A far cry to improve status of women | Sunday Observer

A far cry to improve status of women


“There is only one woman in the world. One woman with many faces,” said Greek writer Nikos Kazantakis. However, where Sri Lankan women are concerned ‘there is only one problem, one problem with many facets.’ Wherever you go, the palmy north or the sandy south, industrial east or the commercial west, you hear the same story viewed from different ethnic, cultural, religious, economic viewpoints - the problem of womanhood, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka finds out.

Ananthi Devendra Kumari works in an estate in Nuwara Eliya. The daily wage she gets is not enough even to feed her family. The plight of her friends and associates is no better. Some, sent on other errands by supervisors during the tea-plucking time get only the money for the quantity they plucked. Meagre wages and lack of facilities plague the estate sector women. Ananthi had worked as a housemaid previously. The conditions were not so good either. However, she feels fortunate. Most of the women there, have never stepped out of the estate. So, how could they know where to go to get help for their plight?

K.T. Somalatha is from Wellassa. A farmer, in her community for years, she had seen women getting step-motherly treatment in government offices, police stations and even when seeking school admissions for their children. Women are sidelined when awards are made in the agricultural sector. To get a plot at trade stalls women have to compete with men. They can’t decide what crop to plant in the field because the land belongs to the male of the house. They are unable to get agricultural loans because the deed is written in the husband’s name. However, she knows of husbands who have obtained the loan of Rs. 50,000.00 from Samurdhi Banks in their wives’ names without her knowledge. They misuse this money and ultimately, it is the woman who has to pay it.

Roshni Weerasinghe works in the Free Trade Zone (FTZ). Seeing women being treated in a degrading manner, subjected to various harassment on the way, in hostels and at work stations is part of her daily life. She knows women who have been working for a long time in factories where chemicals are used, and who have thus become infertile. Around 62% of women in the FTZ suffer from anaemia, some suffer from malnutrition. Those living in hostels don’t get government compensation or relief even if they are affected by natural disasters. It is with much difficulty that working women in the FTZ feed their infants after delivery. In practice, they don’t get the ‘lactation hour’ allocated to feed infants. V.Bhvani from Batticaloa is engaged in the palmyrah industry. She says, it is a part time employment for many in her area. They cannot get palmyrah leaves during the rainy season, and the problem is aggravated now because the trees are felled due to road construction, installing electricity transmission lines, and so on. Marketing the products is a major constraint as the middle-men tend to exploit them and create problems.

These are just four stories of Sri Lankan women from different regions and different fields. But, a common thread runs through them all, that ‘Women in Sri Lanka live between two worlds.’ A report by the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) finds that while good education, health care and opportunities to make great achievements in some sectors exist on the one hand, they are subjected to tradition, under-estimation, sexual harassment, ill-treatment, sidelining and almost always never consulted in policy making even if it is pertaining to themselves over the other. HRCSL held nation wide discussions and consultations on the constraints and challenges faced by women and their achievements in the informal and transitional economic sectors; estate work and Free Trade Zone (FTZ) throughout 2017. The culmination of the discussions was at a round table conference held recently at the BMICH to commemorate International Women’s Day.

The report states that according to the Department of Census and Statistics, the labour contribution in the first quarter of the year 2017 amounted to 54.7% with 8.6 Million persons, of which 62.7 % were male and 37.3% female. When it comes to persons inactive in economic fields, the parity is increased and the ratio between males and females becomes nearly 1:3. However, the number of persons above 15 years employed in domestic chores in Sri Lanka was computed as 15.7 Million as at the first quarter of 2017 and showed an increase by 0.3 Million in comparison to year 2016. In Sri Lanka, women comprise a majority of the labour force in the informal economic sector. They make an immense contribution towards the economy of the country. Agriculture, various cottage industries and transitional or part time work, are fields with a very high labour contribution from women along with the estate sector and the FTZ. However, they seem to be the most neglected areas by the authorities. As a result adhoc and discriminatory regulatory systems have sprung up and employed in these sectors. Sometimes, women employed in the informal and transitional economic sectors are not even accounted as ‘active in economic fields’. The primary objective of the exercise is to focus policy makers’ attention on these factors, say the organizers.

While the issues pertaining to the sectors and regions are varied, the report identifies 21 common problems and challenges encountered by women in all these fields. Obtaining both material and financial resources; marketing finished products; networking and using technology; current policies implemented in various fields are areas where gender bias or discrimination is seen the most.

The HRCSL has proposed a set of primary recommendations to address these issues faced by women, key among them being ensuring women’s participation when making policy decisions and compiling policies relevant to women. Inclusion of strong provision against discrimination of women in the Constitution through new constitutional reforms; approval of the Women Rights Bill subjected to discussion for several decades; revision of laws and policies which allow discrimination against women such as, the Land Development Ordinance and Wages and Allowance Policy pertaining to women estate workers; granting credit facilities without discrimination to women engaged in agriculture and informal economic sectors; awareness creation on credit management; regulation of micro credit schemes and lending institutions; skills development in the informal economic sector to disseminate modern technical know-how focusing on marketing, trade propagation and market hunting; compiling new policies and procedures to continue to deliver the accepted services to women in the informal economic sectors without any changes; identifying the current requirements of women workers and providing required facilities; arranging for networking of women through organizations such as, cooperative societies; compiling a strategy to provide proper day care for children of the women labour force both in the informal as well as the formal sectors are listed suggestions to improve the status of women.