COMMITTEE EXPERTS URGE SRI LANKA TO TAKE ‘SPECIAL TEMPORARY MEASURES’ TO ADVANCE DE FACTO EQUALITY BETWEEN WOMEN, MEN
COMMITTEE EXPERTS URGE SRI LANKA TO TAKE ‘SPECIAL TEMPORARY MEASURES’ TO ADVANCE DE FACTO EQUALITY BETWEEN WOMEN, MEN
Committee on Elimination of
Discrimination against Women
545th & 546th Meetings (AM & PM)
COMMITTEE EXPERTS URGE SRI LANKA TO TAKE ‘SPECIAL TEMPORARY MEASURES’
TO ADVANCE DE FACTO EQUALITY BETWEEN WOMEN, MEN
Concerns Expressed on Levels of Violence Suffered by Sri Lankan Women
There was a striking contrast between Sri Lanka’s many well-educated and accomplished women and boats full of people who arrived every week in Europe “in practically slavery conditions” searching for work, the monitoring body of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women was told as it considered Sri Lanka’s combined third and fourth periodic reports in two meetings today.
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, comprising 23 experts from around the world acting in their personal capacities, monitors compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Operational since 1981, the Convention requires States parties to eliminate discrimination against women in the enjoyment of all civil, political, economic and cultural rights.
Despite a protracted period of civil strife and economic hardship, Sri Lanka had made sincere efforts to implement the provisions of the Convention, several experts said. The Government had made great strides in the fields of education and health and had succeeded in creating an effective national machinery to promote the advancement of women. Moreover, it was commendable that the need for women to achieve greater levels of political participation was on the country’s political agenda.
Economic difficulties and civil unrest, however, should not prevent Sri Lanka from eliminating all discriminatory legislation, the experts urged. One speaker described the apparent contradiction between Sri Lanka’s obligations under the Convention and still-existing discriminatory legislation, including laws on land rights, inheritance, abortion, incest and rape. The fact that constitutional provisions forbidding discrimination against women did not extend to the private sector was also a matter of concern, especially regarding the status of women in the labour market.
Stressing the need for specific legislation to address violence against women, speakers voiced their concern about the growing prevalence of violence against women in Sri Lanka, especially minority women and migrant workers. Referring to incidents of sexual assault against Tamil women at police
checkpoints, one expert said she was glad to find out that the Government had established mechanisms to counter the problem of human rights violations. Women living in conflict areas, without the ability to move freely, might find it difficult, however, to file complaints and should be made aware of grievance procedures. And while the Government had taken many measures to protect migrant workers, in light of reports of fraudulent recruitment agencies, she was concerned about the effectiveness of those measures.
Experts also stressed the need to apply temporary special measures to accelerate improvements in the situation of Sri Lankan women. “It is not enough to rely on a natural evolution of things”, one expert said. While change would happen, there was a need to make it happen sooner as a matter of justice for women on the one hand, and good governance for the country on the other.
Introducing Sri Lanka’s report, Lalitha Dissanayake, Secretary of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, said that Sri Lanka’s commitment to gender issues had been challenged to the utmost in the conflict areas of her country. The Government of Sri Lanka, however, did not condone violence against women or human rights violations committed by the security and police personnel. Sri Lanka was committed to the principles of the Convention’s Optional Protocol and would pursue action to sign it. [The Optional Protocol entitles the Committee to consider petitions from individual women or groups of women who have exhausted national remedies. It also entitles it to conduct inquiries into grave or systematic violations of the Convention]
Sri Lanka was also represented by John De Saram, Permanent Representative to the United Nations; Dharani Wijayatilake, Secretary of the Ministry of Justice, Law Reform and National Integration; Swarna Sumanasekara, Secretary of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs; and Dr. Dula De Silva, Deputy Director-General of Health Services of the Ministry of Health, Nutrition and Social Welfare.
When the Committee meets tomorrow morning it is expected to hear replies from Trinidad and Tobago, based on the presentation of its combined initial, second and third periodic reports on 21 January.
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met this morning to take up its consideration of the third and fourth periodic reports of Sri Lanka, submitted in compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
According to the third and fourth periodic reports (document CEDAW/C/LKA/3-4), the last decade has been a time of dramatic political change in Sri Lanka. The Government has had to deal with ethnic conflict while at the same time creating an environment for economic development. As a result of the conflict in the North and East of Sri Lanka, the Government has had to deal with the settlement of refugees and internally displaced persons on a priority basis. Women have suffered most during the period, often forced to assume the role of head of household.
Despite significant achievements by women and for women, cultural, religious, political and economic constraints have not allowed women to achieve their full potential, the report says. An increasing number of female-headed households are faced with the problem of income generation and household management. One in every four female heads of household is illiterate, and some 50 per cent are elderly.
The report says that according to Sri Lanka’s Constitution, the Supreme Court has been a powerful instrument for enforcing the rights enshrined in the Constitution. Constitutional agreements are defendable in the Supreme Court "only in respect of administrative and executive action” and do not cover infringement by non-State actors, including infringements of basic rights in the private sector. The Supreme Court has recognized that State violence against women in police custody is an infringement of the right to protection against torture and degrading treatment.
