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Gender equality is a far cry in Sri Lanka despite early democracy

In comparison with other South Asian countries, Sri Lanka has had a head start in representative democracy, having secured universal adult suffrage way back in 1931 under colonial rule.

In the first-ever elected 58-member State Council in 1931, there were two women members — Adeline Molamure and NaysumSaravanamuttu.

Sri Lanka then went on to steal a march over other countries of the region when Sirima Bandaranaike became the world’s first female prime minister in 1960. Sirima was the prime minister for 18 years, serving three terms. She stood out both nationally and internationally for her economic reforms and her role in the non-aligned movement.

Her daughter, Chandrika Kumaratunga, became Sri Lanka’s first directly elected woman executive president getting 60 percent of the votes — a record yet to be broken.

Over the years, women have been contributing substantially to the economy as foreign exchange earners. The female labour-intensive tea, rubber and garment industries have been the principal foreign exchange earners for Sri Lanka. Apparel export accounts for 50 percent of the country’s annual export earnings of $10 billion.

Remittances from Sri Lankans working abroad yield $6.3 billion a year,with women accounting for 36.7 percent of the 1.7 million migrant workers. 

Even though 64 percent of women in the working age group are not in the labor force, women dominate the modern professions accounting for 63.65 percent of the country’s professionals.

However, women’s representation in the power structure is abysmally low, despite having the vote for 86 years. Women are only 5.7 percent in parliament, 4 percent in the provincial councils and dismal 1.9 percent in the local bodies.

Post-independence politics is thought be too “dirty”, “violence-prone” and “unfit” for decent women because men have a tendency to indulge in “shaming” their women rivals.

In 2016, a law was passed to give 25 percent reservation to women in the local bodies, but efforts are now being made to dilute it by the Election Commission itself.

In a seminar organised by Internews, SavindriTalgodapitiya, director of Fields Travel Company, pointed out that in the male-dominated business world, women entrepreneurs are segregated and are rarely admitted to the higher echelons.

When the media interviews a woman entrepreneur, the questioner needlessly focuses on her marital status, her family life and how she manages to juggle family responsibilities with business — areas which will never be touched upon when a male entrepreneur is interviewed. 

TehaniAriyaratne of the South Asia Women’s Fund pointed out that governments in South Asiareduce women’s rights in the guise of protecting them and their families. The woman’s right to migrate is curtailed. This affects her right to work and work anywhere she wants to.

Ariyaratne said the government should ensure women’s “safe migration” and not curb migration.

Paba Deshapriya of nongovernmental organisationGrassrooted pointed out that an increasing number of boys from Colombo’s elite schools, persuade girl friends to take pictures of themselves in the nude for their exclusive viewing, but circulate them over the social media without consent, for a fee which may be as high as LKR 20,000 ($131) for a serial, or one dollar per picture.

The girls, who had sent the pictures “for the sake of love”, may also be blackmailed to send more pictures, Deshapriya said.

Confused and sometimes contemplating suicide, 70 girls had approached Grassrooted for assistance.

The police are not very sensitive in handling such cases.Some of them ask for fresh photos to check veracity, Deshapriya pointed out.

“The solution is not to ban the use of smart phones but to educate girls about the dangers of their use and tell them about precautions they should take,” she said.

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