SRI LANKA: First Political Manifesto for Women Gets Good Reviews

Thursday, March 25, 2010
Southern Asia
Sri Lanka
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Reconstruction and Peacebuilding

Political manifestos are often met with cynicism
and even ridicule, but Sri Lanka's first such manifesto for women is
proving an exception to the rule as rights activists laud its recent

Put forth by the United National Front (UNF), Sri Lanka's largest
opposition group, the manifesto was released on Mar. 15, ahead of the
April parliamentary poll.

It is the first time a political party in this South Asian island
nation has presented a comprehensive document on women, and many activists
say it is one that promises to restore dignity to a group on whom the
country depends on but largely ignores.

"This is a huge step forward and what is interesting is that some
of the women in the opposition party are those who are active in
women's issues and are concerned," said Women & Media
Collective (WMC) director Kumudini Samuel.

"They have seen and know our demands," Samuel said of the
manifesto's creators. "In preparing this document, they have
looked closely at these issues, which are in many ways a lot of what the
women's movement has been saying over the years."

"It is something that can be done and is doable," said
Nimalka Fernando, a women's rights campaigner. "These are
issues we have been pushing for a while and I'm impressed by the
document and the research that has gone into it."

At the very least, activists say, the manifesto reflects the depth of
contribution women make to Sri Lanka. Noting that more than half of Sri
Lanka's 20.5 million people are women, the document goes on to reel
off relevant statistics, including the fact that 54 percent of the
country's professionals are female, as are 58 percent of the
university population, and 95 percent of garment industry workers.

About 65 percent of Sri Lankan workers in the Middle East are also
women, while the tea sector also comprises a majority of women, the
document points out. Sri Lanka's economy is dependent largely on
garments and tea exports, as well as on remittances from migrant workers.

"Women are the backbone of the economy but we are a long way from
securing equal rights for them," said Fernando, who is president of
the Tokyo-based International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination
and Racism and the Women's Forum for Peace in Sri Lanka.

But changes have been underway, and the manifesto is only one of the
results of a seeming rethink going on among political parties regarding
women's rights.

The manifesto of defeated presidential candidate Gen Sarath Fonseka,
for instance, promised equal rights to people of different genders.

Commented an activist at Equal Ground, a Colombo-based nongoverment
group that respresents lesbians, gays and groups with other sexual
preferences: "While the UNF manifesto does have any reference to the
rights of minority groups (including lesbians ands gays), in terms of
overall women's rights it's a good document. We are willing to
work with anyone who furthers our rights."

The UNF women's manifesto promises the setting up of a
women's bank with an initial capital of five billion rupees (44
million U.S. dollars) for microcredit, micro insurance and housing.
Shelters are to be set up for abused women, and daycare centres built to
help working mothers.

Some 20 percent of Sri Lankan households are headed by women, who will
have access to livelihood grants, the UNF says. Pregnant women will also
be entitled to flexible working hours, while female migrant workers will
enjoy social protection.

Women workers will be entitled to both equal wage for equal work and
equal wage for equal value of work, the manifesto says as well.

Rights groups could not help but compare the UNF's move with the
attempts of the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) to address
women's rights. Although it has not prepared a separate manifesto on
women, the SLFP has a general one that it presented for the January
presidential poll, won by incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

That SLFP document has a section on women that speaks of giving
"pride of place to the mother".

Fernando described the SLFP as patriarchal and feudal in
its thinking: "This is not good enough. The SLFP has always looked at
women in a role of the traditional family where the mother should be
venerated. No one talks of sharing the family burden while the UNF focuses
on empowering women."

She expressed confidence that "the UNF will have more women in
parliament. And even if the party loses, it will be actively pushing these
issues in the legislature".

The UNF and SLFP, along with their respective allies, have ruled the
country on separate occasions since 1948. Historically, the UNF has done
more for women than SLFP, including establishing the women's bureau
and the Ministry of Women's Affairs, as well as pushing for a
Women's Charter.

"The Women's Charter was an excellent document," said
the WMC's Samuel. "But just when legislation through a
Women's Rights Bill was being brought in to legalise the structure,
the party lost the elections."

Samuel, though, said that like the ruling party's section on
women in its manifesto, the UNF document on women fails to say how all its
proposals would be brought to fruition. "We hope they will find
enough sufficient resources to implement these issues," she said.

Queried on this, a member of the panel that drafted the UNF
women's manifesto said: "While there is some investment, most
of it is a re-orientation of policies already there and for which
resources have already been allocated. It's a case of some
adjustments in focus and resources."