitfalls of microfinance
Approaches used to empower women like microfinance spells disaster for the common woman with high-interest rates and unrealistic payback periods. “It takes months for chickens to finally lay eggs and for incomes to be generated. But they expect us to pay-off the debt from the first week. Where will we find the money to feed the chickens and ourselves until then?” explained a female farmer.
Situations such as these propel many women to end up borrowing again to pay off the initial loan.
It is impossible for women to make enough to pay interests charged by microfinance companies, which range anywhere between 40% to 220%. How can anyone justify such high-interest rates when market interest rates remain at 14% and even the credit card interest rate is at 28%?
4) Sexual harassment at every turn
90% of Sri Lanka’s women have endured some kind of sexual harassment, against a global estimate of 1 in 3 women. It is the highest rate in South Asia. Conversely, according to a 2013 UN study, just one-third of Sri Lankan men admit to having carried out an act of physical or sexual violence against a woman and 3% are arrested. These statistics are a testament to the attitudes towards sexual harassment in Sri Lanka and how normalised it is in our every day lives.
Just take a typical day in the life of a woman; she would witness sexual harassment at every turn, in accessing healthcare or services, at home, in the workplace, on transportation systems, on the road, you name it! There is a high chance that women could be exposed to such advances.
It is so normalised now that it is severely underreported with most women fearing the repercussions of coming forward as they may be subject to further harassment or not be believed.
5) Women’s access to power and a seat at the table
Women’s full and effective participation and leadership in all areas of life drive progress for everyone. Yet, women are underrepresented in public life and decision-making, as revealed in the UN Secretary-General’s recent report. Women are Heads of State or Government in 22 countries, and only 24.9 per cent of national parliamentarians are women. At the current rate of progress, gender equality among Heads of Government will take another 130 years. Despite our country holding the shiny title of having the first ‘stateswoman’, we still uphold misogynistic and deeply patriarchal notions and beliefs that have hindered the progress of the common Sri Lankan woman. Women have little representation in our Government. Sri Lanka ranks lowest for women’s participation in politics among South Asian Countries. In 2020, only 5.3 per cent — 12 out of 225 legislators — in the Sri Lankan parliament were women. Further, adding to this is the statistic of Sri Lanka ranking number 182 out of 193 countries for women’s representation within the parliament. Despite being the majority of the electorate at 52 per cent of the total population and 56 per cent of the registered voters, female voices remain absent from formal politics.
Lest we forget our rightful D.I.G Bimshani – On September 21, 2020, The National Police Commission granted approval to promote a female Police Officer as Deputy Inspector General of Police. The decision paved way for the appointment of DIG Bimshani Jasin Aarachchi – making her the first female DIG in the country.
Merely five months later, the Supreme Court set dates to hear the petition signed by 32 Senior Superintendents of Police (SSPs) challenging the appointment of DIG Bimshani. The petition cites that DIG Bimshani’s appointment was in violation of the Police promotion procedures.
What this specific incident did was shed light on a much larger matter, that is merely not a case of Bimshani VS Male Superintendents, but of the fundamental recruitment and promotion framework of the Sri Lankan police/institutions that marginalise women and their potential.
6) Controversy of the MMDA and marriage laws
The MMDA, which was drafted by a group of men and passed by a legislature of men in 1951, saw its final reform in 1975. Muslim women and allies from a range of backgrounds have been pushing for reform to the MMDA for over 30 years. Successive Governments appointed at least five different committees, but the State failed to take action. The last committee, appointed in 2009, headed by Justice Saleem Marsoof carried out consultations for 9 years before presenting their findings and recommendations in early 2018. In July 2019, in a salutary move, the Muslim Members of Parliament agreed on 14 recommendations towards reform, but once again it appeared that there are moves to stymie reform. Now we have positive strides with the Minister of Justice Ali Sabry categorically assuring the country that reforms will take place but how effectively will these newly drafted laws and policies protect those under its governance – especially during the pandemic?
A controversial aspect of the MMDA is that it does not specify a minimum age for Muslim marriages. Section 23 of the MMDA states that a child below the age of 12 can be married with the authorisation of a Quazi judge. This has led to hundreds of cases of under-18s being married, even during the last decade. For example, between 2011 and 2016, 870 marriages involving 13-18-year-olds occurred in the Ampara District alone. A further problem that could be hindering the progress and accessibility to redress and their inherent rights is the fact that quazi court judges are strictly males.
The Committee on the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) in February 2018 highlighted a high prevalence of child marriages in some communities within the country. It isn’t only Muslim girls who become victims of forced child marriage, but also girls belonging to other communities as well. Especially poverty-stricken families often try to give their daughters in marriage.
7) Lack of support, exposure and knowledge with regards to sexual and reproductive health
While major progress has been made in the health sector over the years, challenges still exist in delivering comprehensive, non-discriminatory and client-oriented sexual and reproductive health services as it remains controversial and contested. Age, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, economic status, social class barriers pose major challenges to the implementation of and accessibility to this care. Research shows that 50% of youth in Sri Lanka have limited knowledge about their sexual and reproductive health and 35% of married women are not using any form of contraception. Lack of knowledge on Sexual & Reproductive Health & Rights and Sexual and Gender-Based Violence is not only closely related to each other but also makes it harder for women and young people to contribute to peace, growth and development of the country.
The current COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated existing inequalities and discrimination of vulnerable groups, making their access to SRH and GBV-related services often challenging when they are needed most. With rampant period poverty and high rates of teenage pregnancies and lack of awareness on basic sexual and reproductive rights, women in Sri Lanka are suffering.
It is important to note that when women lead, we see positive results. Some of the most efficient and exemplary responses to the COVID-19 pandemic were led by women. And women, especially young women, are at the forefront of diverse and inclusive movements online and on the streets for social justice, climate change and equality in our island home.
Despite our impressive journeys and numbers, women are still treated like second class citizens and do not have the same access or rights afforded to our counterparts, putting us in an inextricably vulnerable position.
Today, on International Women’s Day we see an influx of content done by organisations and companies promoting women’s inclusion, acceptance and empowerment who not even three months prior carried ads on toxic fairness creams or misogynistic smear campaigns or even unethical work practices.
This hypocrisy needs to end if we are to take a truly sustainable and inclusive step towards a better more gender-equal future.
Let us strive to hold all those accountable and truly celebrate the women in our lives this International Women’s Day. Not just on the 8th but all year round.