By Prashani Dias
Every so often, in my field of work, I run into what I have come to term my ‘occupational hazard’: resistance to the concept of equality between men and women, boys and girls. I should be used to it by now but certain conversations continue to leave me jarred. The principle of equality among people is something we all ascribe to, but when we bring up the term ‘gender equality’, it evokes mixed reactions.
Let me illustrate a few of the most frequent comments I’ve encountered on this subject:
“Gender issues? There aren’t any gender issues in Sri Lanka. After all, we had the first woman Prime Minister in the world.”
Yes, Sri Lanka has a proud history of past achievements. Both men and women obtained the right to vote in 1931, ahead of many other countries. We produced the first woman Prime Minister and we have had a woman President. We have achieved the Millennium Development Goals on universal access to primary and secondary education, and low infant and maternal mortality.
Yet there is also a sense that we tend to hide behind these accomplishments when attempting to address the current inequalities faced by women and girls. Gender is presented and treated as a non-issue, not deserving much priority. I fail to see how it doesn’t deserve priority since inequality directly impacts 51% of our population.
Very broadly, these inequalities revolve around low women’s political representation and participation, low female labour force participation, violence against women and girls, and discrimination in the political, economic and social spheres. For instance, certain Personal Laws and policies restrict some women’s right to employment and control over property. According to the Sri Lanka National Human Development Report (NHDR) 2014 on Youth and Development, a youth quota of 30% applies to candidates of each political party.
However women’s representation in Parliament has never exceeded 6% in its entire history despite 74% of survey respondents agreeing that there should be more women in politics. A further 68% believe that women have equal opportunity to be in leadership positions despite low participation rates. The stereotypical understanding that the ‘right place’ for women is not in politics seems to be an internalised reason explaining why women’s representation isn’t parallel to their male counterparts.
Female unemployment is twice that of men, which is also true for female university graduates. There’s also the little fact that one in three women in Sri Lanka have experienced some form of violence and/or harassment.
All these are very real and pressing issues which have impacted the women and girls of this country, stunting their potential and depriving them of a better life. As much as we should be proud of our past achievements, we shouldn’t be complacent in thinking that everything is just fine. It’s not.
“But women should help themselves before we (men and boys) try to help them. They are just as much at fault on certain counts. What about SheForShe?”
Women have been helping themselves, shattering glass ceilings and stereotypes, juggling multiple responsibilities along the way. Women’s groups have dedicated themselves to promoting equality and empowering women. But how can they expect to end structural inequalities by themselves, in a patriarchal society no less? Let’s not forget that the glass ceilings were constructed and set up for women by society in the first place.
When I refer to structural inequalities, I refer to how systems and culture have perpetuated a narrow definition of the ‘role’ of both women and men. This is compounded by internalising these characteristics which result in a particular mind set of how men and women should behave: in essence what we term as ‘gender norms and stereotypes’. These gender norms and stereotypes also differ based on religion, ethnicity, geographic location, and sexual orientation, to name a few, and impacts the level of inequality. While there are instances when women restrict themselves – in the education they follow, in the jobs they take up, in the very identity they create – we must realise this is a product of years of cultural and societal values being instilled on what it means to be a ‘good’ woman or girl.
It’s been 20 years since the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, a comprehensive blueprint on women’s rights, yet there has only been slight progress both worldwide and Sri Lanka. While much has been achieved, there is much more to be achieved. We can’t win with one half of the team. For one half of the population to rise up, we need the other half to give them a hand.
HeForShe, the UN Women Solidarity Movement for Gender Equality, is precisely about asking men to acknowledge and take action on gender norms and stereotypes which affect their mothers, sisters, daughters as well as themselves; that equality is not about a battle of the sexes. At first glance, the campaign may seem to be geared to just men, but I believe it’s also requesting women and girls to speak up and support the campaign and spread awareness on its important.
“Well, what about the men? Why isn’t there a UN Men? How come we don’t have an International Men’s Day?”
