To Women: With Love, The President

When Maithripala Sirisena was campaigning for President, his election promises included a ‘New Sri Lanka for Women.’ It has been over a year since President Sirisena came to power, and, to a great extent, his promises to the women of Sri Lanka await fruition. As a recent report by Verité Research outlines, out of his nine pledges to women, four have yet to be addressed, and the other five are yet to be fulfilled. While the report does point out that these promises are ambitious, they are also crucial to creating an environment where women are ensured safety – physically and economically – and are granted equal representation and recognition, something which should have been guaranteed well before the year 2016.

Almost everyone must be aware by now that in the year 1931, Sri Lankan women were entitled to vote, well ahead of women in the rest of the region. Only a few decades later, Sri Lanka also witnessed the election of the world’s first woman Prime Minister, and then the country’s first woman president. Apart from these token slogans, in reality Sri Lanka has done little to boast of when it comes to empowering women.  

Oh, and Happy (admittedly belated) Valentine’s Day! We women could do with more love and here’s where the President and Government should start: by fulfilling the promises made.

Promise No. 1

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Full Promise: An effective system of law enforcement which addresses mounting sexual offences against both women and children.

Status: No progress

Current Situation: A study published by the UN in 2013 stated that 1 in 7 men in Sri Lanka admitted to raping a woman or a girl, and that 40% of them reported raping a non-partner. Of these, 97% faced no legal consequences. For that matter, out of 2,008 ‘true cases’ of rape in 2014, there was only 1 conviction. Similarly, there are 376 ‘true cases’ of cruelty and sexual exploitation of children, with only 4 convictions. This means that over 94% of the cases are ‘pending.’ To add to the blight, marital rape is still not a crime, while ‘sexual entitlement’ was claimed as motivation by 66% of the men who admit to rape. Convicted rapists are faced with a sentence between 7 and 20 years only, while cases of sexual violence are liable to suspended sentences.

Suggestions Made by the Report: Improving legislation in two ways – first by enabling legal action against marital rape, to counter the abusive sense of entitlement; and second, by ensuring proper sentencing, as well as ensuring that cases of sexual violence are subjected to mandatory sentencing. Other suggestions include broadening definitions in current legislation to ensure proper sentencing, and ensuring the victims of rape and abuse are met with less prejudice and trauma while seeking justice.  

Promise No. 2

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Full Promise: Provide state support for better lodging facilities for women in the apparel sector.

Status: No progress

Current Situation: The apparel industry is one of the three main sources of revenue in Sri Lanka, totalling USD 4.9 billion in 2014. Over 80% of workers in the apparel sector are young women, while the three major Export Processing Zones in Sri Lanka employ over 100,000 women, who are mostly from rural areas. These women are faced with difficulty when it comes to finding suitable and safe accommodation, with adequate sanitation. Often, the conditions are cramped and the salaries bare minimum, with many women only able to afford rooms shared with around 4 – 8 other women, and a single toilet. Many of these women also travel alone to their lodging after a night shift, adding to their vulnerability.

Suggestions Made by the Report: Follow in the footsteps of Bangladesh, which faces problems similar to Sri Lanka. The Bangladesh Bank and the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association signed an agreement whereby the Bangladeshi Exporters are awarded a grant to build hostels at a low interest rate and subsidised costs.

These women contribute greatly to one of Sri Lanka’s prime industries and their demands for better habitation should be met.

Promise No. 3

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Full Promise: Legal recognition and protection for domestic workers and women employed in the informal sector.

Status: No progress

Current Situation: In Sri Lanka, 69.1% of the domestic work sector is made up of women. Domestic workers generally receive low wages, have little or no social security, and are faced with high levels of abuse. Domestic workers are also excluded from the labour law framework of the country, including:

a) the two key wage-fixing mechanisms (the Shop and Office Employees Act No. 19 of 1954 and the Wages Board Ordinance No. 27 of 1941) and

b)  the legislation guaranteeing social security for the labour force (the Employees’ Provident Fund Act No. 15 of 1958, Employees Trust Fund Act No. 46 of 1980, and the Payment of Gratuity Act No. 12 of 1983).

