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Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women examines the situation of women in Sri Lanka

Committee on Elimination of Discrimination against Women

22 February 2017

  The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women today considered the eighth periodic report of Sri Lanka on its implementation of the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Chandrani Senarathne, Secretary, Ministry of Women and Child Affairs, introducing the report, said that since the formation of a National Unity Government two years ago, Sri Lanka had taken many bold and progressive steps in the fields of human rights, reconciliation and economic development. 

Also introducing the report, Ayesha Jinasena, Senior Deputy Solicitor General, Attorney General’s Department, informed the Committee that Sri Lanka was in the process of drafting a new Constitution and that the reform would address key areas in the Chapter on Fundamental Rights.  The inclusion of a separate section on women’s rights in the reform was also being discussed.  A wide-ranging consultative process was ongoing with the Muslim community on the issue of early marriage, which would inform the amendments to the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act.

Manisha Gunasekera, Ambassador of Sri Lanka to the Republic of Korea, also introducing the report, said that the policy framework and national plan of action to address sexual and gender-based violence 2016-2020 proposed a three-pronged approach of prevention, intervention and policy advocacy.  In January 2016, Sri Lanka had endorsed the “Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict”, while a robust health structure included programmes to prevent sexual and gender-based violence and support survivors.

Also introducing the report, Ravinatha Aryasinha, Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said that women’s participation in government policy formulation, and the number of women holding high-level public positions at all levels of the Government, continued to increase.  In 2015, women represented more than 47 per cent of the staff in the Administrative Service and in the Foreign Service.  The participation of women had seen a steady increase by default, purely based on merit, not through reservation, which was a result of women’s equal access to education and accepted notions of women’s social mobility in Sri Lanka.

In the ensuing discussion, Committee Experts recognized positive steps taken since the end of the conflict, such as co-sponsoring the resolution of the Human Rights Council on accountability in Sri Lanka, measures to address the needs of conflict-affected women, particularly widows and female headed households, progress achieved in education, and the ongoing constitutional reform process. 

Experts raised questions on the status of transitional justice mechanisms, measures taken to fight impunity for torture and sexual violence by the army and the police, and the position concerning the establishment of a hybrid special court, and integrating international judges, prosecutors and investigators, to try war crimes and crimes against humanity.  Experts also asked about the inclusion of a gender perspective in transitional justice mechanisms and about steps to ensure the effective protection of witnesses giving testimony in trials on past crimes.  The delegation was asked about the adoption of the zero-tolerance approach to sexual violence by the agents of the State, and the adoption of a policy of no tolerance to torture by the police and the army. 

The Committee Experts noted that progress in addressing domestic violence was lacking, despite the adoption of the national action plan.  Significant delays in addressing complaints of violence filed by women and ensuring their access to justice indicated a deeply ingrained culture that denigrated women.  Experts were gravely concerned about the ongoing threat to life and security of person in the northern and eastern provinces which were administered by the army and where the security situation at the community level had not changed much.  Of concern were sexual and other forms of violence against women and girls, harassment and unjustified surveillance, the use of women in rural industries run by the military, and displacement due to the practice of land grabbing.

In concluding remarks, Ms. Senarathne said that the dialogue had allowed Sri Lanka to understand the concerns of the Committee and also to report on the progress made. 

The delegation of Sri Lanka included representatives of the Ministry of Women and Child Affairs, Attorney General’s Department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Embassy of Sri Lanka to the Republic of Korea, and the Permanent Mission of Sri Lanka to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The Committee will meet in public on Thursday, 23 February, at 10 a.m. to consider the combined seventh to ninth periodic reports of Rwanda (CEDAW/C/RWA/7-9).

Report

The eighth periodic report of Sri Lanka can be read here: CEDAW/C/LKA/8.
 
Presentation of the Report

CHANDRANI SENARATHNE, Secretary, Ministry of Women and Child Affairs, started by saying that since the formation of a National Unity Government two years ago, Sri Lanka had taken many bold and progressive steps in the fields of human rights, reconciliation and economic development.  Following the presidential election in January 2015, Sri Lanka had adopted a policy of engagement with civil society and human rights defenders, and a policy of constructive engagement with the United Nations.

AYESHA JINASENA, Senior Deputy Solicitor General, Attorney General’s Department, informed the Committee that in addition to the Constitution, several legislative enactments had given effect to the provisions of the Convention and that the absence of a special law on women’s rights to enact the Convention under domestic law did not detract from the rights recognized under the Constitution and the legal measures already in place.  Sri Lanka was in the process of drafting a new Constitution which would address key areas in the Chapter on Fundamental Rights, and there was a proposal for the inclusion of a section on women’s rights in this chapter.  The chapter on women’s rights in the national action plan for the protection and promotion of human rights 2017-2021 made several specific provisions to include the rights prescribed in the Convention in the areas of violence against women, abortion, women headed households, employment, education and others.  There was a wide discussion and consultative process with stakeholders of all communities, including the Muslim community, on early marriage; a Cabinet Sub-Committee had been appointed in October 2016 to propose amendments to the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act on the basis of recommendations received through consultations.  It was expected that the increase of the age of compulsory education from 14 to 16 years introduced in 2016 would contribute to the continuation of education of girls and discourage early marriage.    

