16 July, 2024

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The Fight For Women’s Empowerment In An Era Of Conflict & Multifaceted Crises

By Lionel Bopage

Dr. Lionel Bopage

In Commemorating International Women’s Day 2024

As the United Nations prepares to observe this year’s International Women’s Day with the theme “Count Her In: Invest in Women. Accelerate progress,” Sri Lanka, like many nations, grapples with a confluence of crises driven by geopolitical conflicts, rising poverty levels, and the escalating impact of climate change. Recognising the pivotal role of women in addressing these challenges, the UN underscores the urgent need for their empowerment. Despite the significant economic contributions made by women globally, alarming projections indicate that over 342 million women and girls could be pushed into extreme poverty by 2030.

Women are disproportionately burdened with unpaid care work, estimated at three times the amount performed by men, with an economic value surpassing 40% of the global GDP. Yet, they continue to face persistent obstacles, exacerbated by widespread violations of the right to education, hindering progress towards gender equality and perpetuating poverty on a global scale. Shockingly, around 244 million children worldwide are deprived of education, with 617 million lacking basic literacy and numeracy skills (UN, 2024).

Spectrum of problems women encounter

Despite the improvements in women’s rights over the years, there have been reversals as well. The current tendencies in social development does not guarantee continued progress for their empowerment.

The world is going through many conflicts, some of them major, adversely affecting women and children. In general, women encounter problems in society due to violence against them, discrimination due to gender, sexual harassment and so on. Rising authoritarianism and dreadful climate change impacts, women face many issues related to education, work, healthcare, legal rights, violence and much more.

Understanding these issues will help communities to work together to achieve gender equality, protect human rights and ensure safety of all people. World-wide, women face many challenges due to domestic violence, sexism, reproductive rights, discrimination in many sectors etc. In some communities, women face specific issues due to their own religious practices, cultural traditions etc. leading to genital mutilation and child marriage practices. At workplaces, women have been trying to break through glass ceilings for many decades, though some women run large corporations and hold high management positions. Despite the progress achieved so far, sexism, violence and discrimination still remain.

For example, there is strong resistance in the United States against a woman becoming its President, though its government is full of women holding high positions of power. However, in South-East Asia, many countries have had women as heads of state, though the rank and file women in those societies are not as independent as in other countries. In the US women’s reproductive rights associated with birth control and abortion are a major issue. In particular, teen pregnancies can become a major concern affecting young women. On the other hand, in France, the parliament enshrined abortion as a constitutional right, thus giving women the “guaranteed freedom” to choose.

Though not limited to women, domestic violence starting from the teenage days has become a major concern in most of the countries of the world. Abuse and violence take many forms from emotional and psychological abuse to sexual and physical abuse. In Australia, it is a large and growing problem. On a global scale, female genital mutilation has become an issue of concern for many women. The UN has recognised that the practice of genital mutilation is a violation of human rights.

Sri Lanka’s Efforts

During the previous International Women’s Day in 2023, Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Women, Child Affairs, and Social Empowerment unveiled the ambitious “National Policy on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment” aimed at fostering equal rights and opportunities for women across all sectors. Despite these noble intentions, tangible improvements in women’s rights and status remain elusive.

In Sri Lanka, the majority of women are employed mostly in the low-skilled service sectors other than a few sectors such as teaching and healthcare. Female representation in high-skilled sectors remains limited due to various factors, including a lack of awareness regarding available job opportunities that offer fair working conditions. The proliferation of neoliberal economic models has predominantly led to informal employment for women, i.e., jobs lacking in stability and decent wages.

Challenges in Ensuring Decent Work

Formal employment opportunities offering decent wages and working conditions are scarce in Sri Lanka, particularly outside major urban centres like Colombo. Gender biases persist in hiring practices, with employers often reluctant to accommodate women due to perceived burdens associated with caregiving responsibilities and maternity leave. Consequently, women encounter barriers to career advancement and promotions, further exacerbating their limited participation in the labour force.

