Prof. Savitri Goonesekere is Emeritus Professor of Law at the University of Colombo. She was its first female Vice Chancellor and first female Professor of Law. Goonasekere is an internationally acclaimed academic and her range of expertise includes women’s rights. In an engaging interview with the Daily mirror Prof. Goonsekere spoke about various issues that affect women and law reform. She said very little law reform has taken place in the recent past in terms of upholding gender equality and women’s rights.
Q The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is ‘Press for Progress’. What is the significance of this theme?
It recognizes that much has been achieved during the past four or five decades, but it’s not enough. Almost globally the Women’s Convention has been ratified. Consequently, there is a set of standards to which countries have to conform and usually the Governments have a major role in this. Now, what has happened is that achievement from the perspective of governance has not been adequate. Press for progress therefore means the role of non-state actors- civil society, women’s groups, people- to press for change. In that sense it’s good because it recognizes that much has been achieved, but it’s not enough. And to achieve more you have to press for progress.
Q To what extent has the status of a woman in the Sri Lankan society changed?
Let me reflect on that in terms of the past and the present. All of you belong to a very young generation, and you are internet savvy. You have all your information on the internet. But the problem with the internet is it doesn’t tell you very much about the past. So it’s not lived experience except for what you get on the internet for the young people. In a sense there is an inter-generational lack of connectivity about the past and the present. People like us have lived through so many years of changes, which you people have not seen. Then what it means is that you don’t also see the changes. Now we see the changes from our generation because when we had independence we had good social indicators for women. They have lasted through the decades. That’s where we are ahead of South Asia.
But when it comes to the social approaches and the attitudes towards women there has been significant regression, because the openness of the society, the willingness of the society- even among the Muslims- has shifted and changed so much. And there is a reason for that. We are living today a reality where there is a lot of extremism, where there is a lot of extreme interpretations of religion, culture etc. That authoritarianism and that extremism impacts on women because women are also part of the society.
I am a Sinhala Buddhist and I see the regression among the Sinhala Buddhist community itself. For instance, now women are not allowed to do things that they were supposed to do completely at ease. When you go into a temple they ask you to cover yourself. That is totally non-Buddhist. Where did this come from?
So the society has been regressing in its attitude. If you look at women’s progress you have to say there have been achievements in some areas, but in some of the hard areas like labour, employment and family, it’s not what it should be.
Q Recently a ban on women buying liquor was lifted and reimposed. Why are those in power and society at large unwilling to uphold gender equality?
This alcohol ban goes back to British regulations. Nobody really looked at it. The only place where this restriction applied was at taverns, where they were told they can’t sell to women. But nobody bothered about it. The Minister, quite sensibly asked to eliminate the ban as it was superfluous.
Now see the extremism. There was a huge flak saying that women must not drink. Now who are the alcoholics in the country? Are they women? Who drinks alcohol and abuses women? It’s the men. So see the false approaches. This is the extreme conservative view which you get in many countries. And then it impacts on policy. So the Minister had to withdraw it. Now that gave the opportunity for women to challenge the regulation. The challenge is not about women consuming alcohol. The challenge is about the intrusion on a woman’s autonomy to choose. Why is it that in a country that women have equal rights she can’t choose like an adult woman what she wishes to buy or have as a consumer?
Q There are some laws which are discriminatory towards women. Why has the State failed so far in reforming them?
Let’s look back to 1993 when there was a World Conference in Vienna. Then let’s look back to 1995 when we had the Beijing World Conference. It was a global agenda. There were women’s groups who wanted to advance equality and they worked with the Government. In 1993 itself we had the Women’s Charter. If you look at the Women’s Charter it is almost very similar to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). In fact, it has added the issue of violence against women which is not in CEDAW. So the Government was supportive and we had a range of law reforms. Look at that period right up to 2005. There were changes. The Penal Code was reformed significantly. The Citizenship law which said a woman can’t give citizenship to her child, was reformed in 2003. From 2005 to today very little has happened.
