Posted by: catseyesrilanka | December 19, 2010

Verbal Harassment and Media Sexism

Verbal harassment of women continues with impunity in the media in Sri Lanka. Recently the spectacle of a judge at a TV contest casting obscenities at a young performer has led to heated discussions on the issue. Cat’s Eye joins the debate and makes a distinction between acceptable banter between equals and harassment in a situation of inequality which amounts to verbal and emotional violence against women.


What is ironic is that while these kinds of incidents go without any consequences for their perpetrators, the patriarchal Sri Lankan state is promoting a public discourse on morality which appears to only target women’s  behavior and bodies. The attempt at some universities to impose a dress code which targets only female academics and female students, or the decision by the Children’s and Women’s Bureau of the Sri Lankan Police to publish, on a court order, headshots of porn stars, which has already had far reaching negative consequences for the women concerned, as compared to the men in the photographs.  There is no doubt that while assertions of sexual morality are increasing, new forms of sexual exploitation and expression reveal themselves and is further facilitated by the media. This was the paradox and the lesson of the episode that unfolded at the TV reality show.



Home-Grown Sexism?


The vulgar display of sexism towards a contestant on the part of this powerful male judge and that this was televised without interruption is all the more contradictory when TV shows today are replete with censorship of scenes of kissing (even those which display everyday affection), alcohol consumption and smoking. Even a bottle of alcohol is checked out! Yet the verbal sexism against women in the media grows rampant. Cat’s Eye wonders whether this is allowed because, unlike the ‘foreign’ liquor, kissing and tobacco, this is a ‘home grown’ and therefore acceptable to the authorities? In all fairness it must be said that one of the female judges on the show protested against the sexism expressed. But where her dissent should have been highlighted, the scene was quickly cut, an embarrassed TV host tittered and the powerful male had his day on the stage.


Neither did the contestant who was the target of attack question the perpetrator. This country has a long history of witty sexual repartee, one notable example being the 18th Century poet Gajaman Nona who responded in spirited verses to Elapata Dissava’s ribald suggestions. More recently in politics, strong feisty women politicians like Vivienne Goonewardena have been able to trade insults and reply in kind to male politicians who indulged in vulgarity. Women politicians have to be always mindful that half of their constituencies are women. What did female viewers of the TV show think of what unfolded? How did they feel when the contestant/victim was silent? Her silence could have been a reflection of the unequal power relations between a contestant and a judge, or a younger vs senior colleague. Yet women watch their so-called role models closely. Gajaman Nona and Vivienne Goonewardena gave as good as they got. Their reputations did not suffer because of it. In fact they and many others have gone down in the annals of history as women who were able to hold their own and we respect them for it.


Duty of Politicians


Women politicians need to give back as good as they get, this is both their right and the right of the constituency they represent.  Politics places upon them a special duty, indeed a responsibility to ensure that discriminatory practices are not tolerated and institutionalized and that rights of women are protected as well as promoted.  Women politicians have a special role to play in not condoning to discrimination and male politicians must support the right to non-discrimination,  not derogate it.


However the majority of today’s women politicians,  are subservient, appear to have no political autonomy and in particular  are often cowed by the sexism leveled against them by their male colleagues. Male politicians in turn have no compunction in blatantly using verbal sexism or sexual abuse against women on campaign trails; rile women politicians with sexual innuendo and sexist comment within and outside parliament. In the political power balance women are often in the position of unequals and the closing of ranks by male politicians of all shades and stripes to keep women from increasing their number in formal politics institutionalizes this discrimination.



Reality TV and its Ethics


Reality shows on local TV seem to be following global trends in that they are becoming more and more ‘ultra-real’. In other words, the participants featured in these shows are expected to ‘perform’ an ultra-real version of reality replete with entertaining dialogues, emotional ‘action’, inter-personal politics and fake personality clashes. This is not only aimed at individual/political image building but also at boosting viewership in order to increase advertising sales. It seems that the viral politicization of virtually all aspects of Sri Lankan life has been further endorsed by the television media by featuring politicians turned entertainers – as if there were no other worthy individuals and sections of Sri Lankan society to be given prominence. Even if the characters featured on these shows are incapable of being restrained, should not the talk show hosts as well as TV companies abide by a code of ethics: one which does not discriminate, abuse or demean others for the purpose of public entertainment?


Media Policy


In Sri Lanka there is no framework that regulates broadcast media nor is there a body to which disgruntled or unhappy viewers could complain for a number of reasons including if a programme incites violence or demeans women. In the absence of a code of conduct, TV stations which compete with each other to attract more viewers, blithely disregard degrading portrayals of women. On the contrary, violence against, and harassment of women appears to be a staple of programming content and is used quite liberally to titillate viewers and thereby boost the popularity of the station and increase sponsorships/revenue. Cat’s Eye checked some of the popular TV stations. They claimed that there was a code of ethics which everyone ignored!. While a media policy does not necessarily have to be restrictive, it has to be conceded that drafting such a policy/ legislation in the current context is not without complications as such an initiative is most likely to be used by the government as a means through which to further restrict media freedom. Hence, we have to walk the tightrope to ensure that while advocating a policy that sets out guidelines for responsible programming on the part of the media, the initiative is not appropriated by the government to crack down on freedom of expression.


Posted by: catseyesrilanka | September 30, 2010

Domestic Violence – The Rice Pot Boils Over

There is an old saying that has been frequently bandied about to dismiss violence in the home and to critique the laws enacted to prevent domestic violence in Sri Lanka. The adage “anger between a husband and wife is only until the pot of rice gets cooked” is probably true in many small arguments between husbands and wives, but what is its significance in real domestic violence disputes?

Statistical data and anecdotal information on domestic violence show a high prevalence of domestic violence in Sri Lanka and that the majority of these victims are women. Studies reveal that 60% of women in Sri Lanka face some form of domestic violence during their lives. Domestic violence is defined as “violence perpetrated in the domestic sphere, which targets women because of their role within that sphere, or violence which is intended to impact, directly and negatively on women within the domestic sphere”. Domestic violence can include physical, emotional, sexual and economic violence, which can impact on victims (both direct victims and their children) with life threatening and long-term harm.

Women’s Crisis Centres and Police Women and Children’s Desks as well as Mediation Boards, Grama Niladharis, newspapers, community organizations, and even faith-based groups can provide extensive evidence of domestic violence incidents that do not cease when the pot of rice is boiled. They are incidents of severe physical, sexual, and emotional abuse – of real women with broken bones, burnt torsos, hacked and mutilated bodies, traumatized, victimized and tortured as defined in Sri Lanka’s anti-torture laws. These incidents involve women and their children. These are not disputes that came up when the pot of rice was placed on the fire and these are not disputes that ended when the rice was cooked.

Mechanisms for Prevention

We have many redress mechanisms that address family disputes; the police, mediation boards, counselors at Divisional Secretariat offices, family elders, community leaders… the list is vast and their services are greatly valuable despite gaps in ideological approaches and space for improvement. These address small remediable disputes and help families reconcile their differences and promote conciliation.

In contrast, laws on preventing domestic violence are meant to address a whole different gamut of violent crimes between husbands and wives. In a society where the family is upheld as the most sacred social institution, it is not pleasant to consider that within the walls of some families, women are abused in inhuman ways. For over a century, Sri Lanka hid behind the provision that women abused by their husbands can access punitive justice via the penal code which lists some offences that describe domestic violence disputes. But no women came forward and no cases went to court under the Penal Code not because there was no violence being perpetrated within families but because of this very same sentiment – that domestic disputes should be kept domestic and it was wrong as the Sinhala saying goes to ‘spread home fires to the outside world…”.

Lobbying Against Domestic Violence

Sri Lanka considers domestic violence as a grave social issue that requires multi-focal strategic interventions. Sri Lanka’s commitment to the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (DEVAW) accepts that “violence against women is acts that result in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life”. The Sri Lanka Women’s Charter endorses this recognition and in response the National Committee on Women has spearheaded the Sri Lanka action plan on preventing domestic violence. The State, nongovernmental, professional, service sectors and academia provide multi-faceted initiatives aimed at addressing and reducing domestic violence. These institutions have repeatedly argued for the need for extensive strategic and long-term programming to address gender based violence as urgent at all levels of society from policy level to community level.