Furthermore, the lack of female representation in decision-making roles within both public and private sectors hampers women’s access to decent work opportunities. Factors such as education levels and English proficiency influence employment prospects, but the burden of unpaid household work and childcare predominantly falls on women, affecting their ability to engage in formal employment.

Challenges in SMEs and Policy Frameworks

Sri Lanka’s economy is largely driven by Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), which often grapple with issues such as poor management, low productivity, limited investment, lack of innovation and product diversification through value-adding. Converting informal sector employment into more dignified opportunities presents a significant challenge, exacerbated by the absence of affordable childcare services, particularly in rural areas.

Unlike countries such as Australia, where childcare costs are subsidized, Sri Lanka struggles with pervasive corruption and inefficiency within its governance structures, hindering efforts to improve childcare accessibility and quality. Establishing consistent national policies aimed at fostering early childhood development is essential for ensuring a brighter future for generations to come.

Addressing Patriarchy and Social Conflict

Sri Lanka, like many societies worldwide, grapples with entrenched patriarchal norms, despite notable female leadership figures in politics and governance. Overcoming systemic biases against women requires a concerted effort to shift societal perceptions and responsibilities towards shared parenting and caregiving roles.

The enduring legacy of armed conflicts in Sri Lanka has further marginalized women, particularly widows who endure economic hardships and face exploitation and abuse. Efforts to address their needs and reduce their social and economic burdens are crucial for fostering a culture of peace and reconciliation in post-war societies like Sri Lanka.

Combatting Poverty and Exploitation

Economic desperation, exacerbated by rural poverty, drives many Sri Lankan women into informal employment sectors, exposing them to exploitation and abuse. Unregulated micro-credit schemes target vulnerable women, perpetuating cycles of debt and vulnerability.

The nation must confront the stark reality that diminishing access to education and employment opportunities, particularly during times of crisis, lead to perpetuating cycles of poverty and inequality. Investing in the education and empowerment of women is essential for realizing the vision of a just and equitable society.

In conclusion, the challenging issue women encounter today can be addressed by fighting against gender and economic inequality. This can be achieved mainly by ensuring the right of girls to access education, providing women platforms and incentives to achieve political and economic independence, influencing the end of domestic violence both physical and psychological by enacting and impartially implementing legislation to prevent such violence, assuring women access to appropriate health facilities etc.

Addressing the multifaceted challenges faced by women in Sri Lanka requires a comprehensive approach encompassing policy reforms, economic empowerment initiatives, and social transformation efforts aimed at dismantling patriarchal structures and fostering inclusive development etc. Only through our collective action and unwavering commitment can we truly achieve gender equality and empower women to thrive in all aspects of society.

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Latest comments

  • 2
    7

    Dr. Bopage –
    .
    A good and a timely article, but I feel it does not address the gravity of the injustices, harassments, exploitations and crimes committed against women (and children) adequately enough.
    .
    They in my view deserve deeper analysis and attention.
    .
    For example being trafficked and other forms of coercive exploitations including being forced into sex work seem to be a deep rooted and a widely prevalent problem than many people would imagine, sustained with the blessings of the most priviledged and influential people and institutions of the society.
    .
    For example the case of Jeffery Epstein in the US, I believe is not an exception but the rule. There seem to be such characters in many societies who sell women for powerful and influential people in return for favours.
    .
    The role that patriarchal nature of the society and even religious and political institutions play, needs investigation and exposure.
    .
    TBC

    • 3
      7

      Cont’d…
      .
      Not enough has been done and the discussion I believe should extend to these darker alleys of such exploitations and criminal activity, beyond the popular debates that are limited to abortion/reproductive rights, child marriages, work place discrimination and harassment, domestic gender based violence, pay gaps, glass ceilings in the corporate world, equal opportunities and rights etc etc.
      .
      Perpertrators seem to be hiding in plain sight, and seem to inlude high ranking officials in governments, the politicians, the professionals to the most innocent looking respectable old man next door. Not to mention the clergy.
      .
      The best way to put an end to the menace I feel is to put women themselves in charge of the business of running the world and getting men to work for them for their living.
      .
      The reversal of the power dynamics could be the greatest teacher, so that those who think it is manly to exploit women (and children) learn their lessons.
      .
      Perpertrators who commit illegal crimes against innocent women and children should be named and shamed publicly.
      .
      Sex offender lists being made public and easily accessible being one step towards the right direction.