As these laws do not cover domestic workers, this leaves them vulnerable and dependent on their employers.

Suggestions Made by the Report: The report highlights three critical points of intervention:

  • Securing minimum conditions of work – Currently, there is no Wage Board for the domestic sector and domestic work does not fall into what the Wage Board Ordinance defines as trade. These need to be rectified to regulate the minimum conditions of work.
  • Ensuring social security – Social security channels can be established by making domestic workers eligible for EPF, ETF, and Gratuity Acts, and by devising a social welfare scheme with access to legal aid, basic healthcare services and vocational training.
  • Securing decent work – Ratify the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Domestic Workers Convention (C189) and its Recommendation Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers (R201).

Promise No. 4

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Full Promise: A special protection scheme for war widows of all communities and their dependents.

Status: In Progress

Current Situation: There are approximately 89,000 war widows in Sri Lanka, who face numerous problems including economic instability, exploitation, violence, and sexual abuse. While there are a few programmes launched to help the war widows, the report points out that these initiatives are one dimensional and fail to provide widows with transferable skills needed to find employment.

What the Government Has Done So Far: In May 2015, the Government declared that it would establish a National Center in Kilinochchi to ensure the needs of families of female-headed households are met. This programme would also offer low-interest loans (up to Rs. 36,700 approximately) and customised vocational training. It is important to note, however, that no comprehensive policy has been announced as of yet.

Suggestions Made by the Report: The war widows have myriad problems apart from socio-economic well-being, which also need to be addressed. As it is, there are very few women police personnel in the Northern Province, and due to social stigma and shaming by communities, many women don’t talk about the sexual violence and abuse they’ve experienced. Setting up Gender Based Violence desks (GBV) in hospitals and police stations would greatly help the situation. The skills and livelihood development programmes also need to provide transferrable and employable skills. In addition, the pledge needs to be broadened to include not just socio-economic well being but also personal safety and security for the war widows.

Promise No. 5

Full Promise: Give every mother an allowance of Rs. 20,000 at childbirth to obtain nutritious meals.

Status: In progress

Current Situation: Malnutrition is a problem Sri Lanka is still faced with. Approximately 14.7% of Sri Lankans experience stunting, 21.4% experience wasting, and 17% of children are born with a Low Birth Weight (LBW). Meanwhile, 58% of children between 6 – 11 months also suffer from anaemia. This can be combatted by improving maternal health (LBW is, for instance, linked to maternal undernourishment). Households in poverty have limited access to nutritional foods; for that matter, according to a World Food Programme report, in every province a large percentage of the population is unable to afford a nutritious diet.

What the Government Has Done So Far: A programme has been implemented that provides a Rs. 20,000 allowance to expectant mothers; once registered with government maternal clinics, mothers are eligible to receive Rs. 2,000 worth of nutritional foods every month over the course of ten months (the last six months of pregnancy and the first four after childbirth). However, as the report points out, a long-term plan to continue with this initiative has not been mentioned in the new budget.

Suggestions Made by the Report: Apart from the importance of providing the necessary education and support to tackle the issues related to malnutrition, the report also points out that the monetary value of the package seems insufficient to provide the nutritional and caloric value actually required. Based on calculations, it would cost between Rs. 3,076 and Rs. 3,589 per month to provide a nutritional diet to a single individual in a household; far more than what the Government provides.

Promise No. 6

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Full Promise: Provide all women in the estate sector with fair wages, safe housing, land rights and adequate sanitation services.

Status: In progress

Current Situation: The problems faced by estate workers are well known. A majority of estate workers are women and they occupy the lowest tier in the work hierarchy. They are given low wages, have limited access to health facilities, and also face cultural and political isolation. The traditional housing, line-rooms, are small and crowded, while the estate workers have no entitlement to land rights. Their access to safe drinking water and sanitation is also lower when compared to urban sectors.  