As a result of strong lobbying by civil society organizations strengthened by research carried out by institutions and individual academics, the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act was enacted in September 2005. Until the enactment of the Act, domestic violence was virtually an invisible phenomenon in Sri Lanka, unrecognized by the State and accepted as the norm by society at large. With the passing of the Act, for the first time in the history of the country’s laws, domestic violence was accepted as a crime from which victims were to be protected.

The Law

The laws that deal with the phenomenon in Sri Lanka are twofold; the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act and by the Penal Code. The Prevention of Domestic Violence Act no 34 of 2005 provides for protective measures where a victim of domestic violence can access the formal legal system to obtain a Protective Order from courts of law. The description of domestic violence in the Act recognizes several offences against the body of a person which are already included in the Penal Code as well as those of emotional abuse (a pattern of cruel, inhuman, degrading or humiliating conduct of a serious nature directed towards an aggrieved person). In terms of the Penal Code recognition, the State can file action against a perpetrator of domestic violence under the country’s general penal laws.

Despite this visibility and recognition of domestic violence as a crime, actually addressing the issue still remains a problem that is clouded by society’s expectations of the gendered identities, roles and behaviour of women / men and of socio-cultural norms. Research shows that the burden of stigma, social and economic vulnerabilities, the lack of formal protection systems and supportive access to justice, and socialization processes that minimize the gravity of domestic violence are significant factors that prevent women recognizing,  reporting and taking action on domestic violence.

For those women who have the strength to break the silence on domestic violence, the formal courts of law offer protection for victims and punitive action can be taken against perpetrators. Yet many are unable to actually access the formal justice system because the first points of entry for redress (largely the Police and public officers in the community such as Grama Niladharis), often discourage remedial action on the basis of solving the dispute and keeping the ‘family together’. Here the Police and public officers play an informal (and therefore untrained) counselling/mediating role of using their personal life skills and perceptions of dispute resolution and family harmony to provide immediate ‘relief’ to victims. Or the victims and perpetrator are referred to community mediation boards.

The key feature in the PDV Act is that it provides for a protective remedy and not a punitive course of action – as it concentrates on keeping women safe rather than on punishing the perpetrators. It would of course be worthwhile to consider whether families are ‘broken up’ by continuing violence or whether they are ‘broken up’ by the effort to live violence-free – a fundamental human right?

Or as argued by Prof. Savitri Goonesekere “Helping women facing gender based violence to end this violence does not mean breaking up a family unit. When there is violence in the home, the family is already broken. Even though a husband and wife live under the same roof and share a child or children, if the wife is being subject to violence, the family is already torn apart. Helping this woman to end the violence she is experiencing will save her life and the lives of her children. It will help preserve her family.”

Supporting the Law

The sporadic debates on the law as ‘drastic’ laws that break up families and help wives push husbands out of the marital home become irrelevant for two reasons. One – because the laws prevent women and children from life-threatening situations. If placed outside the domestic sphere, these crimes would carry prison sentences, fines and compensation for victims. Two, the laws that address domestic violence are aimed primarily at protecting victims who are largely women and children. In a country which is proud of protecting its women, these laws should not place anyone on the defensive or warrant criticism on its negative influence on family peace.

Therefore the current arguments on the overcrowding of Sri Lankan prisons as well as the drain on State funds to implement punitive measures and rehabilitation are not valid claims when it comes to perpetrators of domestic violence given the severity of the crime. These violent acts, if committed by a person on a person outside of a home and a family relationship, would not warrant any discussion on the repealing of the Act or the pardoning of perpetrators.

It may be timelier to recognize that those who violate the very people they are supposed to love and honor, and who are their closest and dearest may be affected by alcoholism, or a particular mental disability. Furthermore, patriarchy – the unequal power structures within family relationships – can also be the cause and result of domestic violence.

Rather than cloak these issues in simplistic discussions relating to family harmony and rice pots, are we ready to take forward the recognition and commitment once made by the State to look into the more serious issues surrounding domestic violence? Or are we going to let the majority of women facing domestic violence situations within their homes fend for themselves?

Posted by: catseyesrilanka | September 8, 2010

The Punishment is the Crime

While the country is supposed to be a civilized democracy where the rule of law prevails, it is appalling that extra-judicial punishments of a medieval, barbaric nature are being inflicted on the poor – by persons in authority. Such individuals  who have no legal authority to punish, take the law into their hands and administer punishments with impunity.

Three recent scandals

Three outrageous incidents have recently been reported. The first is the case of a Deputy Minister, Mervyn Silva tying a Samurdhi officer to a tree over the latter’s failure to attend a dengue prevention campaign in Kelaniya. The police looked on and only  a woman present raised strong objections. The incident was widely publicized; Mervyn Silva was punished and then exonerated by a committee of the SLFP appointed to look into the issue.

The second incident that has been widely condemned was a horror story of a Sri Lankan housemaid in Saudi Arabia who had nails and needles inserted into her body allegedly by her employer. This case has been reported in all newspapers locally and attracted international attention. It has served to highlight the plight of Sri Lankan housemaids abroad who have no legal protection or basic rights.

The  third incident, reported by the Asian Human Rights Commission is that of a Muslim woman aged 17 being summarily punished with 100 lashes  by men of the mosque committee  in Gokarella in the Kurunegala district. The ‘offence’ was that she had a child out of wedlock, and although she had subsequently married another man, she was harshly punished, leading to her taking treatment at the Mawatagama hospital. The report claims that the husband’s efforts to make an entry at the Gokarella police station failed. It is a fact that Moulavis of mosques in Sri Lanka have committees which can resort to such summary punishments of believers.

Summary punishments

These ‘punishments’ are a throwback to a feudal period during which kings, chiefs, priests  and people in authority imposed summary punishments on those who failed to toe the line. In medieval Europe radical women were called witches and burnt at the stake. In more recent times, in post-World-War 2 France, women who were allegedly Nazi collaborators had their heads forcibly shaved. These acts – all extra-legal – are reminiscent of what Michel Foucault discusses in his work Discipline and Punish. He argues that ‘Discipline “makes” individuals; it is the specific technique of power that regards individuals both as objects and as instruments of its exercise.’ It is through disciplining and punishment that people are brought under control and the techniques of severe censure, shaming, and torture used by the mosque authorities, the politician, and Saudi employer happen because they treat their victims as objects and instruments of their power.

Blind Eye of Law Enforcement

What is significant is that both  in the case of the Muslim woman and the Samurdhi officer, the law enforcement authority–namely the police–has committed a grave dereliction of duty. The constitution of Sri Lanka specifies, under article 11, that “No person shall be subject to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Moreover, article 12 (1) of the constitution states that “All persons are equal before the law and are entitled to the equal protection of the law.” So if people are entitled to equal protection under the law, what was the police doing? In the tree incident, a police officer was at the scene, but action was taken against Mervyn Silva only at a political level – not at the level of law enforcement. The Constitution, under article 28 casts a duty on “every person in Sri Lanka” (inter alia) “to uphold and defend the  Constitution” [Art.28 (a)]; and “to respect the rights and freedoms of others” [Art.28 (e)]. The mosque committee  and the politician were clearly in violation of this clause. Yet the police looked away, and in the case of the Muslim wife and husband, they were unable to lodge a complaint.


When reprimanded, the response by the perpetrators of violence against individuals  has  often been to issue denials, as in the case of Mervyn Silva and the Saudi housemaid. In cases such as punishments meted out through religious institutions such as mosque committees, the justification by Muslims is that they are enforcing correct morality among the believers. Communities may think they are maintaining discipline  and good conduct to keep both men and women in line. What is more many men use this argument to justify  violence  in the home, in spite of the existence of a law against domestic violence.

Other Violent Actions

During times of peace, violence does not suddenly abate and many other instances of extra-legal violence, killings and acts of humiliation have recently occurred. Some notable examples being the chasing of a retarded man into the sea resulting in his drowning at Bambalapitiya;  the assaults on university students by “raggers”; violence of teachers against school children; the persistence of  violence in the home against women and children and the prevalence of punishments by humiliation in some institutions such as the forced shaving of heads of “offenders’. What is dangerous is that if this type of violent behaviour is not checked, it will continue unabated. “Copy cat” incidents of tying  people  to  trees have already been reported in the newspapers and on TV.

During the decades of war in Sri Lanka, the brutalization of society and the culture of violence were blamed for the escalation of violence and the flouting of the rule of law. Today we have no excuses.