  • 6
    2

    Does the United Nations observe an International Men’s Day? No.
    I point this out because any Women’s Day is a conclusive insult to women.
    If world treats every human equally would there have to be a special day for any.
    So this tamasha is acceptance that we – men – need to grow.
    What is really needed is an International Men’s Growth Day!

    • 5
      2

      You are a bit hard on men. ……. What about men who can’t be men?

      No one ever asks a woman to be a woman.

      But every day, men asked ………. to be a man

      Like, everyday, people are taunting Native to be a man ……

      Sinhala_Man escapes by pretending to be gender-neutral ……. gender-neutral: it’ll take all his years of English learning to figure that one out! :)))

  • 2
    5

    At the risk of stepping on some toes, I would say that I find this “women’s issues” thing basically a lot of nonsense. Apart from a few real issues like FGM, which is a cultural practice perpetuated by both men and women in certain parts of the world–and which they bring with them even when they migrate to developed countries–and depriving young girls of education (in Islamic societies), the other “issues” are imaginary, exaggerated or due to the limitations women have as women.

    With regard to sexual violence against women, this is a crime and there are ample laws in all civilized countries against it.

    According to the author, the “National Policy on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment” is “aimed at fostering equal rights and opportunities for women across all sectors.” What equal rights and opportunities do Sri Lankan women not have? Concrete examples?

    Author: “Women are disproportionately burdened with unpaid care work….”
    Is the author suggesting, for example, that housewives should be paid for domestic work? This is ridiculous and no Sri Lankan housewife to my knowledge would share that view. Being a housewife is a choice that a woman makes.

    Continued in next post.

  • 2
    5

    Continued from earlier post.

    Disparity of pay between the sexes is another issue perennially raised by women’s rights activists. This, too, is a myth and it can be rebutted by asking this simple question: Where the bottom line matters what fool would hire men if they could hire women at a lower salary to do the same job and contribute the same value? It this were true, then nearly all employees in companies would be all women!

    It is often said that women are underrepresented in certain professions and fields, for example, engineering and politics, but this is not due to any discrimination against them but due to women themselves having other preferences in professions. It is also noteworthy that when women complain about being underrepresented in this regard they always have in mind plum jobs (boardrooms, etc.) but have you ever heard of women complaining about being underrepresented among, for example, construction and sewer workers?

    Interestingly, the life expectancy of Sri Lankan men and women in 2021 was 73.11 and 79.5 respectively, so, Sri Lankan women are not doing too badly at least health-wise!

  • 0
    6

    As an example of discrimination against women achieving top positions, the author writes, “[T]here is strong resistance in the United States against a woman becoming its President, though its government is full of women holding high positions of power.”

    This is false. In the 2016 Presidential election Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 2.87 million votes (Total 65.8m votes) but lost the presidency to Trump (62.9m) because of the peculiar (electoral) system they have in selecting the president. Therefore the majority of Americans thought that a female candidate would make a better president.

    The author also writes, “However, in South-East Asia, many countries have had women as heads of state….”

    Therefore there is no evidence that such discrimination exists.

    My concern about all this unwarranted hype about non-existent discrimination against women is that it tends to the creation of policies based on gender rather than merit that unfairly advantage women (such as minimum quota for women, etc.), which results in loss to men and no real benefits to society.

    • 1
      1

      LJ
      Agree with you. In fact, when I heard the NPP women’s leader talking about ’empowering women’, it didn’t seem to have any substance, which gave me impression of politicising a non existent gender issue that shows, at least to me, the NPP overall in poor light. It is not only women but also men, particularly, those desperate to slave in the Middle East, are also abused & taken advantage by unscrupulous job agents & employers. This is what Govt. should address.
      SL had the honour of electing the world’s first women PM, an uneducated housewife, who was voted in on a sympathetic card, which indicated the nationalistic & socialist bias, as well as, the emotional factor, & nothing to do with gender.

