By Mass L. Usuf –
International Women’s Day (March 8) according to the IWD website is ‘a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity’. The story of the woman throughout history has been one of gross abuse of her status. She had been accused as a temptress, as responsible for the original sin, valued as a chattel and, even today, considered the weaker of the two sexes. The indomitable spirit of endurance in her to survive this relentless antagonism displayed against her position in society, teaches us one simple lesson. She is the stronger of the two.
Physical strength is brutish. Mental strength is sagacity. The woman is endowed with the latter quality in abundance and it is amply proven by her ability to nurture society.
A man came to the Prophet Muhammed and said, ‘O Messenger of God! Who among the people is the most worthy of my good companionship? The Prophet said: Your mother. The man said, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said: Then your mother. The man further asked, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said: Then your mother. The man asked again, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said: Then your father. (Source: Bukhari)
From Oppression To Liberation
There is of course a distinction between equality and identicalness. The woman is constrained by natural restrictions like menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, child rearing, breast feeding et cetera. The conventional role optimally was minding the home, bringing up children and ensuring the happiness of the family. This was considered the most honourable work. She constituted the foundation of the nucleus family extending to the larger society. The feminists like a pendulum swung from one extreme to the other. From ‘oppression’ to ‘liberation’; The famous Bra burning in the 1960s, as a statement for women’s rights. However, the haphazard change in the traditionally accepted masculine and feminine roles opened up for her entry into the areas of the male. One view indicates this transition akin to the role of androgynous men and women.
Tired Mother And Wife
This role modification at times became an unwholesome addition to her onerous work in the house. Gender equality in the work place gave her the feel of self-esteem but with negative consequences. It affected family life, deprived quality time for children and made her a tired mother and wife at the end of each day. It is argued that the clamour to end discriminative gender roles culminated in the woman becoming further oppressed. It is not rare to hear a woman saying, “I wish I can stay at home”.
The behaviour of men and women display a paradoxical quality. For example, a woman who reads romances and fantasizes about her prince may be the same woman who during the day is an aggressive women’s rights activist. The man who is an advocate of equality of women may still see a centrefold more as a sex object than as a person. “Implicit in our gender role socialization is the belief that males ought to adopt a traditionally masculine gender role and females a traditionally feminine one because everyone will get along much better that way.” (Ickes (1981, 19855) & Barnes, 1978).
The ‘Pill’ and Safe Sex
The invention of the ‘pill’ in the 1960’s gave the woman sexual freedom to have safe sex. It enabled women to fully enjoy sexual relations without fear of unwanted pregnancy. This had its repercussions too. Women liberated themselves from one thing but were enslaved by something else. Research indicates that in 1960 with the advent of the contraceptive pill, usage was recorded at 400,000. Five years later in 1965, this figure shot up to 6.5 million users in the U.S.A. Sexual repression was met with the ‘sexual revolution’, ‘free love’ and ‘women’s lib’. Promiscuity progressed rampantly and pornography being the ultimate destination where women have been completely dehumanised and treated degradingly. “Sexual intercourse is rapidly becoming the one thing venerated in a world without veneration.” (C.S. Lewis, Miracles).
Cultural Feminism acknowledges that women are “inherently kinder and gentler” along with the socio-moral perception of ‘good girl’, ‘good mother’, ‘good wife’. This inherent disposition in woman was destroyed by the earlier lopsided Radical Feminism. These radicals were competing for space in the male dominated economic, social and political spheres. This shift created other challenges for her especially, exploitation. She was sucked into being made a commercial sex object. The media decided for her to be thin or fat. She was influenced on her choice of dress and on the accessories to beautify herself. In those decades, the physical appearance of women was how thin they wanted to be. Women started getting eating disorders (Anorexia nervosa) and diseases from trying to fit that “perfect image” for everyone but themselves. Basically, her self-esteem was boosted not by doing what she wanted but by what and how others wanted her to present herself.
The oppression and mistreatment of women is unjust and inhuman. It must be said that not everything about feminism was bad, negative or useless. They had to struggle and they did struggle. They had some just causes and creditably have achieved success in their fight – Equal pay, career opportunities, corporate positions, political engagement among other things. These are very commendable and praiseworthy. Ignorant males who do not value women always take unjust advantage over her. High handed patriarchy certainly contributes to damage the masculine feminine relationship.