Posted by: catseyesrilanka | June 16, 2010

Citizenship, Homosexuality and Equal Opportunities

What constitutes citizenship in a country? What are the benefits of citizenship? What can we expect from it? What are our rights and entitlements as citizens? For those of us fortunate enough to be privileged and mainstream, we hardly think – or need to think – about citizenship in this way. We can take it for granted. For those of us who are heterosexual and conform to the sexual behaviour expected of us, we enjoy the perks of citizenship without much thought. But the recent events held to commemorate Pride week, and discussions held around issues that haunt the lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual (lgtb) communities in Sri Lanka, brought up the fact that, for these communities, citizenship remains a vexed legal, socio-political subject.

Equal Rights

The Sri Lanka constitution guarantees equal rights to all its citizens. Yet it is commonplace that discrimination and inequalities occur. For instance, Sri Lankan women, on the whole, are highly discriminated when it comes to political representation and certain other rights such as ownership/ access to property, particularly of state land. Our society hardly takes into account the fundamental needs and priorities of those who are differently-abled or disabled – they are usually consigned to their homes or a limited number of state institutions. Amongst those disadvantaged because they do not belong to a dominant majority, and because they do not conform to the norm, are women who love other women.

Art ahead of its Time

Film, literature and theatre have often been at the vanguard of exploring social taboos, spelling them out, boldly portraying the discrimination and violence faced by characters who break them. In Sri Lanka we had a ground-breaking film by Asoka Handagama entitled ‘Flying with One Wing’ (2002) which depicted the story of a transgendered person. In 2003 Visakesa Chandrasekeran wrote the Sinhala language play ‘Katuyahana’ about gay men which entered the final round of the State Drama Festival. Much earlier, in 1971, Punyakante Wijenaike had written into her novel Giraya, an undercurrent of homosexuality as a reason which destroyed the married life of Kamini and Lal. (Unfortunately, this important aspect of the novel was expunged in Lester James Peiris’ film based on the novel). Today, the Bolo Theatre which works in both English and Sinhala languages, and also uses movement in its theatre pieces, has staged several productions under the theme ‘Voicing Silence’ which portrays same-sex relationships and issues. Amongst its exemplary performance pieces have been ‘Saman’s Story’, ‘Abhirami’s Story’ and ‘Nachchi’. These artistic works include path-breaking documentary films in which these communities have courageously narrated their experiences and outlined their victimization as well as hopes for change.

Even as this cultural work has been timely, and has contributed a great deal to the fact that we can speak and write about these issues today to a far greater extent than we could 25 years ago, culture also remains the ground on which the most conservative of ideas flourish. Cultural tradition is often used rhetorically to shame and punish those who do not conform to its dominant standards. Women who love other women – lesbians – are shamed and cornered because they refuse to conform to what is culturally expected of ‘good women’, embodying femininity in dress and behaviour, marrying men, having children and reproducing the nuclear family. Just as with gay men, lesbians are thrown out of their homes by their parents and siblings, shamed in public, and made the target of violence. While these incidents which occur with disheartening regularity in our society has got some coverage in the mainstream press, less discussed are the citizenship rights that are denied to gay men and lesbians because civil union partnerships remain unrecognized in our country. One possible reason for this is that same-sex relationships are usually coded in sexual terms by mainstream society, not as couples abiding by the norms of domestic relationships.

Missed Opportunities

“My girlfriend and I have been living together for four years. We have been staying in rented houses. Recently, we decided to look into the prospect of buying our own home. Many advertisements attracted us by the prospect of ‘our dream home’. We approached many banks, with proof of our income… To our surprise, every bank refused our application for a home loan. My partner and I were not married.”

It is indeed alarming that many international banking chains which claim equal opportunities and provide housing loan facilities to same sex partners in other countries are prevented from doing so in Sri Lanka, because the law does not provide the support for non-discrimination against these marginalized groups. An inquiry with one of the banks revealed that even supplementary credit cards can only be given to a member of one’s family, thus preventing same sex couples from enjoying a common credit card bill for household expenses. The gay and lesbian community is criminalized under section 365 A of the Sri Lankan penal code. They are detained, in some instances deported, and subjected to violence by the police. When they experience either domestic partner violence, or custodial abuse in the police stations, they are unable to protect themselves through the law because of their criminalized status. Discrimination Same sex couples are also denied the chance to define a ‘family’ in non-heteronormative terms and denied the joy of parenting. While a few single women have managed to adopt children in Sri Lanka, it has taken a lengthy process of about four years. Lesbian couples who have been in a steady relationship for several years have stated they would like to share the responsibility of adopting and raising a child but because they are not seen as a legally married, heterosexual couple, this is not a possibility. Let’s look at another example. In an instance when one partner of a same sex couple is hospitalized, the other partner is often not allowed the same access that is allowed to a member of the patient’s family. Family in this sense includes only one’s parents, husband, wife, or siblings. Once again, since the state refuses to accept the union of a same sex couple as a ‘family unit’, gay and lesbian people are denied legitimacy as the primary care givers to their partners. Thus it is not a surprise that same sex couples are discriminated even in death. When a person dies intestate (without leaving a will), it stands to reason that his / her property is divided amongst his/her dependent’s and heirs. As the person’s same sex partner is not recognized on paper as his or her wife or husband, the chances of any of the property being allocated to the partner will depend only on the discretion of the deceased’s legally recognized heirs. The surviving partner cannot claim the property as a right, even though he/she has been in a domestic partnership with the deceased for many years. Changing Trends While Sri Lanka lags behind, elsewhere governments in both eastern and western countries have stepped in to erase the anomalies that affect gay and lesbian people. In India, the Delhi High Court in July 2009 declared that section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which criminalized the consensual sexual acts of same sex adults in private was a violation of their rights to privacy, liberty, health and equality enshrined in the Indian constitution. In December 2007 the supreme court of Nepal ruled that the new democratic government must create laws to protect LGTB rights. In Kenya, the Human Rights Commission took up the issue in November 2009 prior to drafting a new constitution and stated that in a democracy inclusive of diversity and based on respect for human rights all citizens – irrespective of gender identity and sexual orientation – should be granted full citizenship rights and protection from non-discrimination. Even a Catholic country such as Portugal legalized gay marriages in May 2010 and recently, the first same-sex marriage of a lesbian couple took place. In the U.S.A. several states have legalized gay marriage. In Sri Lanka, same-sex relationships between women became illegal almost by accident when Prof. G.L. Peiris amended the penal code in 1995. Many of the amended provisions were for the better, except in the case of homosexuality. The wording in the penal code was specifically about men. In the 1995 amendment the word ‘women’ was suddenly added, and an amended penal code which was expected to promise equality for women ended up criminalizing them! Justice Edwin Cameron of South Africa’s Constitutional Court once stated that ‘admittance of gays and lesbians is the ultimate measure of a society’s capacity to view humanity in its fullness and of its commitment to equality, justice, secularism and humane co-existence.’ Judging by this standard, Sri Lanka has a long way to go!

Posted by: catseyesrilanka | May 13, 2010


As we commemorate National Heroes Week in Sri Lanka we are reminded of other countries in our recent past that have ended an armed struggle and sought to win peace.  The world cheered when South Africa emerged from its long struggle against the injustices of the Apartheid regime.  Nelson Mandela became an international hero. There were also others who stood by him in South Africa.

The South-African born writer Gillian Slovo recently visited Sri Lanka and spoke at the Galle Literary Festival.  She is perhaps best known as the daughter of two of these South African national heroes. Her mother was Ruth First, a journalist, activist and scholar.  Her father Joe Slovo was a lawyer, long-time leader of the South African Communist Party, Member of the National Executive of the African National Congress and Chief of Staff of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC. Both were imprisoned in South Africa and both had subsequently to live and work in exile for many years.  Ruth First was working from Mozambique in 1982 when she was killed by a letter bomb, by order of the South African police.  Joe Slovo lived to negotiate South Africa’s transition to democracy and to become Minister for Housing in Nelson Mandela’s first government.  Of the two, it was only Joe Slovo whose heroism could be celebrated in public, at the very end of his life.

