I feel honoured that you have invited me today to speak about women and building inclusive societies where women have equal opportunities while commemorating International Women’s Day which falls in the next two days. We have talked of women’s rights, equal opportunities for women in every sphere and I would say, in a very insisted and continued manner for nearly two centuries, we have talked of equal rights, equal pay, equal opportunities in every sphere of life not only in the government but also in all other areas.
We have talked of equal participation in international affairs and in peace-building we have done a lot of work on effective implementation of UNHCR 1325. There have been many international and national conferences, workshops, discussions and as Mr. Nandey told us a few minutes ago we have signed conventions but somehow we haven’t advanced much especially in comparison to the amount of energy and work that has been put into it.
Internationally in the developing world in the developed countries women still do have a second place. If not the last place in some instances. We all know the issues we know what needs to be done, some challenges, I see which may be the main causes hampering the forward movement in achieving what we wish to achieve in women’s rights and equal opportunities and so on.
We talk of all this in a world which is still quite definitely dominated by the male species. The entire world concept has been dominated for several millennia to suit a male-dominated society, a male-dominated world.
All aspects of human life, of societies, of governments have been fashioned to suit this situation of dominance of the male of the species over female.
The social cultural concepts and practices all favour more than equal place for the men.
The economic structures function in such a manner that it is men who run it. Government and its super structures even its infrastructure is designed the same way.
Unfortunately even religion, the very concepts of at least the major religions in the world all advantage the men, without any doubt.
Most of them have. And today some of these religions, please forgive me for saying this, have evolved for whatever reason to fundamentalist tendencies which may not have anything to do with original religion and the teachings of the religious leaders, which in addition to all kinds of other terrible things that they perpetrate upon humanity and specially persons of those religions are also worsening hugely the situation of the woman, even more as saying women, even the girl child could not even educate themselves.
They are putting us back millennia, into the darkest of the dark ages.
Religion also plays an extremely important role and however much we talk about women’s rights and thousands of conferences, seminars, workshops, whatever you may like, but if the basic concepts that fashions our lives, our thinking, our attitudes are not transformed I don’t see how we can win this battle.
The concept of male dominance has taken root. So deeply in every aspect of our lives and our societies that it continues automatically. Women go on the streets, protest, get arrested in the so-called developed world – I know in the 19th century the women leaders of the women movements, the suffragettes, were attacked by police, arrested, harassed and put in jail. They have sweat, blood and tears over this.
|Although women’s rights, equal opportunities for women in every sphere has been advocated in a very insisted and continued manner for nearly two centuries, there hasn’t been much advancement in comparison to the amount of energy and work that has been put into it, former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga told a conference to mark International Women’s Day at the BMICH on Friday.The conference on the theme ‘Celebrating Women: Towards an Inclusive Political Culture’ was organised by International Alert and the South Asia Policy and Research Institute (SAPRI).Mrs Kumaratunga is also the Chairperson of SAPRI.
Extracts from her keynote speech.
But I don’t believe we have won as much as we should. As the speaker before me mentioned quite rightly even in the elected bodies, which is one of the most obvious places where women should get equal representation.
In the UK, the US and in the other developed western countries, what is the percentage of the women represented in the parliament, in local bodies?
Not 50 percent, certainly not. Nowhere near that. Certainly better than in our country. In Sri Lanka the situation is absolutely putrid. Six percent in Parliament, four percent in Provincial Councils and two percent in local Government bodies.
This is the country that produced the world’s first woman Prime Minister. They are very proud to say it. But what did we do about it?
The decisions, as in our societies, the male-dominant decision making administrations, governments the decisions to change the situations to ensure that more women come into the elected bodies for example, rests with the men. Implementation rests with the men, male-dominated governments and institutions.
When I was the President I insisted on my party following this before implementing it in the rest of the country. When we were considering nominations for local government bodies, that is the largest number of representing of local people, I said let us make at least 35 percent of the nominees from our party – women. And of the whole another 35 percent will be youth.
The protest I had from my ministers and party leaders was unbelievable. They didn’t say they didn’t want the women nominated but trotted all kinds of excuses. And I insisted and said ‘no, I as the president of the party will not allow the Secretary of the party to sign the nomination papers unless they come with 35 percent women’s names.’
Guess what they did. The decision was taken by the party’s central committee, the most important decision making body, when the lists came with two percent or say five percent of women’s names.
One or two names among 25 or 30. I asked what is this? They reply ‘No Madam, no women are willing to come,’ Now they had not asked the women to come in to elections.
I had no time to go in to the villages and ask women for names. It was the men who were the organisers of the electorate who call for applications. No women were asked.