A New Sri Lanka for Women
Research suggests that Gender-based violence (GBV) including Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) or Domestic Violence (DV) is reported to be high and widespread in Sri Lanka. “An unprecedented UN study of 10,000 men in Asia and the Pacific, released today, found that, on average, half of those interviewed reported using physical and/or sexual violence against a female partner”. (UN Women, 13.09.2013). Several reasons are attributed including alcohol, drug abuse, unemployment, depression and childhood experiences of violence. It is not unique to a single class, race, ethnicity or religion. A woman who is often abused suffers both physically and emotionally.
She is not only vulnerable to IPV or DV but also exposed to sexual harassment and abuse by office colleagues, community members, armed forces and the Police.
One of the promises made by President Maithripala Sirisena during his election campaign was the pledge for ‘A New Sri Lanka for Women’. In connection to these pledges, Verite Research in its 2016 report records, “Out of the nine pledges selected for this report, five have been classified as ‘in progress’ and the remaining four have been classified as ‘no progress’. Mr. President, there is obviously a need to activate the ‘no progress’ pledges.
In addition to the application of several human rights principles embedded in international conventions to which Sri Lanka is also a signatory, the Constitution in Article 11 (1) states:
“No person shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.
Also, Article12 (1) states : “All persons are equal before the law and are entitled to the equal protection of the law”.
There is also the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act No. 34 of 2005.
Kind, Gentle and Forbearing
The majority of women in Sri Lanka fall into that traditional role of women and they are happy. Especially so from the viewpoint of our Eastern customs, traditional and religious backgrounds. However, male chauvinism should be placed under control since they exploit and take undue advantage of the kindness, gentleness and patience of our women folk.
On the other hand, too much legal pressure on the man may lead to increased threats of violence, abandonment or exploitation by man. Some power and influence wielding women too are alleged to misuse the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act to get a protection order to get rid of the husband. They are allegedly motivated by extra-marital affairs, property related issues etc. It has to be appreciated that these relationships cannot be dictated by legal strictures and by ideals of women’s rights. These are matters of an intimate and personal nature. A mixture of love, care, concern, respect, responsibility and peer influence are vital. Laws and the Rights must be adapted to help and not to worsen the situation. Counselling, family mediation and arbitration are also available pathways.
Traumatised Or Humiliated
In one instance, a husband who used to maintain his family well was summoned to the Police Station on a complain made by the wife at the instigation of the in laws. The complaint was frequent quarrelling. At the Police Station he was addressed in humiliating words in the presence of his wife and warned. From that day, he never sighted the family and they are now suffering. I asked him, why he does not visit the family? His answer was clear and simple. His ego badly hurt. He said, “how do you expect me to share the bed with a woman who exposes me and have me humiliated by an unknown man (Policeman) in front of everybody”. There is no doubt, that he should be held responsible for his actions but, an abusive husband needs mental health assistance and not humiliation.
Similarly, issuance of Protection Orders under the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act may not be helpful most of the time. Firstly, it will antagonise the man and, secondly, worsen an already bad situation. This is the reality and it is a delicate balancing act. The Police are in no way suitable to handle domestic related issues of a personal nature unless they are specially trained for this duty only. Generally, they end up traumatising the victim (woman) or humiliating the abuser (man).
National Action Plan
In November, last year, the National Action Plan (NAP) to address Sexual and Gender-based Violence (SGBV) was officially launched by the Ministry of Women and Child Affairs and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The (NAP) was developed with the vision of creating “a violence free life for women and children” with Zero Tolerance for Sexual and Gender-based Violence in Sri Lanka. It is too early to assess the progress made in this regard.
Hon. Chandrani Bandara, Minister of Women and Child Affairs made a proposal on February 2017, to the Cabinet to establish a National Commission on Women, which was approved. As prevailing institutions on women’s affairs has no legal power to address the increasing violence against women.
Passing legislations and appointing Commissioners alone is inadequate. These should be supported by the establishment of suitable institutions and broad structural reforms to support implementation – availability of dedicated centres, required facilities, experienced counsellors, trained personnel and the energising of the Rule of Law. Further, the practical realities faced by the average woman has to be studied in-depth Sectorally with focus on socio-economic, cultural, traditional and familial relationship of the family unit.
Quite apart from violence against women is the issue of war widows who are estimated to be above 80,000 after the end of the war in May 2009. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), identified war widows as a vulnerable group facing serious difficulties for economic survival. These women, too, are in need of general security, socio-economic support for their wellbeing and personal safety.
Bold decisions have to be taken. And, they should be taken now without delay in order to bring the promise of a new Sri Lanka for the women.