When Gillian Slovo was growing up, her parents were publicly vilified for who they were: white South Africans fighting against Apartheid.   Yet she tells a different story of post-Apartheid South Africa.  Once, promoting a new book she was interviewed by a succession of young, white, women journalists she found them all saying to her, ‘you think you’ve had a difficult life with what your parents did?  Imagine if you were me…and you have to turn to your parents and say ‘why didn’t you do anything?  Why didn’t you say anything?’  ‘You can feel proud of your parents,’ said these women, ‘we have to feel utterly ashamed.’

Heroic Choices

Gillian Slovo explains that she has made very different choices from her parents; she explores through art some of the same convictions that drove her parents to change their country’s history.  Her heroic parents cast giant shadows and while she was in Sri Lanka, Gillian Slovo also spoke about the searching family memoir she wrote about them: Every Secret Thing: My Family, My Country.

The book is, if anything, about the fact that heroism is difficult.   Yet here is a daughter who, knowing that she has paid a personal price for her parents choices, is proud in just the way described by the young journalists she met.  She says, ‘they made choices, brave choices, that others in their country did not make.  For this they were heroic.’ (p.40).  In fact it was not before she had a daughter of her own that Gillian Slovo really began to learn more about her parents’ work, so much of which had to be conducted in secret.  She describes being almost taken aback when her ‘peanut-crunching’ father showed himself to be a master politician.  She says ‘Blow me down, he turned out to be one of the people in the 20th century who changed history’.  She pays tribute to her parents’ contemporaries, whom she calls ‘the Mandela Generation’:  ‘what all of them had in common was that they valued human life’.  Indeed it is striking on how simple a basis their heroism is founded – what sets them apart is that they were not willing to give up on this principle.

The Hardest Part

And yet, as always, the final proof is in the transition – and it is in describing this that Slovo’s book reaches its most powerful.  She quotes her father saying, on the eve of the first elections in a democratic South Africa:  ‘If you think it was hard to win a liberation struggle, wait until you get into government, then you will see what hard is’.

Because it wasn’t enough that they won.  Slovo is never jubilant, but instead thoughtful.  She shows a different sort of heroism in respecting her family and her country enough to ask honest questions of them.   When she, with her partner and daughter, is driven into Johannesburg by one of her father’s Ministerial staff, Slovo asks the young Afrikaner man what it is like to be guarding the life of a man who, very few years before, he would have had orders to shoot on sight.  The policeman says ‘Ag, it’s not a problem.  After all, I’m not the kind of man to carry a grudge’.  Slovo is dissatisfied with the expression of the answer while aware that it is extraordinary.  She pays great tribute to black South Africans for allowing their country a predominantly peaceful transition, even after generations of injustice.  She probes, no less respectfully, whether white South Africans have really changed with their country.

There is also the very painful personal tension in the Slovo family – where Joe Slovo must, for the sake of the country, concede to amnesties that will exonerate his wife’s killers.  This is not something Gillian discusses with her father.  But one of the most poignant moments in her book comes when she learns, after her father’s death, that when the then South African government and the ANC were deciding the terms of their first indemnity agreement Joe Slovo had left the room to drink whisky at the bar.  Hearing the news that agreement had been reached, he’d described the moment as one of his most difficult.

Facing Up to the Past

Gillian Slovo herself meets one of her mother’s killers.  He describes himself to have been ‘in the loop’ that killed her mother. She can’t find a way to access his humanity.  The meeting is anything but cathartic; even to read the account of it is to feel deadened by something that is just too difficult.  Indeed Slovo is dissatisfied both with this encounter and in this aspect of her country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).  She knows that the TRC was a part of the political compromise, without which the South African government would not have relinquished power for fear its officers would have to stand trial for the crimes they committed.  She is disappointed that the high officials of the government were never called to the hearings (‘only the henchmen had to go’) and – though she only says this of her mothers’ killers, not the Commission as a whole – she appears to be genuinely disheartened that it did not produce remorse.  She describes how a forensic psychologist told her ‘you are asking too much,’ pointing out how difficult it would be for people to live with their past actions if they were fully to admit them.

Yet Slovo also describes what she valued about the TRC. First, she says, the conditions had to be right.  For the Commission to exist, and for it to mean something, she says you had to have the sort of real peace of which you could say ‘this is better than what we had’.  She describes the Commission as ‘a writing of the history of contemporary South Africa that wouldn’t have been possible without it…a place that people could go and say what had happened in the past’.  She clarifies why this was so important: because it is ‘a way of people never being able to say it didn’t happen’.

Moving Ahead

Gillian Slovo believes that while individuals who committed crimes against South Africa may not be able to confess their wrongdoings, broader South African society has faced up to its past because it had to listen to the hearings of the TRC. Nor was it immediate but rather a ‘drip-drip effect’ into the national consciousness.  She talks about the importance of a country having to face its recent past if it is really to move on.

Towards the end of her book there is an incident when Gillian Slovo and Joe Slovo are driving together in a South Africa they have both returned to after years in exile, now on the brink of transition.  As they pull out of a petrol station they encounter another car.  The Afrikaner man in the car says to Gillian’s father ‘Did anybody ever tell you that you bear the most remarkable resemblance to Joe Slovo?’  Gillian, still scarred by a past in which her parents were public enemies, silently wills her father to say nothing and drive on.  Instead he says with a grin ‘That’s because I am Joe Slovo.’  Once again Gillian notes anxiously the look of amazement that crosses the man’s face, anticipating his anger.  Instead the stranger holds out his hand to shake Joe Slovo’s and says, ‘Welcome back’.

Gillian Slovo’s personal and political journey with South Africa’s history, and the difficult choices entailed in the process of coming to terms with it, begs the question Who is a Real Hero?

Posted by: catseyesrilanka | May 9, 2010

Can a Man be the Minister of Women’s Empowerment?

The announcement of the new Ministerial Portfolios has everyone talking. Who has got demoted or promoted, included or excluded, or whether the appointments are apt, or not, is a common talking point whether in Colombo or elsewhere. Amongst the surprises were the appointments of two men as Minister and Deputy Minister respectively of the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Empowerment previously known as Women’s Affairs. Cat’s Eye decided to conduct a spot poll of some women on what they thought about this choice.

Asked ‘what do you think of a man being appointed Minister of Women’s Affairs?’, one woman from Colombo confessed to being baffled. What’s going on? Can a Man be a Woman? she queried. Another from Kelaniya said that it was like appointing a Catholic to the Ministry of Buddha Sasana. Yet another from Gampaha stated that it really didn’t matter who was appointed as long as the person did something regarding the status of women and their demands. Certainly the case of a man in charge of the foremost policy making institution on women is a complicated  and unusual one. To say that only women can do the job is to be essentialist, as it is to say that only women can speak on behalf of women.

Feminist Men

This position is unjust to many men who are gender sensitive, even feminist in outlook. Besides, many women Ministers who have held the portfolio have been abysmal failures. Yet, the unease at a man holding the job also indicates the doubt on the part of women that a man can be adequately sensitive to women’s issues. Are there no competent women? Will women be able to speak to the male ministers in confidence? Will they really be able to understand women’s demands, and identities? At the most fundamental level, can men, therefore, best represent women’s voices?  And can they represent women in a way that really makes significant structural changes to gender inequality? We will have to wait and see whether the men fare any better than the women who have held the portfolios.

An Unimportant Portfolio?

Since the Ministry of Women’s Affairs was first established it has been seen as an unimportant portfolio. Up to now women have held the post and it has often been seen as a sort of ‘consolation’ prize. The Ministry is not a “glamorous” one nor is it  well-budgeted and it is even reported that once, when an ambitious and capable young woman politician was offered the portfolio she scoffed ‘Why am I being given this natta (tail)?’ It is therefore no wonder that, on taking oaths of office, the new male minister was quick to dispel the perception that the Ministry is a dead-end. He stated that the Ministry had important tasks ahead particularly when it came to meeting the needs of women and children affected by the war, and promised to make sweeping changes to the Ministry within six months.

Re-Vamping the Ministry

Cat’s Eye does not know what changes the Minister has in mind. But most important would be to start with a spring-clean of his own official home by re-structuring the Ministry itself. The  so-called ‘National Machinery on Women’, is now taken to include the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Empowerment, the Women’s Bureau and the National Committee on Women (NCW). Among its specific objectives are protection of women from violence and abuse, empowerment of women in economic, social and political spheres and enabling participation of women in all decision making bodies. The mission of the Ministry is to be realized through the NCW and the Bureau. However the national gender machinery has been stymied from achieving these goals due to overlap of functions and lack of cooperation between the three institutions, lack of understanding of gender issues amongst key officials, an increasingly welfarist approach to women’s empowerment, lack of policy autonomy and marginalization from the national decision making and planning processes.

