65th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women
“Women’s Full and effective Participation and Decision Making in Public Life as Well as the Elimination of Violence for Achieving Gender Equality and Empowerment of all Women and Girls”
Statement by Hon. Piyal Nishantha de Silva,
State Minister of Women and Child Development, Pre-schools & Primary Education, Education Infrastructure and Educational Services
15 – 26 March 2021
Pre-recorded video statement
Greetings from Sri Lanka. Ayubowan! Long Life!
I wish to express my gratitude to you, Mr. President, your Bureau and the Secretariat, for organizing the 65th session of this Commission, amidst the chaos and suffering caused by the pandemic. Sri Lanka successfully managed to contain COVID-19 to a small area of the island at the very out-set. However, during the second wave, like in most other countries, the effects of the pandemic are more widely felt. The Government, under the leadership of His Excellency President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, is making every effort to combat the varied challenges posed by the pandemic with a view to bring normalcy to the country. We are very grateful to the services of the frontline workers from various sectors including health, security and the public service. Our trust in President Rajapaksa’s leadership and the strength of our service personnel, give us hope and we strongly believe that Sri Lanka will successfully meet the challenges and that our island known as the pearl of the Indian Ocean will shine brighter again with more vigor and vitality.
Mr. President, Sri Lanka has a good track record of gender equality, both historically and culturally as clearly detailed in our recorded history of more than 2500 years. Our historical records provide ample evidence as to the significant role, played by women, enjoying a high degree of independence, equality, visibility and decision-making opportunities at home, in society and thereby in public life.
I take pride to recall that Sri Lanka elected, as far back as 1960, Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranayake as the first female Prime Minister, a significant achievement not only for our country, but also for the world. Because of this singular distinction of being the world’s first woman Prime Minister and due to the inspiration she gave us, she was invited by the United Nations to deliver the keynote address at the First UN World Conference on Women held in Mexico City in 1975, which set in motion the UN Decade on Women, its successive World Conferences and Conventions, Protocols, Declarations, and Plans of Action that continue to be relevant even today.
Mr. President, for us, the term MOTHER is holy and sacred. In our society the Mother is the decision maker in the family. Sri Lanka recognizes that the foundation of society is the family, which if strong and harmonious will bring strength to the community, to the society and to the entire country. As such, the main focus of the development policy articulated by President Rajapaksa titled “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendor” a road map for the prosperity of our country is built upon the foundation of “Happy Families.”
That is why we in Sri Lanka commemorated this year’s International Women’s Day on 8 March by dedicating one whole week to highlight the importance of the different but significant roles undertaken by a female during her lifetime commencing from her most virtuous role as “The Mother”, and then reflecting on Mothers to be (Pregnant mother), daughters, illustrious female entrepreneurs, leading business women, and the courageous women with special abilities.
Women comprise 52% of the population in Sri Lanka and are at the forefront in sectors such as health, education and even technical fields exceeding their share in the population, and thereby demonstrating their intellectual capability for higher education. Of the students who entered the universities in 2018/19 academic year, 64% were female students. They have achieved considerable success by entering traditionally male dominated fields such as Engineering, Computer Science and Technology. We are proud to note that 84% of the educated women contribute to the economy and the development of the country.
Mr. President, another noteworthy achievement of women’s effective participation and decision making in public life is the percentage of women professionals serving in the public sector. In the judiciary 29% of the judges are women. In the public administration service women occupy 55% of the positions today, a larger share than men. Women started entering modern day politics as far back as 1920 and with the gaining of universal franchise in 1931 more female members entered the legislative assembly. Today 6% of the members of our Parliament are women. With the introduction of the quota system, 25% of the seats in the local government are now reserved for women members.
Realizing the fact that access to affordable childcare directly affects the country’s labor force, we have taken a number of measures to provide efficient and effective Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCD) services for families including health care for pregnant mothers. That is the purpose of integrating Pre-school and Primary Education with Women and Child Development under the purview of my Ministry.
Mr. President, the Government has provided legal provisions for the safety and security of women against all forms of discrimination. Our Constitution recognizes the principle of gender equality and non-discrimination as per the equality clause enshrined in Article 12 that states:
- All persons are equal before the law and are entitled to the equal protection of the law
- No citizen shall be discriminated against on the grounds of race, religion, language, caste, sex, political opinion, place of birth or any such grounds
Sri Lanka in 1993 adopted a Women’s Charter in compliance with our commitment to ensure the rights of women following our ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1981. Article 16 of the Women’s Charter states that “The State shall take all measures to prevent the phenomenon of violence against women, children and young persons in our society, in the work place, in the family as well as in custody, in particular such manifestation of it as rape, incest, sexual harassment and physical and mental abuse, torture and cruel inhuman and degrading treatment”. A National Committee on Women (NCW) has been established to ensure the implementation of the Charter. Additional safeguards are in place including amendments to the Penal Code with increased punishments for offences of violence against women and also compensation for the psychological or mental trauma caused to the victim.
Mr. President, in addition to the legal reforms, Sri Lanka established an entirely new institutional structure to create an enabling environment for women’s participation in every sphere of life. The Women’s Bureau established in 1978, soon after the UN Conference on Women in 1975 denotes the beginning of such institutional arrangements to involve women and mobilize their full and effective participation systematically in the economic, social, political and cultural advancement of the country. A Cabinet level Ministry was established in 1993, entirely devoted to the development and advancement of women and children and the protection of their rights. This structure percolates to the grass root level, with designated officials placed at the decentralized administrative units across the island, entrusted with the responsibility of implementing the provisions embedded in the Constitution and the Women’s Charter.
Another significant institutional facility that Sri Lanka has in place is the Bureau for Prevention of Abuse against Children and Women under the Department of Police. The purpose of establishing this Bureau exclusively for women and children is to bring in “a victim–centered approach”, thus ensuring the protection of their rights, with measures being taken to raise awareness to prevent such violence. We have also introduced a Toll Free Helpline allowing anyone to report violations of their rights whether it be in the family, in the work place or in society. This Helpline that started operating in 2014 was available only during office hours until March 2020. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the staff work from home and started operating the Helpline on a 24 hours basis.
I am happy to state that that the State Ministry I lead on behalf of the government has taken several measures including formulating policies, strengthening institutional arrangements, and implementing action plans specifically aimed at reducing the incidents of violence, particularly domestic violence. It is expected that a national policy on Flexible Work Opportunities for Young Mothers will be introduced soon thereby enabling young women to join the labor force and contribute to the economy. This will be translated into action that will include inter alia, improved and accessible Early Childhood Care and Education services.
We are also working towards eradicating drug addiction and alcoholism that can aggravate existing conditions and trigger violence against women. A strong national campaign to eradicate the drug menace has been launched and the Ministry that I lead has initiated measures to identify vulnerable families at the village level in order to reduce their vulnerabilities and to ensure safety and protection with the close collaboration of the recently established Village Security Committees. It is envisaged that this two pronged approach from the top at the national level and from the bottom at village level could bring about “The Change” that would ensure an enabling environment for independent and happy life for women and girls in Sri Lanka that the policy of our government “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendor” is committed to achieve.
In conclusion I wish our deliberations at this hybrid conference every success and hope that all of us will be able to learn from each other’s experiences and be inspired to improve our understanding on new initiatives on how we could further the cause of equality that will ensure the full and effective decision-making by women in all strata of life.