SRI LANKA: The International Women’s Day calls for denouncement, not celebration 


The International Women’s Day is the opportunity to celebrate women’s rights and empowerment. However, it is also the time to reflect on how the rights on paper and the statistics comply with the everyday life of the women.

In Sri Lanka the day is officially celebrated at a ceremony convened by President Mahinda Rajapaksa under the theme: ‘Women’s knowledge and strength to uplift the country’. The President emphasized the crucial role women play in the country’s economy and the development drive, and confirmed his commitment to fulfil his responsibilities for the betterment of the women.

Sri Lanka has in many ways acknowledged the economic advantages of educating and empowering women. It was ranked 16th in the world for gender equality in the Global Gender Gap Index in 2010, way ahead of many developed countries as the Netherlands as number 17, The United States as 19 and Canada as 20.

Sri Lanka has paid attention to gender equality in many aspects and has a history of investing in health and education.

By providing a nationwide public health structure, women generally have good access to healthcare. According to Unicef’s 2007 statistics, 98% of child births took place in hospitals and the infant mortality rate (under 1) is 13.

In the education system gender parity in primary education is now almost universal. The literacy levels of the 15-24 year olds has reached 99 % for female and 97 % for male, and the enrolment of girls in secondary schools is 88 % and 86 % for boys. Furthermore 69% of teachers are women.

In aspects of rights, the statistic and numbers also look good. Gender equality and non-discrimination of women are key principles of the Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution from 1978. In 1981, Sri Lanka ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Sri Lanka is also a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Vienna Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (1993). Further, Sri Lanka has subscribed to the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995).

However, the framework does not correspond with society or the practise of the courts. The gap between the rights set out on paper and the daily life and practises is tremendous.

The legal system is by no means minority, gender or child sensitive and discrimination and harassment are daily fares in the legal system as well as at the police stations.

While women also have equal rights under national, civil, and criminal law, questions related to family law, including divorce, child custody and inheritance, are often adjudicated by the customary law of each ethnic or religious group. Women are often denied equal rights to land in government-assisted settlements, as the law does not institutionalize the rights of female heirs and different religious and ethnic practices discriminate them further in the process.

In the aspect of employment, the law provides for equal employment opportunities in the public sector, but there is no legal protection against discrimination in the private sector, and discriminations and sexual harassment are widely reported. The wage disparities between male and females are huge and women generally find difficulties in rising to supervisory positions traditionally held by men.

The patriarchal traditions of the Sri Lankan culture are deep-rooted. Although women in the larger cities have become more educated and independent, especially families in poorer, rural areas, from cultural minorities or lower castes are still very male dominated with discrimination of women, domestic violence and rape being especially prevalent.

The injustices are many times tolerated because its victims are primarily poor, rural women.


While these women are already afflicted by a low social status they are further vulnerable to the social ostracism relating to victims of especially sexual abuses. There is a long practise of rape in the Sri Lankan society as a mean to exercise power and demoralisation of communities.

Reporting rape can be an unbearable challenge. Generally there is little trust in the police and the stations are mostly male-dominated. It requires tremendous courage and fortitude from a woman to decide to report a rape incident, since she has no insurance that her statement will be taken seriously and that she will not be harassed.

There have been countless reports of police officers refusing to file the rape victim’s complaint and verbally or physically harassing her, claiming that the rape was self-induced or blaming her for being a prostitute.

If the case is taken to court, the woman is likely to face immense court delays. Cases of rape are seen to drag on for decades, which all come in favour of the perpetrator, and in the majority of cases results in him or them enjoying impunity.

All are contributing factors in an almost decriminalisation of rape in Sri Lanka, which leave the women with deep emotional and physical scars while depriving them of their sense of justice and any belief in a legal system ruled by law.

Domestic Violence

The mentality of not considering women subjected to rape as victims is prevalent in all aspects of society in Sri Lanka. Marital and domestic rapes are everyday-life for many women and girls and often just accepted as a part of family life.

In Sri Lanka a new law on domestic violence, The Prevention of Domestic Violence Act came into operation on 3 October 2005. However the act suffers greatly from a legal system, which does no correspond with the framework of the law.

In cases of domestic violence as well as rape the woman expose herself to great danger of further violence from the perpetrator or his acquaintances and by reporting the case and will often have to go into hiding while the case is running.

Most of the women exposed to violence and rape depend almost solely on their partner economically. They have no means to provide shelter or to sustain their livelihood if they go into hiding with a prospect of the case dragging on for years. With no official victim or witness protection, the woman cannot rely on the state to provide her shelter or aid for the legal process, which she will rarely be able to afford.

The social stigma, as well as the prevailing patriarchal mentality, all the way from officials at the police stations to the hospital personnel and the judiciary, hold back the majority of victims from the process of pursuing legal action.

Implementation before celebration

While Sri Lanka in many aspects has acknowledged that a country’s growth and development potential is the education and role of women, there is still a long way to go in eliminating the extensive daily practises of inequality and discrimination of women in society.

In the empowerment of women, the culture of female servility and subservience has to be transformed from within the society, but the state has a large supporting role to play and an obligation to make rooms for the changes to take place.

The President and the Sri Lankan government is responsible for failing to work for a prevention of violence against women amounting to torture and rape, for failing to take measures against the immense court delays and for the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrator. Furthermore they should be hold accountable for their lack of action taken to implement a bill on witness and victim protection.

Before these are acknowledged and approached effectively, it is virtually an insult to the Sri Lankan women as the President talk on his commitment to the betterment of women and to celebrate the present conditions of today.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-039-2011
Countries : Sri Lanka,
Issues : Violence against women, Women's rights,