The Government has proposed several constitutional reforms, which are presently under discussion by a committee of Parliament, the report continues. The proposed reform includes provisions to ensure non-discrimination on the grounds of “gender, marital status, maternity and parental status” in addition to the present grounds of “sex”. A provision has also been put before Parliament for the special rights of children. Also being proposed is the establishment of a commission to examine all of Sri Lanka's legislation to see if it is inconsistent with the Constitution.
In 1997, the report says, a national Human Rights Commission was established. That Commission resolves, through mediation, complaints of infringement of the rights recognized by the Constitution. The Commission also performs an advisory function, making recommendations to the Government for measures to ensure that national law and administrative practices are in accordance with international human rights norms and standards. The Commission also promotes awareness and provides education in relation to human rights issues. The Commission has not yet received any gender-based complaints.
The report says that national machinery on “gender management” has been strengthened. At the time of Sri Lanka’s last report, the centre of the national machinery was the Ministry of Health and Women’s Affairs, with a State Ministry of Women’s Affairs serving below it. In 1997, however, a separate ministry responsible solely for women’s affairs was established. A Deputy Minister assists the Minister for Women’s Affairs. They are both women. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs has established a networking group of key public officers selected from each ministry to oversee and ensure the implementation of its programme of work. The officers, or “focal points”, are responsible for sensitizing personnel in the various ministries on women’s issues, identifying issues to be addressed and gender mainstreaming.
The report adds that in 1993, the Government adopted the “Women’s Charter”, a document containing the policy for the realization of gender equality in all areas of life in conformity with the Constitution and international norms and obligations. The provisions contained in the Charter reflect the influence of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Part I of the Charter gives the State specific guidelines regarding its obligations under the Convention. Part II provides for the establishment of a National Committee on Women to examine progress regarding the obligations of the Charter.
Legislation to give the National Committee on Women statutory recognition is currently being prepared, the report says. When passed by Parliament, the legislation will give legal sanction to the powers of the Committee, which will have the same status as the other national institutions. The National Committee is given a consultative function with regard to determining policy issues relating to women, including the examination of legislation affecting women. The National Committee has established a Gender Complaints Centre, which commenced functioning in 1999. The Centre receives and considers complaints regarding gender-based discrimination and violence.
In 1996, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, in collaboration with the National Committee on Women, formulated the “National Plan of Action for Women in Sri Lanka”, the report states. The Plan identifies priority issues for the advancement of women. The Plan was formulated as a result of the outcome of the Beijing Conference Platform for Action.
Regarding violence against women, Sri Lanka has introduced several far-reaching legislative reforms to provide more effective remedies to deal with gender-based violence, the report adds. There is greater willingness to report violence. The number of cases of violence against women has increased. Major legislative changes were passed by the Parliament in 1995 and 1998. Apart from the issues of marital rape, an increase in the marriage age and the termination of pregnancy, the legislation was passed without opposition.
Regarding the increase in the age of statutory rape, earlier provisions identified 12 as the age below which sexual intercourse would amount to rape irrespective of the consent of the girl, the report says. The age had now been increased to 16 years. The amendment also prompted a revision of the marriage laws to increase the marriage age to 18 years. The amendments to the legislation dealing with non-Muslim marriages were passed simultaneously. No change, however, was made to the marriage age under Muslim law.
The report says that domestic violence is addressed under the terms of the penal code. In the absence of specific legislation, the act committed must fall within one of the offences recognized by the penal code. Although domestic violence takes place in all socio-economic classes, it is seldom reported. "Reporting such incidents to the police is futile unless there is a ready remedy", says the report Domestic violence legislation has been identified as an area for further policy formulation.
Regarding gender stereotypes, the report says that Sri Lanka is a conservative society with strong beliefs in cultural norms and deeply rooted prejudices. That environment nourishes prejudices and reinforces gender stereotyping. The media contributes by portraying women in conventional stereotypes. Stereotypes persist because Sri Lankan society is slow to discard tradition. Education of women is seen as the primary means of overcoming any prejudices. Although no enforced action has been taken, a natural acceptance of the true value of women will soon be a reality, with increasing numbers receiving education.
On the issue of employment, the report notes that constitutional guarantees against discrimination do not apply to the private sector and that private sector discrimination cannot be challenged in the Supreme Court. While the female unemployment rate dropped from 1992 to 1998, it is still double that of males. Most unemployed persons are between the ages of 15 and 24. In the industrial sector, some 70 per cent of factory workers are women. They work long hours in semi-skilled or unskilled jobs and are vulnerable to occupational health hazards and job insecurity. They are also subject to sexual abuse. The Women’s Bureau has established counseling centres in a few places.