Children-Sole Responsibility of Women?

Furthermore, when taking the history of the Ministry it has been only a couple of occasions that the Ministry of Women’s Affairs has been a stand-alone ministry without being coupled with some other subject (Health and Teaching Hospitals, Transport and Environment, etc). Successive governments have thus not quite understood the potential value and possibilities of the Women’s Ministry. Furthermore, the current trend of linking the Women’s Ministry with of Child Development seems to reinforce the common attitude that children are the sole responsibility of women. It encourages viewing women only vis-à-vis their reproductive roles as mothers and prevents relating to women as individuals with their own rights.

The Women’s Bureau

As for the Women’s Bureau, it is the oldest national institution with a mandate to advance the status of women in Sri Lanka. Established in 1978 under the Ministry of Plan Implementation, it has now become a politicized and ineffective project based institution focusing mainly on income generation and awareness raising. The Bureau implements its work through a network of membership based societies called Kantha Karya Samajas. As at November 2007, there were approximately 6,693 registered associations with a membership exceeding 120,000 women members. Unfortunately this large constituency of women are never mobilized in support of law and policy reform undertaken by the Ministry or the NCW. The newly appointed Secretary to the Ministry is the former Director of the Women’s Bureau.  One wonders if the work of the Ministry will now take on an even more welfarist direction or if the membership of the Women’s Bureau will indeed be mobilized proactively to leverage policy reform and change.

The National Committee on Women (NCW)

The NCW was an outcome of the 1995 Beijing conference and its Platform for Action and was created to implement the Women’s Charter adopted by Cabinet in 1993. It has a mandate to both develop policies related to women’s issues and investigate areas of gender inequality. Members of the Committee are drawn from NGO practitioners, academics and government officials. From its inception, the expectation was that the Committee will be elevated to a full fledged Commission with greater powers but this is yet to happen. Cats Eye understands that draft legislation to convert the committee to a Commission has been going back and forth between the Ministry and the Legal Draftsman’s Department for more than 10 years. It has to be noted that even with its current powers, the Committee has not been proactive enough in taking up issues of gender discrimination.

Outstanding Issues

What are the priority issues that need the attention of the new Minister for Women’s Affairs? There is already a National Plan of Action for Women 2010 – 2014 drafted by the Ministry in consultation with women’s organization which is awaiting finalization. The Action Plan provides a road map for both policy reform and implementation of existing laws/policies under a number of themes including women’s political representation, health, economy, violence and women affected by conflict. A Plan of Action Supporting the Domestic Violence Act is also in existence since 2005, although it has not been implemented. The Human Rights Action Plan drafted throughout last year has a very comprehensive section on women’s rights.  In the absence of a Ministry dealing with the subject of Human Rights in the current Cabinet, one would hope that the women’s rights section of the HR Action plan would at least be taken up by the Ministry of  Women’s Empowerment.

Politically Empowering Wonen?

Women’s political representation in Sri Lanka remains the lowest in the region. In the general election just concluded their nominations as candidates by political parties was extremely low. Nominations for women from these parties did not exceed 6% of total nominations given by them. Of a total of 262 nominations given by each of these parties, the UPFA and UNP gave nominations to 15 women each and the DNA to 9 women. The TNA did not give nomination to a single woman.  The representation of women in 2010 therefore remains the same as in the last parliament at 5.8%. The only consolation being that the UPFA has selected two women members on their national list while the UNF has one. At a time when local government reforms are on the cards, it is imperative that the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment does something to “empower” women and takes the lead in campaigning for reservations for women at the level of local government, and parliament.

Outstanding Problems

The various committees that were appointed to look into reforms of personal laws should also be continued and their recommendations acted upon. The several outstanding problems and issues facing IDP women, women migrant labour, war widows, and women from marginalized communities etc. require prudent, committed action. Furthermore the Action Plan recognizes that the proper implementation of the Domestic Violence Act requires resource allocations for services for women including legal aid, counseling and shelter facilities.

The Importance of Being  Woman’s Minister

As 52% of the population, women constitute a significant vote bank. They are present all over the country with specific issues related to their  regions (as well as gender specific needs) and therefore the ministry is one which has a national outreach. A successful minister of Women’s Empowerment can, therefore, become a leader at the national level if she / he addresses women’s needs satisfactorily.

It is up to the newly appointed male ministers of the Women’s Ministry to prove themselves gender sensitive and committed to real change. The Ministry, NCW and Women’s Bureau should be re-structured, de-politicized and given the chance to achieve something significant. Personal laws should be amended to fall into line with the 21st century requirements. Policy on gender and development should be made with a view towards economically empowering women through medium-range credit so as to facilitate their entry into the economic mainstream.  Towards this, women need skills as entrepreneurs, managers, technicians, etc., and not just as sewing girls and small-scale poultry farmers. But more importantly, the Ministry needs put in a programme of action via its machinery to empower women by providing them with other rights such as safe transport, safe houses for battered women and legal awareness/aid programmes.

Our conclusion is that it is better to have a gender-conscious man than a useless woman as Minister. So let’s hope the new Minister, Mr. Karaliadde, will take the job seriously and break with tradition by implementing courageous policies for women. And Mr. Hisbullah, Sir, you can pioneer the much-needed change, in the Tamil and Muslim personal laws.

Posted by: catseyesrilanka | March 23, 2010

Reservations for Women in India

The Women’s Reservation Bill, stipulating that 33 percent of seats in the Lok Sabha (Indian lower house) and state Legislative assemblies would be reserved for women, was supposed to be passed by the Rajya Sabha (upper house) on International Women’s Day, 8 March 2010. Despite being a Constitutional amendment bill requiring a two-thirds majority, it should have had a smooth passage, since it was supported not only by the ruling Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, but also by the main opposition parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party and Left parties. Yet violent outbursts from opponents of the bill, who tore up the papers on the Chairman’s table and created such a pandemonium that no discussion was possible, resulted in repeated adjournments. By the end of the day, the bill had not even been discussed.

The next day, seven members of the Rajya Sabha who had been responsible for the mayhem were suspended by the Chairman for their behaviour. But they refused to leave the chamber, and continued to disrupt the proceedings as before. Only in the afternoon, after they had forcibly been ejected by marshals, did an orderly debate, followed by voting, ensue. The bill was passed by an overwhelming majority.

Such scenes were not new. The legislation was first introduced in the Lok Sabha in September 1996 when the United Front government was in power, and subsequently, there were several attempts to introduce it by the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. But none were successful, even though Congress and the Left parties had undertaken to support it. On various occasions, it was snatched away and torn to bits by its opponents. However, legislation to ensure 33 percent representation of women in panchayats (the village local government bodies) and municipal councils was passed successfully in 1993.

Provisions of the Bill

The bill provides for reservation of one-third of the seats in the Lok Sabha and state legislative assemblies for women for a period of fifteen years, i.e. three terms. The seats to be reserved are to be selected by the drawing of lots in such a way that no seat will be reserved for more than one term during the fifteen-year period. This quota will include one-third of the 122 seats already reserved for Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs).

Arguments For and Against the Bill

The most common argument against the bill, which has been put forward by a few women too, is that the system of rotation, given the first-past-the-post system, will discourage MPs and MLAs from nurturing their constituencies, since they could be displaced in the next election. Various alternatives have been suggested, without violating the current freeze on delimitation of constituencies. One is that parties should be required to nominate women as one-third of their candidates, but supporters of the bill reply that women would then be nominated to seats where the parties are weak and have little or no chance of winning. Another is that either 50 percent or 33 percent of the seats should become dual-member constituencies on a rotaional basis, with at least one woman member. While this would ensure that sitting male representatives would not have to give place to women, it would make it impossible for women representatives to contest after the seat ceases to be a dual-member one. Perhaps the most practical proposal is that existing constituencies should be grouped in threes, and voters asked to vote for three candidates; if a woman gets the highest number of votes, she should be considered to be a general candidate and another woman should get the quota seat, but in any case, at least one woman should get a seat. A variant of this proposal could be implemented quite easily where there is a system of proportional representation.

