We have often heard the cliché that the cradle is rocked by the hands that rule the world. In reality this is not only a cliché but is far from the truth. For thousands of years women and girls have suffered various forms of discrimination and harassment including sexual harassment or abuse. In recent decades the Me Too movement and other women’s rights groups have campaigned actively and effectively for gender equality. Yet, discrimination, harassment and other forms of abuse continue in the political and the business fields, in family and working lives and tragically even religions.
For instance, in the first quarter of this year women are the chief executive officers of only 41 of the Fortune 500 companies. That is only 8.2 per cent but thankfully an improvement from the 2019 figure of 33 women. Even in the vital decision making field of politics, women are under-represented though it is known that without the feminine insight the decisions taken are often flawed.
This discrimination, harassment and other forms of abuse come to mind as we mark the United Nations International Women’s Day on Monday. The 2021 theme is “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world”. In a statement the UN says, Women stand at the front-lines of the COVID-19 crisis, as healthcare workers, caregivers, innovators, community organizers and as some of the most exemplary and effective national leaders in combating the pandemic, yet they get paid 11 per cent less globally than their male counterparts.
The crisis has highlighted both the centrality of women’s contributions and the disproportionate burdens that they carry. This year we need to celebrate the tremendous efforts by women and girls in shaping a more equal future and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic around the world. It is also aligned with the priority theme of the 65th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, “Women in public life, equal participation in decision making” and the flagship Generation Equality campaign, which calls for women’s right to decision-making in all areas of life, equal pay, equal sharing of unpaid care and domestic work, an end to all forms of violence against women and girls, and healthcare services that respond to their needs, the UN says.
According to the world body, IWD is a day to reflect on progress made, to call for change and to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women, who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities. The world has made unprecedented advances, but no country has achieved gender equality. Fifty years ago, we landed on the moon; in the last decade, we discovered new human ancestors and photographed a black hole for the first time. In the meantime, legal restrictions have kept 2.7 billion women from accessing the same choice of jobs as men. In 2019 less than 25 per cent of parliamentarians were women while women under 30 are less than one per cent of parliamentarians worldwide.
In Sri Lanka we are proud to have produced the world’s first executive woman Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike in July 1960. She virtually came out of nowhere after her husband SWRD Bandaranaike was assassinated on September 26, 1959. Later Ms. Bandaranaike’s daughter Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was elected as Executive President with a landslide majority in 1994 and was in office till 2005.
At present, Sri Lanka is ranked 182 out of 193 countries on the inter-parliamentary union rankings which assesses the percentage share of women in national government. In the previous parliament 13 legislators, or rather a handful of 5.8% of 225 MPs represented the voice and needs of 52% of the population. Moreover, there was only one woman under the age of 40 in parliament to represent the needs of young women. In the new Rajapaksa Government we have a grand total of one Cabinet Minister and two female Ministers of State with five more female members of parliament being elected by popular vote. Moreover, the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya and the National People’s Power or the Janatha Vimukthi Permuna have collectively appointed four female representatives through their national lists.
India’s eminent philosopher Rabindranath Tagore has said marriage in India is a form of glorified prostitution because young women are put in the market – Rs.5 million for a doctor and Rs.3 or 4 million for an engineer, accountant or lawyer. Women are put for sale in the marketplace and we need to reflect as to what extent we have been liberated from human trafficking which is a crime against humanity.