The report also says that the majority of foreign demand for Sri Lankan labour has been for unskilled workers, particularly housemaids, who account for some 86 per cent of total female workers abroad, mostly in countries in the Middle East. In 1998, some 60 per cent of Sri Lankans who left for employment abroad were women. While efforts have been made to protect women migrant workers, they are still vulnerable to sexual abuse and violence, harsh working conditions abroad and family dislocation at home.
In an effort to provide more effective welfare measures, the activities of the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment have been expanded. Recommendations of two presidential task forces are being implemented. The quality of training for housemaids has been enhanced, with some 50 centres having trained about 106,870 prospective housemaids in 1997 and 1998. Efforts have also been made to make prospective migrant workers aware of the laws and guidelines applicable to foreign employment and services available to them. A standard employment contract for women migrant workers has been introduced. Before recruiting housemaids, sponsors and agents are required to register with Sri Lankan diplomatic missions, which verify the credibility of the prospective sponsor. The sponsor is required to sign a contract setting out the details of employment.
Regarding women’s health issues, the report says there is evidence that the number of rape cases is increasing. Incest is also a growing concern, associated largely with girls in families where the mothers are employed abroad. Regarding family planning, a husband’s authorization, though not required by law, is required for the sterilization of a wife. Sri Lanka does not record any incidents of female genital mutilation or circumcision, but it does take place to some degree among certain segments of the Muslim community.
Some 78 per cent of the population live in the rural sector, the report says. While the Constitution and labour laws apply in principle equally to women in the urban and rural sectors, legislation that specifically discriminates against rural women is based on the 1934 Land Development Ordinance. According to that ordinance, inheritance is based on the principle of primogeniture, which denies women in new settlements the title to family land if they had no land in their locations of origin. Also, the restriction of the scope of labour legislation to the formal sector deprives the majority of rural women of equal rights and protection in employment. In new settlements, land is allocated to the male head of households. While women have equal access to credit, they tend to receive lower priority in access to new technologies in agriculture and industry.
Introduction of Report
JOHN DE SARAM, Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka, said his country’s obligations under the Convention were serious, important and many. The manner in which the obligations had been implemented was a matter for the Committee’s review. The delegation was here to learn how other Governments had endeavoured to fulfil their obligations under the Convention. Sri Lanka’s commitment to human rights and to the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women was unquestionable.
LALITHA DISSANAYAKE, Secretary of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, said that Sri Lanka’s commitment to the Convention had been undertaken with a deep sense of sincerity. While some areas needed more focused attention, there had been many successes. Efforts to improve the status of women had been made not only in deference to the country’s obligations as a State party to the Convention, but also upon the acceptance of the principle of equality enshrined in Sri Lanka’s Constitution.
With its multi-ethnic and multi-religious population, Sri Lanka was a developing country, currently experiencing severe economic constraint as a result of civil unrest, she said. The unrest not only drained the country’s human and capital resources but also militated against its human development efforts. Sri Lanka had, however, sustained positive social indicators, particularly with regard to education and health.
Improvements in the status of women included increased literacy rates, educational attainments and improved participation in the labour force, she said. Women had entered fields previously dominated by men. Their contributions to the foreign exchange earnings through employment overseas in the export processing zones and the plantation sector had received recognition. More rural women had been mobilized into economic activity through special savings and credit and skills development programmes. More effective systems of health care had resulted in a reduction of maternal and infant mortality rates. The life expectancy of women now surpassed that of men. The willingness of the people to recognize gender equality at the highest level was demonstrated when a woman was elected President of the country in 1994.
Sri Lanka was continuing its focus on the effective implementation of stringent laws to combat violence against women, to eliminate gender stereotyping and to encourage women to take up non-traditional vocations, she said. Several programmes had been undertaken for women, including special programmes for elderly women, educational programmes to promote safe sex and the prevention of HIV/AIDS, and programmes to empower women migrant workers. Humanitarian assistance had been provided to families affected by the conflict situation. Efforts had been made to create an enabling environment to motivate women to assume political leadership and to provide more effective delivery of services in education and health. Most important were measures to promote gender mainstreaming and the engendering of legislation.
Sri Lanka’s commitment to gender issues had been challenged to the utmost in the conflict areas, she added. As in all conflict situations, women and children were most vulnerable. The Government had taken several measures to establish administrative mechanisms with proactive mandates to afford humanitarian assistance as well as to prevent abuse and harassment. While the challenges continued to be daunting, the commitment to deal with them was genuine. Particularly challenging was the task of dealing with internally displaced persons. The Government had formulated plans and programmes for humanitarian assistance, building temporary shelters and arranging resettlement. A large number of the internally displaced remained in Government welfare centres. The Government was aware of the need to improve health conditions of the persons in the centres.
Another consequence of the civil strife had been the challenge to uphold human rights, she said. To safeguard the security of the nation, military operations of a large scale had been necessary over the past 19 years. The Government of Sri Lanka had taken additional precautionary measures to safeguard human rights. The Government did not condone violence against women or human rights violations committed by the security and police personnel. Sri Lanka was committed to the principles of the Optional Protocol to the Convention and would pursue action to sign it.
