The plight of Sri Lankan women

Although the women of Sri Lanka bring in most of the country's much-needed foreign exchange, they have yet to receive adequate legal protection against violence and other social threats confronting them.

by Kalinga Seneviratne

IN March last year, at a press conference during the United Nations Social Development Summit in Copenhagen, a Norwegian journalist asked the Sri Lankan President Mrs Chandrika Kumaratunga, how she could help to improve the status of women in Sri Lanka.

She smiled and said: 'What more do you want? We have a woman President and a woman Prime Minister, and six other woman ministers in a Cabinet of 24. Women educate themselves as much as men. Job opportunities for women are not less than for men'.

However, President Kumaratunga added that it had not solved the problems women face in Sri Lanka. 'There's a new problem - violence against women' she explained. 'Social violence like rape, even rape of little children. Physical violence, (some) not heard of before, is on the increase'.

She acknowledged that there was a lack of legislation in Sri Lanka to protect women against this type of violence and said that her government would soon draw up legislation to overcome it.

While the President has set up a task force to draw up new legislation to protect women from violence, many of the social reforms President Kumaratunga promised during the 1994 election campaign have been put on the back burner since the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) broke off peace talks in April last year and re-launched the ferocious war against the Sri Lankan Government, to carve out a separate state for themselves in the country's north and the east.

Dr Deepika Udagama, the director of the Centre for the Study of Human Rights at Colombo University agrees with the President's position. 'Many in South Asia thinks that women in Sri Lanka are better off than their counterparts in other countries of South Asia. To some extent this is true. Education level, women holding management positions, women in professions and even in normal social norms, Sri Lankan women enjoy better position than in Pakistan, Bangladesh or India. But in the recent past there's been a tremendous upsurge in acts of violence against women' she said.

Though she don't see the change in laws as the remedy, yet Dr Udagama argues that laws are necessary in the larger social process that needs to be put in place.

Pitiful work conditions

'Women have entered the public arena in a big way, (but) there's been no corresponding protection to go along with that phenomenon' she observes. 'Right now there's no law against sexual harassment. It is a very common factor wherever women are'.

Today, the Government acknowledge and even boasts that garments and foreign employment of Sri Lankans are the two biggest foreign exchange earners for the country. It has overtaken traditional commodity exports like tea, rubber and coconuts in the last decade. The truth of the matter is that it is women who create most of this income for Sri Lanka.

Their pitiful work conditions in both these areas seem to be nobody's concern agree many social welfare analysts here. Sri Lanka earned Rs.76.6 billion (about US$1.5 billion) in 1994 from garment exports produced mainly in the Free Trade Zones (FTZ) in the country - which made up 48% of its export income. Out of the 100,000 jobs created in the FTZs in recent years, 80% have gone to women. There are 500,000 migrant workers, mainly in the Middle-East, who contributed Rs.35 billion (US$ 0.7 billion) to the national coffers in 1994 - over 50% of them are women, working as maids.

In March last year alone, 11 deaths were reported from the Middle-East, the Sri Lankan embassies and local non-governmental welfare agencies get at an average 400 complaints a month about physical and verbal abuse, and there are some 300 Sri Lankans in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) prisons.

On 13 April 1995, when most Sri Lankans were celebrating the national new year, a young Sri Lankan maid, Sithi Unisa, faced a firing squad in the UAE. The Foreign Ministry in Colombo learnt about her death only four days later. The family knew about it through a telephone message delivered to a nearby temple from another maid in the UAE. Another maid who had returned home from UAE told Unisa's family, that she had been executed for a murder she had never committed. An infant child had died after falling off the hands of her mother, but the mistress blamed the maid for the death. This is typical of many cases which come to light at regular intervals regarding Sri Lankan maids overseas.

Unbelievable hardships

Helen Perera,the President of the Rural Womens' Front (RWF), which is discouraging women from leaving their villages for jobs abroad argues that the Government is not opposed to Sri Lankan women going overseas to work because of the foreign exchange the national coffers receive as a result.

Showing a file of letter, she told me: 'I get letters like this everyday. This is about abuse and exploitation at (our) embassy in Saudi Arabia. There are also women who have gone and disappeared overseas. Some families whose loved ones have never returned after going for jobs overseas have joined our organisation.'

Reading through the letters RWF gets, Ms Perera says Sri Lankan women are going through unbelievable hardships overseas. 'One has said that her family has seven men and all of them sleep with her,' she said and added showing one of the letters, 'This letters says that once in Saudi Arabia our women are being sold. This is like the old slave era. The men who buy them of course treat the women like animals.'

