14 April, 2024

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Inclusion Includes Women

By Jehan Perera

Jehan Perera

President Ranil Wickremesinghe has announced that the government has enacted 42 new laws in the past 4 months, with another 62 in the pipeline, all aimed at catalyzing the country’s economic transformation. Among these are two draft laws related to women’s rights, designed to promote gender equality and empower women. These laws are slated for presentation to parliament in May. The proposed Women’s Empowerment Act envisages the establishment of a separate women’s commission. The primary objective of this commission will be to facilitate the advancement and empowerment of women by implementing mechanisms to protect their rights, all under constitutional provisions.

President Wickremesinghe has also announced plans to unveil another bill focusing on gender equality in the near future. This bill aims to establish principles of gender equality across various sectors, including social, political, economic, cultural, and technical policies, while also providing the necessary infrastructure to support these principles. It emphasises the need for women’s rights to be more than mere speechmaking, calling for their support through concrete laws and ordinances. However, it also acknowledges that legislative efforts alone are insufficient without societal engagement. People need to know the laws and what they mean. They need to have the faith and confidence that if they use the law to obtain their rights, they will meet with a positive outcome.

The Women Organised for Inclusion through Community Engagement (WOICE) Learning and Advocacy Symposium organized by the National Peace Council (NPC) brought together more than 120 women leaders and activists from seven districts across the country. One of the key observations related to the lack of knowledge of the laws on the part of citizens and implementation of them by the state. The women across all these districts were keen to learn – to have an improved conceptual understanding of governance and accountability processes and a practical understanding of relevant laws and policies, and skills for effective community interventions.

Women Speak 

The need for women to lead efforts to resolve local-level issues is premised on the analysis that in most situations women act as supports for initiatives led by men, failing to achieve due recognition for the role they play. Also, women are driven to serve their communities and to this end are willing to take on greater leadership roles extending from community leadership to political participation, particularly at the local level. The desire for leadership is driven by need and not just ambition. Continued and enhanced training and mentoring is necessary in this regard.

The symposium offered the women leaders and activists from the community level organisations to engage with national level women leaders. Hon. Sudarshini Fernandopulle, MP, who was one of the speakers at the WOICE symposium urged that in the context of forthcoming elections that the system of preferential voting could be used to ensure that at least one of the three preferential votes given to individual voters is used to vote for women candidates. Hon. Thalatha Atukorale, MP, pointed to the solidarity in parliament among the elected women parliamentarians who, with few exceptions, stood together on issues of human rights and specifically women’s rights.

Although more than 56 percent of the Sri Lankan electorate consists of women, less than six percent of those elected to parliament are women. It is unfortunate that the law passed in 2016 and implemented at the 2018 local government elections to ensure 25 percent representation at the local government level for women has been in abeyance for over a year due to the failure of the government to hold those elections in a timely manner. US Ambassador to Sri Lanka, H.E. Julie Chung who also spoke at the symposium referred to the importance of inclusion especially during this time of transition in working out durable solutions. She pointed to the inclusion of women as an important part of an inclusive democracy in which the wellbeing of all sections of the people could be met.

Implement Laws

As a first step, the government needs to take measures to ensure that the laws it passes are implemented. This applies to laws meant to reduce corruption, ensure transparency in procurement, devolve power to the provinces and to ensure women’s rights. It is appalling that despite the high level of education of women, the country was ranked 180 out of 187 countries in the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) ranking of female representation in parliament as of August 2023. Participation by women in decision making at the national level is of utmost importance, not only to ensure genuine implementation of laws that are passed but also to inclusive and fair to all.

Former UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Dr Radhika Coomaraswamy gave the example of Somalia where five tribes were fighting and killing each other; women formed a 6th tribe which became the Somali women’s movement and secured a 12 percent quota in parliament. In Sri Lanka, she commented, we have many groups, class caste, etc. Therefore, change must begin at the community level. She encouraged that “This can also be your protection to be organised as a group of women. Real change will only begin at the community level.”