The report outlined the national machinery for women’s affairs, she said. One of the setbacks had been that the national machinery had not been adequately prioritized at the macro-policymaking level. The new Government, established in December 2001, had directed that every programme should contain a gender component. That directive came as a follow-up to its special election manifesto on women, which was a reflection of strong political will. The commitment will provide the leverage for new initiatives for the engendering process across the entirety of Government machinery.
The National Plan of Action for the period starting 2002 highlighted all priority areas of intervention, she said. One area of concern was the inadequate participation of women in power sharing and in the decision-making process. With a change in the political culture, women would be empowered to become partners in ensuring the values of good governance. Sri Lanka expected that the national legislation giving statutory recognition to the National Commission on Women would be enacted shortly.
Regarding inequities in national legislation, she said the Law Commission of Sri Lanka had been requested to examine all enactments with a view to recommending reforms. Reforms to personal laws in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural society were needed with due regard to deeply rooted pluralistic and ethnic beliefs. The Government had had the ready cooperation of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the support of the donor community. It was faced with the unenviable role of having to mobilize its resources for safeguarding its national security while at the same time facing global uncertainties. Sri Lanka hoped that new initiatives towards securing a resolution to internal conflict would result in a new era of peace, of which the greatest benefactors would be the women of Sri Lanka.
Comments by Experts
Several experts in the ensuing question-and-answer session expressed appreciation for the country’s presentation of the report, which suggested that, despite civil strife and economic difficulties, Sri Lanka was sincerely trying to implement the Convention. The strengthening of national machinery, achievements in the area of education and introduction of new legislation testified to that effort. The country’s third and fourth periodic reports met the guidelines established by the Committee.
Several experts, however, pointed out contradictions and discrepancies between the country’s obligations under the Convention and still-existing discriminatory legislation which pre-dated Sri Lanka’s Constitution, including the laws on land rights and inheritance. Certain laws on abortion, incest and rape also needed to be addressed. There seemed to be no participation by women in the political sphere.
A speaker pointed out that there did not seem to be any provisions forbidding discrimination against women by non-State actors. There was also no possibility for judicial review, which would point out the unconstitutionality of particular laws. It was one of the obligations of a State party under the Convention to eliminate all discriminatory legislation, and economic difficulties should not prevent Sri Lanka from doing so. Clear-cut provisions were needed to allow for special temporary measures for the advancement of women. Did the Government possess the political will to establish quotas for women’s participation?
Concern was also expressed over the situation of Muslim women and such practices as polygamy. In considering the matter, Sri Lanka could emulate the positive experience of several neighbouring Muslim countries.
Another speaker expressed hope that the Institute for the Development of Women had not been weakened by the recent merger of several ministries. She drew the delegation’s attention to the fact that several questions posed by the pre-session working group regarding the situation of rural women had not been answered. According to the report, no budgetary allocations were being made for rural women’s programmes. In that case, where did the Women’s Bureau get the money to implement its micro-credit programmes? She also wanted to know about specific micro-credit programmes for women.
An expert noted a laudable reduction in the infant mortality rates in the country. She also welcomed the fact that despite Sri Lanka’s restrictive abortion laws, induced abortions were successfully treated in Government hospitals. However, the report also said that the mortality rate resulting from the complications of abortions was still very high, and the incidence of abortions was increasing. That was a source of concern.
She added that the equal right of women and men to pass on their nationality to their children was of great importance. The country needed to urgently address the issue of its discriminatory nationality law.
Ms. DISSANAYAKE said that several of the country’s personal-status laws needed to be reviewed, and a unification of such laws had been attempted in the past. Although it had not been concluded, the Government intended to address the issue in the near future. On the issue of nationality, the reports explained that the only gender-based issue challenged in the Supreme Court of the country as a violation of a fundamental right had been raised by Sri Lankan women whose husbands had been refused visas under the Immigration and Emigration Act. A determination had been made that the nationality laws were, indeed, discriminatory, and amended non-discriminatory guidelines had been issued. The country was also reviewing its penal code with regard to the trafficking in women and children, and was setting up cooperation with other countries in that connection. On the child labour issue, she said that child protection authorities had been established at the highest level.
It was true that there were no constitutional safeguards against discrimination by non-State actors in the country. There was also no post-enactment review, but pre-enactment review of laws was carried out in the country. However, there was a commitment on the part of the Government to review discriminatory clauses. There was a Supreme Court decision which imposed on non-State actors the duty to respect the human rights of women. Currently under consideration were land rights, criminal laws on rape, and provisions on the inability of women to be appointed legal guardians. Many training programmes were being prepared for judiciary personnel to increase their sensitivity to gender issues.
She said that within the present Government, women’s affairs was a separate portfolio. She was hopeful it would give the necessary strength and leverage to the State machinery for women. Budgetary allocations were limited. They had been successful in getting additional resources from donor agencies. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs now had a Minister who devoted her entire attention to that particular subject.
It was true that Sri Lanka had not reported to the Committee on time, she said. The capacity of the Ministry was limited. Sri Lanka was confident that the next reports would be submitted without delay.
