Women have been in the news all around the world recently, often than not, being treated as chattels, as a commodity. Rape in India, gun-crime in the US, breadwinners clearly under intense scrutiny in North Sri Lanka, fire fighters in Tasmania, clamouring against pollution in China, political pawns in Venezuela. But nowhere, have the atrocities committed against women touched the conscience of the whole of the civilised world, other than in the despicable beheading of a young Sri Lanka Muslim girl in Dawdami, Saudi Arabia.
Rizana Nafeek and her family in Muttur were victims of the 2004 Tsunami. This illiterate 17 year old girl already traumatised, was persuaded by people peddlers to go as a housemaid to Saudi Arabia, to earn mega bucks to send to her family. It now comes to light that there was a conspiracy surrounding her arrival in Riyadh on April 1, 2005, her arrest on 22 May 2005 on charges of causing death by strangulation of a 4 month old boy, who should hardly have been placed under her care, her sentence to death on 16 June 2007, her appeals for clemency and her execution on 9 January 2013. According to her prosecution, “death was caused because of a dispute between them and the boy’s mother.” There lies the story.
Rizana is dead, but the despicable and insensate manner she was executed has touched a nerve in the minds and hearts of many and has opened up a new human perspective. What makes women hit the headlines in the world today? Was there a hidden agenda, if there was one, or is this an issue; one which has suddenly caught the eye of politicians and commentators alike, both in the West and in Sri Lanka to heighten tensions, an escape mechanism for the ills of our times, or is it all conjecture?
There are human rights, but the global issues of women’s rights though subdued have recently hit the news. Though women make up 51% of today’s world population, women’s role had hardly changed. This perhaps could be due to survival woes in an age of unease, when other matters take precedence. There are many who consider that gender equality is improving around the world. But many women, perhaps, more than men, face discrimination in law and practice. The thematic study of women’s rights around the world is an important indicator to the understanding of global well being.
For example, women often work more than men; yet are paid less; research is not far short in the know-how, that women are the ones that suffer the most poverty. Why?
“The rights of women are institutionalised or supported by law, local custom and behaviour, whereas in others they may be ignored, or suppressed. These issues include, though not limited to bodily integrity and autonomy, to vote, to hold public office, to work, to fair wages or equal pay, to own property, to education, to serve in the military, to enter legal contracts and to have marital, parental and religious rites.” All this is in theory, what about the practice?
In Sri Lanka, for instance, over the war years, women were the breadwinners, both in the Sinhala and the Tamil communities. Many girls worked in the garment industry, many others left our shores in search of employment to destinations in the Arab world which was flushed with oil revenues. Unscrupulous people peddling, so called “Travel Agents,” kept sending young men as “economic refugees” to the West and young girls “slave domestics” to the Middle East. Little if any was done to closely monitor these agencies until now, as many Government departments were engrossed in the war and after war effort. Besides, Sri Lanka’s Central Bank stated that foreign remittances from Sri Lankan expatriates were the country’s primary source of foreign exchange amounting to US$ 5.1 billion from 1.5 million working Sri Lankans abroad, of which 59.9% came from those employed in the Middle East, working mainly as labourers and housemaids.
It is important to note that there was no need to worry about the families of the housemaids who “worked” abroad, including the Middle East, as there was a well established support family system back home. This was in a sense, taking advantage of our extended family structure.
As long as husbands and grandparents were willing to look after the grooming of young children in Sri Lanka, no one worried of the consequences. Children grew up without the care of their mothers. Airlines were reaping the benefit of travel of these housemaids to the Middle East, Three Wheelers were happy to have the school runs, but the people who lost out were first, the “slave labour” and second, a generation of children growing up as adolescents without enjoying their childhood.
The issue at last has hit our conscience. It is being spearheaded by the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) who clearly has brought it to the attention, not only of the public but of the Government. They maintain that employing the women of the country under these situations and circumstances is an “insult to the nation and also a breach of the rights and respect of women.” The JHU has also demanded action by the Government to send skilled male labour for foreign employment and also to prevent labour migration to countries where religious fundamentalism is prevailing. They are also further demanding to halt the employment of unskilled Sri Lanka women in foreign countries.
Parliament observed a moment of silence, in the midst of the Impeachment Debate, as a mark of respect for Rizana. It is high time some action is taken to show the world that Sri Lanka means business in the fight for women’s rights.