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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2704

Women’s Role In Peace And Development

[caption id="attachment_4176" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Dr. Palitha Kohona"]Dr. Palitha Kohona[/caption]

Colombo, 16 August, (Asiantribune.com): “ Women contribute to the development of Sri Lanka. The involvement of women in economic activities both in formal and informal sectors has been ahead of the rest of the South Asian region and is steadily on the rise, observed Dr. Palitha Kohona.

Dr. Kohona, Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, “This is of special relevance not only towards the economic independence of women but the economic contribution towards the community as a whole. Sri Lanka in her rapid progress towards development should make use of the potential contribution by the unemployed or economically inactive women who are the majority. “

In his keynote address at the annual general meeting of the Sarvodaya Women’s Movement in Colombo on 15th August, Dr. Palitha Kohona pointed out that the Gender Gap Report of 2008 of the World Economic Forum ranked Sri Lanka 12th among over 160 countries. It is noteworthy that the Gender Gap Index which took into account economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, political empowerment and health and survival has placed Sri Lanka ahead of the rest of South Asia. We are ahead of some of the richest countries in the developed world.

Given below the full text of the Keynote address by Dr. Palitha Kohona at Sarvodaya Women’s Movement in Colombo:

Women have from time immemorial assumed the role of nurturers and caregivers. This is a role that they have performed abundantly well and we all know this from personal experience.

Our mothers performed thus role well. This traditional responsibility notwithstanding, there have been many instances where women have changed the course of history through their leadership, their contribution to the arts, the sciences and politics.

The historical figures of Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt who fine tuned alliances with an empire to ensure the survival of her own country, Kuveni of Sri Lanka who contributed to the birth of a new nation, under whom England became an empire and Queen Victoria who consolidated the empire, Catharine the Great whose strategic skills were deployed to expand the Russian empire and Jhansi Rani naturally come to mind.

During the times of these women empires were expanded, dynasties were built, economies flourished and nations stood up with pride. Queen Elizabeth I was renowned for her patronage of arts in addition to her encouragement of military exploits.

In more recent times leaders such as Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka, Indira Gandhi of India, Golda Meir of Israel, Margaret Thatcher of England and Eva Peron of Argentina have come to be recognized as icons in world politics synonymous with power and influence.

Mahawamsa, the great Pali chronicle of Sri Lanka, narrates the prominent role played by Kuveni, a princess of the Yakshasa clan in planning and assisting Prince Vijaya to become the first historically documented King of Sri Lanka.

The fact that Sri Lanka gave the first woman Prime Minister to the world fills us with an immense sense of pride. At a time when the world was staring at an uncertain future under the impact of the cold war, Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s leadership facilitated Sri Lanka to be recognized internationally as a proactive proponent of a non-aligned foreign policy. Her skillful diplomacy resulted in the conclusion of the Sirima-Shastri Pact of 1964 that led to the settlement of the differences relating to stateless Tamils of Indian origin, a thorny issue in Indo-Lanka relations at the time. Her active participation in mediating the India-China border conflict during 1962 earned her unparalleled recognition in the international community. Mrs. Bandaranaike’s high profile leadership was an example to other women. She was also a key voice for peace during the Indo-Pakistan was in 1971.

Though, remarkable achievements in terms of progress of women have been witnessed over the last few decades, sadly it is estimated that 70% of those living in poverty worldwide today are women. The Chinese proverb that women hold half the sky has become more of an illusion than reality. The burden of holding up the sky seems to weigh more heavily on women. While women bear the brunt of poverty they are also among the most vulnerable before the major challenges facing the world today.

The situation of the Sri Lankan women however is in direct contrast to most developing countries. Women constitute 52% of Sri Lanka’s population and their contribution to Sri Lanka’s economy is significant. They constitute the majority in apparel industry, overseas employment and the tea industry, the three highest foreign exchange earning sectors overseas employment is not an industry. Need to use a different word in Sri Lanka. In this case they hold up more than half of our economic sky. In addition to their contribution to the economy and to development, Sri Lankan women have also excelled in all aspects of social activity. This is mainly attributable to Sri Lanka’s high rating in terms of education, health, low child and maternal mortality with their direct impact on women’s welfare and development.