While the rotational system is not perfect, it is probably the easiest to implement in India. Men supporting the bill have said that even if it means that they have to give up their seats to women, this is a sacrifice they are willing to make in the interests of women’s empowerment, while women supporting it have pointed out that many women have contested successfully in local body elections even after their seat ceases to be a reserved one, resulting in the proportion of women going much higher than 33 percent in some cases.

The second most common criticism is that the reserved seats will be filled by the ‘biwi beti brigade,’ or female relatives of male politicians who will effectively control them. There are instances of this happening in the local bodies, but what is much more striking is the number of women who have asserted their independence and acted autonomously. This has resulted in better utilisation of financial resources, a clampdown on corruption, prioritisation of development objectives including girls’ education, sanitation, women’s health and maternity protection, and a reduction in alcohol consumption and domestic violence. While the election of a woman as head of state or chief minister does not seem to make much of a difference to the promotion of women’s interests, the induction of such a large number of women into government – more than a million in the case of India’s local government bodies – does seem to boost the promotion of women’s rights and welfare. Furthermore, it has been pointed out, the changes benefit the whole of society, and not just women.

The most vocal opposition has come from those who claim that a quota for women will be to the detriment of other disadvantaged sections of the population: Dalits (SCs), Adivasis (STs), Muslims and Other Backwards Classes. The more politically astute among these objectors demand a ‘quota within a quota’ for these sections, while the rest simply assert that it will result in a reduction in representatives from these sections, as though there were no women in them! These are the parties who disrupted the proceedings when the bill was sought to be introduced in the Rajya Sabha. They include Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party, Lalu Prasad Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, and Sharad Yadav of the Janata Dal (United), although the JD(U) Chief Minister of Bihar, Nitish Kumar, supported the bill. The ‘Yadav trio’, as they have come to be called, were joined by smaller Muslim parties.

In fact, there is already a ‘quota within a quota’ for SCs and STs, so this cannot be an objection. It is true that the number of Muslims in government is extremely small and the number of Muslim women minuscule, but the Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, and this has so far been interpreted both by the legislature and the judiciary to rule out affirmative action for Muslims, creating a problem for the introduction of a quota for Muslim women. As for OBCs, they are well represented in parliament and in state assemblies. It is notable that women from these sections did not join in protests against the Women’s Reservation Bill, and Muslim women are among the beneficiaries of reservations for women in panchayats.

However, a valid point made by these protestors is that Muslims have been subjected to systematic discrimination and persecution which is comparable to the discrimination and persecution suffered by SCs and STs, but so far have not received any redress. Even the state discriminates against Muslims and Christians in the Presidential Scheduled Caste Order of 1950, which denied the benefits of reservation to Dalits who converted to religions other than Hinduism. It was amended twice, to cover converts to Sikhism and Buddhism, but converts to other religions, most notably Islam and Christianity, remained excluded on the basis of their religion. Scrapping this presidential order, as recommended by the Justice Sachar and Justice Misra Commissions in recent years, would enable Muslims, including Muslim women, to avail themselves of quotas for SCs. Equal opportunities legislation and an Equal Opportunities Commission, recommended by these commissions, would also help to combat the severe discrimination suffered by Muslims. Such measures would combat discrimination in a progressive manner.

The Real Reasons for Opposition

Christine Keaton has argued that the Women’s Reservation Bill has encountered such vehement opposition because it disrupts the post-colonial sexual contract, which established gender equality in the public sphere, yet sanctioned deeply discriminatory family laws that maintained women’s subordination in the private sphere. Subordination in the private sphere acts back on the public sphere to restrict women’s access to it; this is very evident in employment, where women workers constitute only 10 percent of formal labour in the private sector, despite the Equal Remuneration Act, which stipulates non-discrimination against women not only in remuneration but also in recruitment and promotions. It is thus quite easy to believe that the real reasons for opposition to the bill are that if passed, it could, by reversing the under-representation of women in the public sphere, also undermine their subordination within the family. For feminists, these constitute powerful reasons to fight for the passage of the bill through the Lok Sabha.

Posted by: catseyesrilanka | March 23, 2010

Women & the Presidential Manifestos

The manifestos, called Mahinda Chintanaya II in the case of the incumbent President and The Common Minimum Plan in the case of General Sarath Fonseka, have now been released to the public. In an election short on substantive issues and characterized by mud-slinging by both sides, these documents provide the voter an idea of the programmes both candidates wish to prioritize.

Women in the Fonseka Plan

General Fonseka   spells out broad areas of work. They are 1) restoring democracy, 2) fighting corruption, 3) strengthen family units, 4)reducing the cost of living, 5) securing national integrity, 6) developing health and education sectors, 7) women’s issues, 8 ) generating employment for youth, 9) establishing a just and disciplined society and 10)safeguarding national security.

Women’s Issues

Amongst the ideas put forward under women’s issues, the General as well as the President have pledged to inaugurate a state bank for women. Drawing on the model of the Grameen bank, this keeps to the popular idea that micro-credit for rural women is empowering.  Feminist critiques of the micro-credit programme have pointed however, that while rural women do benefit from it in the short term, the small sums of money made available to them keep them continuously at the level of small entrepreneurs – rearing a few goats or chickens to sell milk or eggs. A more sustained vision of development for women is required. Adequate funds should be made available for women so that those with the capacity to do so can transition into middle-level micro-enterprises. This requires not only adequate loans, but also infrastructure development that would also enable women to maximize their potential towards real economic and social growth. 

Women’s Rights Bill

The General promises a Women’s Rights Bill within two months of being elected office. Cat’s Eye welcomes this pledge, but cautions that without a truly consultative process with women’s groups, such a Bill may merely establish a Commission for Women as a panacea, without giving ensuring substantive rights and remedies to women. Any Women’s Commission appointed under such a Bill should moreover be independent and appointed vis a vis the 17th amendment.

Women’s Mobility

The General’s common minimum plan also pledges to improve the income of migrant women workers and inaugurate a Bureau to solve the problems of migrant families. But what is the scope of this bureau?. We hope the plan will safeguard women’s right to freedom of mobility and choice of livelihood which include the right to migrate overseas for work.  What we do need are strong and enforceable agreements with receiving counties so that adequate job security and protection is ensured and all migrant workers receive a fair wage and working conditions that are in keeping with international standards.  There was an ill-conceived plan under the present government to ban women with small children from migrating for work. Without solving the underlying issues of poverty, this policy only serves to forcibly keep women within the home.

Female-Headed Households

It is commendable that both candidates emphasize female headed households as worthy of recognition in the modern Sri Lankan polity. What needs to be clarified is how these households will be defined. Would the definition include women who do not have an adult male partner? Would it include households where there is an adult male partner who is disabled, who is working and living elsewhere? Or, most critically would the definition include households where there may be an adult male partner present, but where the woman is the main income contributor and decision maker? Definitions are key to recognizing the economic AND political roles that women play within the realm of the household and in society.

Task Force

The General has promised a Task Force to look into the issue of Female Headed Households. While Cat’s Eye welcomes the much needed policy attention on FHH, we hope that this Task Force will not only be autonomous in nature, but also put in place mechanisms that will enable women to obtain documents, land licenses, compensation, access to livelihoods etc. speedily.  Cat’s Eye hopes that both the proposed Bureau for migrant families and the Task Force for female-headed households do not end up like a moral police, confining women within domesticity, low pay, and subject to yet another bureaucratic authority.

Mahinda Chinthanaya 2010 which is claimed to be a natural progression of Mahinda Chinthanaya 2005 was unveiled on 11th January, a very auspicious day according to the President.  But how ‘auspicious’ is it for women? MC I pledged to ensure an affectionate family in which the mother is given the foremost place.  MC 2 adds that women are the main contributors to the economy of our country – in the plantations, the garment industry and as migrant labour it therefore states that women must be accorded not equal status but primary status ‘pramukasthanaya’, under the heading gedera budun amma (Mother is the Buddha in the home) .

A Women’s Fund

The manifesto promises to initiate a Women’s Fund to assist with self employment and income generation.  It also promises equal wages for equal work  and data base  to provide economic and professional information required by women.

