It’s a long way to gender parity - Hirunika

  • SVB strives to remove the taboo on speaking about menstruation
  • Poverty among women higher than that of men
  • A larger part of a household income is expended by men


Women’s participation in politics has been a topic that has been subject to debate. Increasing the female quota in Parliament is still a goal Sri Lanka needs to achieve even though she had produced the world’s first woman Prime Minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Today, even though women constitute a majority of the population, men continue to take lead in many professions. With a vision to honour and value the contribution made by women to society, the Samagi Vanitha Balawegaya (SVB), the women’s wing of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya was setup. 
Today, it is not only spreading its wings to all corners of the island but is also on a mission to eradicate period poverty in Sri Lanka as one of its main campaigns. 
In an interview with the Daily Mirror, SVB National Organiser Hirunika Premachandra shared her thoughts about the objectives of setting up SVB, programmes lined up to empower women and future aspirations. Excerpts :

   Q     What are the objectives of setting up the SVB?

Women makeup 52% of our population and make an enormous contribution to society which goes mostly unacknowledged. SVB was set up to honour and value these women through working for their empowerment and upliftment and to help them overcome the many challenges they face. SVB hopes to give voice to these women, to mainstream discussion on issues that directly affect women, to lobby for policies that ensure their welfare, to initiate projects that support women. SVB also hopes to encourage their equal participation in all spheres of decision making in society and governance and to work towards a goal of enabling all women to achieve their full potential and to be able to contribute to society as equal partners.

   Q     Tell us about the programmes done by SVB to empower women 

SVB strives to remove the taboo on speaking about menstruation which is a natural biological process related to women so that solutions can be found for the numerous difficulties that women face in managing that process, including health risks due to lack of safe products and sanitation facilities leading to reduced school attendance and labour force participation.

The art competition on the theme of Period Poverty was a step in this direction. It had a great impact and we received a large number of entries from around the country and even from abroad. It generated a lot of interest and encouraged people to think about this common but unacknowledged problem that women face most of their lives. 
The entries proved that together we can change attitudes in society in order to alleviate the suffering that women undergo due to shame, stigma, lack of support and understanding, in addition to traditional attitudes to menstruation. 

SVB also hopes to initiate projects that enable a safe and hygienic menstrual management process for all women to create a better environment in schools and workplaces as well as at home for a healthy and more productive female population.

   Q      Increasing women’s participation in politics is still a challenge. How does SVB plan to bring about interventions to make a shift in this male-dominated political landscape?

Even though women make up 52% of the population of Sri Lanka, their views are underrepresented in decisions that affect their lives, be it in government policymaking or society in general. Some issues are specific to women, and these don’t get discussed adequately or are deliberately avoided, even though women play a vital role both in the family and in society. 
This is one of the main concerns that SVB hopes to change through awareness campaigns, training, mentoring, supporting and encouraging more women to participate in politics and decision-making committees in the party. It also calls for political parties to nominate more women at all 
legislative levels. 

   Q    Even though we talk about gender inclusivity many women out in society still feel pressured with social issues such as poverty, debt burden and even face abuse and violence. How does SVB look at making a change in this situation?

Poverty among women is much higher than among men. This is due to structural factors including societal norms and policies that are discriminatory. Besides, most women engage in unpaid household work and most often burdened with caregiving to the sick and the infirm. The larger part of a household income is also expended by men leaving the difficult task of household management to the women. They also face gender-based harassment and abuse, at home and work. 

"The entries proved that together we can change attitudes in society in order to alleviate the suffering that women undergo due to shame, stigma, lack of support and understanding, in addition to traditional attitudes to menstruation"

SVB hopes to ensure that these issues are not ignored but stays in the mainstream discourse. It hopes to influence policies that minimize these risks to women, and continue to lobby for more female representation at all levels of decision making so that a gender perspective permeates all policy decisions. 
It hopes to partner with other organizations, including international organizations such as the United Nations, in working to end gender-based violence, discriminatory practices and awareness-raising on issues such as period poverty. 

   Q    How is SVB helping women (Single mothers, self-employed women) who have been challenged by the pandemic?

This is an area we are presently discussing and hope to launch a project sometime this year.

   Q    Future aspirations?

SVB is bringing together women from around the country who are committed to changing the status of women in Sri Lanka. It is by supporting each other and coming together to fight for the cause of women that SVB will achieve its goal of the empowerment and upliftment of women in Sri Lanka.
There is a long way to go to achieve gender parity, but even to eliminate the discriminatory practices and policies that put women at a disadvantage structurally, and to ensure their basic welfare, there is a lot of work to be done. SVB hope that more women will join them and support their work. 

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