On 20th July 1960 Sri Lanka elected Sirimavo Bandaranaike to the post of Prime Minister, making her the first female Prime Minister in the world. Bandaranaike’s daughter assumed the post of the President of Sri Lanka in 1994. Until early January, Sri Lanka also hosted a female Supreme Court Chief Justice. Then why is it that Sri Lanka slipped 27 ranks between 2008 and 2012 to be ranked 39th in the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Index?
In this article I aim to highlight the steady deterioration of women’s rights in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka has recently come under tremendous international scrutiny for its shift to an authoritarian establishment, the marked changes being the removal of the Chief Justice and the continued militarization of the predominantly Tamil North and East provinces. Impunity of the Government and the Army with reference to blatant disregard and violation of international humanitarian laws and rights have become the primary worry of various leading human rights watchdogs, including the UN.
A root cause of this marked drop in rank mentioned earlier arises out of the Civil War from which the Sri Lankan Government emerged victorious over the LTTE. Both the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE face serious allegations with regard to war crimes. It should be noted though, that it was only the Sri Lankan Government that was claimed to have participated in sexual warfare, which is, using sexual assault as a weapon of war. In fact, the LTTE was so strict about its anti-rape policy that it would punish members who did not conform to its rules on rape. The primary reason behind sex being used as a weapon of war is because the Tamil woman is viewed as the embodiment of Tamil culture and to violate the body would be to assault the integrity of the Sri Lankan Tamil Community. These acts have been committed without any implications for those involved and no forms of redress.
Though Sri Lanka is party to many International humanitarian treaties and is bound by a Constitution which guarantees all major fundamental rights, its continuing operation under Emergency and the provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act supersede any such rights. Women who do try to seek justice are often susceptible to further sexual harassment.
Due to the deaths, admission to the Internally Displaced Persons, imprisonment, forced disappearances and abductions of many Tamil men who formed the LTTE it has been left to the Tamil women to take care of the family. This transition to women becoming the bread-winners of the family actually occurred during the Civil War itself when men were forced to enter the war. This new role was made exponentially difficult when families were displaced from their areas of settlement. The Sri Lankan Army’s persistent military occupation of the North as well as its entrance into the administration has led to the intimidation of women in the public sphere. There is always a sense of insecurity amongst the working class women as they are aware of the Army’s use of sex as a weapon.
Another obstacle which women face is the entrance of the Army into agriculture, which formed a means for simple subsistence. With competition from the Army, women stand to lose out heavily.
Women, especially those who have been internally displaced, are subject to human trafficking, and prostitution. Women are trafficked domestically and are also subject to foreign trafficking, especially to the Middle East. Those who are forced into prostitution face imminent danger of receiving sexually transmitted due to the arrival of migrant construction workers. Women who are single parents are often forced into prostitution, as they have no other means of earning a living.
The deterioration of women’s rights in Sri Lanka is a combination of pre and post war occurrences. From the sexual assault of the deeply politicized Tamil female body to the denial of simple subsistence, Sri Lanka has seen women’s rights abuses in all respects. The rankings provided by the World Economic Forum are heavily based on educational attainment, economic participation and health and survival. Sri Lanka which had previously been ranked 12th has quickly slipped in rank, but a mere rank is not what is troubling. It is the condition of women’s rights and the Government’s disregard for the same that is troubling. However with looming authoritarian take-over, ethnic conflict and tension, and the pre-existing issues related to the civil war there is a danger that the matter of women’s rights will be overshadowed.