What the Government Has Done So Far: Estate workers have been guaranteed an increase in the daily wage from Rs. 680 to Rs. 770. A project has also been initiated to replace 162,000 line-rooms with individual houses. Additionally, 200,000 estate worker families have been given 1,900 sq. ft. of land with ownership documents, with title deeds in the name of both the husband and the wife. Initiatives to build latrines for estate workers are also underway.

Suggestions Made by the Report: Women are primarily engaged in low-paying jobs in the estate sector; the report suggests allowing for mobility for female estate workers to pursue other jobs in the same sector. Education and awareness of sanitation would also help ensure that the use of the infrastructure is maximised.

Promise No. 7

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Full Promise: Take protective action at state level against abuse, maltreatment and injustices suffered by workers abroad

Status: In progress

Current Situation: In 2014, migrant worker contribution to the Sri Lankan economy was over US $7 billion. Between January 2014 and May 2015, 37% of departing migrant workers were women, and 80% of them were employed as domestic workers. Female migrant workers are one of the most exploited groups of workers and face abuse at workplaces, work in isolated and unregulated environments, and have no access to information or support networks. Domestic workers who approach the Sri Lankan consular officials to report cases of severe physical and sexual abuse, unpaid wages and exploitative working conditions are given little or no assistance. Women who have run away from abusive situations are given no insurance cover.

What the Government Has Done So Far: MOU’s have been signed with the Governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to protect migrant workers’ voting rights. A limited insurance scheme has also been established under the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE).

Suggestions Made by the Report: The SLBFE has several shortcomings which need to be addressed, including the fact that the board is overly represented by recruitment agencies. Additionally, comprehensive legislation is required to protect the rights of migrants; a good place to start would be the ILO’s Domestic Workers Convention. Like in Indonesia, a contract with defined terms and conditions with the destination states would help the situation greatly. Indonesia also has a task force to examine situations where the death penalty came into account, which Sri Lanka should also emulate.

Promise No. 8

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Full Promise: Make provisions for migrant workers to have a provident fund, similar to the local Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF), an unemployment trust fund, and gratuity payment entitlements.

Status: No progress

Current Situation: Approximately 1.8 million Sri Lankan citizens are currently living and working abroad, with at least 200,000 migrating each year, making up 20% of the country’s economically active population. Of these, 90% reside in the Middle East, and the majority of them are women. Among the many problems these women face, they also often leave behind their children with economically dependent parents, and lack awareness of legal procedures and the ability to communicate in the host country’s local language. The Government has promised a pension scheme for migrant workers, but currently the proposal awaits approval of cabinet ministers.

Suggestions Made by the Report: In addition to granting this form of social security to migrant workers, the report suggests a crackdown on illegal foreign employment agencies, as well as bilateral and multilateral ties with foreign labour organisations, employment agencies, and direct employers.

Promise No. 9

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Full promise: Increase representation of women in local authorities and provincial councils to 25%.

Status: In progress

Current Situation: Among South and Southeast Asian countries, Sri Lanka has the lowest representation of women in Local Government, standing at 2%, in comparison to 33% in India and Bangladesh.

What the Government Has Done So Far: The Prime Minister has submitted a proposal to amend the Local Authorities (Special Provisions) Act No. 21 of 2012. The amendment, which aims to increase female representation in local authorities, was approved by the Cabinet in November 2015.

Suggestions Made by the Report: Apart from ensuring mandatory quotas are met, training on the drafting of legislation should also be provided. A larger plan should also be devised to ensure that women are given decision-making power.

As has been pointed out, even the five promises in progress have a long way to go before a noticeable and positive change is made in society. Additionally, having more women in positions of power may ensure that some of these concerns are addressed and met. That the Government is neglecting the safety and well being of one half of the country’s population is perhaps a strong statement to make: and yet, if greater importance is not given to women’s issues, the inequality in our society and the social evils will only be exacerbated.  

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