Sri Lanka: Can a Man be the Minister of Women’s Empowerment?

Cat's Eye

The announcement of the new Ministerial Portfolios has everyone talking. Who has got demoted or promoted, included or excluded, or whether the appointments are apt, or not, is a common talking point whether in Colombo or elsewhere. Amongst the surprises were the appointments of two men as Minister and Deputy Minister respectively of the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Empowerment previously known as Women’s Affairs. Cat’s Eye decided to conduct a spot poll of some women on what they thought about this choice.

Asked ‘what do you think of a man being appointed Minister of Women’s Affairs?’, one woman from Colombo confessed to being baffled. What’s going on? Can a Man be a Woman? she queried. Another from Kelaniya said that it was like appointing a Catholic to the Ministry of Buddha Sasana. Yet another from Gampaha stated that it really didn’t matter who was appointed as long as the person did something regarding the status of women and their demands. Certainly the case of a man in charge of the foremost policy making institution on women is a complicated  and unusual one. To say that only women can do the job is to be essentialist, as it is to say that only women can speak on behalf of women.

Feminist Men

This position is unjust to many men who are gender sensitive, even feminist in outlook. Besides, many women Ministers who have held the portfolio have been abysmal failures. Yet, the unease at a man holding the job also indicates the doubt on the part of women that a man can be adequately sensitive to women’s issues. Are there no competent women? Will women be able to speak to the male ministers in confidence? Will they really be able to understand women’s demands, and identities? At the most fundamental level, can men, therefore, best represent women’s voices?  And can they represent women in a way that really makes significant structural changes to gender inequality? We will have to wait and see whether the men fare any better than the women who have held the portfolios.

An Unimportant Portfolio?

Since the Ministry of Women’s Affairs was first established it has been seen as an unimportant portfolio. Up to now women have held the post and it has often been seen as a sort of ‘consolation’ prize. The Ministry is not a “glamorous” one nor is it  well-budgeted and it is even reported that once, when an ambitious and capable young woman politician was offered the portfolio she scoffed ‘Why am I being given this natta (tail)?’ It is therefore no wonder that, on taking oaths of office, the new male minister was quick to dispel the perception that the Ministry is a dead-end. He stated that the Ministry had important tasks ahead particularly when it came to meeting the needs of women and children affected by the war, and promised to make sweeping changes to the Ministry within six months.

Re-Vamping the Ministry

Cat’s Eye does not know what changes the Minister has in mind. But most important would be to start with a spring-clean of his own official home by re-structuring the Ministry itself. The  so-called ‘National Machinery on Women’, is now taken to include the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Empowerment, the Women’s Bureau and the National Committee on Women (NCW). Among its specific objectives are protection of women from violence and abuse, empowerment of women in economic, social and political spheres and enabling participation of women in all decision making bodies. The mission of the Ministry is to be realized through the NCW and the Bureau. However the national gender machinery has been stymied from achieving these goals due to overlap of functions and lack of cooperation between the three institutions, lack of understanding of gender issues amongst key officials, an increasingly welfarist approach to women’s empowerment, lack of policy autonomy and marginalization from the national decision making and planning processes.

Children-Sole Responsibility of Women?

Furthermore, when taking the history of the Ministry it has been only a couple of occasions that the Ministry of Women’s Affairs has been a stand-alone ministry without being coupled with some other subject (Health and Teaching Hospitals, Transport and Environment, etc). Successive governments have thus not quite understood the potential value and possibilities of the Women’s Ministry. Furthermore, the current trend of linking the Women’s Ministry with of Child Development seems to reinforce the common attitude that children are the sole responsibility of women. It encourages viewing women only vis-à-vis their reproductive roles as mothers and prevents relating to women as individuals with their own rights.

