South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

By Dianne Silva

Q: This year is supposed to be the centenary celebration of women’s day, and for years women have been campaigning for their rights. But how far do you think that we have come, what has been achieved in the past one hundred years?

I think there is a great change for the better with a few gaps which can be addressed. Women have managed to distinguish themselves as human beings with hearts, minds and needs in equal proportion. We have established that like men, we too like to be free from boredom, household constraints and limitations. Women have discovered themselves in the past 100 years and established an ideal, although in a very rudimentary form we have been able to construct a setting in which we can use our skills and talents to live a fulfilled life.

Women now have aspirations to fly, to be managers, to attain a degree and then another and be leaders in whatever fields that they have chosen to pursue and excel in them not to just get by but to be true groundbreaking leaders. Therefore I would say that in the past one hundred years we have come very far and achieved a lot. We have made it clear that we too are human beings and our rights should be catered to- we dislike violence, constriction and dominations. Domination is also a violation of our human rights because it hinders our right to freedom.

Q: How sensitive do you think Sri Lankan Society is to Gender issues; whether it’s in the workplace, the media or in education?

I think that we have not broken the barriers in a wholesome way across the country. Our men still feel that it is ok to hit their women and abuse them. In my little experience I have come across a number of women, and eight to ten women in the past week alone, who have now turned to divorce as a solution to their issues. And I ask why? Why so many divorces; and the answer is domestic violence. This violence need not just be physical where they are hitting and shouting at each other but violence in that they could be verbally abused or kept away from doing what they would like to do, in pursuance of their dreams.

Women are being constrained and fenced in as mothers; they are being told that this is all they are good for to take care of children and the home. Of course we all have this maternal instinct as women we want to take care of our children, but this is not all that we can do. Therefore I think that we have not broken down the barriers.

In the cooperate world what I find very disturbing is women being kept to work till very late in the night. This adds to the stress of the home and family; because when a woman goes home late her children have gone to bed and her husband has come home and she is forced to go into household activities without a break. When this happens for 365 days this becomes a stressful environment in which the woman can no longer continue her career.

The family is a beautiful thing when it is managed properly and everyone’s needs are fulfilled to an equal degree and this is a responsibility largely placed in the woman’s hands therefore she should be allowed to go home early and take care of her family.

Q: On the lines of women’s participation in politics, there is a global push towards having a quota system- do you agree with a system of this nature?

I absolutely agree with this system of quotas, because if women are not given their rightful place in the home and are forced to deal with domination by their husbands how can it be expected that they will be allowed to obtain equal representation in government? Without this type of a quota women can’t get thirty three per-cent.  Women should be given this quota system at least for two to three parliaments and then the system should be removed because by that time society would  be programmed to think appropriately about the participation of women. The conventions on women recommend that this quota system be in operation for a little while and then be removed. In India where such a system is in place I studied the Panchayat system- here there are tribal women who have worked towards the development of their villages without even being literate. When they sit down at their meetings they discuss; “what do our people want? What do our children want? How do we make our village better than the next?” and they manage to get electricity, water, roads and housing for their people quite successfully.

Q: In terms of employment, how successful have Sri Lankan women been breaking through the glass ceiling that exists?

I think we are well on the way to breaking through it and overcoming these limitations. We have women pilots and managers and chairwomen of companies. Even in the government sectors there are so many female Government Agents, all this makes me very proud

Q: When talking about women in politics and the Cooperate sector, most women who are successful in these areas tend to lose their femininity. And in order to succeed in a man’s world they tend to believe that they have to act like men.

I absolutely agree with you. From what I have seen many women try to be aggressive and I ask you what is aggression? It too is a form of violence where we are suppressing the human rights of another individual. We must learn that we need not be aggressive in order to achieve our goals.

This is something that I am teaching some rural children in Vavuniya. I had a five day workshop for school prefects. These children were very aggressive and this is actually something that is to be expected from a post-war scenario; so we asked them to talk about their feelings? And questions why they were angry and taught them how not to direct this anger towards others.

Some might think that I am a traditionalist when I say this; but look at some women the way they use their hands and tone of voice in speaking they act like men. But we need not use these aggressive behaviours to be taken seriously when working in politics or the Cooperate sector.

Q: On the lines of the post-war scenario, what we find is that the aggression that was at one point directed at the rival party is now channelled through other means and women are often subjected to this violence. What needs to be done to mitigate this?

To come out of such a situation is not easy. Because the trauma that war causes is within the people, it is ingrained in us and we live in a constant state of fear and insecurity- especially in the war torn areas. I met a group of Afghan women in the UK recently and they stated that it was sports that helped them to overcome this fear and insecurity.

One technique that we teach women is to get involved in their community and to help serve and protect their people. This way they feel that they are part of protecting the community and therefore their fear is dispelled.

Q:We tend to judge the situation based on what we see in Colombo, we say there is relatively equal opportunity for work and education based on the experiences of women living in the urban areas. But what is the real situation in the rural parts of the island?

In the rural areas their lives are heavily defined by the media and the images that the media projects. From the teledramas, they see violence against women and they try to emulate how these women dress and talk and behave, therefore they feel that domestic violence is acceptable. We have to go out there and inform them about the domestic violence act and the difference between civil and criminal law.

It is also sad to know that these women are also very much influenced by what they see on TV about beauty and this “head to toe” kind of development instead of development of the brain.

Finally I think that we need to give women their due place and inform them that they too can be part of national development and policy making.

Source: The Daily Mirror – 08.03.2011