MANISHA GUNASEKERA, Ambassador of Sri Lanka to the Republic of Korea, said that Sri Lanka had enacted legislation to establish an Office of Missing Persons, and had established a Secretariat to coordinate mechanisms related to justice, reparations and truth seeking.  Further, the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation had been set up, headed by former President Kumaratunga.  There were more than 700,000 widows in Sri Lanka and more than 1.2 million women-headed households; an action plan on women-headed households had been adopted in September 2016, and a National Centre for the Empowerment of Widows and Women Headed Families had been set up in November 2015 to function as the main resource centre in providing services mainly in Northern and Eastern Provinces.  The policy framework and national plan of action to address sexual and gender-based violence 2016-2020 aimed to address the issue through a three-pronged approach of prevention, intervention and policy advocacy.  In January 2016, Sri Lanka had endorsed the “Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict”.  A robust health structure included programmes to prevent sexual and gender-based violence and support survivors, while the strong network of 600 health institutions and 800 public health staff provided institutional and field-based health care to women and children.

RAVINATHA ARYASINHA, Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations Office at Geneva, informed the Committee that Sri Lanka was taking a number of measures to reduce the migration of unskilled labour that led to the concentration of women in low skilled unregulated sectors, thus increasing their vulnerability to gender-based violence and other forms of discrimination.  As a result, female migration had decreased from 48 per cent of all migrant workers in 2007 to 34 per cent in 2015.  Women’s participation in government policy formulation, and the number of women holding high-level public positions at all levels of the government continued to increase.  In 2015, more than 47 per cent of the staff in the administrative service were women, up from 17 per cent in 1993; the number of women in the Foreign Service grew from 29 per cent in 1993 to 47 per cent.  The participation of women had seen a steady increase by default, purely based on merit, not through reservation, which was a result of women’s equal access to education and accepted notions of women’s social mobility in Sri Lanka.

Questions from the Experts

A Committee Expert congratulated Sri Lanka on the positive steps taken since the end of the conflict, including the cosponsoring of the Human Rights Council resolution on accountability in Sri Lanka, and the ongoing constitutional reform process. 

Article 12 guaranteed equality between women and men, but it did not prohibit discrimination against women as required by the Convention, and women continued to face discrimination on the basis of gender and caste.  Discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation and gender identity was not prohibited.  How were these issues being considered in the ongoing constitutional reform?

Did Sri Lanka intend to address the proliferation of action plans and consolidate them into a comprehensive and well-resourced policy?

The National Human Rights Action Plan identified a number of discriminatory laws, including the Muslim personal law and land act, to be repealed over the next five years – could the delegation inform on the implementation of the plan?

Another Expert expressed concern about the ongoing threat to life and security of person in northern and eastern provinces and that not much changed in the security situation in communities there.  What was Sri Lanka’s response to reports of sexual violence, harassment and unjustified surveillance committed by its security agents?  What was the position concerning the use of torture by the police and the military and how could Sri Lanka adopt a policy of no tolerance to the practices of the past?

What was the update on the prosecution of 39 cases of sexual violence committed by army personnel, which Sri Lanka had admitted to the Human Rights Committee in 2014?

The Expert welcomed the adoption of the policy framework and the national action plan on sexual and gender-based violence, and asked the delegation about concrete measures being taken to create a more conducive environment for sexual violence, the adoption of a zero-tolerance approach to sexual violence by the agents of the State, and how the implementation of this policy was monitored.

 
Responses by the Delegation

The delegation explained that Sri Lanka has a dualist legal system, under which the provisions of international treaties were incorporated in the domestic law, and that the laws of Sri Lanka were in compliance with the Convention.  Article 12.1 of the Constitution provided for full equality before the law of all persons, and article 12.2 prohibited discrimination.  The amendments brought into the penal code increased the protection of victims of rape and trafficking by increasing sentences for the crimes. 

The Government had adopted the national human rights action plan in January 2017, which contained specific provisions to repeal discriminatory provisions in personal laws that violated human rights, in consultation with ethnic and religious communities which applied those laws.   The plan also contained actions to repeal discriminatory provisions in the land development ordinance and other laws applicable to land alienation. 

Additionally, the human rights action plan proposed to include a chapter on women rights in the section on fundamental rights in the Constitution; to criminalize rape in all circumstances and adopt zero-tolerance to statutory rape; to broaden the definition of torture in the torture act to include non-State actors and recognize sexual violence as a form of torture; and to legalise the medical termination of pregnancy in cases of rape, incest and foetal malformations. 

In follow-up questions, Experts asked the delegation to provide more information about the status of transitional justice mechanisms, measures taken to fight impunity for torture and sexual violence by the army and the police, and the participation of Sri Lanka in international accountability mechanisms, including the position on the establishment of a special hybrid court to try war crimes and crimes against humanity.  How would gender perspectives be included in the transitional justice mechanisms?

What was the position of the Government concerning the adoption of a national action plan for the implementation of United Nations Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security?

