Unseen women, unheard agonies

In January 2008, I wrote about Lakshmi and Me, a recent Indian documentary that portrayed a domestic worker woman whom my friend Kalpana Sharma aptly called an invisible superwoman.

A colleague who read my piece reminded me about a series of five short films on working women in Sri Lanka that I had executive produced in 1999-2000. Produced originally in Sinhala for a national audience, the series was titled Oba Nodutu Eya (The Unseen Woman). In fact, it featured not one but several women workers in two different sectors in the country’s informal economy: the coconut husk (coir) industry in the south and agricultural settlements in the Dry Zone in the north-central areas of the island.

The following is adapted from a story I wrote about this series for a book that TVE Asia Pacific published in 2002. I have not gone back to my sources to check how much – or how little – has changed in the past several years.

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This is Yasawathie. She has suffered physical and mental abuse most of her adult life. Her alcoholic husband beat her regularly for years, but she dared not complain for fear of reprisal.

“He injured my head, stabbed me and once fractured my arm” she says, showing a scar of a healed wound.

As if this suffering was not enough, she lost sight in one eye a few years ago in a bizarre hospital accident. She had gone to the government hospital seeking treatment for a chest ailment. There were more patients than beds, so she was forced to sleep on the floor. While sleeping, a nurse carelessly dropped a saline stand on to Yasawathie’s face.

The entire incident was hushed up, and the poor woman was intimidated into silence. “Sometimes patients even die at our hands,” the nurse told her threateningly.

Injured by the healthcare system, battered by her own husband and pressurised by her family circles to keep quiet about, this middle aged Sri Lankan woman has run out of options. She was not aware she could claim damages for the accidental loss of her eye. She does not realise there is legal redress for domestic violence – her family and in laws wouldn’t allow it in any case.

Sadly, Yasawathie is not alone. There are tens of thousands of women like her who live on the margins of society, and whose suffering goes largely unnoticed. The island nation is often cited as a South Asian success story: its women were the first in Asia to vote; female literacy is nearly universal; and a higher percentage of girls and young women are in school than boys.

But hidden beneath these national accomplishments, there are huge gender-based disparities and gaps, especially in economic, labour, family and property related matters. Studies have found that many women, particularly the poorer ones, don’t know their human and legal rights.

And even women who do know their civil and political rights often do not assert their right to safeguard themselves from domestic violence or gender-based discrimination in family and society.

Yasawathie’s story was one of several that were featured in a television documentary series that probed how Sri Lankan women’s economic and legal rights operate in the real world. Produced in 1999-2000 by TVE Asia Pacific in collaboration with the Sri Lanka Environmental Television Project (SLETP), the series went beyond the oft-repeated claim of women’s emancipation in Sri Lanka. It uncovered a shocking reality of wide spread rights denial, physical abuse and gender-based violence.

The series used a mixture of short drama segments, interviews and background commentary. “These films don’t offer comprehensive surveys of the situation, but they provide useful glimpses of how economic and legal rights apply at the grassroots for women,” said accomplished fim-maker Inoka Satyangani, who directed the series. “We raise broader concerns, and point out changes that society needs to make to ensure that women can assert their rights.”

Violence against women is both a public and private matter in Sri Lanka, says the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), a body of global experts which monitors whether governments are honouring their commitments to the 1981 United Nations’ Women’s Convention. Although violence affects women of every class and ethnicity, it is seldom reported.

In recent years, human rights abuses in Sri Lanka’s conflict ridden north and the east have received international scrutiny; both the government forces and Tamil Tiger rebels have committed atrocities. But violence against women is not confined to the war or the conflict-affected areas: as one rights activist has remarked, “everyone becomes part of the larger system of brutality”.

CEDAW has stressed that Sri Lanka needs specific legislation to address violence behind closed doors.

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The TV series also found how women get paid less than men for agricultural manual labour, and how government-driven land development schemes favour men to inherit state land distributed among the landless. Government agricultural extension programmes help male farmers to obtain skills training, credit and subsidies while women farmers are constantly ignored. Women interviewed had stories that shattered the myth of women’s liberation and equality in Sri Lanka.

Read individual synopses of the five films in The Unseen Woman series

Read recent blog post: Half the sky, most of the suffering and seeking everyone’s attention

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