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SRI LANKA: First Political Manifesto for Women Gets Good Reviews

Feizal Samath

COLOMBO, Mar 25 2010 (IPS) - Political manifestos are often met with cynicism and even ridicule, but Sri Lanka’s first such manifesto for women is proving an exception to the rule as rights activists laud its recent launch.

Put forth by the United National Front (UNF), Sri Lanka’s largest opposition group, the manifesto was released on Mar. 15, ahead of the April parliamentary poll.

It is the first time a political party in this South Asian island nation has presented a comprehensive document on women, and many activists say it is one that promises to restore dignity to a group on whom the country depends on but largely ignores.

“This is a huge step forward and what is interesting is that some of the women in the opposition party are those who are active in women’s issues and are concerned,” said Women & Media Collective (WMC) director Kumudini Samuel.

“They have seen and know our demands,” Samuel said of the manifesto’s creators. “In preparing this document, they have looked closely at these issues, which are in many ways a lot of what the women’s movement has been saying over the years.”

“It is something that can be done and is doable,” said Nimalka Fernando, a women’s rights campaigner. “These are issues we have been pushing for a while and I’m impressed by the document and the research that has gone into it.”

At the very least, activists say, the manifesto reflects the depth of contribution women make to Sri Lanka. Noting that more than half of Sri Lanka’s 20.5 million people are women, the document goes on to reel off relevant statistics, including the fact that 54 percent of the country’s professionals are female, as are 58 percent of the university population, and 95 percent of garment industry workers.

About 65 percent of Sri Lankan workers in the Middle East are also women, while the tea sector also comprises a majority of women, the document points out. Sri Lanka’s economy is dependent largely on garments and tea exports, as well as on remittances from migrant workers.

“Women are the backbone of the economy but we are a long way from securing equal rights for them,” said Fernando, who is president of the Tokyo-based International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism and the Women’s Forum for Peace in Sri Lanka.

But changes have been underway, and the manifesto is only one of the results of a seeming rethink going on among political parties regarding women’s rights.

The manifesto of defeated presidential candidate Gen Sarath Fonseka, for instance, promised equal rights to people of different genders.

Commented an activist at Equal Ground, a Colombo-based nongoverment group that respresents lesbians, gays and groups with other sexual preferences: “While the UNF manifesto does have any reference to the rights of minority groups (including lesbians ands gays), in terms of overall women’s rights it’s a good document. We are willing to work with anyone who furthers our rights.”

The UNF women’s manifesto promises the setting up of a women’s bank with an initial capital of five billion rupees (44 million U.S. dollars) for microcredit, micro insurance and housing. Shelters are to be set up for abused women, and daycare centres built to help working mothers.

Some 20 percent of Sri Lankan households are headed by women, who will have access to livelihood grants, the UNF says. Pregnant women will also be entitled to flexible working hours, while female migrant workers will enjoy social protection.

Women workers will be entitled to both equal wage for equal work and equal wage for equal value of work, the manifesto says as well.

Rights groups could not help but compare the UNF’s move with the attempts of the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) to address women’s rights. Although it has not prepared a separate manifesto on women, the SLFP has a general one that it presented for the January presidential poll, won by incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

That SLFP document has a section on women that speaks of giving “pride of place to the mother”.

Fernando described the SLFP as patriarchal and feudal in its thinking: “This is not good enough. The SLFP has always looked at women in a role of the traditional family where the mother should be venerated. No one talks of sharing the family burden while the UNF focuses on empowering women.”

She expressed confidence that “the UNF will have more women in parliament. And even if the party loses, it will be actively pushing these issues in the legislature”.

The UNF and SLFP, along with their respective allies, have ruled the country on separate occasions since 1948. Historically, the UNF has done more for women than SLFP, including establishing the women’s bureau and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, as well as pushing for a Women’s Charter.

“The Women’s Charter was an excellent document,” said the WMC’s Samuel. “But just when legislation through a Women’s Rights Bill was being brought in to legalise the structure, the party lost the elections.”

Samuel, though, said that like the ruling party’s section on women in its manifesto, the UNF document on women fails to say how all its proposals would be brought to fruition. “We hope they will find enough sufficient resources to implement these issues,” she said.

Queried on this, a member of the panel that drafted the UNF women’s manifesto said: “While there is some investment, most of it is a re-orientation of policies already there and for which resources have already been allocated. It’s a case of some adjustments in focus and resources.”

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