      • 1
        1

        R-UK
        You rely too much on pro-UNP fairy tales.
        “SL had the honour of electing the world’s first women PM, an uneducated housewife,”
        Was she illiterate then?
        The SLFP trailed the UNP in 1960 June.
        She led the SLFP to a convincing victory not out of mere sympathy. The UNP screwed itself up in its three months of poor government. Despite Dudley S’s imputation of a secret SLFP–FP deal to divide the country (the campaign cartoon is still fresh in my mind), in July 1960 the people rejected the UNP.
        What made the SLFP succeed so well was a no-contest pact with the LSSP & CP. Philip G. by refusing to join the deal lost all but one of the nearly 10 seats his party one in March. the left was still a force of its own until 1964 when it self-destructed itself.

        How come that soon she dealt with people of the calibre of Nehru, Nasser and Nkrumah on equal footing and made the country a key player in the Non-Aligned Movement.
        Her role in the Sino-Indian conflict was highly appreciated by both sides.

  • 5
    0

    “My concern about all this unwarranted hype about non-existent discrimination against women….”
    LJ
    Why will you not list a few of the existing issues of discrimination so that they can be addressed seriously.
    Or is it your view that there are none?

    • 3
      1

      SJ:
      I have made my views fairly clear in my three posts. Since you seem to think that there are some areas where women are discriminated against, don’t you think it is incumbent upon YOU to mention them, esp. in the Sri Lankan context, so that I could comment on the same?

      • 2
        5

        LJ – Such logic is alien to him, infactany logic for that matter.

        • 1
          3

          😊

          • 1
            1

            Dear Leonard Jayawardena,
            Kindly treat my comment as material for discussion, not an inquiry.
            I am constrained to believe that God believes in Division of Labour.

        • 2
          0

          Found another partner of the same calibre?
          Good for you.

        • 3
          0

          “Ruchira / March 4, 2024
          0 9
          SJ – you should know better. He is the darling of the many tamils that frequent this space. You on the other hand is categorised under the same group as me, Lester, LankaScot and someone that use the handle The Eagle Eye “
          I don’t think any comment is necessary. But……..was that meant to be a compliment or an insult?

          • 0
            1

            OC:

            “You on the other hand is categorised under the same group as me, Lester, LankaScot and someone that use the handle The Eagle Eye.”

            Perhaps the appropriate name for this bunch of folk would be “CT Group of Old Farts”? 😊

      • 3
        0

        I am not an avid reader of your posts.
        You said: “My concern about all this unwarranted hype about non-existent discrimination against women…”
        The phrase”non-existent discrimination against women” is utterly faulty in my view.

  • 1
    2

    LJ: Expresses concern about what he calls “unwarranted hype about non-existent discrimination against women.”

    SJ: “Will you not list a few of the existing issues of discrimination….”

    LJ: Points out that it is incumbent upon SJ to do that if he thought such existed.

    Ruchira (intervening): Points out the illogicity of SJ’s comment.

    LJ: Posts a smiley emoji in response.

    SJ: Gets offended.

    SJ (responding to LJ’s original comment to him): “The phrase ‘non-existent discrimination against women’ is utterly faulty in my view.” But still fails to produce the evidence.

    Future scenario:

    LJ: You have still not produced your evidence for descreemination against women.”

    SJ: The correct spelling is “discrimination”…. –compare his reply to Raj-UK.

    LJ: Okay, but what about the evidence for…?

    SJ (after about two days): HOW MANY TIMES DO I HAVE TO TELL YOU THAT YOU ARE WRONG TO SAY THERE IS NO DISCRIMINATION AGAINST WOMEN!

    As he writes there is on the wall behind him a PhD in Illogic proudly displayed. Being a high achiever, currently working towards a Certificate in Argument by Assertion with Dishonesty included as a subject. Reliably learn that as part of his coursework he will be submitting his exchange with LJ.

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