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sri lanka women's rights

Women’s Rights Are Still an Uphill Battle in Sri Lanka

The pandemic isn't helping.

Words: Dishani Senaratne
Pictures: Sander Don

Since the 2000s, the female population of Sri Lanka has exceeded their male counterparts. But has this growth led Sri Lanka to commit to protecting the rights of women and girls?

According to a 2015 report published by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Sri Lanka, 90% of the female respondents were affected by sexual harassment on public transportation at least once in their lifetime, yet only 4% had reported such incidents to police. While such statistics painted a bleak picture of safety of women during that time, former Minister Johnston Fernando’s recent statement at Parliament revealed that there have been 142 cases of rape, 42 serious sexual abuse cases, and 54 cases of child abuse reported within the first 15 days of 2020. This points to the fact that the issue of gender-based violence remains largely unaddressed to this day. More recently, the outbreak of COVID-19 has precipitated a spike in gender-based violence, which indicates how crisis settings compound the risks faced by women. Sadly, women in Sri Lanka are not alone in experiencing violence during this pandemic. The UN Secretary-General’s appeal to governments across the globe to ensure women’s safety is evidence of how home has increasingly become a place of violence during lockdown, not a safe space.

In all likelihood, Sri Lankan women who engage in blue-collar jobs will bear the brunt of the economic impact of COVID-19, irrespective of whether they are based in the country or elsewhere.

Given that Sri Lanka’s female labor force participation is 33.6%, increasing and retaining women’s participation at the workforce 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. Likewise, tea plantation workers, most of whom are women, have yet to receive their 1,000 rupee wage (approximately five US dollars) in spite of their massive contribution to the economy. Unfortunately, overlooking the rights of this lower-skilled female labor force illustrates how women are treated as expendable commodities by their employers in this country.

On a refreshing note, a Sri Lankan national, P. Jacintha, was named the Foreign Domestic Worker in Singapore in February 2020. Her rare tale of diligence and recognition is an antithesis of the plight of many Sri Lankan female domestic workers who are subject to abuse, violence, and discrimination in West Asia. In all likelihood, Sri Lankan women who engage in blue-collar jobs will bear the brunt of the economic impact of COVID-19, irrespective of whether they are based in the country or elsewhere.

On the other hand, Sri Lankan women are vulnerable to abuse not only in the physical world but also cyberspace. Like in most countries, online harassment of women and girls in Sri Lanka has increased over the years with the widespread adoption of the internet as a tool of communication. Several days ago, Mahela Jayawardene, a former captain of Sri Lanka’s national cricket team, was critical on social media platforms of the government’s plan (which was later suspended) to build the country’s largest cricket stadium. A barrage of verbal attacks on him as well as his wife surfaced on social media platforms – within a matter of hours. In February 2020, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s youngest son, Rohitha Rajapaksa, instructed a female Twitter user to find a boyfriend to keep her company in response to her criticism of allegations of his family’s involvement in money laundering. To another tweet posted by a male user, Rohitha Rajapaksa responded saying: “Get a wife and make children,” to which he later apologized owing to social media outrage. Last year, Caroline Jurie, the reigning Mrs. World, experienced a wave of online hate speech for her victory at the pageant. Despite vociferous discourses of resistance to digital bullying, the absence of defamation laws on social media has exacerbated sexism, patriarchy and misogyny in the virtual world.

Sri Lanka takes pride in having elected the world’s first female prime minister – Sirimavo Bandaranaike – who led the country despite having no political experience, following the 1959 assassination of her husband, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. In spite of this achievement, the recently dissolved 225-member parliament had only 12 female Members of Parliament – a reflection of the heavily male-dominated political system. On paper, the much-awaited 2016 introduction of a mandatory 25% quota for women’s representation at the local government level was a victory for gender equality. In reality, such legislation was largely exploited to ensure political pathways for a disproportionate number of women who belong to prominent political families. Still, discussing the challenges faced by women is a rarity in the local political landscape. Sajith Premadasa, the presidential candidate of the New Democratic Front (NDF) who lost to current president Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the 2019 November presidential election, was disparagingly given the label “Padman” on social media platforms by rivaling political opponents, which draws an analogy between the Bollywood movie inspired by the true story of a man who invented a low-cost device to make sanitary pads for women in his community and his pledge to offer free sanitary napkins for women and girls. Admittedly, the social media furor downplayed the fact that sanitary napkins were taxed at 100% — another squandered opportunity for political figures to focus on experiences and issues faced by women.

In November 2019, in a controversial move during his last week in office, the former President Maithripala Sirisena granted a presidential pardon to a death row prisoner convicted for the killing of a teenage girl in 2005. While mixed reactions ensued, the decision might serve as a precedent whereby properly tried, convicted and sentenced persons can be released on the whims of the president. Preaching Buddhist sermons that warn women they would be born in hell if they let their husbands make tea for them might not be the way forward to promote gender equality. Instead, perhaps expediting the long-delayed process of issuing national identity cards to bhikkunis (female Buddhist nuns) is a good starting point for embarking on a journey of empowering women in Sri Lanka. Although female presence and participation has risen in most sectors of the country’s society and economy, the struggle for gender parity continues to be an uphill battle.

Dishani Senaratne is the Project Director of Writing Doves – a non-profit initiative that seeks to enhance intercultural understanding among young learners in Sri Lanka through trilingual narratives.

Dishani Senaratne

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