Sri Lanka: Women & the Presidential Manifestos

Cat's Eye – UNCUT

The manifestos, called Mahinda Chintanaya II in the case of the incumbent President and The Common Minimum Plan in the case of General Sarath Fonseka, have now been released to the public. In an election short on substantive issues and characterized by mud-slinging by both sides, these documents provide the voter an idea of the programmes both candidates wish to prioritize.

Women in the Fonseka Plan

General Fonseka spells out broad areas of work. They are 1) restoring democracy, 2) fighting corruption, 3) strengthening family units, 4) reducing the cost of living, 5) securing national integrity, 6) developing health and education sectors, 7) women’s issues, 8 ) generating employment for youth, 9) establishing a just and disciplined society and 10) safeguarding national security.

Women’s Issues

Amongst the ideas put forward under women’s issues, the General as well as the President have pledged to inaugurate a state bank for women. Drawing on the model of the Grameen bank, this keeps to the popular idea that micro-credit for rural women is empowering.  Feminist critiques of the micro-credit programme have pointed however, that while rural women do benefit from it in the short term, the small sums of money made available to them keep them continuously at the level of small entrepreneurs – rearing a few goats or chickens to sell milk or eggs. A more sustained vision of development for women is required. Adequate funds should be made available for women so that those with the capacity to do so can transition into middle-level micro-enterprises. This requires not only adequate loans, but also infrastructure development that would also enable women to maximize their potential towards real economic and social growth. 

Women’s Rights Bill

The General promises a Women’s Rights Bill within two months of being elected office. Cat’s Eye welcomes this pledge, but cautions that without a truly consultative process with women’s groups, such a Bill may merely establish a Commission for Women as a panacea, without giving ensuring substantive rights and remedies to women. Any Women’s Commission appointed under such a Bill should moreover be independent and appointed vis a vis the 17th amendment.

Women’s Mobility

The General’s common minimum plan also pledges to improve the income of migrant women workers and inaugurate a Bureau to solve the problems of migrant families. But what is the scope of this bureau?. We hope the plan will safeguard women’s right to freedom of mobility and choice of livelihood which include the right to migrate overseas for work.  What we do need are strong and enforceable agreements with receiving counties so that adequate job security and protection is ensured and all migrant workers receive a fair wage and working conditions that are in keeping with international standards.  There was an ill-conceived plan under the present government to ban women with small children from migrating for work. Without solving the underlying issues of poverty, this policy only serves to forcibly keep women within the home.

Female-Headed Households

It is commendable that both candidates emphasize female headed households as worthy of recognition in the modern Sri Lankan polity. What needs to be clarified is how these households will be defined. Would the definition include women who do not have an adult male partner? Would it include households where there is an adult male partner who is disabled, who is working and living elsewhere? Or, most critically would the definition include households where there may be an adult male partner present, but where the woman is the main income contributor and decision maker? Definitions are key to recognizing the economic AND political roles that women play within the realm of the household and in society.

Task Force

The General has promised a Task Force to look into the issue of Female Headed Households. While Cat’s Eye welcomes the much needed policy attention on FHH, we hope that this Task Force will not only be autonomous in nature, but also put in place mechanisms that will enable women to obtain documents, land licenses, compensation, access to livelihoods etc. speedily.  Cat’s Eye hopes that both the proposed Bureau for migrant families and the Task Force for female-headed households do not end up like a moral police, confining women within domesticity, low pay, and subject to yet another bureaucratic authority.

Mahinda Chinthanaya 2010 which is claimed to be a natural progression of Mahinda Chinthanaya 2005 was unveiled on 11th January, a very auspicious day according to the President.  But how ‘auspicious’ is it for women? MC I pledged to ensure an affectionate family in which the mother is given the foremost place.  MC 2 adds that women are the main contributors to the economy of our country – in the plantations, the garment industry and as migrant labour it therefore states that women must be accorded not equal status but primary status ‘pramukasthanaya’, under the heading gedera budun amma (Mother is the Buddha in the home) .