This is what I’m trying to say however much we bring in laws, the conventions – international and national and whatever you may like – the male-dominated institutions in our societies, in our nations will not like it.
What are we going to do? For example, in Sri Lanka, just one more point, you all know the largest amount of foreign exchange is earned by women in three sectors – three production areas. The estate and plantations, garment sector and the women who sell their labour in foreign countries, specially in the middle East.
What have we done for them? They have not been given anything special. My Government gave some facilities and other governments have given a few things. These are just crumbs that we drop off our tables.
But nothing more than that. Our men are dominating us, dictating to us, living in an economy run by the women – but the women are treated as third class citizens in the country. Hence we know the situation.
But I think in addition to the work we have done discussions, meetings seminars, workshops, if we divert that money into may be other areas, such as transforming the thinking and attitudes of our people.
Not only are we living in a male dominated society it’s not only the males who prevent women from getting their lives and equal opportunities, it is women themselves also Ac ‘quest’ in this situation.
Most of us think it is quite right, its fine and we we just take it as it is. Because it is a ‘natural thing’. For thousands of years the situation has prevailed. We just go on. I would say the first thing is to transform the thinking and attitudes on this issue and any other. For that let us start with the children, with education.
The entire education system in Sri Lanka, has to be revamped including the rest of the world. That is probably the most important and most essential thing we can do.
But of course it is in the medium and long term. We will see the results in medium and long term. But it has to be done.
Because we have gone through that for centuries. We do not intend to go on for another century. Let us do what is absolutely essential. We have to negotiate, insist maybe even threaten the governments in power and try to get quotas and that kind of things.
But it is also the Government that has to decide whether they are ready to change the education, introduce new subjects to transform the thinking.
The Government of course plays the most crucial role in this. And in Sri Lanka speaking of our situation today, I would say that there are at least some male leaders in the present government who are enlightened enough to listen.
Let us women talk to these some of these leaders and insist on quotas in elected bodies and other things that we need, especially let us look at those poor women who are sweating away their labour almost some of them are slaves in the plantation sector, in some of the countries that they are working abroad to look at their problems seriously and see what we can do about it.
I think we need to negotiate, discuss because the Government could be willing to listen. And then of course intimidate them to do what they agree. I think we women have the clout to do that in the present situation.
Another factor I believe is that religious leaders all over the world, not only in our country, play an absolutely essential role. All religions, as I said, I do not know whether I am hurting the feelings of some people, I would say all our religions, the basis of the religions of the basic concepts, insidiously encourages promotes the whole vision and concept of male dominance.
I don’t expect the present religious leaders to change the centuries of belief that has been discount on their believers. But at least in their sermons, in their teachings in their religious activities they could speak in such a manner that they take the message to their followers of the absolute necessity for the equality of women.
And I think, some people may have to start talking. I know there have been many fora, specially in the recent past, last two decades may be, of religious leaders globally, talking about how to promote moderate thinking in the religions as opposed to fundamentalism and terrorism.
But I have never heard, as I have participated and spoken in some of those, in any of those forums requesting the religious leaders there or discussing and also the necessity for them to come in on the subject of women’s rights and opportunities. This may be something we can think of.
Because religious leaders can play such an important role in the lives of people. Schools, religions and governments. I believe we should target those institutes. Getting together a group of women, talking and telling them to ask for our right to contest – how can they contest if they are not even given nominations? I would say let us divert most of our energy towards ‘attacking’ the institutions – the bastions – that need to be stoned. Some of which I just mentioned.
Having left these heavy thoughts with you I again wish all the women’s organisations present here, women’s leaders, in government and outside, in Non Governmental institutions and the United Nations which plays an important role in this more success than that we had before, in our struggles to achieve women’s rights and equal opportunities for women to build inclusive societies where women will have there rightful place.
Before I conclude I must mention one other thing. Many of our societies in the developing countries and certainly in mine and yours, we talk of women’s rights, again in a context like male dominance, in a context where there is discrimination not only against women but against a lot of other communities, and also ethnic groups, religious groups other than the majority ones. When there is an overall discrimination practice, when the whole society is one of its exclusivity for the majority, race and religion and all the others are marginalised and excluded in various ways we can not expect only women, to be given their rightful place.
Our governments, our societies have to accept that it is only inclusivity, building inclusive nation that would prevent us from having the kind of terrible conflicts we have had in this country for nearly half a century.
And which could encourage inclusive societies which could be the only thing that can encourage the forward movement, the forward march of our countries economically socially and every other way.
I believe that building an inclusive society including political and other areas, not only a political culture, would certainly give us the Sri Lankans the place that we deserve peace, stability and prosperity.