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Getting to grips with the gender gap

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Friday, 9 February 2018 00:00


One of the common criticisms aimed at the now global #MeToo movement is that it trivialises quote-unquote real problems faced by women. This criticism, sometimes levelled by more traditional feminists themselves, posits that painting minor incidents of so-called micro-aggressions and true horrors such as rape and sexual assault with the same brush, could lead to a dangerous status quo where the more horrific incidents of violence against women are no longer taken with the kind of seriousness that they deserve.

Visiting Hollywood actress Ashley Judd, who is currently in Sri Lanka promoting discourse on gender equality in her capacity as UNFPA Goodwill Ambassador, highlighted an inconvenient but inescapable truth that this criticism fails to consider.

Judd believes everyone’s experience of aggression (micro or otherwise), harassment and violence is unique. She believes – and we couldn’t agree more – it’s important that that subjectivity is not used to invalidate an entire movement whose usefulness to women all over the world cannot be overstated. As Judd so eloquently put it, it’s not a competition on who’s more hard done by.

As a victim of sexual abuse herself, the actress-turned-activist makes a very valid point on why every victim’s story matters. Women in Sri Lanka experience sexual abuse in different forms every day. It’s not a stretch to say that there is not a single woman in this country, from any walk of life, who hasn’t experienced some form of sexual harassment, be it at the hands of a relative or through employers expecting sexual favours in exchange for due recognition at the workplace.

However, like with everything else, the problem is more complicated than the stereotypical, coffee-sipping millennial internet activists would have you believe. There is nuance to be considered and Judd agrees. She acknowledges that there is definitely a spectrum of abusive behaviour. Identifying the different regions of this spectrum, she says, and adopting a standard against it – similar to that endorsed by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in November, last year – is crucial.

The premise of Judd’s take on this issue, while not wholly original, is one worth taking into account. It goes without saying that a strange man on the street saying “ah, nangi” is not quite the same as being brutally assaulted and raped by (more often than not) someone close to the victim. However, that does not render the #MeToo movement and its sequel #TimesUp, and what they represent, meaningless. It bears repeating that everyone’s story matters. After all, who are we to decide how much someone else’s wound should hurt?

Of course, Sri Lanka is still a long way away from anything remotely resembling these movements; although, encouragingly, some of the discourse has spilled over to local youth forums. From a policy perspective, however, there is much to be done. Despite 52% of the country’s population comprising women, they make up only 36% of the workforce. The root causes for this disparity go deeper than mere discrimination. As Judd reminds us, over 90% of women are harassed in public transport every day in Sri Lanka. There is a sinister, underlying misogyny at play here that needs to be rooted out. It is naïve to believe that that can be done without State intervention. The sooner our mostly male lawmakers realise this, the better it will be for the future women – and men – of this country.

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