In 2012, Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee of Liberia visited Sri Lanka for a presentation of a Sri Lankan Women’s Agenda on Peace, Security and Development to the government. She observed that “the clashes of ideologies are fought over the bodies of women and children” and pointed out that unlike men who see each war as different and as having unique political features, women see sameness in all wars—this is the suffering that war brings and the need of women to protect their families. She said “If fairness, justice and democracy are the tenets of your country, women will be brought into decision making positions, they will not be seen as burdens but will be supported and all people will be treated as equal.”

Wider Inclusion 

Women in decision making positions would tend to be more empathetic to the plight of families who fell victim to the war. Past interventions have shown that women are inherently inclined to serve their communities, and willing to take up expanded leadership roles ranging from community governance to local politics. Their aspiration for leadership is rooted in necessity. In work done with civil society organisations they have highlighted issues of food security, malnutrition, and school dropouts which they encounter in their regular work. They have highlighted their wish to be capacitated in terms of knowledge and skills to advocate for change.

In a speech to the World Leadership Forum, Prof Maithree Wickremesinghe listed undervaluation of unpaid care work, the neglect of women’s individual identities, insufficient representation in leadership roles, and the pervasive issue of gender-based violence and harassment as root causes for the lack of women’s representation in decision making roles. If women were indeed in decision making positions, they would ensure that those in positions of authority had different priorities. Prof. Wickremesinghe further added “One of the enormous challenges faced by Sri Lanka today is the inequality in the distribution of opportunities, resources, incomes and wealth. Therefore, inclusivity is extremely pertinent.”

The absence of inclusivity in decision making leading to issues of marginalization are particularly evident in the north and east of the country. Elections under the provincial council system that devolved power to the provincial level where Tamils and Muslims form majorities, have not been held for over five years. As a result, the people of those areas, and their political representatives who are not part of the government, are excluded from national life and the economy. The IMF has estimated that four percent could be added to the national income if women’s work force engagement increases. At present it is only 35 percent. If the energies of the north and east were also added, Sri Lanka could be at a different level of development.

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Latest comments

  • 0
    11

    Intentions seem good but with women like Maithree Wickremasinghe and Thalatha Athukorale in the forefront, to what real world outcomes they may translate into is questionable.

  • 1
    5

    What is needed for our success is more and more Laws! Hurrah!!

    • 1
      6

      Without these Laws we had to endure Srimavo and Chandrika. What a calamity!

      • 0
        6

        Now that we have empowered women cleaning the toilet is no more my responsibility!

        • 1
          6

          Hon. Sudarshini became a Minister the same way Hon. Srima got to be our Prime Minister. Just imagine what they would have become if only we have had these Laws then!!

  • 2
    7

    Here we go again–this time with Jehan Perera.

    “President Wickremesinghe has also announced plans to unveil another bill focusing on gender equality in the near future.”

    If this results in there being quotas for women, then I am not for it. We already have a law (passed in 2016) to ensure a 25% representation of women at the local government level. Such affirmative action is contrary to the merit principle and even patronising to women. My feeling is that most Sri Lankan women don’t vote for women just because they are women even if they are asked to do so and in that sense they have more common sense and wisdom than these “gender equality” advocates.

    We have had women in politics: Sirima, CBK, Sunethra Ranasinghe, Renuka Herath, Ferial, Pavithra Devi, et al, as cabinet ministers, and Geetha, Malini, Hirunika, Diana Gamage, Harini, Thalatha, etc. etc. as parliamentarians. Were/are they better than their male counterparts and have they rendered a greater service to the nation than male politicians?

    In either the private or the public sector. I have not yet seen a reason to prefer female employees over male in terms of professional capability, service and courtesy.

    • 8
      0

      Leonard, my thoughts:

      “gender equality” means all genders are equally capable of the same intellectual/professional heights; they each ought to be availed equal opportunities and equal freedom to pursue their aspirations.

