It’s about us, not just about Her | Sunday Observer

It’s about us, not just about Her

If we sing to ‘Mother Lanka’ in our national anthem, then, why is it that Sri Lankan mothers continue to be beaten and sexually abused even in their own homes? How is it that men can rape women – often their own kin – and then blame it on the clothes women wear? And, why is it that women are abused by men but not the other way around?

As we celebrate International Women’s Day this week on March 8, these are just some of the questions that need to be asked of ourselves. And, there are many more questions to be raised about the status of women in human society today.

A most brutal, nay cruel, aspect of the constant violence against women is the very intimacy between the perpetrator and victim. This is something that must be acknowledged given that the bulk of sexual assaults on women in Sri Lanka is perpetrated by a family member, friend or neighbour. The victim women often live in those relationships with loving expectation of care and support from their attacker – being a cousin or uncle or brother or even father. At the same time, the victim women often show readiness to continue with relationships either out of unremitting love and loyalty, or, out of desperate need for sustenance and survival.

The intimacy between oppressor and oppressed genders is unavoidable in social life and it is this that is being understood more and more as both women and men work together to resolve the immense problems arising from gender inequality and oppression. When it comes to finding solutions and addressing issues, it is clear that if men hold greater power in society, then society can act on these matters only with the cooperation of men.

Let’s look at the stark fact that, despite nearly a century of universal franchise, we have yet to see the political representation of women reach even a measly six per cent of membership in the country’s various legislative bodies. The new 25 per cent quota requirement for women’s representation in legislatures is yet to bring results. Thus, the men who currently comprise the balance 94 per cent in our various governance bodies have some acute responsibility for this gross gender imbalance and should act to redress it.

Thus, if women are to gain more places in legislatures – and in many other decision-making processes in public and private life – then men must relinquish dominance and control. But what is important is not so much that there is some ‘loss’ of control but that gender equality will bring a greater sharing of the burdens of control and responsibility. In any case, the general trend in society is such that women are already acting to take their share of control and, thus, men need to welcome this sharing of the stake, this dispersal of burden.

As it is, social life and technology is evolving in a manner that rearranges gender roles as never before, challenging both women and men to adapt and to navigate reasonably the vicissitudes of life and community. When women need to go to work so that the whole household can enjoy a better combined income, wise men will chip in and take on domestic challenges for mutual prosperity.

Families and households left behind by migrant workers need to adapt so that the migration endeavour genuinely benefits everyone. Since over 60 per cent of migrant workers are women, it is up to society as a whole to collaborate in collective efforts to ensure that families of migrants are empowered and facilitated.

Meanwhile, gender inequality in salaries and incomes persist. In Sri Lanka today, even if many institutions and mechanisms are in place to fulfil the many goals for gender equality and women’s empowerment, the ridiculously slow progress being made betrays the stark lack of powers and resources for action.

The National Commission on Women, for example, is supposed to address issues relevant to half of the population, including key sectors of women-intensive labour such as, the garments industry, the tea industry and migrant labour. But the NCW is less heard about and wields far less influence than a business chamber or a trade union. Doctors shouting about international trade (of all things) are given a better hearing than the NCW on women’s reproductive health or women’s absence in legislatures.

And, why is it that our religions impose restrictions on women but not on men? If the preachings of faiths lay any claim to universality, then it should not be for a Universe where women are absent.

It is this profound absence of women from major institutions of society and, the absence of their voices in public and spiritual discourse that brings into question the credentials of our democracy as well as the validity of our belief systems.

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Sexual assault in the Temple

Will the focus on Women this week enable justice to brought for the 16-year-old girl sexually assaulted in the temple in the Akmeemana area? Compounding the crime is the fact that the suspected perpetrator is a lawmaker himself.

Legislators, whether at local government, provincial or parliamentary level, are elected by us to make laws and not to break them. That this suspect Provincial Councillor, representing a major political party, reportedly succumbed to the temptations of sexual violence in the temple premises brings into question many things: the true power of spirituality, the relative safety of institutional premises, the calibre of our political party representatives, among other things.

Most immediately, the calibre and resolve of the investigating police authority is on test until the crime is solved. In the longer term, political parties will need to ensure the calibre of their electoral candidates. How can such party ‘stalwarts’ participate in internal party decisions pertaining to women’s participation at electoral contests? 

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