Dismantle patriarchy through education | Sunday Observer

Dismantle patriarchy through education

Anyone who knows anything of history knows that great social changes are impossible without feminine upheaval. Social progress can be measured exactly by the social position of the fair sex, said Karl Marx. As a country where young men glued to ‘smart’ phone screens jump ahead and secure seats letting gnarled, grey haired women stand carrying their heavy loads; where mature males pretend to fall asleep on seats designated for ‘pregnant women’; where Women In Need, one of the main help-lines for battered women reported receiving nearly 35,000 clients last year (2017) and the latest statistics reported by the police say 5 women get raped each day, with 4 out of them falling under the age of 16 - Sri Lanka is much in want of progress. As ‘Press for Progress’ is the theme for the International Women’s Day 2018, the Sunday Observer spoke to a few prominent personalities to explore what it means to Sri Lanka.

‘Press for Progress’ the theme for 2018 International Women’s Day is “very appropriate,” opines Women’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce (WCIC) Chairperson Chathuri Ranasinghe “We should together work towards pressing for progress in accelerating gender parity, for equal rights, opportunities and resources.” According to Ranasinghe, in Sri Lanka equality is mandated by the Constitution itself.

“The foundation is already laid for gender parity with Article 12 of the Constitution providing that all persons are equal before the law and entitled to equal protection by the law. That no citizen shall be discriminated against on grounds of race, religion, language, caste, sex, political opinion, place of birth or any such ground.”

Though gender equality is guaranteed by the Constitution, the parity of the ground situation could be seen through, “the prevalent gender wage gap; women in work place not being provided equal opportunity to achieve leadership and or managerial positions in sectors such as, agriculture and garment; though being the largest foreign exchange earner most of migrant worker women,, recruited for labourer positions,” she explains.

However, Hans Billimoria, founder of Grassrooted.net questions as to the progress for women in the country. “What progress has there been really? In January 2017 school students at our office discussed what implements to carry with them on public transport to protect themselves when they go back to school.

The compass, a large safety pin, and a sturdy ball point pen were the weapons of choice. The UNFPA survey in 2015 on public transport reported that over 90% of respondents had experienced some form of sexual harassment.

Patriarchal values

Perhaps, these are the indicators on how far we’ve come, rather than touting Sri Lanka as the land of the first woman Prime Minister, whose election was a consequence of our inherently patriarchal values,” explains Billimoria. “Whatever progress has taken place for women in Sri Lanka, is most often due to the opportunities individual women and girls have created for themselves through hard work, determination and a gloriously thick skin that allows them to overcome the misogyny and rampant sexism.”

Sepali Kottegoda, Technical Advisor to Women & Media Collective agrees. “The common belief, that Sri Lankan women’s progress is relatively better than the other Asian women springs from the country having the first woman Prime Minister, and mainly because of the social protection policies the country had in the education and health sector. We do have a better health care situation and many women have reached a higher level going beyond secondary education.

However, that doesn’t mean there is progress. Whatever the Sri Lankan women have achieved is due to individual determination and hard work. For progress to happen, true recognition for women and their contribution to economy is vital.”

While women have progressed in the economic sector, there is much to be done, both Ranasinghe and Kottegoda echo.

In the 21st century, “I believe, a greater number of women are in the business arena. There are many educated and entrepreneurial women who have ventured into business on their own or in partnership with other women,” says Ranasinghe.

The WCIC had noted an increase in the presence of women in the areas of retailing, fitness, event planning, hotels, tourism, beauty culture and hair dressing, fashion and clothing and the food industry. “These women are confident, knowledgeable and focused, and make use of opportunities that have come their way to progress in their business ventures. Some of them have even given up regular work in institutions so as to embark on realizing their entrepreneurial ambitions. They have also become aware of their responsibilities to strengthen, develop and support fledgling women entrepreneurs who could benefit from being mentored and guided by them.”

The dearth of women’s presence in the sectors of Information Technology (IT) and technical industries is of concern, according to Ranasinghe.

Online trading, she perceives, is an opportunity women could exploit “to expand the business beyond Sri Lankan borders moving into international trade and business.”

Family management

To accelerate the progress of women in industry and commerce “we should work on the integration of mentorship programs for women in technology” says Ranasinghe. Some of the important aspects to be implemented would be “introduction of flexi working hours, conducting programs on Work-Life balance, making family management easier for both men and women, increasing support for employees seeking child care, encouraging and promoting crèche facilities and prioritizing family friendly companies for governmental benefits.” To make ‘Progress’ meaningful women whose economic contribution has helped thousands if not millions, needs to be recognized and their rights as workers protected, opines Kottegoda.