      For women to be overwhelmingly underrepresented in politics for example is an indication of limitations thrust upon them. Perhaps our traditional values, cultural norms etc. form the basis of conditioning of the females. Our society finds it’s acceptable for women to be school teachers and secretaries, not mechanical engineers or construction project managers.

      Affirmative Action is to overcome these hangups/boundaries which we have as to what women are suitable for and unsuitable for…

      Gender equality policies aren’t in the way of meritocracy. Affirmative action doesn’t force hiring of unqualified females. What it does is avail opportunities for the discriminated/disadvantaged segment; it’s meant to close the gap over time (,not over night).

      You should not prefer one gender over the other for any profession or employment (excluding gender-specific work, eg. Male_model). It will have to be solely based on qualifications.

      Where there’s affirmative action, there shall be every effort made to meet the quota to ensure we foster equality. Affirmative action is transitional and transformative.

      • 6
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        S
        Thank you for that commendably enlightened comment.

        • 3
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          Thanks, SJ. Glad you concur.

      • 6
        1

        Sugandh:

        “Gender equality policies aren’t in the way of meritocracy.”

        Okay, let’s take the example of the engineering profession, where women are underrepresented in terms of their percentage in the total population. To be an employed engineer a boy or a girl has to go through the following three stages:

        1. Possess the requisite academic qualifications to be eligible to enter the Faculty of Engineering.
        2. Graduate as an engineer.
        3. Be recruited as an engineer after an interview, in which the candidate’s suitability for the particular job is assessed in addition to his base qualifications (engineering degree).

        Can you show how an affirmative policy can be applied without violating the merit principle in the three stages above?

        • 6
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          Leonard, great question.

          Firstly, affirmative actions cannot be legislated to overcome all inequitable conditions. Just not doable.

          For the scenario you have put forth, different methods/strategies have to be undertaken to unshackle the underlying chains. No overnight fixes.

          The education system should serve as the first means of intervention and should employ strategies for gender equity. Schools should do much more to understand individual aptitudes, talent, drive and interests and foster/guide/empower each child assuring that the student is ultimately driving his/her destiny.

          Industry too has to play its part in unshackling the chains of inequities. There are many creative ways for the industries to encourage talent irrespective of gender. The industries can only benefit from it.

          To strive for gender equality while assuring meritocracy, the interview and selection process should entail well defined criteria and scoring system and be devoid of discriminatory, unfair and unethical practices. If a female and a male obtain equal scores, then the gender equity goal has to be given priority.

          Meritocracy doesn’t have to suffer. Unqualified individuals needn’t be hired to fulfill gender equity targets. The goal is to continue striving towards unshackling the chains that underlie the inequity.

          • 0
            5

            Sugandh:

            “Firstly, affirmative actions cannot be legislated to overcome all inequitable conditions. Just not doable.”

            Areas where you think it is “doable”?

            “If a female and a male obtain equal scores, then the gender equity goal has to be given priority.”

            I don’t have a problem with this. Indeed most employers I know would only be too happy to have “a few more girls” in the work place if the staff are already male-dominated.

            In your first comment you wrote, “Where there’s affirmative action, there shall be every effort made to meet the quota to ensure we foster equality. Affirmative action is transitional and transformative.” No offence intended, but doesn’t this sound like something you copied from somewhere and pasted?

            I don’t care how you achieve “equity goals” as long as they don’t compromise the merit principle by way of affirmative action.

            • 5
              0

              Leonard, firstly, none of what I wrote was a copy paste job. It doesn’t bother me that you have underestimated my abilities because you absolutely do not know me.

              However, as a rule of thumb, it is foolish to accuse without anything to back it up. One could easily ask whether any reference material was used in composing such a fantastic, solid response?!!!

              I am not a subject matter expert on gender equality or affirmative action. It’s entirely drawn out of my common sense and ability to decipher reasoning.

              • 0
                0

                Sugandh:

                “Leonard, firstly, none of what I wrote was a copy paste job.”

