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Opinion: Not having a Cabinet level Ministry dealing with Women and Children’s needs is regressive

ECONOMYNEXT – By relegating the subject of women and children to a State Ministry without even a stand-alone status, it seems that for the newly elected government, two of the most important categories of the population are no longer a priority.

With the stroke of a pen as it were, women’s affairs which earned a cabinet-level ministry twenty-three years ago, and to which ministry the well-being of the country’s children were included in later years, has now been placed under the Ministry of Education along with pre and primary schools, school infrastructure and education services.

Furthermore, the remit of the State Ministry with regard to these two categories, as per the Gazette notification released on   August 9th  states that under the guidance of the minister of education, plans of action will be introduced to deal with the 14 listed priority areas  of which, four are women and children specific:

– A plan of action to ensure the security of women
– Relief to rural women who are victims of unregulated micro-finance schemes

– A permanent scheme to provide relief to all, especially women and children who frequently face disasters

– Giving birth to healthy children, who will be brought up under the care of strong motherly love and providing women with the knowledge, skills and time to keep children on the right path.

Well, let’s start with the last listed above;  how knowledgeable are the two male ministers in charge of education and the State ministry in giving leadership in that area.  How sensitive are they to the issues faced by women and children?

For one, women are more than capable of birthing healthy children and teaching them right from wrong and even providing them sustenance to their families on their own; single women and female-headed households being a case in point.

Of course, all of this is a reflection of the manifesto of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) presidential manifesto, which under “A generation of women contributing to the Social Economy,” title states that a child becomes a productive individual because of the guidance of the mother and the happiness of the family unit depends on the housewife. The discipline of a nation depends on how children are brought up. Therefore the contribution of women is greatly valued in achieving our long term goals.”

There is no denying that the security and wellbeing of women and children are important; if the number of reported cases alone of child abuse and physical and sexual harassment that both are subjected to on a daily basis is anything to go by, it is very clear that the country has a long way to go in fully implementing the regulations needed to arrest these trends.

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But it is disappointing indeed that women who make up 13 million (51%) and children who constitute 6 million (25%) of the population, and who were represented at Cabinet level up to now, have been devalued.  Indeed relegating the two segments to a State ministry has already resulted in a group of activists and academics appealing to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to reinstate the two within the scope of a cabinet ministry.

Prof. Savithri Goonesekere, Emeritus Professor of Law and Former Vice-Chancellor University of Colombo, states that by removing the two subjects from cabinet level, the gains made so far in uplifting and securing the status of women and children, even though limited will not be sustained.

It cannot be addressed in little bits and pieces, but through the proper implementation of policy, she points out. While the family unit is important, there are many gaps such as the emerging trends in child abuse and violence against women and even men that need to be addressed and that is why it must remain within the scope of the cabinet, she adds, stating that both the newly appointed Minister of Health, Pavithra Wanniarachchi and the State Minister for Prison Reforms Dr Sudarshani Fernandopulle are capable and have proved themselves. Therefore, this is not a case of having a limited number of capable MP’s who could handle the two segments, she states.

While Fernandopulle has worked extensively on the issues of women and children, in the November 2019 cabinet appointments Wanniarachchi was the Minister in charge of Women & Child Affairs, Social Security, Health and Indigenous Medicine.

Sri Lanka has international and national commitments to meet, adds Goonesekere, pointing out that rolling back the status of women and children will not release the country from its reporting obligations to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

At a time when child protection has become a national crisis, it is ironic that the government has abolished the cabinet-level ministry of women and children’s affairs, says Dr Tush Wickramanayake, the Founder Chairperson of Stop Child Cruelty Trust.  ‘This automatically restricts funding and other resources, creates significant logistical problems and trivializes the long-standing issues relating to the welfare of 6 million children and 13 million women. In particular at a time when the government is on the red alert under the radar of the United Nations Committee for the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) to which we have an obligatory responsibility since 1991,’ she explains.

Wickramanayake goes on to say that these actions of the government of placing the welfare of  18 million (nearly 80%) of the population under the care of a State Minister whose qualifications and expertise on the matter are not known to indicate that it is determined to ‘go back to the dark ages, instead of forging forward with visionary progressive changes.’  ‘It is ironic that a separate Cabinet Level Ministry is established for Youth Affairs, which constitutes 4.4 million population (23%) whilst the most vulnerable majority communities of women and Children are given step-motherly treatment,’ she adds.

Page 28A of the gazette which lists the State institutions tasked with dealing with women and children include the ‘the Women’s Bureau and the National Child Protection Authority, both which International Treaty Bodies have recommended should be functioning as Independent Institutions,’ she points out.  As well, there are four laws and Acts mentioned in the Gazette which need to be implemented, three pertaining to children and the fourth being the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, no 34 of 2005, she points out.

“The word ‘Kantha’ appears only one other time in the entire gazette that deals with all the Ministerial subject areas and that is in relation to co-operative development.  Such is the priority given to the majority 52% population that carries the economic burden of our island paradise!”

It is a reflection of how women are viewed by male politicians, by this government, says Dr. Harini Amarasuriya, the National People’s Power National List Member of the new Parliament.  ‘It is more about social welfare, which can be absorbed into any ministry, rather than addressing structural inequalities faced by women and children.  That is why a separate ministry is required, and that aspect has been completely overlooked.’

“But by devaluing the status of women and children, it gives us no illusions about where we stand and to also not expect any meaningful changes,” she adds.

Whether it is a Cabinet-level or State ministry, explains Kumudini Samuel, Director Programmes, State, Politics and Sexuality of the Women and Media Collective, it is the commitment of the Minister and of the Secretary to the Ministry that is important.   When there is no interest at that level, it only results in a bunch of mediocre policies, with no clear mandate, she says. ‘The National Committee on Women is not allowed to function as an independent body, nor is there advocacy for the shared role of men and women in parenting and in all other fields.  The government is promoting motherhood and mothering, but even that is not given the value it deserves.”

Sixty per cent of women work in the informal sector with absolutely no safety nets, and the economic fallout from COVID-19 once again impacts women’s employment negatively.  Instead of downgrading the status of women and children, their issues must be dealt with at the mainstream level too; finance, labour, education and economy.  ‘ A quota was assigned for women’s representation at local government, but not so for the parliamentary election, she points out, adding that between contestants and the national list nominees, there were just a total of 75 women in the main political parties, of which only  12 obtained parliamentary seats.

Indeed it is a sad commentary on the country, that successive governments continue to give women and children such low priority, that even in cabinet women’s representation is dismal.  This time around too, it is just one woman cabinet minister.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, when asked why there was gender parity (15 women and 15 men) in his first Cabinet, quipped ‘Because it is 2015.”

But in 2020 Sri Lanka, women and children go back to the bottom of the pile! (Colombo, August 16, 2020)