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A fully fledged Women's Commission:

The need of the hour

by Nadira Gunatilleke

Indrani Iriyagolla

The following is an interview with the Chairperson of the National Committee on Women (NCW), Indrani Iriyagolla, on this subject:

Question: As the Chairperson of the National Committee on Women (NCW) are you satisfied with women's representation in Parliament and the recognition given to women MPs?

Answer: No. I am certainly not satisfied at all. At present after 50 years of Independence, shamelessly, women's representation in Parliament is only 4 percent.

Sri Lanka produced the world's first woman Prime Minister and we have a lady President. But the whole world asks why we have very low representation in Parliament. We call our state a democratic state and we always talk about human rights, democracy and gender equality. But there is no democracy in Parliament.

It is a black dot. No concrete effort has been made by the politicians and the political parties to increase women's representation in their political parties.

The recognition given to the women MPs is very poor. The 'recognition' is not even the word. When Women's Affairs Minister Amara Piyaseeli Ratnayake presented her budget speech in Parliament the Chamber was practically empty.

There were very few male and female MPs in the Chamber. More than half of our population (52.03 percent) is women. Another pathetic and shocking story is that only 20 minutes were allocated to the budget speech. No woman MP raised the question 'why are we having only 20 minutes to speak about 52.03 percent of our population'.

Sri Lankan women do not come into politics because of the fear of violence, lack of family support and financial difficulties. Question: How do you see the recognition given to women's affairs by the State, mass media and the public?

Answer: All the members of the Parliamentary Consultative Committee gather to discuss women's issues regularly but the members are not interested in serious women's issues.

They hardly discuss violence against women or any other important burning issue related to women. Some came and raised some important issues and went. But women attached to NGOs engaged in women's welfare activities work hard with limited funds.

The time has come to find out new ways and means to achieve targets.

Mass media always portray a stereotype of women. Mass media exploits women making matters worst for women. The young female presenters on television channels do not have a slightest understanding of gender, human rights or any related subject.

They just come, talk to the viewers about dresses, make-up, fashion, food and everything except brains. CIDO Convention and the Platform for Action in Beijing has specifically mentioned that women in the media must be constantly trained and their capacity built, and specifically not to uphold the stereotype of women.

But today what television shows is men abusing women, crying women and stereotyped women who worship men. This is a total violation of the constitution of Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankan women who can be used as role models such as Justice Shirani Tillakawardana, Dr. Sriyani Basnayake, Prof. Savithri Gunasekara are never given a chance by mass media. The general public criticises mass media for exploiting women.

Question: Why does Sri Lanka need a fully fledged Women's Commission?

Answer: Women's representation in politics is very low. Violence against women is increasing day by day. There is a significant increase (about 65 or 75 percent) in the number of complaints lodged by women related to violence against them. Domestic violence is also on the increase (about 60 percent).

Women and children are the main targets of domestic violence. There is a large number of war widows in the country, especially in the North-East region waiting for relief and justice to be done. They are being sexually abused very often.

Because of those reasons the country needs a fully fledged Women's Commission. Women's rights are being violated very often in Sri Lanka. The National Committee on Women (NCW) does not have powers to address women's problems.

Question: What is the current situation in establishing a fully fledged Women's Commission and when will it come into operation?

Answer: The National Women's Rights Bill will be brought to Parliament as soon as possible after public discussion. This will enable to set up two bodies and the first one is a Women's Commission. It will consist of seven members. This body will cover all the subject areas in the women's Charter.

In addition to this it has brought out women's representation in politics in a positive way. It has also brought out provisions to set up an investigation unit. This unit will investigate violations of women's rights contained in this Bill. It will look into paying compensation when necessary.

The second one is a Women's Advisory Council. This body will be represented by women on a national basis and women will come from the private and public sectors, different professions. There is wide representation.

The main task of this body is to bring up new suggestions and initiatives in the interest of women. It will also bring up women's issues and problems for discussion. After such discussions we can send a report to the Commission.

At the moment the draft is ready. There are a few touches to be given to it. A gender Advisory Unit and a Gender Advisory Committee have been set up for the first time in the country.

This unit now addresses problems and issues related to gender for the first time in the Sri Lankan history, such as sexual harassment, depriving women of employment opportunities and promotions, getting treated as second class citizens. Policies related to gender will be laid down shortly.

According to the National Women's Rights Bill, women's representation should be 33 percent in Parliament and other local Government bodies. All political parties should allocate 50 percent of their nomination lists to women. This will increase women's representation at decision-making level.

According to the same Bill, ten percent of budgets of all ministries must be allocated to women's welfare.

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