The International Women`s Day falls today. Whether these so-called international days serve the intended purposes is anyone`s guess in that they are highly politicised and commercialised. Politicians gain some mileage through the various functions organised to mark such days and businessmen make a killing on the pretext of championing worthy causes.
This year, Women`s Day has come in the run-up to a general election in this country, where men have catapulted themselves to the centre stage of politics, though women constitute about one half of our population. In the last Parliament, which is being reconvened at a massive cost to the public purse tomorrow after its dissolution, to pass the Emergency, there were only 13 women (5.8 per cent of 225 MPs). They have this kind of woefully inadequate representation in spite of their impressive literacy rate and outstanding contribution to the national economy and other key sectors.
Women`s sweat is the lifeblood of Sri Lanka`s economy, which is dependent mainly on remittances, apparels, tea and rubber for survival. Of the export earnings of Rs. 813,911 mn, apparels, tea and rubber constitute 46.21%, 16.73% and 1.39% respectively. In the apparel sector women account for over 90% of the work force. Remittances amount to Rs. 381,319 mn. According to the latest data available, the country`s trade deficit is Rs. 320,439.7 mn but expatriate workers send in Rs. 381,319 mn thus creating a surplus of Rs. 60,879.65 mn! The plantation sector is dominated by women. They also account for more than one half of Sri Lanka`s 1.8 million expatriate workers who constitute about 20 per cent of the country`s work force. Over fifty per cent of migrant workers have been reduced to semi-slavery as housemaids. While women are slaving away in the Middle East, some (or most?) of their callous spouses at home squander remittances on sex and liquor to the neglect of their families.
It is a crime that the Sri Lankan migrant workers have been deprived of their franchise despite their contribution to the national economy. There have been many calls for providing them with facilities to cast their votes from the countries where they work. But successive governments have been paying lip service to their appeals.
Power politics alone will not help alleviate the suffering of women and empower them. But, women`s representation in political institutions, especially Parliament, has to increase radically for them to get a better deal. It is not likely that the macho types in Sri Lankan politics will give women their due place and nominate more of them to stand for election. The best way out therefore is for women and right thinking electors to vote for female candidates already in the election fray and ensure that more women get returned.
We are not so na ve as to argue that when we get more women in Parliament, Provincial Councils and Local Government institutions, hey presto, the seemingly intractable problems that they are faced with will disappear and everything will be hunky dory for them overnight. We elected the world`s first woman Prime Minister (Sirimavo Bandaranaike) and then had a woman President (Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga). But, whether under their stewardship women were able to battle, to quote from feminist of international repute Gloria Steinem, `the armies of the status quo` which try to keep them down, is doubtful if the persistence of their predicament is anything to go by.
Women may have failed like their male counterparts in politics but the presence of more of them in political institutions is essential for articulating their grievances and protecting their rights in a male dominated society.
Let women resolve on this day dedicated to them that they will turn the upcoming parliamentary polls into a show of their power. `The most common way people give up their power,` said Alice Walker, `is by thinking they don`t have any.`