The space has not been adequate for women to work closely with the Government to initiate change. So policies have sometimes been ad hoc. The 25% quota, which was a great struggle, is one of the major changes. The parliamentary caucus of women parliamentarians and civil society women’s organizations had to have a big push to get that 25%. In between very little has happened.
Look at this regulation about women going to the Middle East which was introduced by the previous Government. Men are free to go without any restrictions and all the restrictions are on women. She has to get her husband’s consent which is not in our law. If she has small children she can’t go. In the general law (except for the personal laws) the husband and wife have a joint responsibility when it comes to children. This is completely disregarded.
So the performance has been poor and I think that is partly due to this extremism. The Government is not in a position to make good decisions. This liquor issue shows that.
Q Many have praised the 25% quota for female representation. But now there is uncertainty about some councils fulfilling the quota. What are your thoughts on this?
In order to get the mandatory quota you might have to appoint only women from the second list. That is due to the technical error in the law. And the men are protesting. I heard from an MP that they have raised this issue in parliament at the time, but it was not picked up.
Now, however, the Elections Commissioner has been very clear that the mandatory quota has to be filled up. Hopefully that’ll happen. When it comes to this argument that a lot of the women are just token candidates, even in India they said the same thing. When in India they placed a quota of 33% by a constitutional amendment, everybody said that they were useless women. But the women did a pretty good job because they raised all the local issues of concern.
Q According to the Global Gender Gap Report- 2017 (released by the World Economic Forum) the gender gap in wage equality for similar work has widened in Sri Lanka. At a time we speak about gender equality and equal pay, why do you think that this gap has widened?
The gap has been very resistant to change. I’m surprised to hear that it has widened. I don’t have familiar statistics now, so I don’t know why it has widened. But certainly the stubbornness of the gap has not been addressed.
The public sector is virtually an equal opportunities employer. If you go to the public sector you sit the Sri Lanka Administrative Service(SLAS) Exam, and you have actually more women than men in the SLAS. So the performance of the public sector has been pretty good. Similarly in universities there is one scheme of recruitment.
In the actual labour force participation in other areas, women are at the lower end of the spectrum. They are exploited. This requires proactive measures and a lot of the proactive measures that they have tried have not addressed the need to reduce the gap.
Q For example?
In the garment factory there is an over representation of women. It has been a struggle to ensure that women get to the top management. Some companies are very good. But across the board that is not so. It has to do a lot with the private sector ethos too. There is no imposition of a quotas etc. In some countries, for example, in the Nordic countries they say that in corporate boards there need to be a balance. We don’t have that.
The gender balance in our commissions which we have put into the constitution is good. But we don’t have a corporate culture which says that everybody has to have a gender balance. Those are policy initiatives which have not been introduced. So there have not been adequate proactive measures to address the gap. And because the gap has been so stubborn those proactive measures are required.
Q In which sectors do you find a glass ceiling?
Studies show that banks are better, that there is no glass ceiling. But in the normal corporate sector there is a glass ceiling when it comes to the Boards. In government corporations the situation is very bad. For instance, you might not find a single woman. So there is a glass ceiling at the top corporate level. To some extent there is a glass ceiling in the public sector as well at the level of the secretaries.
During the last couple of years the situation has been better. So we have more female secretaries, but they are very few. That has a lot to do with Government policy. The President appoints the secretaries. Ministers appoint to the boards. Whenever there is no scheme of recruitment women don’t benefit. Then there is a glass ceiling. Even in State banks there is a glass ceiling. There is no gender balance.
Q Last year the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in a study found that 90% of women and girls have faced sexual harassment on public transport…
This surfaced at least five or ten years ago. It’s been there for a longtime. We’ve had instances where ministers said that they’ll address it. Nothing has happened.
