Asia-Pacific, Economy & Trade, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Women & Economy

SRI LANKA: 25 Years On, Women Still Struggle for Their Rights

Feizal Samath

COLOMBO, Oct 27 2009 (IPS) - When Thamalini, leader of the women’s wing of Sri Lankan Tamil Tiger guerrillas, entertained guests at the women’s political wing office in northern areas once controlled by the rebels, the visitors were served tea and other refreshments by male aides.

“It’s a rare sight in [Tamil-dominated] areas and that society to see men working for women,” said Visaka Dharmadasa, chairperson of the Association of War-Affected Women, which represents women whose sons or husbands were either disabled or killed during the war against the Tamil rebels, formally called the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The incident she recounted, which took place during her visit to the rebel-held territory during the 2002-2004 peace talks with the LTTE, left a deep impression on her.

“While on one side the conflict created havoc in Sri Lanka, on the other hand it—to some extent—helped to advance the rights of women, particularly in strongly male-dominated societies where the women’s place—to use a common phrase—is ‘at home’,” noted Dharmadasa, whose own son disappeared during the civil war.

Thamilini (who only gave one name) fled heavy fighting in northern Sri Lanka just before Tamil rebels crumbled under the massive firepower and an intense ground offensive in May. She later surrendered to the authorities and is in police detention.

The progress of the feminist movement in the past 25 years — which approximates the length of time it took the government to finally win the war against the Tamil militants — was succinctly captured this month in pictures and words at a well-attended exhibition in this capital.

The exhibition was organised by the non-government Women and Media Collective (WMC), a group advocating change in society “based on feminist principles,” to commemorate its silver jubilee year. It chronicled the developments since 1984, showing the progress and advances of women’s struggles in the country. Pictures and drawings showed streets protests by women fighting for their rights, and in some cases, being tear-gassed by police.

In 1981, when garment factories had just opened as a result of government’s economic reforms, workers were getting agitated over many issues.

“Women were beaten up and shot at in a protest cum strike in 1981, demanding better wages and work conditions at a garment factory outside Colombo. Women leading the protest were arrested, but within a month the strike was settled and the demands given,” recalled Kumudini Samuel, one of two founding directors of the WMC.

Touted as major developments in the women’s rights movement are the participation of women in Sri Lanka’s economy, particularly in the garment and plantations industries, and their migration to foreign countries for employment. All three are vital sectors bringing in foreign exchange that buoys up the economy and where the majority of workers are women, although they do not have their share of decision making in these sectors.

The most deprived sectors are the tea plantations and migrant workers, most of whom are sweating it out as domestic workers in the Middle East, said Rani Singharaja, a veteran social worker who has worked for plantation workers for the past 35 years. She acknowledged the improvements in their quality of life, but said decision making is still a male prerogative.

“They earn equal pay but work longer hours, and when it comes to education, it’s the boys who are getting preference,” Singharaja, who runs a welfare group called Society for Welfare, Education Awareness and Training or SWEAT, told IPS in a telephone interview from the central plantation district of Hatton, a small town in Sri Lanka’s central region.

The plantations are dominated by Tamil-speaking workers, accounting for eight percent of Sri Lanka’s population. Their ancestors were brought to the island from India by the British in the 19th Century to work in the tea, coffee and rubber estates. Their rights on the estates are protected by long-established unions that are, however, dominated by men.

“There is still is no gender balance while the education level is low for girls, though there has been some improvement in recent years,” noted Singharaja. She said a 2007 SWEAT study showed that girls perform better in school compared to boys, “but they only study up to secondary school while boys are allowed to go beyond.”

Perhaps the most significant developments in the feminist movement were ushered in by the massive changes that swept the economy in 1977 when the then newly formed United National Party government opened the country to free, uninterrupted trade, investment and travel, which was in stark contrast to the closed-market, socialist model that preceded the reforms.

With vast changes in investment trends emerged factories producing garments for exports while employing thousands of girls, mostly for stitching purposes. Thousands of rural women also began to go after the proverbial pot of gold in the Middle East, which in the late 1970s opened the doors to job opportunities due to rising oil revenues. More than a million Sri Lankan workers are in these Gulf states, the majority being women working as house help.

David Soysa, director of the Migrant Workers Centre in Colombo and a veteran in the battle for worker rights in labour-receiving countries, said workers do not enjoy any rights, including the right to vote, in the countries they work in and are subject to all forms of sexual harassment and unfair and discriminatory wage issues.

Women’s rights activists said that, to some extent, the market reforms of the late 1970s helped to empower women and secure jobs—with the garment industry and migration as good examples.

Dr Sepali Kottegoda, the other founder director of WMC, said a number of women’s organisations came into being in the early 1980s alongside changes in the economy, and particularly due to the ethnic conflict which broke out into full-scale war between government forces and Tamil rebels in 1983.

Among these organisations were the Women’s Ministry—set up in 1987 to protect the rights of women and to enable them to enjoy equal opportunities as men—and the Mothers Front, formed in the north and south to represent women whose children or husbands were affected by the conflict. These organisations, however, wound up several years later owing to pressure from the authorities.

In 2005, a Domestic Violence Act aimed at protecting women against violence at home was promulgated in Parliament. Then last year a National Policy on Migration seeking to protect migrant workers against harassment and non-payment of wages, among other issues, was approved by the government.

In 1981, Sri Lanka accepted the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Kinds of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which is the first step in making legislation that empowers women. Some feminists, however, believe a lot is being done on paper but nothing goes beyond that. They reject the notion that there is a women’s movement in Sri Lanka.

“There is no mass movement. All these Colombo-based NGOs working for women’s rights are more concerned about policy issues involving money-making projects than mobilising rural women to fight for their rights,” said a female researcher who has worked on issues relating to the plight of garment workers. She declined to be named.

In the garment sector, women are struggling to survive, have barely enough to eat and live in poor accommodations near their workplaces or factories. Garment trade union activist Anton Marcus, citing a survey conducted by the Health and Safety Division of the government’s Labour Department, said 66 percent of garment factory girls, ages 18-28, have anaemia.

“They cook a scrap meal in the night and then leave the remnants for the morning. They would not even know what a balanced diet is,” said Marcus, joint secretary of the Free Trade Zone and General Service Employees’ Union, adding that these women are the next generation of mothers.

Elsewhere in Sri Lanka, similar scenes are playing out—of women still struggling to survive. During IPS’s visit to southern Sri Lanka earlier this month, a number of poor women had a tale of misery and suffering, with many saying their husbands had left them without economic support.

“It is a struggle to look after my children without any support or means to earn a living,” said Ranjani Padmani, a 35-year-old mother at Lunugamvehera.

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