#NewConstitutionSL : The Role and Rights of Women

Within recent history, from Bosnia and Egypt to South Africa, we have seen the emergence of new constitutions and the revision of the old. Along with these newly emerging and recent revisions of constitutions, we observe a subtle yet firm increase in public participation contrary to the historic manner of closed expert-guided constitutional makings and remaking. According to the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights’ Article 25, the opportunity to take part in constitutional making processes has evolved to be accepted as a basic democratic right.

In a general sense, constitution stands as the protector of fundamental rights for the citizens of a nation and in the case of a country like our own, Sri Lanka, we find it goes further to be the one and only tool the public possess against the politicians in dire situations. Thus, mechanisms such as civic education, public consultations and referendums have to be integrated in society to increase the capacity for public participation in constitution-building processes.

Recently, with the hype of the revision of Sri Lankan Constitution I decided to do a bit of reading. In the process I was rudely awakened to the harsh reality that women are not fully defended and protected within the constitution to reach their full potential.

The Sri Lankan Constitution as drafted in 1978 considers non-discrimination and assertion of equality is achieved solely by simply stating that no citizen will be discriminated against based on their sex. However, the truth of the matter remains that to secure women’s rights and to obligate the government to remove obstacles against women the article 12 of the Sri Lankan Constitution does not suffice. After all, up to today rape, sexual harassment and other gender based violence charges in Sri Lanka are not prosecuted under Article 12 on gender equality but under Article 11, where torture has been interpreted as covering rape and grave sexual abuse. ()

Bearing all of this in mind, we should push towards identifying key areas where the Sri Lankan constitution should be revised to better support women. I wish to highlight my three foremost concerns regarding the revision of our constitution.

First and foremost, assertion of equality and practice of non-discrimination have to be key values our constitution is based upon. The first clause of the widely recognized South African Constitution states as follows. “ The Republic of South Africa is one, sovereign, democratic state founded on the following values:” One of the values consequently mentioned is non-sexism. Like so, values of non-discrimination has to be at the core of the constitutional-building process.

Under the British, Sri Lankan society embraced certain Victorian principles. The patriarchal system of the English thus seeped into our social structure. From then to now, women whether climbing up the corporate ladder or even when carrying out their educational activities, which are a fundamental right, find ‘glass ceilings’ placed up on them by society. No matter how women reach out in society, there are too many cultural and social checks and balances set around a woman. Thus deferring from the stereotypical image of a Sri Lankan woman is almost impossible. Some women do not fail to raise their voice. However they are mainly not heard; not just amongst the men but amidst the women themselves. It has come to the point, that the sight of a woman raising her voice for the sake of women is perceived more as a burden than of any significance in Sri Lankan society. This is exactly the reason to ground our constitution based on non-discrimination. The slow tedious climb to enforce proper assertion of equality can only be done with a firm foundation and where better to root that foundation than at the core of the political, legal, economical and social framework known as the Sri Lankan Constitution.

Second, The constitution should recognize non-discrimination and gender equality beyond the political arena. Even if Article 12 is deemed politically sufficient to protect against non-discrimination as a basic human right, clauses regarding Public Authorities, Institutions and Services, Political participation and Freedom of Association are just few of many that should also pay more attention to in terms of women and gender equality. Why? To prevent women from being discriminated legally, economically, socially or culturally.

Sri Lankan society is said to be multi-cultural. Thus, divisions between nationalities and ethnicities are so frequent. However, having ended a civil war we are on our path of reconciliation. In a time when we are seeking to be ‘Sri Lankan’ over ‘Muslim’, ’Tamil’ or ‘Sinhala’, priority should be given to women. After all women is not a minority in Sri Lanka. In fact we are a slight majority of the citizenry and it is time people recognize this obvious fact. Without the political contribution from such a major group of the citizenry it is near impossible for Sri Lanka to develop. Furthermore, the number of women entering Universities has spiked in recent years. This also means the educated woman is a more frequent sight. In such a time not allowing a woman to help create development and assist Sri Lanka in their path to development is not just a waste but also an injustice done to our free education system.

Thirdly, for a nation that had provided the world with the first female prime minister, it seems insufficient that women are not mentioned specifically in any clauses of the constitution pertaining to political participation. It is widely noted that there isn’t enough female political participation within Sri Lanka. The violence and corruption associated with Sri Lankan Politics hinders many women from engaging in the political arena. However, we should recognize that the Constitution, if it truly is supreme, is there to give women the opportunity amidst these problems. The constitution should have the power to remove the obstacles that have lined up preventing women from seeking political careers. The Indian Constitution itself is an example of a nation that allows mandatory allocation of seating to women in parliament. For the sake of progress in this regard, women and political association is imperative within Sri Lanka.

Who better to understand the grievances of the minority than a leader who emerges from within the minority? Isn’t that why the Northern province seemingly select Tamil Nationals to represent their interests? Isn’t this the reason we use proportional representation in Sri Lanka? By this logic then, the idea of female representatives to voice out the grievances of women is understandable and an unquestionable need.

Thus, as the time approaches for a revision of the Sri Lankan constitution it is imperative that women are protected well by the Constitution, not only politically but also legally, economically and socially. It is also imperative that we as women stand up to voice our thoughts and protect ourselves by engaging in the constitutional-building process. It is our basic democratic right and more so our duty to all other women and for the women of the future.

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