Regarding the low level of women’s political participation, it might seem unusual that a woman was at the top of the country’s political structure, while at lower levels the rate of women’s participation was much less impressive. There was concern about low participation, which was partly due to social pressures which did not encourage women to enter politics. Part of the problem was the violence surrounding the election process and the financial resources needed for a candidate to come forward. Although not an official quota, 25 per cent had been recognized as a goal for women’s political representation. Party structures should include female participation of up to 20 per cent. While it was not a rule, it was a principle which the present Government was following. Women at the grass-roots level had been encouraged to come forward as candidates.
She said the Women’s Charter was a policy statement on women, supported by the National Women’s Committee, which was the monitoring body for the Charter. The Committee had been functioning since 1993. In recent years, the Committee had felt that it needed legal status. Proposals to that end had been submitted. A national commission to add legal status to the Women’s Charter and its monitoring body was expected soon.
Regarding the time-frame for ratifying the Optional Protocol, she hoped the process would soon be completed. Regarding unrestricted meeting time, or the amendment to article 20.1 of the Convention, Sri Lanka had no objections.
Regarding a permanent provision for judicial review, she hoped it would be incorporated into the Constitution once it was formulated.
SWARNA SUMANASEKARA, Secretary for Women’s Affairs, responding to questions on the situation of rural women, said that Sri Lanka was implementing several programme with Government, NGOs and local initiatives. The poverty alleviation project had several measures, such as savings programmes. The beneficiaries of programmes for rural people had been women. Other NGOs provided support for rural women, helping them to improve their economic activity. Globalization had brought both negative and positive results for women. Women had found employment as skilled and unskilled workers. Some women, however, had lost their jobs, for example in the hand-looming industry.
Dr. DULA DE SILVA said that maternal mortality was a problem. All women should have safe labour and bear healthy children. Maternal audits occurred every quarter. All cases of maternal mortality were reviewed. When women came to a hospital as a result of abortion, they were afforded equal treatment. To prevent abortions, the “morning after pill” was being promoted. Life-skills programmes for children and condom marketing campaigns were also being undertaken with a view to lowering maternal mortality rates in Sri Lanka.
Comments by Experts
One expert said that sending a high-level delegation to the Committee reflected the political will of the Government to implement the Convention. Ending discriminatory laws was necessary, and new laws were needed so that women could fully participate as equal partners. Laws should apply with equal force to the private sector. The Parliament had before it a number of pending bills. New laws and policies were being worked on. Violence against women must be subjected to certain penalties. The basic problem centred on implementing and applying the laws. Negative attitudes on the part of the judiciary were also a problem. The matter required urgent attention. A whole range of measures had been taken to raise awareness about gender issues, particularly in the field of education, but there did not seem to be measures for the media to stop presenting negative gender stereotypes.
Regarding employment, the Constitution dealt with employment in the public sector, not the private, she said. Women were in lower paying jobs, working in family businesses, and accounted for most of the unemployed population. Women had to exercise their rights under article 11 of the Convention. Women’s participation in the labour market was actually low when other factors were considered, including the fact that most of them worked as unpaid domestic workers. The employment situation was disturbing. In some jobs, women were entitled to very little protection. More attention should be given by the Government to the matter of child labour. Privatization of the public sector had been detrimental to women’s interests, exposing them to difficult circumstances. There was also the question of women working in the free trade zone areas.
Another expert said that coping simultaneously with civil strife and social development was a tremendous task. There was clearly the will to bring about personal status laws, and she was happy that they were being discussed. It was a matter of urgency. She underlined her concern about the lack of a minimum age of marriage for girls in the Muslim community. She was pleased to hear that the matter of under-representation of women was on the political agenda of the authorities in Sri Lanka. She hoped, however, that the demonstration of political will would come soon and that some action would be taken. The Government should consider the use of temporary special efforts to deal with the issue.
The extent of domestic violence would never be known until there was systematic statistical collection, she said. Wherever there was general violence in society, violence against women also increased. Law enforcement officials must be trained to cope with domestic violence.
Regarding the ratification of article 20.1 of the Convention, while she was happy to hear that Sri Lanka had no objections, the Committee had been stressing the timely ratification of the Convention.
Another expert expressed her appreciation for the strong political will to achieve legal amendments and implementation of the Convention. She was glad to see that the Government emphasized gender mainstreaming in the national machinery. Were the “gender focal points” functioning in gender mainstreaming? What was the current state of awareness of the various ministries regarding gender issues?
On the issue of violence against women, despite various legal reforms to the penal codes the problem of marital rape remained. Were there plans to include marital rape in upcoming legal reform reviews? There was no specific legislation on domestic violence, but such legislation was needed. The police helpline did not seem to meet the needs of women. Gender training for all police officials was essential. Another manifestation of violence against women was the violence perpetrated against ethnic-minority women. There were recurrent incidents of rape and sexual assault against Tamil women, especially at police checkpoints. Those incidents were not fully investigated or prosecuted. How concerned was the Government about preventing violence against minority women, especially Tamil women?