                What made me ask that question was the part “Where there’s affirmative action, there SHALL BE every effort made to meet the quota to ensure we foster equality” (emphasis mine).

                The (modal) verb “shall” is used in sentences such as the above to “indicate that something must happen, usually because of a rule of law” (Cambridge Dictionary). You are writing to CT readers and the use of “shall” therefore is inappropriate. “Should” is the expected verb: “…[T]here should be made every effort….”

                To me it sounded like you were copying from a manual or guidelines of a gender equality advocacy group!

                Your original view–I don’t know whether you are still maintaining it–that affirmative action does not compromise the merit principle must surely be original–no copy and paste job there!–because I have never come across a “gender equality” advocate holding or defending that view.

                • 0
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                  I specifically have in mind affirmative actions which take the form of quotas and lowering of standards, etc. which compromise the merit principle.

                • 0
                  0

                  Leonard:
                  The (modal) verb “shall” was used with respect to legislated affirmative action (i.e. law).

                  Well, I don’t know whether the “gender equality” advocates you have spoken to before were gender equality policy makers or professional consultants or laypersons like myself.

                  Best bet is for you to do an online search for publications on the matter.

                  As for where I stand, let’s say as a hiring manager, meritocracy will be upheld. And I don’t need to be legislated to uphold equitable treatment of candidates. But it seems from the all comments on the CT forum in regards to gender equality, legislation can help give a push in the right direction.

                  Male chauvinism seems to be a hurdle to understanding what is gender equitability. Best to think of what equitability and equal treatment entail in general.

                  Irrespective of gender equality measures, we ought to strive for meritocracy as meritocracy isn’t necessarily practiced even when the entire candidate pool is all males or all of the same ethnicity. Hiring practices are evolving across organisations to better define those practices and be rid of unethical, unfair, and downright nasty unwritten hiring criteria.

            • 5
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              Leonard, as for your question “Areas where you think it is “doable”?” [wrt my statement “Firstly, affirmative actions cannot be legislated to overcome all inequitable conditions. Just not doable.”]:

              Another great question. This one is difficult for me to answer.

              Let’s consider this law supposedly passed in 2016 and implemented at the 2018 local government elections to ensure 25 percent representation at the local government level for women. The implementation of this law is not possible over one election. It will take a few elections to hopefully get there.

              As far as I can decipher, the law encourages or serves to exert social pressure on political parties to put more women representatives on the ballot. What more can it do!!?

              Perhaps you can look up affirmative action legislations passed in the U.S. It has a long history of affirmative actions over racial inequities. I think India too has some affirmative action legislations over caste discrimination; with respect to admission to state universities, decades ago, I have heard of entrance requirements being higher for the high caste students.

              With that I conclude my contribution to the topic:)

        • 3
          0

          Leonard,
          Much of this imbalance is caused , in my opinion, by social attitudes. Leave alone engineering (a “man’s job”), what about bus conductors and drivers? I can remember female conductors in the 60s, but not now. What happened? Even in parts of India (which is supposed to be backward), female bus crews, three wheeler drivers, train and airline pilots, are run-of-the-mill. Our female pilots get headlines in the papers.

  • 0
    0

    Jehan Perera, The bible in Gal. 4,28 says that if you are baptized into Christ, “There is neither jew nor greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ, Abraham’s seed and heirs according to promise. That is all are sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.

  • 2
    2

    Ranil Wickramasinghe after more than 25 years in politics and multiple times being prime minister now become care taker president and protector of Rajapakse family want to implement gender equality, women empowerment and wider inclusion of women.
    How many females ministers were their in the past in governments led by this cowered.
    He has seen now well attended women rallies in the NPP stage. They will get their empowerment under future NPP government.
    Only thing Jehan needs to do is wait till the election and vote NPP.
    Jehan Perera unofficial promoter of Ranil in the ColomboTelegraph trying his best in this forum.
    There are lot of people cleverer than you Jehan baby.

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