Gender equality | Sunday Observer

Gender equality

8 March, 2020

The days when women were bound in chains, gagged, taunted and sexually harassed may be over for most women. But does the glass ceiling that binds them still exist?

This is a question that haunts every woman who, despite their progress in breaking down jealously guarded male bastions, continue to face slavery of a different nature, invisible but very real in their homes, workplaces, on public transport in our so called modern civilised society. It is a question that will be collectively raised by all women today as they celebrate Women’s International Day.

Admittedly in recent years thousands of women worldwide and in Sri Lanka have managed to break though that glass ceiling entering and even scaling to the highest ranks of erstwhile jealously guarded male bastions, while a few have even risen to the highest ranks of their respective professions, as equals or even superior to their male colleagues as Managers, CEOs, Directors, Pilots, Engineers and so on.

However, they still lag behind in specific fields; politics for instance. Even in the more progressive western countries the number of women holding parliamentary seats is woefully dismal, despite the fact that those holding these seats are women who are able to wield political punch around the world such as Germany’s Vice Chancellor, Angela Merkel.

Strides made in the health sector are equally impressive in recent years. Globally the reduction of mortality caused by illegal abortions among young teenage mothers and reduction of HIV infections in women have been hailed by the World Health Organisation. Yet despite these advances women still face many negative experiences especially, in Asian countries like ours where women are anaemic, chained by poverty and in addition exposed to life scarring violence on a daily basis.

So how better off is the Lankan woman today when compared to a few decades ago? Take their leadership roles. How far have they advanced in this respect?

Although female representation was given to women through universal suffrage a hundred years ago, and we were able to boast of the first woman Prime Minister sadly our progress in terms of numbers has barely increased with just five women MPs. A Bill to introduce a quota system for women MPs has been proposed and augurs well for future women MPs.

Minimum wage for domestic workers

Equally heartening is the decision by the Women Directors Forum (WDF) of the Sri Lanka Institute of Directors (SLID) to get more women directors of public and private, listed and unlisted companies on board, by making it mandatory for companies to allocate a quota for women directors. The program which will coincide with the International Women’s Month will highlight the scarcity of chief women executive officers in some of the biggest publicity traded companies.

With women occupying 51% of the labour force and much more if the number of informal workers were added, a decision to make it mandatory for employers to pay domestic workers a standard minimum wage is also on the cards.

Advances in the Health sector

Let’s consider the progress made in the health sector towards ensuring a healthier future for Lankan mothers.

We were recently commended by the world Health authorities for being ranked among the countries with the best breast milk coverage, with over 97% of mothers breastfeeding their babies. But how many of them actually breastfeed for the entire period of six months as recommended by UNICEF to give their baby a good start in life? If you go by office statistics you will discover that most return to work after three months. So what is the solution? According to health officials, the answer lies in creating more baby friendly units and spaces where mothers can nurse their babies and then leave their child in the care of a trained nurse as in other countries while they continue with their normal duties. The pledge of the Health Minister to create child friendly environments islandwide in schools, offices and other work places is in this sense a step forward. There are other achievements we can be justly proud of.

Sri Lanka boasts of having the lowest infant and maternal mortality. HIV/AIDs and transmission of HIV from mother to child is no longer a threat. The menace of Rubella and other diseases is also a thing of the past due to our excellent Expanded Immunisation Program. But other new emerging diseases including the novel coronavirus and SARS need to be monitored carefully, as middle aged women are said to be especially vulnerable. The spread of viral flu, respiratory diseases and dengue also need closer attention with regard to their impact on the Lankan women. Diabetes and diabetic retinopathy which affects older women more than men is another heath problem that needs attention. Stroke, cardiac problems and hypertension also affect more women than men, according to health experts concerned about the fact that Lankans consume much more salt and sugar than that recommended by the WHO.

Mentally ill women in Sri Lanka are also on the increase according to recent reports which puts the figure as 1 in 3. Depression caused by social isolation especially in urban areas such as Colombo has also reached a new high. Whether triggered by internal migration of families, or the fact that the two unit or single unit homes that have now mushroomed which have no place for an elderly relative, the fact is that many elderly women are now being dumped in Homes for the Aged with few or no visits from family members. The decision by the Social and Probation Services and some local municipalities to encourage community care and home care is thus a welcome step.

The biggest obstacle however women face is the way they are looked at by men.

Only a change of attitude of our macho society can work to remove this obstacle and help women to follow their dreams.