Though RWF members go around the villages trying to discourage women from going overseas, Ms Perera admits that they are facing a formidable task. The main reason is the lack of employment opportunities in the villages, where very often, the only way for survival is through daily casual work, which is lowly paid and unreliable.

'When people see the external show of those who have gone overseas and returned - have bought or built houses - they also think, they can't carry on trying to survive on casual employment, the only solution is to get out and go for a job in the Middle-East... most of the attraction is this external look of the returnees, others think they have gone overseas and had a good time,' Ms Perera observed.

In any village in the south of the island there are at least 10 to 15 mothers who have left behind their families and gone overseas to work, according to Ms Perera. She points out that this has created a huge social upheaval in rural Sri Lanka. 'If you look at their families, you find that the children have missed the loving care of their mother. Many girls at a very young age have got into unwanted things, like having casual affairs with boys, some even getting married and later breaking up. Then there are boys who have developed very aggressive personalities.'

Social Education specialist, Sujatha Wijetileka, agrees that migrant worker schemes have created a lot of social problems in the country. Because of language barriers, sometimes the women have even signed contracts to be the mistress of the employee, she says. 'If they refuse, sometimes these men assault them (and) if they give in, they may get assaulted by the wives. Some have come back home carrying babies. Then they are not wanted by the villagers.'

Another problem Ms Wijetileka has observed is, that, when the mother leaves, the father sometimes find another companion which neglects the children.

Recently Sri Lankans were shocked by a dramatic increase in the reported cases of incest. According to Dr Tilak Hettiarachchi, senior lecturer in Psychology at the University of Colombo, this has mainly happened in homes where the wife is out in the Middle-East and the man is left alone with the children.

'When money starts coming in, the man gives up his job and starts consuming alcohol and sleeping with his daughter. The worse thing is, men even justify their actions,' says Dr Hettiarachi. 'In many cases these men have said that since their wives are away, they need to be satisfied sexually and this they get from their daughter.'

Mixed feelings

Chinta Balasooriya, Executive Director of 'Women In Need' (WIN), another womens' welfare agency, argues that the increased incidents of reported incest today is due to the fact that groups like hers have publicised and created awareness in the community that women need not suffer silently. 'We have really over-burdened the women. They have become bread winners in most of these families. It's really unfortunate men take it for granted,' she said.

Many women social workers here have mixed feelings about the increased job creation for women under Sri Lanka's economic liberalisation policies since 1977. As Ms Wijetileka observes, the positive side to it is that, it has eased the unemployment problem for women in the countryside and economic benefits have flowed to the villages, but on the negative side, it has created big social problems.

The FTZs which have been at the hub of Sri Lanka's economic liberalisation policies have created more jobs for women than men. Most of the women who work in these are young girls who have been protected in the villagers and are now on their own in these zones. To attract foreign investors, Sri Lanka has completely done away with the law, which previously prohibited women from working night-shifts. Thus, some women finish their shifts late at night or early in the morning and get exposed to many dangerous situations on their way back home.

Ms Balasooriya argues that when you look at violence against women in the Sri Lankan society you have to take into consideration the situation with the FTZ. 'The laws of the country don't apply there,' she says, adding that, recently when she visited a FTZ, she found the girls 'caged in their small houses'.

'One girl told me how there are 16 living in one of these houses and they have only one toilet. (Thus) she had to get up at three in the morning to use the toilet so that she can get to work at seven,' explained Ms Balasooriya.

Ms Wijetileka, who works as a Programme Officer at the Swedish embassy in Colombo said that the embassy had recently funded the womens' service centre at the biggest FTZ at Katunayake near the Colombo airport. They have found large numbers of girls coming to the centre pregnant, crying for help.

Recent studies done by the Colombo University have found that the FTZs have been the preying grounds for pimps from brothels in Colombo and the tourist centres on the coast, where they befriend unsuspecting village girls. They are gradually transformed from being girl friends to sex workers.

Dr Udagama observes that for some time Sri Lanka has been touted as a very docile place with a very skilled workforce, to attract foreign investors. 'There's this perception that ordinary labour laws don't apply in these free trade zones. The fact is, where women are concerned, there's sexual exploitation'.

She argues that the government will have to look into providing these female workers not only with employment security, but also protection against workplace harassment of a 'very sexual nature'. One of this must be regulations on the working hours and the length of shifts. (Third World Resurgence No. 65/66)

Kalinga Seneviratne is a Sri Lankan-born Australian journalist.