Q Sri Lanka has laws regarding sexual harassment…
Yes, but sexual harassment in transport is more difficult. We have had, for example, a programme by the University Grants Commission which to my understanding is good. They have hotlines etc. But still sexual harassment takes place in universities that have ragging. I chaired a committee which introduced the Ragging Act which includes sexual harassment. The Penal Code Amendment of 1995 also criminalizes sexual harassment. But nobody was doing anything even in the universities. Colombo University has a sexual harassment code, but nobody knew about it. Now they are taking it seriously. But sexual harassment still prevails during ragging. Apparently in universities there is also a process across the board through the UGC. There is an institutional mechanism for sexual harassment. By now you should be able to have an audit of those universities who are not doing well. So it’s also about naming and shaming.
Public transport is more difficult. Normally they say that on public transport when there is harassment the other people do respond. They take self-help. But that’s not enough. You have to create a much greater public awareness to teach this as violence and have zero tolerance. So the challenge is for women to get together and come up with a positive proposal. I don’t know whether that is on the table.
Q When it comes to Domestic Violence how effective has the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act been?
The Prevention of Domestic Violence Act was very difficult to pass because there was huge resistance. Eventually the law was passed because it was possible to prove the extent of domestic violence. Doctors came with statistics from all over the country to show that morbidity was high. Morbidity means people go to hospitals and we have State hospitals. So imagine the cost to the State. There were also deaths. Ultimately the Act was passed.
The problem with the Act is that right now there are two issues. Lawyers and judges don’t really understand what it’s about. We have not successfully created an adequate understanding of the law. We have tried conducting workshops, but that has not worked. People who have monitored what is happening in court say that even when women do take the step of bringing these actions in court judges don’t utilize the range of orders available for maintenance, support and shelter. So there are flaws in the administration of the Act within the court system itself.
The other issue is that women are still not coming forward to use it. There are various inhibitions. We don’t have State sponsored support for shelters etc. That’s a problem.
Q Recently there were proposals to legalize abortion under certain circumstances. What are your views when it comes to legalizing abortion? Should women have a right to unconditional abortion?
No, I don’t think so at all. I think the best piece of jurisprudence is Roe v Wade in the US.They are trying to rule that back now in the US. But that is a very sensible judgement. What it says is that at the earliest inception stage there is no life, and it’s part of the women’s body. Then it’s a question of choice. After the foetus grows then obviously you have two lives involved. Then the law has to balance. This is why for example we have said as early as 1995 to allow abortion for rape, incest, and for gross foetal defects where both parents want an abortion. In a sense it’s a rational process.
I don’t think it’s an open ended issue of choice. It’s also important to remember that these are the areas in which lobbyists and religious lobby should not dictate the agenda because these are issues of policy which have been looked at from a broader perspective. I think it’s also wrong to say that a woman should have an open-ended choice. I think the proposals in Sri Lanka have been now, originally also, were done in a multi-disciplinary manner with lawyers talking to doctors. They were actually put forward into law in 1995 in the Penal Code reform. But unfortunately there was lobbying at the last minute and it was withdrawn. That was in 1995. We are still talking about it and it’s the same story. The medical profession has been very good. They have come out with very solid proposals. They have tried to talk to the religious leaders about the proposals on the table for reform. They are trying and striving. But in this environment of extremism it is a problem.
Q Finally what is your message for International Women’s day?
I think equality for women is really an issue of giving maximum opportunity to reach your maximum capabilities. That’s what we want. As Simone de Beauvoir said many years ago when she wrote her book titled ‘Second Sex’, go for a walk on the road and you’ll see that humanity comes in two sexes- men and women. But historically, that difference has been interpreted to deprive women of opportunities often in many cultures. In Sri Lanka we’ve had a tradition which has been much better in the past. Now it has changed unfortunately. That’s really what we’re talking about. It’s not sameness. It’s not an open ended idea of equity. Equity is very discretionary. You can say giving something is very equitable, but it’s fluid. Now we use the phrase substantive equality. It takes into account women’s experience and ensures that they are not discriminated because of their sex. Take account of ground realities of women and women’s experience. That is human potential and capability.
Pix by Pradeep Dilrukshana
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