Silent Minority: Les femmes

Nearly six decades after we elected the world’s first female head of state, Sri Lanka still treats its women as second class to men

“No citizen shall be discriminated against on the grounds of race, religion, language, caste, sex, political opinion, place of birth or any one of such grounds [by subjecting them to] any disability, liability, restriction or condition with regard to access to shops, public restaurants, hotels, places of public entertainment and places of public worship of his own religion.”
[Clauses 12 (2) & (3) Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka]

July 21, 1960. Ceylon, to be renamed Sri Lanka after 12 years, made history by electing the world’s first woman head of state – 44-year-old Sirima Bandaranaike. She has been the only democratically elected female head of a government until Indira Gandhi was elected Prime Minister of India six years later.

A paradox. Fifty-eight years after this historical event with international importance, Sri Lanka has had to enforce female representation quotas to have more females in local government bodies. Why? The democratic process has badly failed to ensure a reasonable percentage of female representation at all levels of policymaking. Sri Lanka’s current representation of women at local government is as low as 2%. At provincial council level, it is at 4%, and in Parliament, at 6%. This is far below even South Asian standards. Women’s representation in Parliament: Nepal 30%, Afghanistan 28%, Pakistan 28%, Bangladesh 20%, India 12%, Bhutan 9% and the Maldives 6%. We are so behind that, even with just 13 years to celebrate a century of universal franchise, we need artificial means to ensure the voice of half the population in governance.

That’s not the end of the episode. The government accepts the fact and amended the Local Authorities Election Act in August 2017. Returning officers now have the authority to reject any nomination paper that does not contain the required number of female candidates. Several nomination lists, most notably one for the Maharagama Urban Council, were rejected for non-compliance.

In a nutshell: Women contribute far above their fair share to the national economy, but are sidelined in decisionmaking. Unless they are represented adequately at all levels, how can we guarantee that the decision-making process considers the needs of female workers?

The Act goes further. It says, “Not less than twenty-five per centum of the total number of members in each local authority shall be women members.” This means that, if the elected women members are not adequate, the balance should be nominated from ‘the list’. As expected, the directly elected female representation at the recently concluded local government elections was inadequate. So the balance should be nominated.

All political parties are against naming women candidates over men. So, as media reported, political party secretaries (guess all of them are men) met and decide to “overlook” this requirement “only for this time”. The legitimacy of that decision is debatable.

Political party representatives, even unanimously, have no right to “overlook” a legal obligation. But, ignoring that fact for a moment, this is a clear indication of how contemporary Sri Lankan society sees women as leaders. Let’s admit it.

Women are a minority in Sri Lanka. Not numerically, but considering their position in society. Like all minorities in developing countries, they enjoy fewer privileges. They are also a silent minority. They don’t make their voice heard, giving the impression that everything is fine. Sadly, that is not the case.

A harsh fact: The majority of women leaders Sri Lanka has had (including one president, two prime ministers, ministers and MPs) reached those positions thanks to their slain or dead husbands and fathers. Self-made women such as Colombo’s new mayor Rosy Senanayake are the exception, not the norm. The irony: Textiles and garment products earned $4.8 billion in 2016, constituting 47% of exports. Then came tea with $1.3 billion in earnings (12%). Rubber came in third place with $0.8 billion in earnings (7.4%).

These three categories per se constitute two-thirds of total exports. As we all know, they run predominately on female labour. Adding to this, worker remittances from the Middle East was $3.8 billion in 2016 (54% of all remittances). This too, we know, largely comes from housemaids – all female.

In a nutshell: Women contribute far above their fair share to the national economy, but are sidelined in decision-making. Unless they are represented adequately at all levels, how can we guarantee that the decision-making process considers the needs of female workers who not just keep the economy running, but (in many cases) provide the key source of income for their families?

Let’s go beyond. The constitution is clearly against discrimination based on sex, but the women in this country still do not enjoy some of the basic rights the men do.

For example, a woman cannot legally purchase liquor. Neither she can work in a liquor shop. These laws are archaic. No country can move forward with such backward regulations. Ironically, it was the president himself who confronted the proposed amendments. So the abomination stays. While developed countries are revising their outdated rules like making marijuana legal, women in Sri Lanka, half of the adult population, have to depend on a male acquaintance to purchase an otherwise legally purchasable item – liquor. Should this be acceptable in the 21st century?

If we look further, we discover that, in many industries, women are still paid less than their male counterparts for performing the same tasks. The daily wages of plantation workers are low for both male and female workers, but the former category earns more on their ability to carry a heavier load. (Each additional kg plucked above the normal daily average of 15kg will be paid about Rs40.)

The constitution is clearly against discrimination based on sex, but the women in this country still do not enjoy some of the basic rights the men do. For example, a woman cannot legally purchase liquor

Male office janitors are paid Rs100 more daily, as they can contribute by lifting items (strictly not a responsibility of a janitor). Daily labour rates in rural areas, for almost the same task, normally attaches a Rs200 discount when performed by a female. These are essentially based on demand and supply in each situation.

They cannot be rectified overnight. Still, if that happens because of the perception that women are weaker and cannot contribute equally, it is the right time to discontinue the practice. The fact that an average man is  strongerthan an average woman should not be interpreted as a weakness of all women.

The government must seriously consider breaking cultural barriers preventing women from taking certain jobs. At present, we see no female rail engine drivers, truck or bus drivers, and tuk tuk drivers are rare. I have never seen a ‘station-mistress’. I don’t think they exist.

Women are not recruited to many technical/engineering jobs. Our construction industry, unlike in India, depends predominantly on men. These job categories, among many others, are reserved for men either legally, or in most cases, by imposing cultural barriers.

Blaming the government for cultural barriers isn’t entirely fair, but it can play an important role in their removal. Job categories where women are predominant are also a consequence of past state interventions. If the British restricted women from plucking tea, for some inexplicable reason, we would have no women in that sector.

In short, women’s rights too are a part of human rights, which as a whole needs different thinking. A fact: Most human rights we enjoy today were established even before gaining independence. The slate remains as it was in the 1940s. Our leaders have done little since to advance women, and that too only under international pressure.

It’s time for rights groups to work more vigorously – yes, even at the risk of being branded as maniacs, extremists and traitors – to establish fundamental rights widely, which have not been practically won despite the hollow words in the constitution. Only pressure can establish these rights.