At a substantive level the Manifesto commits to create the legal and policy framework necessary to recognize women who have the main responsibility for family as heads of household.  This is somewhat confusing and contradictory.  If this statement relates to single women who head households (which is at least and possibly more that 25% of our population), there should be no barrier in existing law/policy to recognizing her as such.  However our concern is that women play a critical role in the family, economically, as recognized by this Manifesto.  Our demand has always been that women’s work and responsibilities within and for the family should be recognized on par with men and women should be given equal status as heads of household.  We however welcome the promise in MR II to grant loans, land and other resources to female headed households.

Male Bias in Politics

MR II seeks to strengthen this role at village level and ensure that women are represented at all decision making institutions at village level.  But we  are however deeply concerned and disturbed that the commitment made in MC I to increase nominations for women to a minimum 25% at local and provincial council elections is absent from this Manifesto.  We are aware that none of the major political parties increased nominations for women by any significant percentage at the local or provincial elections held in the last three years.  To take away this commitment is to continue the structural discrimination against women’s entry into political decision making processes.  It denotes the all pervasive male bias, across political parties, a continuation of patronage politics that favour men, a lack of political will to change the undemocratic electoral practices followed by all political parties and will not change the culture of violence, impunity and disregard for democratic norms that are now entrenched in our politics.

Violence and Rape

MC I promised to tackle the issue of  rape by restructuring the legal framework for such purpose, MC II is silent on this issue.  Statistics from the Police Women and Children’s Desk however continue to indicate that the levels of violence against women have not abated in any significant measure despite the strengthening of the legal regime in relation to rape in 1995 and the introduction of the Domestic Violence Act in 2005.

MC I promised to form what was termed “Kantha Pilisarana” (Help For Women)to support women subjected to violence, mental torture or depression.  It also promised to make available required guidance and counseling to women who have been subjected to violence and promised effective framework to prevent violence against women.  MC I could not fulfill this promise.  This aspect of support and the creation of mechanisms to effectively implement the law is woefully lacking.

Laws alone, while potential deterrents, are not sufficient to deal with systemic problems such as violence against women.  There has to be political will and commitment to ensure their implementation together with all the support structures that can deal with social, cultural and economic impediments that come in the way of women wishing to protect their right to be free from violence and discrimination.

Women’s Charter of Rights

Sri Lanka has a perfectly good Women’s Charter, approved by Cabinet as far back as 1993.  Do the candidates know anything about this?  The National Committee on Women and over the years, various Ministries responsible for women’s affairs have been in the process of drafting a Bill known variously as a Women’s Rights Bill or a Bill to establish a National Commission on Women as envisaged by the Women’s Charter.  We state here that the inability of any government post 1993 to introduce into law a strong Women’s Rights Bill and establish an National Commission on Women endowed with required independent expertise and sufficient resources is a serious indictment of their lack of political will and commitment to eliminate discrimination and ensure equal rights, status and opportunities for women.

Missing Women’s Demands

Both candidates have missed some key demands by women’s groups. Notably, the General is silent on the demand for increased participation of women in politics at the local, provincial and national levels. We have to read his silence as a willingness to keep Sri Lanka in the dubious category of a country lagging woefully behind most others regarding women’s participation in politics. The General is also silent on women’s demands for repealing archaic, colonial, and discriminatory laws against women. And while Cat’s Eye welcomes the pledge to restore civilian administration and de-militarize the high security zones etc. the silence on women’s participation in such civilian administration, de-mobilization and policing is worrying. It shows insufficient attention to how militarization is gendered, and that the presence, for instance, of policemen (whether Tamil speaking or not) without a commensurate number of police women will continue to make women of the north and east feel insecure.

We say to all candidates don’t forget that women make up over 50% of your voting constituency.  It is time you took them more seriously.

Posted by: catseyesrilanka | December 7, 2009

Mirror, Mirror On the Wall, Who is the ‘Commonest’ of Them All?

Having lived through the long years of armed conflict and futile attempts at peace making, we in Sri Lanka know well that peace does not merely mean the absence of war. While the state has now certainly won a war, the country needs to win peace, and this is the critical need of this immediate post war period. To win and consolidate peace we need to build a culture of peace which includes economic, social and political justice. We need inclusivity and participation in governance and decision making; we need equitable sharing of resources and development. We also need to work towards eliminating institutionalized, structural violence which manifests itself in intolerance, force, marginalization, discrimination and exploitation on the basis of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, class caste or other identities. Above all we need to remember that human rights are inherent in human dignity and peace must include the presence of justice.

The Common Candidate

In the upcoming Presidential election, the two main contenders have pitched themselves as the ‘common’ candidate, whether of a political alliance, or the nation as a whole. The former General has said that he has entered politics because he could no longer ignore ‘waste, corruption and rapid deterioration of society’, while the President has portrayed himself as the leader who, after unifying the country, is intent on taking Sri Lanka forward through economic development. But without doubt underpinning this façade is both candidates’ commitment to, and achievement, in the war. Hence, they will utilize the war and their role in winning it to gain legitimacy amongst the majority electorate and capture the Sinhala popular imagination.

De-legitimizing the Other

The war victory is also a means through which both candidates de-legitimize the other by casting doubt on the other’s contribution to the war and commitment to safeguarding the rewards of victory. At the conference announcing his candidacy, Fonseka declared his commitment to re-establishing democracy and the rule of law and called the executive Presidency a dictatorship that he would abolish upon being elected President. At the same time he praised the armed forces and accused the President of seeking personal glorification by using the immense sacrifices made by the soldiers. A senior minister of the government has gone even further and challenged anyone’s right to ‘seek a mandate to replace President Rajapakse after he liberated the country from three decades of terrorism that bled the country and launched the largest and most ambitious development drive in its history’. The battle for the sole ownership of the war victory has therefore begun, with the consequence being the glorification of militarism and the entrenchment of the militarization of government and development.

Approach to Governance

War privileges a securitized approach to governance and social control. A view currently doing the rounds is that the country needs discipline and requires a leader who understands and implements discipline. However, the danger here is that this form of discipline is generally obtained through tight control, surveillance, censorship and fear. These tools of governance are not what the country needs. Governments have ruled through centralization, the PTA, and a war regime. Both candidates have pledged to shed this approach and return the country to a more democratic regime. However, whether they can genuinely shed their stripes remains a big question.

Key Concerns

It would be beneficial for both candidates therefore to pledge their commitment to a fresh start in a new way by focusing on pressing issues of democracy and justice. Importantly, their attention should be drawn to the international conventions that Sri Lanka has ratified and needs to be implemented. If the candidates are genuine in their aspirations of ‘building the nation’ and ‘restoring democracy’ they should appreciate the fundamental rights and values of citizens that are enshrined in them – instead of seeing such benchmarks as ‘alien’, ‘western’ and ‘against Sri Lankan culture’. Take for instance, the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (UNCEDAW). Though ratified in 1983 (and transferred into the national context through the Women’s Charter), it still needs to be translated into legislation and action. Given the international focus on climate change, another pressing issue deserving the candidates’ attention is that of ensuring that the UN Convention on Climate Change is operationalized beyond policy – particularly as those who will be extensively impacted by the long-standing effects of temperature changes, droughts and floods are women.

Health & Education

Furthermore, there are other on-ground needs that need urgent attention. Our health system, not the most efficient at the best of times, has plummeted to new depths when considering the issues of mismanagement, pharmaceutical scandals and patient deaths that have occurred in recent times. The candidates need to formulate policy and devise workable solutions to overcome the current crisis – on which they should be evaluated. Similarly, our education system (especially at tertiary level) need more than the quick-fixes of three-month English teaching courses. It requires a phase by phase action plan that can deal with the local demand to learn English and IT skills and match it with the needs of the job markets that include professional, vocational and soft skills.

Gender Concerns

At a time of electoral contests, women’s groups have always expressed their concerns and have urged candidates to put forward their policies on gender issues. Women today are more than half the electorate and much canvassing goes on to draw women voters to the polls. We therefore urge the candidates to spell out their policies—not with platitudes about family and motherhood—but about the political concerns of women. Some of these are:

• The low participation of women in local and national government. Sri Lanka has the worst statistics in South Asia on political participation. In the Indian village-level panchayats, the percentage of women is 33%. In Sri Lanka it is less than 2% in pradeshiya sabhas.

• Changes in archaic discriminatory provisions affecting women in customary law. Under Thesawalamai law a married woman cannot sell, rent or lease her immovable property without her husband’s consent. Under Muslim law (in spite of reforms in the general law in 1995) a girl of 12 can marry, and her consent is not necessary.