Regarding employment, she had the impression that the Government was not concerned about the low economic participation of women. Many women who did not make their own living went abroad to seek jobs in the Arab countries. What kind of national plan of action existed to increase employment and protective measures for women abroad? There were reports that there were many deaths of migrant women. When their bodies were returned, their organs were removed so that the reason for their death could not be proven. Although there were many impressive measures to make registration mandatory for employment agencies, unless the high unemployment rate was tackled there would be more migrant women.
Concern was also expressed regarding gender stereotypes. The entrenched concept of man as the head of the family undermined the attempts to advance the position of women. Curriculum revisions and teacher training to tackle the problem had been described in the report, but it was important to work through the media and other channels as well.
The report also said that in addition to awareness-raising, specific prohibition and enforcement remedies were needed for the advancement of women, who represented the weakest group in society. That was particularly important as far as violence against women and discrimination in employment were concerned.
Another expert said that exploitation of women as cheap labour, and discrimination against skilled women, were two examples of women’s inequality in the labour market. She wanted to know what was being done to enforce rules on minimum wages and maximum hours in the country. Another source of concern was that there seemed to be a 25 per cent reduction in the number of women in postgraduate studies over the past 20 years. There was no real attempt to enforce equal employment opportunities for highly trained and skilled women. There was no legislation to ensure equal pay for work of equal value.
Questions were also asked about the number of convictions in cases of domestic violence, mediation efforts in domestic disputes and the accountability of army officers regarding the handling of women at the time of conflict.
Ms. WIJAUATILAKE said that the question of vulnerability of women in conflict was being considered by the Government, which did not condone any human rights abuses. Although in many cases the victims and the witnesses were not willing to come forward, the Government was opposed to the creation of a climate of impunity. In 1998, an anti-harassment committee had been appointed by the country’s President to look into human rights abuses and other violations. Wide publicity was given to that body.
She went on to say that a permanent inter-ministerial committee had also been created in 2000, which looked into allegations of abuse and provided policy directives to correct the situation. Every single case of human rights abuse was looked into, including those reported in the media. Humanitarian norms directorates had also been incorporated into the army, navy and air force structures. A computerized database on torture had been created. Special directives had been issued to army officers on the treatment of women who had been arrested. Administrative changes had been put in place to improve the situation. For instance, to ensure the independence of investigations, the police department had been separated from the army and placed under the authority of the Ministry of the Interior. A very high punishment of up to 20 years was stipulated for rape of women in custody.
Domestic violence legislation was being prepared, she said, and the Government realized the need to create a sufficient infrastructure to address the problem, including victims’ shelters and investigative units. The country had also ratified several international instruments to deal with the question of child labour. Officers were being trained to deal with complaints, and several initiatives had been taken, including videotaping of child witnesses.
Continuing, she agreed with the experts that gender-based statistics needed to be maintained in Sri Lanka. Personal status laws presented a great challenge, and it was important to adequately deal with the discriminative clauses. The Ministry of Justice implemented its mediation boards programmes as part of its efforts to combat domestic violence. They had been advised not to intervene in serious cases, including rape, which could not be a subject of mediation.
Ms. DISSANAYAKE said that the country was progressing in dealing with gender stereotypes and sensitizing target groups on gender issues. Several programmes for law enforcement officers were also in place. Much more remained to be done to change the attitudes of both the general public and the media, however.
Focal points were being established to mainstream gender efforts by various ministries, she added. Regarding traditionally male fields of study, she said that social gender attitudes were not favourable to women in that respect and she did not expect a dramatic change to take place in the near future. However, several programmes were on hand to improve the gender balance in education.
Turning to women’s employment, she said that it was difficult to enforce labour laws in the free-trade zones. Even girls with a high level of education in many cases opted for medium-level jobs, because they found it difficult to find jobs commensurate with their skills. Women working in the free-trade zones had organized into labour unions, and they were receiving help to improve their working conditions. As for the low figures for women’s participation in the labour market, she said that the country had no system in place to take into account the work of agricultural workers, women’s housework and so on.
It was true that it was less educated women who were involved in migrant work, she said. Sri Lanka had ratified the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, but it had not ratified the International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions concerning migration for employment and abolition of forced labour. No restrictions were considered by the Government on the number of women able to leave the country in search of work. Some facilities had been provided for their protection over the years, however, in such areas as health and insurance. Every woman intending to work abroad had to sign an agreement with a prospective employer, under the terms of which her legal rights were protected. Locally, the employment situation was being improved through skill-development and micro-credit projects. Equal wages were enforced, but, as mentioned by the experts, there were some problems with overtime reporting.
Ms. WIJAUATILAKE said that legislation recognizing marital rape in cases of legal separation had been introduced in the country. More time was needed to monitor the effectiveness of the measures already in place before such programmes were expanded. Statistics were maintained in cases of murder and other serious offences in the home environment, but they were not defined as domestic violence. The Constitution made the Supreme Court responsible for administrative action, but if the respondent was a non-State actor, cases could be filed in other courts. Thus, it was not correct to say that there was no remedy for violations of women’s rights by non-State actors.
