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Policy and polls


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The social media universe is atwitter about recent policy reversals made by the Government regarding alcohol. The Finance Ministry last week announced liquor shops could remain open for longer and abolished an archaic law that prohibited women from purchasing alcohol. The backlash was swift with President Maithripala Sirisena slamming the move and pledging to make the Finance Minister reverse the gazette notification, which has received mixed reactions from the public. 

The standoff has once again highlighted the Achilles heel of this Government, which is that coalition parties often make decisions that are not notified to their counterpart resulting in knee-jerk changes and public loss of face. Policy is an important element of Government. In fact many would argue that it is what a Government is appointed to do. Governments are tasked with making decisions on behalf of citizens, with their consultation and for their benefit. Policymaking also needs to be coordinated. 

Policy in many ways also pervades all aspects of a country, be it social, cultural or economic and the latest situation is emblematic of several challenges before Sri Lanka and its politicians. Alcohol for obvious reasons is usually a very dicey topic even at the best of times and is regularly rolled out during election time for some traditional flogging. 

But there are larger issues at stake here. It is true that Sri Lanka has a high level of per capita alcohol consumption but there are larger socioeconomic reasons behind why that happens. If the country could be dried by simply closing liquor shops then the entire moonshine industry should collapse overnight. Also other countries with much more open policies towards alcohol would have far higher levels of consumption. But the simple truth is people consume alcohol because they want to and a multi-pronged approach including reducing access and increasing awareness is needed to push people to consume alcohol responsibly.

Even if closing shops could be justified under the Government’s anti-alcohol policy, prohibiting women from purchasing alcohol is contentious at best. The President has been quoted many times pledging to improve women’s rights but his latest statement is completely contradictory to this stance as it indicates the President does not believe women have the capacity to make decisions for themselves and have to be controlled by law. 

This is a disgraceful and misguided approach that only strengthens regressive and demeaning social attitudes prevailing in Sri Lanka. Women are not going to willy-nilly increase their alcohol consumption simply because they are allowed to purchase alcohol and those who do consume alcohol do so far more responsibly than men. The truth is that many instances of abuse are perpetrated by men who drink, not women. 

If, as the President seems to think, the moral responsibility of civilisation is sorely in the hands of women then treating them with respect as intelligent human beings would further the cause of society. The Government should then work to protect women from rape and other abuse, ensure their reproductive rights, increase women representation, improve women in the formal workforce, give them marriage and property rights, ensure equal pay and end all forms of harassment. If the Government focuses on these goals they will not only improve the lot of women but the whole of Sri Lanka.       


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