The Women’s Bureau

As for the Women’s Bureau, it is the oldest national institution with a mandate to advance the status of women in Sri Lanka. Established in 1978 under the Ministry of Plan Implementation, it has now become a politicized and ineffective project based institution focusing mainly on income generation and awareness raising. The Bureau implements its work through a network of membership based societies called Kantha Karya Samajas. As at November 2007, there were approximately 6,693 registered associations with a membership exceeding 120,000 women members. Unfortunately this large constituency of women are never mobilized in support of law and policy reform undertaken by the Ministry or the NCW. The newly appointed Secretary to the Ministry is the former Director of the Women’s Bureau.  One wonders if the work of the Ministry will now take on an even more welfarist direction or if the membership of the Women’s Bureau will indeed be mobilized proactively to leverage policy reform and change.

The National Committee on Women (NCW)

The NCW was an outcome of the 1995 Beijing conference and its Platform for Action and was created to implement the Women’s Charter adopted by Cabinet in 1993. It has a mandate to both develop policies related to women’s issues and investigate areas of gender inequality. Members of the Committee are drawn from NGO practitioners, academics and government officials. From its inception, the expectation was that the Committee will be elevated to a full fledged Commission with greater powers but this is yet to happen. Cats Eye understands that draft legislation to convert the committee to a Commission has been going back and forth between the Ministry and the Legal Draftsman’s Department for more than 10 years. It has to be noted that even with its current powers, the Committee has not been proactive enough in taking up issues of gender discrimination.

Outstanding Issues

What are the priority issues that need the attention of the new Minister for Women’s Affairs? There is already a National Plan of Action for Women 2010 – 2014 drafted by the Ministry in consultation with women’s organization which is awaiting finalization. The Action Plan provides a road map for both policy reform and implementation of existing laws/policies under a number of themes including women’s political representation, health, economy, violence and women affected by conflict. A Plan of Action Supporting the Domestic Violence Act is also in existence since 2005, although it has not been implemented. The Human Rights Action Plan drafted throughout last year has a very comprehensive section on women’s rights.  In the absence of a Ministry dealing with the subject of Human Rights in the current Cabinet, one would hope that the women’s rights section of the HR Action plan would at least be taken up by the Ministry of  Women’s Empowerment.

Politically Empowering Wonen?

Women’s political representation in Sri Lanka remains the lowest in the region. In the general election just concluded their nominations as candidates by political parties was extremely low. Nominations for women from these parties did not exceed 6% of total nominations given by them. Of a total of 262 nominations given by each of these parties, the UPFA and UNP gave nominations to 15 women each and the DNA to 9 women. The TNA did not give nomination to a single woman.  The representation of women in 2010 therefore remains the same as in the last parliament at 5.8%. The only consolation being that the UPFA has selected two women members on their national list while the UNF has one. At a time when local government reforms are on the cards, it is imperative that the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment does something to “empower” women and takes the lead in campaigning for reservations for women at the level of local government, and parliament.

Outstanding Problems

The various committees that were appointed to look into reforms of personal laws should also be continued and their recommendations acted upon. The several outstanding problems and issues facing IDP women, women migrant labour, war widows, and women from marginalized communities etc. require prudent, committed action. Furthermore the Action Plan recognizes that the proper implementation of the Domestic Violence Act requires resource allocations for services for women including legal aid, counseling and shelter facilities.

The Importance of Being  Woman’s Minister

As 52% of the population, women constitute a significant vote bank. They are present all over the country with specific issues related to their  regions (as well as gender specific needs) and therefore the ministry is one which has a national outreach. A successful minister of Women’s Empowerment can, therefore, become a leader at the national level if she / he addresses women’s needs satisfactorily.

It is up to the newly appointed male ministers of the Women’s Ministry to prove themselves gender sensitive and committed to real change. The Ministry, NCW and Women’s Bureau should be re-structured, de-politicized and given the chance to achieve something significant. Personal laws should be amended to fall into line with the 21st century requirements. Policy on gender and development should be made with a view towards economically empowering women through medium-range credit so as to facilitate their entry into the economic mainstream.  Towards this, women need skills as entrepreneurs, managers, technicians, etc., and not just as sewing girls and small-scale poultry farmers. But more importantly, the Ministry needs put in a programme of action via its machinery to empower women by providing them with other rights such as safe transport, safe houses for battered women and legal awareness/aid programmes.

May 9, 2010