Every vote is valuable at election time, both for the candidates as well as for the voters. It is often said that we the voters get the representatives we deserve. We women want a just and sustainable peace and we want a democratic government. To elect you, we want to know what your commitment to democracy, justice and peace is and we want to know what your commitment to enhance women’s rights would be.

Will you work towards increasing the representation of women at decision making levels, particularly at the level of local, provincial and national government – not through negligent promises but through legally enforceable affirmative action? Will you make sure that legal provisions discriminatory to women are eliminated from the statute books? What measures will take to ensure that the laws and policies with regard to decreasing violence against women are actually implemented effectively?

What percentage of government budgets will you allocate to address women’s concerns and needs? How will you strengthen state institutions established to enhance women’s rights? When will you translate the Women’s Charter into enforceable policy? When will you implement the 17th amendment to the Constitution and establish an independent National Commission on Women? Finally, we reiterate that you ensure free and fair elections free of violence, abuse of electoral laws and corruption.

We await the common candidates statement on gender before we decide who is the “fairest and loveliest” of them all !

Posted by: catseyesrilanka | November 9, 2009

Some Unfinished Business: for Legal Reform

In 1995 a significant set of reforms to the Sri Lanka penal code was enacted. The process was consultative and women’s groups were included in the discussions that led to the reforms. While the 1995 amendments were, by and large, a welcome modernization of the penal code, nineteen years after these amendments, still other laws remain which undermine women’s equality. The demand for further legal reform is about this ‘unfinished business’. At a time of elections Cat’s Eye particularly wants to highlight some laws (which apply to both men and women, and some to women in particular) that require urgent reform so that the public and political parties can take note.


Judicial Review of Legislation

Article 121 of the Constitution of Sri Lanka recognizes that any citizen has the right to challenge the constitutionality of legislation being considered or discussed in parliament, by a petition in writing addressed to the Supreme Court. Such a petition has to be filed within one week of the bill being placed on the order paper of parliament. This is a ridiculously short period of time to allow any citizen to firstly read and digest bills full of legalese and then draft a coherent petition which can challenge the constitutionality of such bills.


We take the view that the time period allowed under Article 121 is in violation of basic democratic norms that call for citizens’ (both women’s and men’s) engagement and participation in the law making process. Many laws and amendments to laws which go against human rights and women’s rights in this country are often surreptitiously passed without many citizens knowing about them due to the extremely short period of time available to discuss and challenge these laws. A more reasonable time period for citizen challenges to law would be one month from the bill being placed on the order paper of parliament.


Access to Land and Property

An issue which also needs to be addressed urgently, and instead continues to be swept under the carpet is the recognition of women’s right to ownership of government owned land that is given for agricultural purposes. The 1935 Land Development Ordinance (LDO) which is still in force today is based on a principle of primogeniture or, preference for the eldest male among the heirs. Even as far back as 1958, the Land Commission recognized this anomaly of giving preference to male heirs in contradiction of the General Law of inheritance where there is no discrimination between male and female heirs. However, despite empirical evidence on this discriminatory practice, and repeated attempts to reform this law, (even when noted in the Concluding Observations of the 2002 CEDAW committee), the LDO continues to provide a basis for discrimination against women’s right to ownership of government land.


Needless to say, the preference given to male heirs in the LDO stems from archaic notions that only males are heads of households. It is only if the adult male is dead that the adult woman is officially recognized as the head of her household. Despite very clear shifts in household responsibilities, whether it be financial, material or emotional from men to women over the last three decades, most policies and programmes for example, in relation to eligibility to government subsidies (samurdhi) or housing (land settlement schemes), overlook women as heads of households.


The notion of the head of household as being male has to be routinely challenged. In any case, the Department of Census and Statistics data indicates that almost 24% of households are in fact female headed. In the absence of a comprehensive island-wide census since 1981, the planned Census in 2010 is likely to show that these statistics will be even higher. Perhaps, at that time, the decision-makers and holders of political and social power will be compelled to get rid of prevailing prejudices and come to terms with the reality that women are in fact bearing a far higher and tougher burden both within the home and in the wider economy.


Quota for Women in Elected Political Bodies

Given the abysmally low representation of women in elected political bodies particularly at local government level, we demand that proposed amendments to the system of elections at Local Government level should include a 30% quota for women.


We reiterate that current resistance regarding quotas for women by some politicians, and sections of the media and public is based on a lack of understanding of structural discrimination against women within political parties. There is a need to redress discrimination through affirmative action. For many years women’s groups have highlighted the fact that in South Asia, Sri Lanka has the lowest number of women in local and national government. India has introduced 33.33% quota of women at local panchayat level in a constitutional amendment in 1992. In successive Women’s Manifestos published by women’s groups, the demand is for a minimum 30% quota of women in Provincial Councils and at local government level – i.e. Pradeshiya Sabhas, Municipal and Urban Councils. Political parties should also nominate a minimum of 30% women candidates at all levels in political structures.


Archaic Laws


It is really amazing that sixty years after independence the country has several ridiculous archaic laws, some of them concerning women. To give one example, the subsidiary legislation to the Excise Ordinance states ‘No liquor shall be sold or given to a woman within the premises of a tavern.’ The question of what constitutes a tavern has been left unanswered. This law was drafted in colonial times, ostensibly to ‘protect’ women getting involved in drunken brawling. In today’s context, if a case of absurd refusal to allow women to buy liquor in stores is legally challenged, the courts would no doubt interpret it as discrimination not in keeping with the fundamental rights provisions of the constitution. But the question we ask is why do such archaic laws still remain in the statue book?


Another law which dates from colonial times and was enacted in Ceylon in 1883 is in Section 365A of the Penal Code of Sri Lanka which makes criminally liable ‘Any person who, in public or private commits, or is a party to the commission of, or procures of attempts to procure the commission by any person of, any act of gross indecency with another person’. As commentators have pointed out, the act of gross indecency has not been spelt out, but in implementation serves to frame charges against gay, lesbian and transsexual people. Until 1995 this law applied to men alone. But when the penal code was reformed in 1995, ostensibly under the guise of making the law less discriminatory towards men, instead of abrogating it altogether, women were added to the list of those who would be criminally liable under the provision!

For those who believe that homosexuality is a Western way of life and that it has been decriminalized only in Western liberal democracies, (The English law itself was amended in 1967 under the Sexual Offences Act to decriminalize homosexuality), the recent fundamental rights petition against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code is instructive. Given the common colonial heritage, Sections 377 of the IPC which also criminalizes ‘unnatural offences’ is similar to the law in Sri Lanka although it was enacted earlier in the 1860s.

The petition against Section 377 argued on the basis of a person’s right to privacy and dignity guaranteed by the Indian constitution and highlighted the fact that criminalizing homosexuality only serves to drive it underground, reinforce social stigma, and make it more difficult to access homosexuals for purposes of sexual health.

In a landmark judgment, the Indian High Court held that inclusiveness is one of the cherished principles of the Indian constitution. It stated ‘it cannot be forgotten that discrimination is antithesis of equality and that is it the recognition of equality which will foster the dignity of every individual.’ It allowed the law to continue in the case of those under 18 years of age but upheld the petition against it for those over this age limit. This landmark judgment has now been referred to the Indian Supreme Court so that it can be enacted nationally. The Sri Lankan law should be similarly amended to show that discrimination against any minority, including sexual minorities, should not be any part of its new dispensation


Reproductive Health

Termination of pregnancy is illegal in Sri Lanka under the Penal Code of 1883. Section 303 of the Penal Code provides that anyone voluntarily causing a pregnant woman to miscarry is subject to up to three years’ imprisonment and/or payment of a fine, unless the miscarriage was caused in good faith in order to save the life of the mother. Women have argued that abortion constitutes choice and an exercise of their right to have control over their own bodies. This maybe so especially in cases of pregnancies arising from rape and incest as well as when it is a risk to the physical and / or mental health of women. Abortion is not an uncommon event and is a form of birth control practiced even by many married couples. In India, abortion has been legal since 1971.

In Sri Lanka it was estimated in 2007 that about 1000 illegal and often unhygienic abortions take place every day. Given the risks involved and the soaring demand for abortion, it is time that Sri Lankan legislators not only strengthen education on family planning and safe sex but also consider the issue of abortion in a pragmatic manner.

So wake up law-makers! There is much unfinished business to attend to!

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