Sri Lanka just told the United Nations that implementation of policies regarding women’s rights “should be in tandem with domestic compulsions and requirements.” Sri Lanka declared to the word that “rights” are not inalienable, nor universal, but are a dependent variable of “domestic compulsions”.
This should come as no surprise to those co-sponsors of the draft resolution on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council, who might have suspected that this might indeed be the case with regard to other human rights, and that domestic compulsions and requirements may have played a role in their violations.
This piece of advice on women’s rights was given to the US Security Council Arria-Formula Meeting titled “Call to Lead by Example: Ensuring the Full, Equal and Meaningful Participation of Women in UN-led Peace Processes” by Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, Ambassador Mohan Pieris. It was reported in the Island that he told the United Nations that “The role of women in society is different in varied cultures and as such a one-size fits all policy cannot be applied in the pursuance of their rights. It is imperative for policies in this regard to be formulated, in tandem with domestic compulsions and requirements”.
The 52% of Sri Lanka’s population which are women should take serious note of the fact that the official position of the incumbent administration seem to be that there are domestic compulsions that require discriminatory policies against women to be sustained. Which compulsions are those? Sri Lanka told the UN that it should be “sensitive to diverse situations and circumstances” because “The role of women in society is different in varied cultures and as such a one-size fits all policy cannot be applied in the pursuance of their rights.”
In some cultures, it is thought that women should not be educated. A young girl in Afghanistan understood that neither culture nor any other domestic requirement should prevent the basic right to education being applied equally to both men and women. An ignorant man, in thrall to culture, shot her in the face. The young girl, Malala Yusufzai, survived that culturally prescribed atrocity to become a UN Ambassador for girl’s education and completed a degree from Oxford herself.
Human Rights are universal. They apply to all human beings irrespective of their gender because of the fact that they are human. Women are humans, and no domestic requirement should prevent them from being given equal opportunities to function in society as equals and be protected from violence perpetrated against them.
In a few days, the Commission on the Status of Women will hold its 65th session in New York at the United Nations from the 15th to the 26th of March. This year’s priority theme is Women’s full and effective participation and decision-making in public life, as well as the elimination of violence, for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls.
The draft outcome document has a paragraph which is vindicated by what Sri Lanka has displayed at the UN. It says presciently: “The Commission recognizes that negative social norms and gender stereotypes can threaten women’s rights and participation in public life, and that efforts to increase understanding of gender equality and women’s rights to participate in public life and decision-making, including the support and political will of male leaders, are vital for accelerating changes to social norms.” Hurrah to that!
Representatives of UN member states and ECOSOC accredited NGO’s from around the world are invited to attend this session which will be conducted in hybrid format due to Covid 19 restrictions with virtual meetings being the format for most meetings. If Sri Lanka participates, what will it say?
The Review theme of the session is ‘Women’s empowerment and the link to sustainable development’. The draft document outcome notes that “failure to expedite women’s participation and decision-making in public life and the elimination of violence against women will make it impossible to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.”
A recent report of the Department of Census and Statistics says that “The labor force participation rate of women in Sri Lanka is only 33.6% of the total population (2018). Out of the 8.6 million economically active population, only 35% are women are employed and the rate has been stagnant. (Department of Census and Statistics Sri Lanka Labor Force Survey -2018.)
It further states that “there is a major gap in gross national income per capita for women ($6,766) compared to men ($16,852). This is proof of the commission’s conclusion that “feminization of poverty persists.” It persists due to structural factors, which bring no benefit to the economy. What requirement is there, what national compulsion, to keep women in poverty? It is a government’s obligation to study and remove the structural obstacles that prevent women from economic empowerment, which includes measures against violence and harassment at work and childcare facilities, lack of opportunity due to gender-stereotyping and outmoded, patriarchal attitude towards women.
As at the 2015 Sri Lankan elections, women’s representation in parliament was 5% (12 out of 225 seats). Is this reasonable, a cultural requirement or a domestic compulsion? It is outrageous, that in a country where the female population is 52%, only 5% is in parliament making legislation!
UN Women reported that in Sri Lanka, “For promoting women’s political participation a 25% quota for women has been allocated for women in the Local Government bodies while Cabinet approval is sought to provide 30% nominations for females at the Provincial Council elections. Memorandums have been submitted to the Constitutional Reforms Committee requesting for a quota for women in the Parliament.” What hope is there that 30% will be approved by this Cabinet?
There is a long way to go to change attitudes in Sri Lanka. For far too long culture has dictated the status of women. That culture has kept women in violent relationships, and prevented them from participating in decision making in the family and in the country. A recent survey (The Women’s Wellbeing Survey), on violence against women found that a “quarter (26%) of men and 38% of women agreed that “there are times or apt circumstances under which it is all right to beat a woman,” while 41% of men and 58% of women stated that ‘a woman should tolerate violence to keep the family together.’ Further, 78% of men and 87% of women declared that ‘women should obey their husbands,’ while 40% of men and 43% of women noted that ‘males should have the final say in family matters’.
What is needed is not to perpetuate these attitudes as domestic compulsions or cultural necessities, but to find ways to change them through education and mainstreaming women’s right to equal opportunities and a life free from gender-based violence, and gendered poverty.
Granting equal rights to women doesn’t have to endanger the family. The CSW65 draft outcome states “The Commission acknowledges the benefit of implementing family-oriented policies aimed at, inter alia, achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls, the full participation and decision-making of women in public life, work-family balance and the self-sufficiency of the family unit and recognizes the need to ensure that all social and economic development policies are responsive to the changing needs and expectations of families in fulfilling their numerous functions and that the rights, capabilities and responsibilities of all family members are respected.”
It is no secret that during the Covid- 19 pandemic, the best performing countries were led by women leaders. The world has learnt that it is in a country’s interest to eliminate discrimination against half of its population. “The Commission emphasizes that all people have an equal right to participate in their country’s government through public office and informal leadership, that it is necessary to address inequality between men and women in the sharing of power, and that women’s equal access to and full participation in decision-making, including in the private sector, is a critical strategy for achieving gender equality.” (CSW65 draft)
It is in the government’s interest, including its electoral interest, not to subject a large majority of the population to continued discriminatory policies due to supposed cultural or other factors. It is incumbent on the government to ensure that women’s equal rights are recognized, eliminate ignorance on the subject among its representatives, and mainstream them in order that the country may benefit as a whole.