The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women last afternoon met with non-governmental organizations to discuss the situation of the rights of women in Bangladesh, Belarus and Sri Lanka. As part of its work, the Committee invites non-governmental organizations and national human rights institutions to provide information and documentation relevant to the Committee's activities. This was the second of two meetings the Committee has held with civil society groups this session; the first meeting took place on January 17 when the Committee heard relevant information pertaining to the rights of women in Israel, Kenya, Liechtenstein and South Africa.
Speakers from non-governmental organizations in Sri Lanka said that the country had one of the world's largest populations of Internally Displaced persons and within this context women faced routine discrimination vis-à-vis housing, land and property. Speakers also said that for many years the international community had repeatedly expressed its concern with regard to sexual violence perpetrated against women in the country. The existence and legal denial of sexual violence as a crime was an expression of gender-based discrimination and patriarchal systems that needed to be overcome. Speakers also drew the Committee's attention to violence and discrimination faced by lesbians and other sexual minorities in Sri Lanka as a result of an archaic British law that criminalized homosexuality.
CHULANI KODIKARA, of Women and Media Collective, said that the representation of women in elected political bodies was extremely low in Sri Lanka. One major reason was the low number of nominations given to women by the major political parties. Sri Lanka was the only country in South Asia without a quota for women at the local government level. A new law which was tabled in parliament, but had not been passed, provided for a combined quota for women and youth with no specific guarantee of a minimum quota for women. Furthermore, this quota was discretionary and non-compliance would not result in any penalties. Ms. Kodikara requested the Committee to urge the State party to mandate a quota for women in local government.
JAYANTI KURU UTUMPALA, of the Women and Media Collective, said that with regard to conflict affected women, rehabilitation activities had been sporadic with mainly stereotypical vocational training such as sewing and beauty culture provided to former women combatants. Continued militarization and military dominance of civil administration had exacerbated the vulnerability of women to violence and harassment. Ms. Utumpala drew the Committee's attention to the violence and discrimination faced by lesbians and other sexual minorities in Sri Lanka, as a result of an archaic British law that criminalized homosexuality. This violence came in the form of homophobic articles in the media, familial violence and State sanctioned violence under Section 365A of the Penal Code and the Vagrancy Ordinances Act. Many joint suicides of young girls had been reported in the media.
SHYAMALA GOMEZ, of the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, said that Sri Lanka had one of the world's largest populations of internally displaced persons and within this context women faced routine discrimination vis-à-vis housing, land and property. Ms. Gomez said that the application of the “head of the household” concept had resulted in discrimination against women. This was seen in the aftermath of the tsunami when women were disentitled to property as a consequence of the “head of the household” rule, seen as synonymous with being male, and thus not being authorized to sign official documentation. Secondly, while the State had been giving land to landless peasants for many years, this process systematically excluded women.
Most often it was the man who applied for land and he was given the land as single ownership as head of the household which meant the land was not held jointly by a married couple, but solely by the husband.