The point which is being made here is that women are disproportionately affected by gender norms and stereotypes. As a patriarchal society, power is primarily held by males, and as such they predominate in roles of leadership, and are privy to authority and social privilege. Men and boys have more access to opportunities and are allowed leeway in what they do and say, because ‘boys will be boys’. In a family unit, traditionally, men and boys are expected to be the head of the household while women and girls are expected to be dutiful and passive wives, mothers and caregivers.
This is not to say that men and boys are not affected by such norms and stereotypes; they most definitely are. The burden of being the traditional head of household providing for the family and of living up to the acceptable notion of ‘manliness’ have direct consequences on how they behave.
I would like to highlight the fact that gender equality is not just about women. It’s a common misperception that we are purely talking about women’s issues. Women’s issues are a major concern simply because of the high inequalities and lack of access to opportunities faced when compared to men. For equality to arise between men and women, we need to put aside patriarchal ‘roles’ and characteristics set for men and women, in effect dismantling these stereotypes.
UN Women was created to champion gender equality with emphasis on eliminating severe discrimination faced by women worldwide due to unequal power structures and pervasive attitudes held by people. International Women’s Day is not about ‘women’ per se, it’s a day to celebrate the achievements made towards gender equality, and serves as a platform to highlight the remaining gaps.
“I wouldn’t mind voting for a woman candidate but is she really capable? Does she have the experience and qualifications?”
It’s ironic that this is usually of concern when we talk of a woman decision maker or political leader. The Sunday Times reported that of 225 MPs of the previous Government, 95 had failed the GCE O Level and 145 had failed the GCE A Level. Let’s not forget that of the 225 MPs, 212 were male MPs while only 13 were female MPs.
In Sri Lanka, women have to contend with the fact that female nomination for elections by political parties has hovered over a dismal 7%, immediately impacting on the number of women representatives in the Parliament. Moreover, gaining the required experience for a candidate is a catch-22. To gain the required experience, one would need to be appointed as a leader. To be appointed as a leader, one would be required to have such experience.
This is true for all candidates both male and female. Unfortunately, women candidates face the extra challenge of having to convince voters that they are as capable of making the tough calls or are knowledgeable on serious topics as their male counterparts. Male candidates are usually automatically seen as confident, ‘go-getter’ leaders since leadership is traditionally associated with male qualities. This is unfair for women in that they are judged by their conformity to traditional male qualities. This is yet another example of how gender stereotypes and norms impact women disproportionately.
“Violence against women? That’s not a major issue in Sri Lanka. Anyway it’s mostly in slum areas.
Let me reiterate that one in three women in Sri Lanka have faced violence at some instance in their lives as per a well-respected study by CARE Sri Lanka. It also revealed that 66.5% of male perpetrators of sexual violence said that they were motivated by sexual entitlement. A staggering 79% of men (along with 75% percent of women) stated that ‘some women ask to be raped by the way they dress and behave’. Even worse is the fact that 82% of men reported that they were not worried about being found out as a perpetrator, while almost 70% stated they did not feel guilty.
Contrast this with the fact that only 7% of the sample reported having faced legal consequences; we see a depressing state of affairs related to attitudes towards violence.
My aim in stating these facts is not to heap blame on men or boys – it’s to note that violence against women is pervasive, irrespective of class, ethnicity or race. The incitement for violence stems once again from attitudes and stereotypes, which is in need of urgent change.
So, how do we change this?
I believe that as the youth of Sri Lanka, we are the most likely change agents, as we are more receptive to the notion of equality. If we can reach out to youth and children from an early age and instil values of respect and co-existence, we have the best chance of breaking the cycle of perpetuating stereotypes. The idea is to encourage peer-to-peer understand of the impacts of stereotypes and biases – how it limits us and ultimately deprives our country of its best chance for inclusive development. Changing norms, perceptions and traditions will never be easy, nor are we likely to see tangible results as we work towards this case. But we have the quality of optimistic idealism which is our best hope. It is our responsibility to work towards creating a society which considers everyone as their equals regardless of archaic gender stereotypes.