The achievements relating to women were realised over the decades through the implementation of key policies. Sri Lanka’s success in achieving or approaching many of the Millennium Development Goals could be seen as evidence of the commitment by successive governments since independence towards health, education and other welfare sectors without gender discrimination. Since independence in 1948, Sri Lanka has vigorously pursued policies and administrative measures and enacted legislation for the protection and promotion of the rights of women. These measures included putting in place constitutional and legal safeguards to guarantee the equal protection of women and to provide them with equal opportunities. In 1981, Sri Lanka ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women. This was at a time when many developed countries have not done so.

The Gender Gap Report of 2008 of the World Economic Forum ranked Sri Lanka 12th among over 160 countries. It is noteworthy that the Gender Gap Index which took into account economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, political empowerment and health and survival has placed Sri Lanka ahead of the rest of South Asia. We are ahead of some of the richest countries in the developed world.

Women constitute a majority in certain professions in Sri Lanka including the healthcare services and education. The majority of new doctors, nurses and teachers are women. However, in spite of Sri Lanka’s achievements, the representation of women in certain professional and academic programmes, including engineering and technology related courses in tertiary education, remains poor. It is of concern that while over 50% of the University entrants for the year 2006 were females, only 20% of the entrants were females entering the Engineering faculties and only 33% were seeking to enter Computer Science & IT streams. Thus, it remains important to continue to encourage women to pursue these areas for higher studies.

Also, in spite of Sri Lanka’s achievements in other areas, women’s participation in active leadership roles remains minimal. This is seen especially in the political arena though the situation is by no means exclusive to Sri Lanka. The representation of women at national, provincial and local government bodies continues to remain poor. The female representation in Parliament is limited to the occasional woman isolated in a sea of male colleagues. Women’s representation in Parliament has always been low, standing at less than 10%. This is despite the fact that Sri Lanka is one of the first countries to recognize universal adult franchise in 1931 and Sri Lanka produced the world’s first woman Prime Minister. Sri Lanka also had her first female executive president, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, serving twice in office.

Contrarily, the participation of women in positions of administrative decision making including in the spheres of policy formulation and holding senior public office is steadily on the increase. Women’s participation in the professional services in the Public and semi-Government sector is especially on the increase mainly due to the strong gender neutral recruitment policy backed by Constitutional guarantees of equality. Sri Lanka is today proud to claim the presence of three female judges in the Supreme Court, the apex court of Sri Lanka constituting 12 judges at any given time. It is a remarkable achievement. However, women’s participation in management and decision making positions in the private sector is in need of similar improvement.

Women continue to contribute to the development of Sri Lanka, in different sectors. The involvement of women in economic activities both in formal and informal sectors has been ahead of the rest of the South Asian region and is steadily on the rise. This is of special relevance not only towards the economic independence of women but the economic contribution towards the community as a whole. Sri Lanka in her rapid progress towards development should make use of the potential contribution by the unemployed or economically inactive women who are the majority.

The contribution of women to the economy of Sri Lanka through overseas employment continues to be significant, as private remittances from overseas workers remains the second highest source of foreign exchange for Sri Lanka. However, it remains a matter of concern that the majority of women oversees workers are employed as housemaids while women professionals account for less than 8% of the total number of Sri Lankan professionals employed oversees. Overseas remittances amounted to US $ 2.75 billion in 2007, roughly the amount spent on importing fuel in 2008. It is a worrying fact that we drive in fancy cars here thanks to the remittances of the poor house maids.

This year saw the elimination of terrorism and the liberation of the North from the clutches of the LTTE terrorists. The post-terrorism era has provided a hitherto unavailable opportunity for the development of the country, especially the North and East. The large scale development projects that are currently being implemented under the Uthuru Wasanthaya and Negenahira Navodaya for the reconstruction, rehabilitation and development of the North and East have provided opportunities for women, both professionals and others to effectively use their talents and skills in making a positive contribution towards the country.

Women are the backbone of the rural community. An important aspect of state policy in recent times is its focus on the rural development with special attention to rural women. Emphasis has been given to bridging the disparities between urban and rural communities with special focus on education, health, economy and employment. Uplifting the condition of the women engaged in small and medium industries, micro enterprises and self employment has become an integral part of the programmes implemented by the government through access to micro credit, technology, etc. Thus, the burden of poverty that has prevented the improvement of the rural community could be alleviated through the promotion of economic autonomy of women. It is also a recognized fact that the children of economically independent and educated women tend to do well in life.

It must be a goal for our society to continue to realise the potential of women as we strive for economic and social development. What we have achieved in the past is remarkable – but we can and must achieve more. We must strive for the day when women actually begin to hold up half the sky, especially in the political arena.

- Asian Tribune -

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