Though much of Sri Lanka’s economy runs on the contribution of women, “in recognizing this contribution to economy they only pay lip service”. When it comes to the plantation sector where women work under extremely oppressive conditions, women have kept the sector going.

In the past 30 years or more, the Free Trade Zone (FTZ) has been a place where a different category of women, young and from the villages, work under international labour conditions where companies restrict their rights as workers.

Migrant women, whose contribution to the economy is very high, a fact quite visible, many live and work under oppressive conditions. What we want to do is, recognize the value of the economic contribution of these women. Not look down on them as victims. This is the liability of the State. The State should start schemes or programs to assist them and treat them as they should be treated – humans contributing to the economy. The State should value their contribution and protect their rights,” she clarifies.

Another sector, where women’s contribution is extremely high but never acknowledged is the “formally unpaid care work most women do within their homes. They are categorized as not engaged in income earning. But this is work. Even if they are involved in formal earning, they do unpaid care work. Unpaid care work is not recognized as economically valuable.”

According to the Department of Census and Statistics (DCS) latest labour force statistics, the population over 15 years of age categorized as ‘not in labour force’ is over 7 million explains Kottegoda. “Of this 7 million, 5 million are women. They are engaged in house-work and other unpaid care work. But, they are categorized as economically inactive. ” Though unvalued and unrealized, this is a major contribution to the country’s economy, she declares.

Kottegoda stresses that Women’s contribution needs more recognition in the social arena as well. However, strong opposition to this was seen in the recently concluded Local Government (LG) elections, she says. “Sri Lanka historically had a low representation of women in the governance structure, before this new law was introduced where 25% female representation is mandatory.

Previously, the percentage of female participation in governance was less than 2%. At the recent polls, 10% of the elected representatives were women. The quota is making a difference. Though, 15% has to come from the party lists, now the political parties have difficulty in selecting their representatives because there is opposition. Men with more experience in LG governance are opposing women.

However, for 70 years, they did not think that less than 2% representation was not adequate for women. Interestingly, most of these women have been intensively trained. They have gone through training in leadership and governance. Since when did any of these males go through such training?”

Recognition for female-headed households is another area where the country seems lagging in, according to Kottegoda. “We still harbor the notion of male headed households, that males should be given prominence and head the household. However, the concept of male headed households is not adequate any more. There are many females heading the households with or without a male. Practically, we are looking at the joint heads of the household, not male headed households.”

While the present situation doesn’t seem encouraging, what could be done to foster ‘progress’ for women in the country?

Progress must have meaning in changing the environment of the country, views Kottegoda. “Equality of access and resources should be there. Sometimes to create equality and a conducive environment temporary measures need to be introduced such as was done in the LG polls. It is a historic decision, as in the case of governance. Progress is to share power. Equality in sharing power and governance goes a long way in advancing ‘progress’ of women.”

Ranasinghe affirms, “In a more politically stable environment than the present where good governance and the rule of law prevails, women could contribute more meaningfully and significantly in the government, at the national, provincial or local level. Women could also lobby for a safer environment free from sexual assault and violence.” However, it is not something that could be achieved easily over a short period of time. Sustained calls for improvement are needed for a significant change to happen.

Education, is the key to ‘progress’ opines Billimoria. “Unless we look at education reform, where we dismantle patriarchy through educating people with facts of science; where we redefine and reclaim concepts like respect, consent, and equality and teach these in the classroom, we will forever be marching against gender-based violence, campaigning against intimate partner violence, and advocating for companies to have sexual harassment policies. In another 20 years you will ask what has changed, and these answers will remain.

Without education reform, we will remain a nation that doesn’t know how to treat another person with respect so that they can take a bus, train or taxi free from molestation, a nation where women police officers are overlooked for promotion, deemed unworthy of being in command of men, a nation that allows for chaos and anomie on the rumours of mass oral sterilization underpinning how women have no agency over their own bodies.

Perhaps, if parents are as keen for students to learn sexual and reproductive health as they are for their wards to learn Math, English and IT - innocent shop owners won’t lose their livelihood over bogus contraceptive conspiracies.

“If we’re to affect attitudinal change, we need to stop playing catch up with adults. For us adults have punitive measures in place and implement them effectively. We need to focus on the generations to come, and in an age where young people and children have unprecedented access to information via the internet, now more than ever we need a sensible scientific approach in the classroom.” Let’s hope that true progress would dawn on Sri Lanka, if not sooner, at least within the next generation.