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WOMEN AND EMPOWERMENT - THE SRI LANKA EXPERIENCE

19 March 2013 08:18 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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In recent years empowerment of women has been recognised as the central issue in determining the progress and status of women. Within the framework of a democratic polity, laws, development policies, national plans and programmes in the last two decades, both the State and women have continuously aimed at women’s advancement in different spheres. The approach has been both positive and negative.

The 1978 Constitution (certified August 31) expresses the intangible heritage that guarantees the dignity and wellbeing of succeeding generations of “the people of Sri Lanka.” Chapter 01 records - “Sri Lanka's sovereignty is in the people and inalienable” - Chapter 111 on Fundamental Rights, Article 10, 12(2), Article 12(4) -“Nothing in this Article shall prevent special provision being made, by law, for the advancement of women, children or disabled persons.” This Article in the Constitution has not been viewed favourably by women leaders.

Lumping women with the less-abled or the reference to “Nothing….shall

prevent special provision being made by law"

Laws must firstly be created before the move for prevention. Comparatively, in such context a positive focus is reflected in the Indian Constitution where the principle of gender equality is enshrined in its Preamble, Fundamental Rights, Fundamental Duties and Directive Principles and further, the Indian Constitution not only grants equality to women, but also empowers the State, to adopt measures of positive discrimination in favour of women from 1974 -1978.  From the fifth five-year plan in India a marked shift in the approach to women’s issues has been from welfare to development. Its National Commission for Women, set up by an act of Parliament in 1990 provided to safeguard the rights and legal entitlements of women.

Not surprisingly the 73rd and 74th Amendments (1993) to the Constitution of India laid a more strong foundation for the participation of women in decision-making at the local level by introducing a 1/3rd reservation (quota system) of seats for women in the Panchayats and Municipalities within the Local Government system. The writer visited these local bodies, participated at their meetings and met women members from the weaker sections of society and this included scheduled castes/ scheduled tribes, backward minorities, a majority being from rural backward areas and several with no literacy. Among other members were women who were marginalised, poor and socially excluded.

In Sri Lanka, despite high literacy the informal, unorganised rural sector has not advanced to fully utilise their capacities and productive resources within the Local Government system nor to effectively access education and health. This being so for a number of other solid reasons and obstacles (dealt with later in this article). The empowerment process has been slow and not covered wider ground as expected.

A possible and positive approach to encourage active participation of female stakeholders at the grassroots was certainly marred by a thirty-year armed conflict that destroyed women’s hopes, substituting life’s desires with insecurity and despair. The de-jure and de-facto enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedom by women on an equal basis with men in all spheres such as social, economic, cultural, political, and civil remained mere dreams for 3 decades.

Empowerment, mainstreaming gender, elimination of discrimination and all forms of violence against women and children seemed a distant strategy with no goals for the future.

The only structures that held weight to protect women against gender disparity and other concerns was the power of the executive arm in the form of a Ministry of Women’s Affairs, the National Committee for Women, (not enacted) Violence Act, the Child Protection Authority, amendments to the Penal Code and other supportive legislation. However complementing the above measures during the war period was the rural women’s informal activities from the Women’s Bureaus and a widespread network of Non-Government Organisations that had a strong grassroots presence and progressive insight to women’s concerns.

In this context, the writer feels compelled to record the inspiring contribution and initiatives in welfare and development implemented by her with a team of members of the Sinhala Women’s Organisation since 1987 (then known as the “Sinhala Sisters”) now known as the Sinhala Women’s Foundation for welfare and development. This has been the only Women N.G.O that traversed the terror-infested jungles to implement rehabilitation projects for displaced villagers and IDPs and the S.L. Volunteer Corp. Thanks go to the Sri Lanka Army and the administration in the North and East for the effective security provided and sustenance to life.

Empowerment

In the modem context one notes that ‘empowerment’ seems to mean different things to different persons. The term ‘empowerment’ had its early beginnings in the American Women’s movement and the British feminist movement initiated by Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97). The concept has widened over a near century. As the first British feminist theorist Wollstonecraft’s famous publication “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” examined women’s subordination in society in the light of principles while rationally expounding human rights and gender equality. She argued that reason meaning the capacity to acquire knowledge make judgments and form moral frameworks was equal for both men and women.

She believed that it was the denial of equal opportunities for education for women on the one hand and stereotyping women in their “motherly” roles that made women behave differently from men. In her publication “Thoughts on the education of daughters” she argued for equal access to education for women to enhance inner strengths and capacities of women.

In the last half-century the term “empowerment” has been much enriched helping women’s movements and multiple agenda designed by the United Nation’s Committee on the State of Women to focus on women’s capacities and humanitarian worth. Education, expansion of employment opportunities, fair wages, maternity leave, labour laws, contraception and abortion, childcare etc. while pressing for further legal sanctions against ‘Violence Against Women’, whether in public or in the private sphere.

Such women of conscious thinking and action paved the way to decrease discrimination to some extent on the grounds of sexuality, race, religion and ethnicity. Despite oppressive situations women continue to seek new goals, comprehending the need for empowerment.

Empowerment as a concept, its understanding and value has widened. In simple form the Oxford dictionary meaning of ‘empowerment’ is “give authority or power to; give strength and confidence to.” Noel Heyzer, Director to the World Summit for Social Development (1995) clarifies the terminology further. It refers to the need for increasing the spiritual, political, social and economic strength of individuals and communities. This role primarily involves women to empower, develop confidence in women’s own capacities and urge communities to move. It strengthened a two-way track for development, and empowerment.

Sociological empowerment was prioritised to help address the needs of women where discrimination excluded them from decision-making and enjoyment of human rights. Thus although the primary focus on empowerment techniques in the early period was on consciousness-raising on equality of the sexes, in modern times it points to a new all comprehensive role for women not making education alone the primary factor.

Heyzer presents Empowerment as follows:
  •  Women’s sense of self-worth (dignity and value placed on one’s capacities)
  • The space and opportunities to determine choices
  • Power to control their lives within and outside the home
  • Ability to decide, act and influence the direction of social change
  • Help create a just, social and economic order, nationally and internationally
  • Direct the capacities and strategies of women’s empowerment to the workings of markets and states.
  • Influence governments to be responsive to women’s needs, participation and contributions as producers and “reproducers”

The crux of the matter presented is an indicator of the invaluable role that empowered women in Sri Lanka could perform towards sociological developments, economic progress and human welfare towards nation-building. The new need for communiting empowerment, especially with the exodus of women into foreign employment resourcing a national income of over 700 billion rupees is evidence of the magnitude of the foreign income earned and the family sacrifices made by a large segment of the rural sector. Commonly most people do not subscribe to “export” of women to the Middle East Countries. However the rural women community in Sri Lanka takes up the challenge to utilise their capacities to influence the direction of social change in a positively different way. Freedom of choice, economic gain, power to control their lives both at private and public level, makes the housemaid community an economic bulwark for the State. They are indeed contributors to nation - building, amongst others.

Women’s empowerment in a broad sense is alive in the top rungs and at the base level amongst the rural communities by sheer individual effort - not to forget the women in the network of rural N.G.Os and C.B.Os (Community Based Organisations) in the far flung districts despite obstacles from natural disasters that impeded development, and the colossal terrorist conflict lasting 30 years -women have been sustained with high stamina to survive and emerge empowered.

Let it not be forgotten by the people and the State that it is timely to bring forth national legislation in the form of a Women’s Rights Act.
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