Traditional norms still stifle women in post-war North

  • Why legal and policy reforms have fallen short and social reforms are essential

BY Sumudu Chamara

Gender inequality has challenged Sri Lanka for decades, and the existence of gender discriminatory social norms is one of the primary reasons for gender inequality. Observing and assessing these social norms is complex, given that they are deeply embedded in society and in the subconscious minds of the community, including women. However, in order to ensure gender equality, it is essential to transform the gender discriminatory social norms prevalent in society. 

As such, there is an increased need to transform these social norms in the Northern Province which experienced 30 years of civil war, and where even 10 years after the war ended, the consequences and impacts of the war still exist in the society and continue to have serious impacts on the lives, rights, and freedoms of women in the Northern Province.

This was highlighted in a report titled “Gender Discriminatory Social Norms and Their Impact on the Rights and Freedoms of Women” which was issued by the Law and Society Trust (LST) and the Chrysalis organisation, based on participatory research conducted by Krijah Sivakumar in the Northern Province.

The main objective of the research was to identify and evaluate key gender discriminatory social norms prevailing in the Northern Province, and the impacts they have on women’s rights and freedoms. Further, the research also aimed to identify gender discriminatory national narratives and understand trends brought about by the war in relation to gender discriminatory social norms.

Research findings

Research findings were based on data provided by 532 research participants living in the Northern Province (covering the Jaffna, Vavuniya, Killinochchi, Mullaitivu, and Mannar Districts) with regard to gender discriminatory social norms in the Province.

Alarmingly, the majority of the participants who responded to the norm that child care is mainly the work of women (81.02%) had stated that it is highly prevalent or prevalent to some extent, while only 14.66% had stated that it is not prevalent or is less prevalent in the area.

Also, the majority of the participants who responded to the norm that wives should sustain their family life and marriage life at all times at any cost (78.01%) had stated that it is highly prevalent or prevalent to some extent, while only 19.36% had said that it was not prevalent or is less prevalent.

The percentage of participants who had said that the norm that cooking and household chores are mainly the work of women was highly prevalent or is prevalent to some extent was 77.63%. A total of 18.98% participants had said that it was either less prevalent or is not prevalent.

A total of 76.88% of the participants who responded with regard to the norm that only men should do labour-intensive work had stated that it is highly preventable or is prevalent to some extent, while 18.05% had said that it is either less prevalent or is not prevalent.

Research findings also highlighted that the majority of the participants who had responded regarding various other norms had stated that they are highly prevalent or are prevalent to some extent. Among them are the norms that: women and girls should not speak much in public places; female victims of sexual violence and rape are viewed as unchaste; women are reluctant to complain against sexual violence; family members should not allow women to complain against sexual violence; women who go to Police stations are criticised; women who complain against their husbands at Police stations are criticised; women should not travel alone in the night; women should not laugh loudly in public places; men should be the primary breadwinners of the families other than the families of female headed households; women and girls should not stay away from home to work; and women are not entitled to equal pay even though they work equally as men.

The report noted: “The social norms that child care is mainly the work of women, that cooking and household chores are mainly the work of women, that wives should sustain their family life and married life at all times at any cost, and that women should not complain against their husbands are more prevalent among women than men. The social norms that only men should be engaged in labour intensive work, that female victims of sexual violence are unchaste, that women should not go to Police stations, that women should not speak much in public places, and that women should not report sexual violence, are more prevalent among men than women.”

Taking this situation into account, the report said that any interventions to transform the social norms should consider the findings mentioned above and appropriately focus on both men and women.

In terms of the religious beliefs of the participants, the report noted that the social norms that only men should be engaged in labour-intensive work, that female victims of sexual violence are unchaste, that women should not go to Police stations, that cooking and household chores are mainly the work of women, and that women should sustain their family life at any cost, are more prevalent among the Muslim community than in other religious communities. The social norms that women should not talk too much in public places and that child care is mainly the work of women are more prevalent among the Buddhist community than in other religious communities. 

The social norms that women should not complain against sexual violence and that family members should not allow women to complain against sexual violence are more prevalent among the Christian community than in other religious communities. The social norm that women should not complain against their husbands is more prevalent among the Catholics than in other religious communities. The social norms that only men should be engaged in labour intensive work, that child care is mainly the work of women, and that women should sustain their family life at any cost are prevalent to a certain extent within the Hindu community.

With regard to the age groups of the participants, the report noted that the six social norms – that child care is primarily the work of women, that cooking and household chores are mainly the work of women, that women should not report sexual violence, that wives should sustain their family lives and married life at all times at any cost, that female victims of sexual violence are unchaste, and that only men should be engaged in labour intensive work – were more prevalent among research participants over the age of 61 years. 

In addition, it said that the social norms that family members should not recognise women that complain against sexual violence, that women should not report sexual violence, and that women should not go to Police stations and should not complain against their husbands were highly prevalent among participants in the age group of 31-40-years. That cooking and household chores are mainly the work of women and that women should not speak much in public places, were more prevalent among the participants within the age group of 21-30-years.

