Colombo – In his message on International Women’s Day, Child Development and Women’s Affairs Minister Tissa Karalliyadda, said that women are an asset. In line with this, the minister announced a five-year plan to empower women and improve their standards of living. The theme for this year’s celebrations, which mark 100 years since the day was first celebrated, is ‘Women's knowledge and strength to uplift the country’.” However, women’s groups have accused the government of using the media to play up the day whilst concealing the reality of women, forced into low wage jobs like the fishing and garment industries.
AsiaNews spoke to Doc Pushpa Ramlani, to get a picture of the plight of Sri Lankan women. As a women’s rights activist, journalist and poet, she knows the situation well. “Urban middle class women have achieved greater independence in the past 30 years; a certain openness exists towards young women in rural areas and in the garment industry where 83 per cent of the workforce is made up of women.”
“However, women’s participation in politics is very low, at both the provincial and national levels.” In parliament, women MPs represent only 4.7 per cent, but this does not appear to worry Minister Karalliyadda. For him, that “number is more than adequate. Why be elected to parliament if there are other activities that can help the country’s development?”
For her part, Doc Ramlani has doubts that “such attitudes can lead to serious development.”
Women contribute to the country’s economy in several sectors, but their work is not appreciated. Each year, at least 110,000 of them leave Sri Lanka to work abroad as domestic workers. Women represent 97 per cent of the labour force on plantations. They also contribute about 65 per cent of foreign earnings each year.
“These figures are important, but at what price? Low-paying jobs,” the professor laments. “Often, women are also victims of abuse, sometimes even torture. This leads to low levels of self-esteem linked to their ability to contribute to the productive process. Consequently, women feel that their worth within the family and community is very low”.
According to Doc Ramlani, Sri Lanka needs “more local participation in governance. Women do not necessarily want to occupy high offices, but they do want a voice on issues that matter to them.”