Where do Women Figure in the Presidential Manifestos?
Sajith Premadasa has made a promise that no other candidate contesting this presidential election has made. At an event at the Sugathadasa Stadium recently, Premadasa signed a social contract with the women of Sri Lanka, promising equality to all women “in all domains of their lives, including equal treatment in private and public life…”
While the New Democratic Front (NDF) leader is yet to unveil his full manifesto in the contest for the presidency, his Women’s Charter deals fairly extensively with the issues women face, and his plans to address them.
If elected, Premadasa has pledged to set up an Independent National Commission on Women, that would end the ad-hoc and uncoordinated measures that have been put in place so far to resolve issues women face, with little or no clear understanding of the problems. In keeping with the 19th Amendment, the Chairperson and members of the commission will be appointed by the President on the recommendations of the Constitutional Council and the commission will be answerable to parliament.
The Charter addresses a wide range of issues under Equality and Equity, Law and Justice Economy, Education and Training, Health, Political and Civil Life, Gender Based Violence, War Widows, & Women Headed Households.
Counterpoint took a look at the Manifestos of leading candidates in this presidential race, to learn how each of them plans to address the myriad of issues women are forced to deal with on a daily basis.
Disappointingly, women, who constitute 52 percent of the population, warrant only a few sentences in the Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP) manifesto of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, which was unveiled on October 25. Under the title “a generation of women contributing to the Social Economy,” loosely translated, it says a child becomes a productive individual because of the guidance of the mother and the happiness of the family unit depends on the housewife. The discipline of a nation depends on how children are brought up. Therefore the contribution of women is greatly valued in achieving our long term goals. The contribution of women is important not only in the workplace but also by their individual contribution to society.
Obviously then, for the SLPP, a woman seems to play an important role only in ensuring a well brought up citizen, creating a happy home environment, where a woman will play the role of housewife and a supportive function in the country’s economy.
A coalition partner of the National People’s Power (JVP), the Progressive Women’s Collective (PWC) has far more to offer than the SLPP, though their manifesto is more aspirational than definitive. In its preamble, the PWC manifesto states that its main aim is to bring to the “centre of the current political discussion, the socio-economic, cultural and political problem faced by women.’
The NPP/PWC demands amongst others, that sustainable solutions are found for the economy, and the removal of barriers that prevent women from engaging in the labour force. It calls for law reform that will affirm the woman’s right to her body and her reproductive role and upholds individual’s rights in marriage and divorce. It affirms the need to reform the Muslim Personal laws, the repealing of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and preventing the introduction of such laws as the Counter Terrorism Act. The PWC also wants the removal of loopholes in the laws and procedures that relate to sexual violence and the repealing of laws that criminalize non-heterosexual behaviours and the Vagrant’s Ordinance.
The PWC also wants increased participation of women in the decision making process, a change to the violent and exploitative political culture, and the introduction of a 50% quota for women at all elections. It also opposes the “institutionalisation of all forms of violence in society, including sexual harassment, domestic violence, ragging, harassment in the workplace and in the workplace, and corporal punishment.’ While calling for an end to gender stereotyping through education, religion, media etc. it also identifies the need to counter the “rising ethno-religious nationalism through sustained efforts to maintain inter-racial and inter-religious understanding and support women who organise against xenophobic ideologies.’
It is important to note here, that the Sri Lanka Medical Association, in a letter to all presidential candidates, has urged them to give ‘top priority” to “eliminating of violence in Universities’. The Association states that evidence gathered by the University Grants Commission points to ‘extreme forms of physical, sexual and emotional violence taking place in all state universities” adding that it is ‘ no secret that ‘torture chambers’ exist in every state university, and that ‘ the fact that nearly 2000 students who had qualified to enter university, with great difficulty, had to leave campus, and that about 16 students have committed suicide over the years, triggered by incidents of violence at the hands of peers at university, bear some testimony to the gravity of the situation. It is serious that about 270 students are presently receiving treatment for extreme stress, fear, anxiety and mental health conditions consequent to receiving inhuman treatment as freshers.’
The newest force in the fray, the National People’s Party (NPP), led by Mahesh Senanayake promises as its sixth pledge, amongst the 10, to ‘create a society which empowers women, and ensure that women are treated with the utmost dignity and respect.’ While, this is a very general statement, its promise to ‘empower” women goes way beyond the SLPP’s stereotyping of women in the role of mother and housewife!
In late September, women’s groups too, put together a Women’s Manifesto for the consideration of all presidential candidates. Amongst the many affirmative actions it calls for is the introduction of ‘mandatory legal provisions to ensure that all registered political parties have at least 25% women in their key decision-making structures’, a pledge now contained in the DNF Women’s Charter. Amongst others, the women’s group’s call to repeal the PTA and prevent the introduction of the CTA is also a demand of the JVP/PWC. The Women’s Manifesto urges the use of ‘normal criminal law to ensure the safety of all citizens.’
The DNF Women’s Charter which premises its action plan on equality and equity ‘in all government policies’ affirms that ‘ No person shall be discriminated directly or indirectly against on the grounds of sex, gender identity or orientation, ethnicity, race, religion, caste or social origin, marital status, maternity, age, language, mental or physical disability, pregnancy, civil status, economic status, conscience of belief, birth and widowhood or any other status,’ and pledges to implement it through constitutional, legislative and administrative reform.
While it is committed to setting up women’s police stations in all districts, and enacting laws to prevent cybercrimes targeting women and children, it also plans a 24 hour service equipped with trained officers proficient in Sinhala and Tamil to man the Women and Children’s Desk. It also pledges to meet the World Health Organisation’s recommendation of ‘mandatory breast-feeding period’, with increased paid maternity leave as well as incentive schemes to help women re-enter the labour market after maternity leave.
In view of the feminization of ageing, the Charter pledges to introduce measures to address their specific issues of ‘housing, health, livelihoods and transportation, etc.
A UNICEF survey from 2016 indicates that 37% of girls miss school one or two days every month, simply because they do not have access to cost effective sanitary napkins and other facilities in school, the Charter’s pledge to provide this facility to all government schools is indeed commendable.
An Independent Commission on Women that would adequately address the many issues faced by girls and women is indeed a long felt need and it is refreshing that at least one presidential candidate has pledged to establish a Commission, if elected.
With equality and equity legislatively ensured, women will feel less disempowered and will be able to contribute positively to society.
The writer is a signatory to the Women’s Manifesto.