As the Constitution did not extend to the private sector, one expert said that the Law Commission should review the issue. Regarding the citizenship of foreign spouses of Sri Lankan citizens, what was the legal status of the guidelines and the directives referred to in the report?
While delighted to notice many parallels in the report to her own country, one expert said the Government seemed to condone the existence of discriminatory legislation. She was happy that something was being done, however, and she hoped that Sri Lanka’s next report would be more positive in that regard. Did women participate in the Human Rights Commission? How did the Commission operate, and what was its budget? She also asked for more information on the National Committee on Women, including its membership and funding.
Regarding the issue of the marital age, she noted that amendments had been made to increase the minimum marital age to 18 years. The amendments did not cover Muslim law, however, which allowed for a minimum marital age of 12 years. It seemed to her that the rights of the child at the age of 12 should be more important than personal-status laws. What percentage of women were living in rural areas? She congratulated the Supreme Court for its bold step regarding the issue of bigamy. Men should not be allowed to change religions just to have more than one wife. While a step had been taken to make rape illegal for wives judicially separated, she hoped that that conditionality would now be removed. Consent should be supreme in deciding whether sexual intercourse was considered rape within marriage.
What had taken place in actual terms regarding the law on marital age? another expert asked. Regarding the 1934 Land Development Ordinance, did women really have rights to land ownership under that ordinance? While she appreciated the progress made in Sri Lanka in terms of the advancement of women, the challenge was to make legislation enforceable.
Even though there had been improvements in Sri Lanka, a number of defects remained, another expert said. Special temporary measures were meant to eliminate and accelerate equality. The roots of inequality remained deeply entrenched in negative stereotypes. The Government seemed to be relying on a “natural evolution of things”. In practice, such a simple, linear evolution did not exist. If improvements in education were enough to improve the situation in the labour market and in politics, the situation would have been better already. Change would happen, of course, but there was a need to make it happen sooner and quicker as a matter of justice and human rights for women, on the one hand, and good governance for the country on the other. Special temporary measures must be seen in that light. They were not just quotas in political life but were legal and policy measures, targets and specific training activities. Sri Lanka must consider special temporary measures in many areas.
Ms. DISSANAYAKE said that the Women’s Committee, as specified in the Women’s Charter, was a 14-member body, selected from seven areas of interest, including those of economic development, education, environment and women’s voluntary organizations. The functions of the Committee included monitoring the policies and standards set under the Women’s Charter and consideration of complaints. The national plan of action for women had identified specific priorities, including those set by the Beijing Platform for Action. Specific agencies responsible for the implementation of that plan had also been determined.
Regarding rural women, she said that small women’s groups were being formed in the rural areas under the guidance of the Women’s Bureau to improve awareness of such women’s issues as reproductive health and to provide training. They did not receive any State financing, but a credit scheme was in place to provide them with funds on a rotational basis. The efforts of such women’s groups were coordinated at the district level. Among the country’s other initiatives were forthcoming training and political motivation courses for all such district organizations’ representatives. As for the land issues, she said that a recent survey indicated that the level of ownership of land by women was only about 5 per cent.
Ms. WIJAUATILAKE provided some further information regarding the fundamental rights jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. Another means of recourse for the population was the national Human Rights Commission, which also had a limited jurisdictional scope. Now, the Government was trying to identify the reforms needed to make the judicial system more efficient as far as violations by non-State actors were concerned. Individuals were not barred from taking such violators to court, however.
She also further developed the subject of non-recognition of citizenship in the maternal line, and added that the visa statute in itself did not contain any discriminatory sections. However, the actions of officials had been determined by guidelines which had been recognized as discriminatory by the Supreme Court. Consequently, a new set of guidelines had been developed. The citizenship act had also been recognized as discriminatory, and it was going to be amended.
Turning to the national human rights machinery, she said that the Human Rights Commission consisted of five members, including one woman. It looked into complaints on violations of human rights, disseminated information and made recommendations to the Government regarding various human rights instruments and measures. Currently, that body was focusing on the situation of internally displaced persons and people in the areas of conflict.
The law did not recognize the minimum age of marriage for Muslims, she continued. A policy decision in that regard would be made in the near future.
Ms. DISSANAYAKE said that the delegation would take the Committee’s recommendations concerning the preparation of the country’s next report into consideration.
Turning to women’s education, she said that women’s housework responsibilities were among the impediments in the way of their post-graduate education. At the moment, the percentage of women in tertiary education was rising.
It was very encouraging for the Committee members to receive such a high-level delegation, an expert said. Sri Lanka stood out as an active participant in all human development efforts, and the experts had not been disappointed in their expectation of a full and substantive report, which was open and well introduced. From the reports it was clear that, in general, women in Sri Lanka enjoyed a high level of gender equality, at least compared with other countries of the region.