Regarding the education level of the participants, it was stated: “Generally, these social norms are less prevalent among those who have received education up to the level of college, a diploma or a bachelor’s degree. However, the social norms that women should not complain against their husbands and that women should not go to Police stations are more prevalent among diploma holders. Almost all social norms were significantly higher among people with General Certificate of Education (GCE) Ordinary Level education or lower when compared to persons with a bachelor’s degree.”

Recommendations

The report presented a number of recommendations for legal reforms for the consideration of State and civil society actors.

With regard to legal reforms, the report said that laws and social norms have a close relationship and that they mutually influence each other. It added that laws that favour gender discriminatory social norms or laws that produce gender discrimination will further strengthen gender discriminatory social norms.

The report recommended amending the provisions related to rape in the Penal Code by criminalising marital rape. Amending gender discriminatory provisions in the Evidence Ordinance was also one of the recommendations, regarding which the report noted that Section 155(d) of the Evidence Ordinance states that “when a man is prosecuted for rape or an attempt to ravish, it may be shown that the prosecutrix was of generally immoral character”. This Section, the report read, leads to the prevalence of social norms related to rape and to the social stigma associated with it, and should therefore be repealed.

With regard to repealing gender discriminatory provisions of the Tesawalamai Law, it was noted: “The Tesawalamai Law has discriminatory provisions related to the property rights of women. These provisions require a woman to obtain her husband’s written consent to sell their immovable properties. These provisions are a barrier to the economic independence of women and are closely related to social norms.”

The importance of repealing or amending gender discriminatory provisions found in other personal laws and policies that are in practice was also highlighted by the report, citing the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) and the Land Development Ordinance, No. 19 of 1935, as examples.

In addition, enacting new laws related to rape in order to change the legal proceedings of rape cases into more gender sensitive processes was also highlighted.

Among the recommendations for judicial reforms were, allowing the courts to hold closed proceedings when hearing cases of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) against women, establishing a special court to hear cases of SGBV against women, and refraining from publishing the names of victims in judgments on cases of SGBV against women.

A number of recommendations were presented for State actors as well.

They are, reviewing all textbooks from Grade One to GCE Advanced Level and removing any gender discriminatory texts, pictures, stories and illustrations, and including content that promotes gender equality in textbooks; providing special training to principals, teachers and other educational officials on gender discriminatory social norms and their impacts in order to prevent the promotion of gender discriminatory social norms in schools; including content on the significance of women being financially independent and on career prospects for women in the school curriculum; devising and implementing new schemes to develop the leadership skills of women in schools; changing the “Practical and Technical Subject” which includes cooking and household chores into a compulsory subject for all students after Grade Six; training school children to raise their voices against all forms of violence in order to inculcate in them that physical violence should be prevented and opposed; conducting awareness programmes for all Government officials on gender discriminatory social norms; establishing a mechanism at the institutional level to monitor the work of Government officials, thus ensuring that they promote gender equality in their work; and considering gender related aspects and ensuring gender equality in all activities when formulating national action plans.

For the attention of civil society actors, the report recommended, conducting awareness training programmes on ensuring gender equality within family relationships with the participation of couples within the age group of 30 to 50 years; initiating extensive discussions, seminars and advocacy campaigns on the issues faced by women as a result of gender discriminatory social norms; producing street dramas and films on the subject of gender discriminatory social norms and their impacts, and staging them in public forums; using the social media to record issues faced by women due to gender discriminatory social norms and sharing those experiences; initiating entrepreneurship and self employment opportunities for women in order to guarantee their economic independence; initiating an advocacy campaign to ensure equal pay for equal work by men and women in agricultural districts; initiating awareness programmes on the labour rights of women including their right to equal pay; and identifying and implementing innovative techniques to promote men’s involvement in cooking and child care such as by initiating a social media campaign posting pictures of men cooking.

With regard to recommendations for future research, the report said: “Muslim women who participated in the discussion held with victims of domestic violence mentioned that the practices followed in the Quazi Courts significantly violated the rights and freedoms of women. Quazi Courts are Government institutions established to adjudicate on matters concerning the personal laws of Muslims and there is a practice of only men being Judges in these Courts. In this context, participants stated that the Judges are often biased towards men. Although specific questions were included in the questionnaire to find out about the status of this issue, very few research participants reported that gender discriminatory practices are prevalent in the Quazi Courts. 

“However, views shared during the discussion with victims highlight the need for research that prioritises the gender discriminatory social norms prevalent in the Muslim community. When collecting primary and secondary data for this research, it was found that gender discriminatory social norms are found to a great extent in the estates. These gender discriminatory social norms have a particularly large impact on female estate workers’ rights and freedoms. When combined with factors such as the lack of education, poverty and the lack of housing, these gender discriminatory social norms can have severe consequences.”

As the report noted, even though certain legal and policy changes have been made recently to alleviate the impacts of gender inequality on women, those have not achieved the expected or adequate results. When it comes to discriminatory norms, especially social reforms are what must be prioritised. Therefore, in addition to legal reforms, efforts to change attitudes and raise awareness are necessary. These efforts, as the report noted, should focus on both men and women.

Related posts