Women constitute half the population of Sri Lanka and play a crucial role in the affairs of the country. On the one hand, both the president and the prime minister are women and the world’s first woman prime minister was produced by Sri Lanka. But this has not helped to enhance the situation of Sri Lankan working class poor women.

International Women’s Day. Report from Sri Lanka.

For Sri Lankan Women - A Long Way To Go

More importantly, the country’s economy rests to a very large part on the shoulders of women. The Sri Lankan economy’s main foreign exchange earners used to be tea, rubber and coconut cultivation for export. Apart from these commercial crops, paddy (rice) cultivation has been the mainstay of the rural economy. Women’s labour plays an important role here, but in most instances is not taken into account.

The traditional economic pattern has completely changed during the last 10-15 years. Remittances from Sri Lankans employed in the Middle Eastern countries are now the no.1 net foreign exchange earner and women constitute more than 80% of this work-force. In earning this money, women have to go undergo a great deal of hardship.

Firstly, even to leave Sri Lanka for these jobs, they are exploited by the so-called employment agencies. Sometimes they charge Rs.30-40,000 (£3-4,000) to send a woman abroad for a housemaid’s job. But the real trauma only starts after they reach the country and start the job. The women have no fixed hours of work, proper health care facilities etc. They are at the mercy of their employers.

This situation is not only limited to housemaids. Recently a Sri Lankan employee of a garment factory in Saudi Arabia was suspended from work. The other workers, mostly women, walked out in solidarity, though they were not organised in a union. All of them were instantly dismissed. The Sri Lankan authorities took no action to protect these workers on the pretext that striking was illegal in Saudi Arabia. The actual reason was that the Sri Lankan authorities did not want to offend the feudal rulers and big business in the Saudi kingdom.

There have been numerous other instances where women employees have been victimised, beaten, sexually abused and even killed. Most women are afraid to divulge the incidents due to the stigma attached to them.

Even when they are reported, little or nothing is done by the Sri Lankan government but in February this year it had to intervene to bring back about 200 Sri Lankan women from Lebanon. They had were stranded after being dismissed by their employers after just 3-4 months employment. They had not been paid their salaries and a considerable number arrived in wheelchairs, showing the trauma they had undergone at the hands of their employers or agencies.

The tea plantations in Sri Lanka account for two thirds of all plantations and employ a very large number of women but almost all in unskilled or semi-skilled work such as plucking tea-leaves, sweeping and collecting tea dust etc. Up to mid-1980 women workers were discriminated against, receiving lower wages than men for the same type of work. Although that has been formally remedied, they still work in semi-slave conditions - comprising illiteracy, malnutrition and improper sanitation. Almost all plantation workers are organised in trade unions but the number of women holding positions in them is negligible and they have not taken up specific issues affecting women workers.

The garment industry, which has spread throughout the country during the last 10 years, is another sector where a large number of women are employed - constituting about 80% of the work-force and occupying the lowest grades. The basic salary of a machine operator is between Rs.2,500 and Rs.3,500 - very low by comparison with other comparable vocations and with the magnitude of the income and profit of these enterprises. This industry is hugely invested in by foreign businesses simply because of the greater possibilities of exploiting an educated work-force.

Although Sri Lanka has a relatively strong trade union tradition, the garment sector does not allow trade union rights. These workers have still not been organised and the left movement has not been able to fill this vacuum.

There are several ’Free Trade Zones’ (or Export Promotion Zones) in the country where foreign investment has concentrated, originally mainly in the garment industry but now also in others like diamond cutting, footwear and rubber-based industries. The FTZs, which allow investors huge tax benefits and other concessions, employ women to a very large extent. The Korean and Japanese firms - the main foreign investors - only want to collect a big profit in a short period. Thereafter they vanish, abandoning the factory and workers without paying their salaries and other statutory payments due to them.

At present there is an agitation by a group of workers in this situation - the majority of them are women in a Korean-owned establishment called Kabool Magnetic. The government is not taking any action over the dispute.

In these FTZ factories, working women’s rights are zero - not only trade union rights but basic human rights. One example is that women workers wanting to go to the toilet have to wait to get a card and mark the time on it. They call it the ’piss card’ and many women get health problems because of the system. There is a continuous agitation taking place against these inhuman practices.

The stereotype woman still promoted by some in Sri Lanka is the house-wife and mother who cares for the husband and children by cooking, washing and house-keeping. But the changed situation, after the economy was opened up to ’free’ market forces in the late ’70s, has compelled every woman to seek employment just to bear house-hold expenses. The majority of women have become economically less dependent and that has raised their position vis-à-vis men in society.

On the other hand, women are being exploited extensively as their jobs are at lower grades and mostly of an unskilled or semi-skilled nature. The professions of teaching and nursing are also more than 70% female as these jobs are traditionally considered as appropriate for women. However, here also a comparatively low percentage of women occupy higher positions.

The Sri Lankan constitution of 1978 formally guarantees equal legal rights for women. Nevertheless some traditional laws such as thesawalamai (of Northern Hindus) and Muslim law still discriminate against women as do immigration laws. If a Sri Lankan woman decides to marry a foreigner, she will not be able to get him citizenship rights whereas a Sri Lankan man will get citizenship rights for a foreign wife automatically, ’ipso facto’.

The darkest side of women’s lives is the alarming increase in violence against them reported in the last few years - rape, other forms of sexual abuse and even murder. A particular scandal is that young working girls in the free trade zones have become prey for the perpetrators of sexual crimes including many soldiers of the Sri Lankan army.

Though there is a new awareness and emphasis on women’s rights, violence against women has not abated. Domestic violence is traditionally accepted as a part of married life.

There are now a considerable number of house-holds where the only bread-winners are women and many of them are single parents. This has increased as a result of the war in the north and the east of the country where a Tamil minority is fighting for the right to self-determination and also of the youth rebellion in the south in the late eighties. There is no proper social security network for these women, apart from some ad hoc measures.

Though women’s role in the economy and society has become more and more important, her position is still vulnerable. There is no clear and general identification and recognition of women’s rights as human rights. The previous UNP government published a women’s charter embodying various women’s rights recognised internationally. The present PA government, led by two women, pledged at the elections in 1994 to legalise that charter. However, no action has been taken in that regard, despite there being a Women’s Affairs Ministry led by a woman.

Unfortunately, the traditional left movement and trade unions also have not taken up women’s issues seriously and effectively. They have had the concept that women’s rights and problems are only a part of the social issues in general, many saying that the social transformation of society will automatically resolve them.

However, women’s issues have surfaced prominently now and Non Governmental Organisations have become the main bodies active in this arena. They have played a useful role but they have not been able to address the real issues of the exploitation perpetrated by capitalism. Also, NGOs never put the class issues forward.

There is an urgent need for the left movement to take up women’s issues as a priority matter and fight for equality, for an end to discrimination, exploitation and the oppression of women.

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