Gender equality in the workplace: Sri Lanka still lags behind
By Sandeep Tissaaratchy
With the intense backlash that came with Bimshani Jasin Arachchi’s appointment as Sri Lanka’s first female Deputy Inspector General of Police (DIG), one would naturally begin to wonder how far behind Sri Lanka truly is in establishing gender equality in the workplace.
Although, the world has progressed and puts equality of rights in the forefront of discourse, Sri Lanka still lags behind in actually creating substantive changes for women. Sparking a plethora of issues women go through in all types of employment processes.
Sri Lanka has had many firsts in the country regarding female representation. Although, of late there has been a lack of women representation in Parliament, historical facts indicate female empowerment and leadership among women has existed and spans hundreds of years.
What does Sri Lanka’s history tell us about female representation?
Although history more often than not favours men, women’s strength and contribution in the highest of offices cannot be ignored. Going back to Queen Anula who was Sri Lanka’s first queen and the first female head of State in Asia, to the other four queens who ruled, our rich history proves that these women were revered, respected and feared by all because of their strength and power during their reign.
Sri Lanka continued to break barriers when the late Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the world’s first female Prime Minister followed by her daughter, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga who continued her legacy.
Both leaders were exemplary in proving that they could do a ‘man’s job’ better than a man. As Sirimavo once said, “History is full of examples of the disastrous consequences that came upon such nations that changed their constitutions by giving one man too much power”.
What has changed?
Recently Sri Lanka has taken a few steps back in their acceptance of women who reach certain ranks in male dominated spheres. Dr. Minna Thaheer, a senior researcher who has done extensive work on issues women face, spoke to Ceylon Today and explained that “It is a daily struggle for women in all sectors of work. Although women contribute a great deal to Sri Lanka’s economy, we tend to be a ‘second thought’ when it comes to pay and promotions.”
Dr. Thaheer said Sri Lanka is far behind countries such as India who have made it a point to be inclusive and prioritise the gender issue in the country. She added “Although women dominate the plantation and garment sectors which are a major source of revenue, women rarely have any decision-making power or authority, which speaks volumes as to why women still have unequal rights even though they contribute the most in a specific sector.”
Bimshani’s story of success through immense perseverance was received with anger and frustration by her male counterparts, who took her appointment to the Supreme Court as they claimed it to be unlawful. This is one of many recent examples of unfairness and gender inequality women face in society.
The infamous impeachment of the country’s first female Chief Justice, Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake was another classic example, where she suffered an unlawful fate for standing her ground against injustice. Furthermore, Sri Lanka has a mere five per cent of women in Parliament, although women make up the majority of the population, showing the imbalance of female representation in the legislative framework of the country.
Although, these may look like exclusive examples that affect a few women in places of power, many other laws such as the banning of women from purchasing alcohol and the prevention of women from applying for specific jobs in the Railway Department are but examples of instances where a much larger group of women in the country are restricted from enjoying the same liberties men enjoy. These are mere examples which indicate the trend in Sri Lanka which is moving to a more patriarchal power structure that was not a part of Sri Lanka’s history but rather makes a mockery of what Sri Lanka has been able to do break down barriers for women across all spheres.
What must be done to prevent gender inequality in the country?
Protecting Sri Lanka’s Constitution, which guarantees equality before the law and equal protection to all citizens, is the main way to ensure women’s rights are protected and upheld in the workplace. This includes constant legal action and advocacy within the Judiciary and Legislature to fight the battle ahead, and advocating for better policies that better represent the female population.
Dr. Thaheer said priority should be given to include gender budgets, gender sensitivity training and gender policy planning, which will be the “Key to creating visible changes for women in every sector of the country.”
Furthermore, the need for education to play a bigger role among youth, and prioritising issues of workplace discrimination needs to happen. Youth participation in this conversation starts with parents breaking down the norms of parenting children into specific gender roles and placing unnecessary expectations on children, which will then generate a new generation of open-minded and sensitive thinkers.
Awareness must lead to action. As former American Supreme Court Justice the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg said “It is a woman’s right to control her own destiny, to be able to make choices without the Big Brother state telling her what she can and cannot do”.
Dr. Thaheer reminded society that “Fighting for women isn’t an exclusive battle that only women need to fight for, it is a human issue that needs all genders to join forces for the sake of humanity”. Society has a long way to go in protecting the rights of women. Our country has the lessons of our past female leaders and cultures to pave the way for a better future and a happier and fruitful society.