A Women’s Fund

The manifesto promises to initiate a Women’s Fund to assist with self employment and income generation.  It also promises equal wages for equal work  and data base  to provide economic and professional information required by women.

At a substantive level the Manifesto commits to create the legal and policy framework necessary to recognize women who have the main responsibility for family as heads of household.  This is somewhat confusing and contradictory.  If this statement relates to single women who head households (which is at least and possibly more that 25% of our population), there should be no barrier in existing law/policy to recognizing her as such.  However our concern is that women play a critical role in the family, economically, as recognized by this Manifesto.  Our demand has always been that women’s work and responsibilities within and for the family should be recognized on par with men and women should be given equal status as heads of household.  We however welcome the promise in MR II to grant loans, land and other resources to female headed households.

Male Bias in Politics

MR II seeks to strengthen this role at village level and ensure that women are represented at all decision making institutions at village level.  But we  are however deeply concerned and disturbed that the commitment made in MC I to increase nominations for women to a minimum 25% at local and provincial council elections is absent from this Manifesto.  We are aware that none of the major political parties increased nominations for women by any significant percentage at the local or provincial elections held in the last three years.  To take away this commitment is to continue the structural discrimination against women’s entry into political decision making processes.  It denotes the all pervasive male bias, across political parties, a continuation of patronage politics that favour men, a lack of political will to change the undemocratic electoral practices followed by all political parties and will not change the culture of violence, impunity and disregard for democratic norms that are now entrenched in our politics.

Violence and Rape

MC I promised to tackle the issue of  rape by restructuring the legal framework for such purpose, MC II is silent on this issue.  Statistics from the Police Women and Children’s Desk however continue to indicate that the levels of violence against women have not abated in any significant measure despite the strengthening of the legal regime in relation to rape in 1995 and the introduction of the Domestic Violence Act in 2005.

MC I promised to form what was termed “Kantha Pilisarana” (Help For Women)to support women subjected to violence, mental torture or depression.  It also promised to make available required guidance and counseling to women who have been subjected to violence and promised effective framework to prevent violence against women.  MC I could not fulfill this promise.  This aspect of support and the creation of mechanisms to effectively implement the law is woefully lacking.

Laws alone, while potential deterrents, are not sufficient to deal with systemic problems such as violence against women.  There has to be political will and commitment to ensure their implementation together with all the support structures that can deal with social, cultural and economic impediments that come in the way of women wishing to protect their right to be free from violence and discrimination.

Women’s Charter of Rights

Sri Lanka has a perfectly good Women’s Charter, approved by Cabinet as far back as 1993.  Do the candidates know anything about this?  The National Committee on Women and over the years, various Ministries responsible for women’s affairs have been in the process of drafting a Bill known variously as a Women’s Rights Bill or a Bill to establish a National Commission on Women as envisaged by the Women’s Charter.  We state here that the inability of any government post 1993 to introduce into law a strong Women’s Rights Bill and establish an National Commission on Women endowed with required independent expertise and sufficient resources is a serious indictment of their lack of political will and commitment to eliminate discrimination and ensure equal rights, status and opportunities for women.

Missing Women’s Demands

Both candidates have missed some key demands by women’s groups. Notably, the General is silent on the demand for increased participation of women in politics at the local, provincial and national levels. We have to read his silence as a willingness to keep Sri Lanka in the dubious category of a country lagging woefully behind most others regarding women’s participation in politics. The General is also silent on women’s demands for repealing archaic, colonial, and discriminatory laws against women. And while Cat’s Eye welcomes the pledge to restore civilian administration and de-militarize the high security zones etc. the silence on women’s participation in such civilian administration, de-mobilization and policing is worrying. It shows insufficient attention to how militarization is gendered, and that the presence, for instance, of policemen (whether Tamil speaking or not) without a commensurate number of police women will continue to make women of the north and east feel insecure.

We say to all candidates don’t forget that women make up over 50% of your voting constituency.  It is time you took them more seriously.

March 23, 2010