Recent Policy Initiatives affecting women

Friday Forum expresses concern

The Friday Forum is an informal group of concerned citizens pledged to uphold norms of democracy, good governance, the rule of law, human rights, media freedom and tolerance in our pluralist society.

The government has recently adopted policy measures affecting women and children that deny women the right to equal life chances and livelihood opportunities in migrant work. These policies are based on the argument that women in our culture do not have rights if they conflict with their exclusive and time honoured responsibility for child care. Yet our Constitutional standards on gender equality without discrimination on the basis of sex, and our law on the obligations of family care and support, set different standards. They indicate that women do have rights in the family and community, and that both parents, men and women, are responsible for the care of their children. Education and other government policies, over the last sixty years and more, have assured women rights that equal those of men. These are a part of the culture of people of this country no less than that we have inherited over centuries. It befits us that we protect these hard won rights for which people in many countries, including in South Asia, are yet struggling.  

Friday Forum is concerned that recent policy initiatives are symptoms of a dangerous new trend to deny women equal opportunities in the name of "cultural values". Such initiatives reject the idea that women should not suffer discrimination in the family and community because of their sex.

The Minister of Women’s Affairs and Child Development, whose Ministry is expected to help to eliminate discrimination against women, has himself, in several public statements, humiliated Sri Lankan women. He has stated that they are incapable of holding public office, and that gender equality is pursued by westernised women who are not faithful to their husbands (pathivate rakinne nethi kanthavan). He is quoted as having stated in Parliament that gender equality is an alien western value that we must reject, even changing the present commitment to implement the UN Women’s Convention. This is a UN treaty accepted as binding on all countries in South Asia.

Are these views the official views of government? Rather than distort social and legal norms on women’s right to non-discrimination, should not the government, including its Cabinet Ministers, focus on helping Sri Lankan men in the family and community to fulfill their parental and spousal responsibilities under the law and the Constitution?

Friday Forum wishes, in particular, to draw attention to realities regarding migrant work by women, which raise important economic and social issues.

It is because our economy fails to provide gainful employment to some 20-25 percent of its labour force, that a portion leaves Sri Lanka to work overseas. This is a feature of the globalised economy with freer movement of labour and capital. Female unemployment within the country has consistently been double that for males. Low-income women therefore find overseas migrant work a livelihoods opportunity that they as well as their families cannot afford to reject. Women’s migrant work leaves children from infant to young adults in the care of the father, and with luck with grandparents and the mother’s female siblings. Some men have become notorious for acts of neglect, abandonment and abuse of their children in the absence of the mother. As about a million women have sought employment overseas, the number of children ill-affected is not inconsiderable. These problems cannot be resolved by denying rights of women recognized by the Constitution, legislation and good sense, or by verbal abuse of women in public or in private.

To speak of near full employment in the economy, as government and its agencies have done for many decades, with 20-25 percent of our labour force seeking employment in other economies and causing massive and tragic social problems, shows a failure to recognize realities. It is not sufficient that GDP grows at a reasonable rate. It is also necessary that growth provides adequate employment opportunities to the labour force.

Jayantha Dhanapala Dr. G Usvatte-Aratchi Professor Savitri Goonesekere

On behalf of Friday Forum

Mr. Jayantha Dhanapala, Professor Savitri Goonesekere, Dr. G. Usvatte-aratchi, Ms. Suriya Wickremasinghe, Rt. Reverend Duleep de Chickera, Professor Arjuna Aluwihare, Professor  Camena Guneratne, Mr. Ahilan Kadirgamar,  Mr. J.C. Weliamuna, Dr. A. C. Visvalingam,    Mr. Tissa Jayatilaka, Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy, Rev. Dr. Jayasiri Peiris, Dr. Jayampathy Wickramaratne, Dr.Upatissa Pethiyagoda, Mr. Danesh Casie Chetty, Professor Ranjini Obeyesekere, Dr. Deepika Udagama,  Ms, Damaris Wickremesekera, Mr. Faiz-ur Rahman, Ms. Manouri  Muttettuwegama, Ms. Shanthi Dias, Dr. Devanesan Nesiah, Mr. N. Wijayanandana, Mr. Chandra Jayaratne,

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