Challenges of the women’s movement in Sri Lanka

By Hemamali Wijesinghe 

Sri Lanka has had a developed culture and literacy for many centuries. As far back as 1931, when it was still a part of the British Raj, the right to vote was won by a campaign that mobilised women as well as men. In 1933, when the British government launched the Poppy Appeal to commemorate World War I, the two main working class parties, Lanka Sama Samaja Party and the Lanka Communist Party, launched the Suriya-Mal Movement against British colonialism and these campaigns together produced a number of revolutionary women intellectuals. Among these were Doreen Wickramasinghe, Celina Perera, Vivienne Gunawardena, Theja Gunawardena, Heidi Keuneman and Florence Senanayake. This was reflected in a significant level of women’s representation by such figures as Adeline Molamure in the first Senate.

Yet, today, 84 years later, the political development of Sri Lankan women is in a pathetic state. Although women make up 52 per cent of the population, their political representation in parliament is only 5.8 per cent. In provincial institutions, it is only 2.7 per cent. It is also a reason for dismay to see how men who not only engage in abusive acts against women but actually boast about it, continue to hold positions of power in such bodies.

The 30 year war against the Tamil people in the North and East was brought to an end in in a victory for the government. Women in those regions now make up 65 percent of the population. Tamil-speaking women and children, not only suffered the direct effects of the war, but also the physical and mental pressures of the postwar occupation of their lands.

Even though the women’s movement initially had a number of currents, today, it has become mainly an opportunist puppet of global neoliberalism. There are two major reasons for this. One is the funding being pumped in by voluntary groups as well as capitalist countries and organisations that call themselves global liberals. Within the country, this finances organisations dominated by upper class, English speaking women who mislead and even deceive poor women through the non-governmental organisations which give them a degree of independence and the freedom to travel.

Reports reveal that only 25 per cent of the funding received is spent on eliminating poverty. Certainly, some women have gained employment, but this has blunted their commitment to a real struggle for all women. It is true that these organisations have done some excellent work in matters such as racism but now public confidence in NGOs has deteriorated and Sinhalese chauvinist racists are again raising their heads.

The other major problem is the lack of understanding of women’s struggles on the left. Despite their  commitment to socialism, most men still accept the traditional ideologies, they do not exclude themselves from the general patriarchal perspective they are used to. They have to learn that those who wish to become revolutionaries cannot make that journey while excluding women.

This is not simply a theoretical issue. Women are the majority of workers in the three sectors that earn most foreign income; the factories of the Free Trade Zone, the domestic servants in the Middle East and the tea pickers on the plantations. Yet it is these women who suffer the worst pay and working conditions. On top of that, like most women, they are burdened by family responsibilities, breaking their backs out of sight in their homes.

The left in Sri Lanka has to rediscover not only the real role of women in the history of the working class but also the role of socialists in developing the women’s movement. At the present time, both are dominated by political forces that deny the centrality of class and the working class movement is weakened by its failure to recognise the centrality of women in its own struggles. What we need is a working class women’s movement that will mobilise the social and economic force of women workers for women’s rights and the socialist reorganisation of society.

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