Women’s rights, economic oppression and human rights

Saturday, 13 March 2021 00:05 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Equality in education (perhaps largely achieved in Sri Lanka), equal pay for men and women, and positive measures in promoting women in politics and social activities, are necessary in addition to promoting women’s rights through education – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara


“Oppression” refers to a mode of human relations involving domination and exploitation – economic, social and psychological – among individuals, social groups and classes within and beyond societies, and globally, among entire societies” – David Gill, ‘Confronting Injustice and Oppression’

Women undoubtedly are the most oppressed throughout all societies, north or south, east, or west, poor, or rich, developed, or underdeveloped, and throughout the most of human history. It is the number one human rights problem today not addressed properly. 

Out of around 7.8 billion world population, while male-female balance might be 1:1, there is estimated 1.7% people who are intersex. Whereas rights of all people are important, there is a clear oppression and marginalisation of women and LGBT people in almost all countries. 

In the case of Sri Lanka, out of around 21.5 million population, females are around 50.7%, perhaps due to more males being killed in wars and violence. 

When we talk about human rights and oppression, the women question should be mentioned especially in the context of the International Women’s Day celebrated on 8 March. In this context, Dr. Santhushya Fernando’s speech on this day in Colombo should be especially appreciated. 

The remembrance of women’s rights or rights of all should not be limited to one day but all days. The most heinous among women’s rights might be the sexual harassment and subjugation due to male domination in love affairs, family, workplace, politics, and society. All of us as men should be mindful of this situation. If it has not come from the socialisation of childhood, it should be inculcated through human rights education with emphasis on 


There is a possibility that some of the human rights violations like women’s rights do happen because of the lack of awareness, socialisation, or education. However, the social structures, property laws, workplace practices, profit making, and even religious institutions, justify and perpetuate them. 

Equality in education (perhaps largely achieved in Sri Lanka), equal pay for men and women, and positive measures in promoting women in politics and social activities, are necessary in addition to promoting women’s rights through education. 

Oppressors and the oppressed

In historical awareness or advocacy of oppression, it is unfortunate that women’s rights have come almost at last. The first person who had talked about women oppression is considered as Alice Paul, beginning of the 20th century, but not yet in all aspects. Such was the prejudice or neglect. 

When we talk about oppressors and oppressed, in a dichotomic or dialectical manner, Friedrich Hegel was the first to talk about religious oppression, Catholics as the oppressors and the Protestants as the oppressed in Germany in the 19th century. We know more about Karl Marx, who not only talked about class oppression, but explained underlying economic reasons, the bourgeoisie as the oppressor and proletariat as the oppressed, later in the same century. 

The class analysis is still valid as the economic systems have not fundamentally changed except perhaps in countries where the state has strongly intervened as an intermediary like in China or Cuba. The Soviet Union has gone. Even in these societies the classes existed and still exists, but comparatively progressive to societies we live in. There are so many other thinkers who have followed the methodology or class analysis of Marx and Engels. 

Vladimir Lenin perhaps was more future thinking in extending this analysis to the global context talking about oppressed and oppressor nations under imperialism. What he or his disciples mainly meant by ‘nations’ is national states like Sri Lanka. However, there is a possibility of extending this analysis to see an ‘oppressed nations’ or an ‘oppressed national groups’ within a nation state. 

However, it is highly questionable whether an ‘oppressed nation’ or a ‘national group’ within a national state, which is particularly in oppressed conditions, could obtain genuine support of an oppressor nation for their grievances or liberation. There are serious moral questions involved in ‘oppressor nations’ (i.e. Western) apparent intentions or motivations. All national groups in an oppressed nation under imperialism, whether majority or minority, are in the same soup. 

There are several other forms to oppressor-oppressed dichotomy. One is caste. In Sri Lanka this is not unknown. Another is political. In a democracy when authoritarian governments take over or people feel or believe that is the case, that kind of a dichotomy might emerge. However, how far these are subjective, or objective is a subject for debate. 

There are equal possibilities of political oppositions (or outside forces) propagating these feelings or ideas. These are symptoms of an underdeveloped democracy where political power struggles are intense. Otherwise, the normal practice in a developed democracy is to wait for the next turn, while constructively criticising an incumbent government progressively. Australia is one example. There are also needs of bipartisanship on nationally important matters like foreign policy or social welfare measures, etc. Sri Lanka is terribly missing them, involved in terrible hatred and violent feelings against each other between governing and opposition parties. 

International context

The terms like ‘imperialism’ or ‘oppressor-oppressed nations’ are quite taboo these days as Marxism has become discredited. However, no one can avoid the distinction between rich and poor nations or countries. Even the IMF and the World Bank are compelled to deal with them at least superficially. This is also a number one human rights issue in the world today like gender oppression. Poverty and women’s rights go hand in hand in many respects. 

Since the end of the Second World War, which was considered a new era in human history, the poor-rich dichotomy or the gap has not subsided but increased. This is under the supervision of the UN with a clear human rights mandate. After the emergence of political neo-liberalism, the situation has worsened. 

There are people who believe (and behave that way) that poor countries like Sri Lanka are at the mercy of rich countries like USA, Britain, and EU or OECD countries. It is said that we depend on them for aid, investments, and economic guidance and therefore we should not criticise them even in the human rights sphere. Political realism is wrongly invoked in defence of this despicable approach. This is the colonial mindset whatever the words or terms used defending such shameful approaches. This is the same as what is told to women: “you are dependent on men and they are your superiors. Therefore, do what they ask you 

to do.” 

Challenging the West is also called ‘narrow nationalism.’ That is not the case. It is not nationalism, but justice. If it is nationalism, it is the ‘nationalism of the oppressed.’ What is rampant today in the West is ‘vaccination nationalism’ on their part. They themselves struggle and compete to monopolise the vaccine. Sri Lanka should support the call by India and South Africa to waver the intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines and treatments. Otherwise, there is no justice to the poor countries, like in the human rights sphere. 

Global exploitation

The countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America are poor not primarily because of their fault. The rich countries are exploiting them. The world is not only in a Lucas Paradox, where the capital does not flow from developed countries to developing countries although the capital per worker in developing countries is terribly low. Adam Smith’s or Milton Freedman’s free flow or free market does not work. In addition, the studies have revealed that the flow of money from poor countries to rich countries far exceed the flow in the other way round. Let me quote Jason Hickel, “Aid in Reverse: How Poor Countries Develop Rich Countries” (The Guardian – Australia, 14 January 2017). 

“In 2012, the last year of recorded data, developing countries received a total of $1.3tn, including all aid, investment, and income from abroad. But that same year some $3.3tn flowed out of them. In other words, developing countries sent $2tn more to the rest of the world than they received. If we look at all years since 1980, these net outflows add up to an eye-popping total of $16.3tn – that’s how much money has been drained out of the global south over the past few decades. To get a sense for the scale of this, $16.3tn is roughly the GDP of the United States.”  

Is this not a human rights problem? How far this outflow of money impinged on economic and social rights of the people in poor countries, and the right to development in general? The UN big guns, including the High Commissioner for Human Rights, of course allow few hours for the member countries to discuss the right to development ceremonially. But no tangible solutions are proposed to change the situation.

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