Summarizing her colleagues’ remarks, she singled out violence against women, the persistence of patriarchal stereotypes and the need to harmonize the Constitution of Sri Lanka with preceding domestic laws. Another cause of concern was the fact that, according to the report and the answers, it sometimes took several years for the authorities to bring cases of violence against women before the courts. It would also be worthwhile to review the Constitution in order to acknowledge that violence against women was a violation of human rights.
The State needed to free the women trapped within the boundaries of customary law, another speaker said. She commended the Government for its anti-violence actions, particularly in the areas of conflict. It was also important for women to be active participants in conflict-resolution efforts and not just outside lobbyists.
As far as women’s contraception was concerned, was it true that a woman needed her husband’s permission to obtain it? an expert asked. She also pointed out the need to significantly increase the number of women in Parliament and other elected positions, and measure the impact of various gender advancement measures implemented in the country.
There was a striking contrast between Sri Lanka’s many well-educated and accomplished women and boats full of people who arrived in Europe every week “in practically slavery conditions” in search of work. Despite the difficulties the country was experiencing, it was the duty of the State to ensure better conditions of work and life in the country. Special temporary measures and review of labour laws were needed in order to improve working opportunities for women.
Another expert commended the delegation for providing a copy of the Women’s Charter, which was adopted in 1993. The Charter had incorporated many of the Convention’s provisions. As a policy document, the implementation of the provisions of the Charter would solve many of the problems facing women. She urged its implementation. Because of the mental implications of pregnancies which resulted from rape and incest, women suffered tremendous mental torture. As the Charter referred to the issue, it should not be too difficult to include pregnancy as a result of rape, incest or fetal abnormalities as part of the criteria for allowing abortion under the law.
On the issue of violence against ethnic women, another expert said she was glad to find out that the Government of Sri Lanka had prepared a series of measures and mechanisms to counter the problem of human rights violations. Were the mechanisms known to the women in need? Women living in conflict areas, without ability to move freely, might find it difficult to file complaints or to learn about the existence of such mechanisms. How many convictions were brought to the Government’s attention? Had grievance procedures been disseminated to women? Regarding the plight of migrant women workers, she said there had been many reports of fraud and corruption on the part of registration personnel. How effective were the protective measures? How many fraudulent registrations had been discovered?
Committee Vice-Chairperson R. MANALO said that she had not seen comprehensive policy regarding senior women in Sri Lanka.
Ms. WIJAYATILAKE said that all the provisions in the Women’s Charter were valid. Regarding the issue of contraception, the permission of the husband was obtained when permanent family planning was being performed. In all other contraceptive areas, no such consent was necessary. Regarding the participation of men in family planning, a programme to motivate the use of condoms was being promoted.
Dr. DE SILVA said that for temporary contraceptives, the husband’s consent was not needed. For permanent contraceptives, the consent of the husband was obtained. It was not a legal requirement, however. For older women, some 8 per cent of the population was over the age of 65. Special programmes for the elderly existed, including a unit for elderly health-care. By 2004, the entire island would be covered by special programmes for the elderly.
Ms. DISSANAYAKE, on violence against women, said that justice delayed was justice denied. Something had to be done about the case-load explosion. Regarding rapes and murders in which the victims were among ethnic minorities and conflict areas, prosecution had been swift. Regarding procedures to punish police officers, the scales had to be held even, and it was not possible to apply a different procedure to them. The accused must be given a fair opportunity. Regarding cases of rape while in custody, the requirement that absence of consent
be established was being studied. Wherever there was abuse of women, it was a violation of human rights. There were several courses of action when there was abuse. One was for the petitioner to file in the Supreme Court. In that case the Supreme Court would see if a violation had occurred and then award compensation.
Regarding the Women’s Charter, it contained two parts, the first being a recognition of accepted policies by the State. Without legal recognition, it was a policy document accepted by the State. The second part spelled out the mechanisms to monitor the observance of the rights.
Regarding crimes against women in conflict areas, she said that once action was taken against the perpetrators of crime, it would become clear that all violations would be treated with the utmost seriousness. All the Government machinery dealing with human rights was trying to increase awareness of the issues involved, and people were being made aware of their rights. A senior secretary of the Defence Ministry had been vested with overseeing disciplinary action against military personnel.
Regarding asylum seekers, reports showed that since 1993, several measures had been taken to address the issue of rejected asylum seekers. Action with the European Union was being negotiated to address that issue, as well.
On abortion, she said that an attempt had been made to introduce legislation on abortion in connection with rape, incest and genetic abnormalities. However, that bill had not been passed by the Parliament.
Regarding the problem of emigration, Ms. WIJAUATILAKE said that migration was a result of the difficult employment and economic conditions in the country. Illegal migrants were often caught and returned to the country.
In conclusion, she said that the Committee’s opinions would be seriously considered in Sri Lanka. The delegation had taken notes of the experts’ comments and would pass them on to the Government.
Ms. MANALO then thanked the Sri Lankan Government for the presentation of the report, which testified to its serious intention to speedily implement the Convention. The experts had found out much important information about the situation in the country, efforts to advance the cause of women and barriers encountered on the way.
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