Another Expert referred to the previous dialogue of Sri Lanka with the Committee in 2011 and expressed concern about the length of time needed to enact the needed legislative reforms.

The delegation was also asked about the law and procedures on the protection of witnesses providing testimony on the crimes of the past, and in particular on the principle of confidentiality.

The delegation said that the pace of progress must be taken in context and that many advances achieved over the past two years were not being fully acknowledged.  The issues Sri Lanka was dealing with were not simple to resolve and Sri Lanka should be commended on steps taken, especially given the commitment of the Government to push the measures forward.

The commitment to a zero-tolerance policy on sexual violence and torture was strong as evidenced by the recent signature of the “Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict”.  Clear instructions had been given to all branches of the armed forces and the police that strong actions would be taken against those who committed human rights violations, including torture.  The National Human Rights Council of Sri Lanka had issued a directive on the protection of human rights persons arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and recalled that torture and cruel and inhumane treatment were prohibited in the law.

A delegate, referring to the 39 cases that had been mentioned, said that no evidence on the cases was provided despite the Government having requested it.  It was noted that while in no way dismissive of this and similar allegations, because any instance of this nature is one too many, the Government has continued to ask the people who have evidence to make it available, so that the Government of Sri Lanka could have a proper process where these can be looked into.
On the protection of witnesses, the delegation explained that there was an authority for the protection of victims and their rights; this body also received complaints about the protection and to date had received 14 such complaints.

Questions from the Experts

With regard to the national gender machinery in Sri Lanka, a Committee Expert noted the plethora of action plans on a number of issues – on gender-based violence, on female-headed households, on the national human rights action plan with a separate chapter on women’s rights, and others.  And yet, an independent National Commission of Women had not yet been established – what was the status of this draft law and when could its adoption be expected?

There was a lack of effective implementation of existing national action plans and the Committee was concerned about how, in such a context, adequate resources, coordination, and a coherent policy could be achieved.  Would it not be better to instead have one comprehensive, well-resourced and rights-based national action plan on women’s rights?

Another Expert asked the delegation to inform about the application of temporary special measures and other measures taken to accelerate effective de facto equality between women and men in Sri Lanka. 

Responses by the Delegation

Concerning the adoption of one comprehensive action plan on women’s development, the delegation explained that Sri Lanka had a negative experience with one big consolidated plan – the Women Development Plan – which had not been adopted by the Cabinet for fears considering the lack of the capacity in the Ministry of Women to implement it with a huge budgetary allocation.  The delegation informed that the Action Plans under reference have designated budgetary allocations for implementation.

The bill on the establishment of the National Women Commission had been submitted to the Cabinet; the method of selection of Commissioners guaranteed its independence.

Questions from the Experts

A Committee Expert expressed appreciation for the efforts to increase awareness on the need to change stereotypes in education and the entertainment industry, and asked about specific projects with civil society and women’s organizations that had been put in place to increase awareness about discrimination against women.

The civil strife in Sri Lanka worsened the life of women, their freedom and fundamental rights, and undermined their access to justice to obtain redress for human rights violations.  The Committee was concerned about the culture of denigration of women in some areas of the country and by some sectors of the society and State structures, adding that tolerance of the suffering of women was an indicator of profound gender-based discrimination.

What effective measures were being taken to change those patterns of behaviour based on negative stereotypes of women repeatedly carried out by State officials?  What was being done to punish those men in State structures who were in charge of receiving complaints by women, but because of their prejudices made their situation worse?

Another Expert remarked that progress in addressing domestic violence was lacking, despite the adoption of the national action plan: there were significant delays in addressing complaints of violence filed by women, the law sanctioning violence against children was not in place, and no measures were being taken to increase the access of women to the justice system, including through addressing traditional practices which created a barrier to accessing justice.  Where was the support for victims of this type of violence?

Experts commended Sri Lanka on positive steps taken to address trafficking in persons, including the adoption of the Palermo Protocol, the creation of the national action plan against human trafficking, and the adoption of the law on the protection of victims and witnesses.  The Committee was however concerned about the slow rate of implementation of those measures, including in the area of legal amendments.  The low rate of investigation, prosecution and sanctioning was a challenge as well.

Which mechanism was in place to monitor the operation of regional recruitment officers of the Ministry for Foreign Employment? 

The Committee was also concerned about the continued use of the vagrant ordinance to arrest sex workers - often poor and disadvantaged women, and the alleged use of sexual bribery, particularly in areas which were still heavily militarized.  Would the bribery act be amended to include sexual bribery as well?  Was there a mechanism in place to assist women wishing to exit prostitution?

Responses by the Delegation

The delegation said that combatting gender stereotypes was a challenge in Sri Lanka as it was in every country in the world.  The Cabinet had approved the setting up of the gender mainstreaming programmes in each Ministry to achieve gender equality, promote gender budgeting and adopt concepts of gender equity in policy.  Minimizing sexual harassment was also in the purview of those programmes.  Gender focal points are being established in each Ministry.  The Ministry of Women had extended its gender mainstreaming programmes in provincial councils, resulting in the integration of gender perspectives in programmes and policies.

The Government had introduced gender into the school curricula from the primary level up to tertiary education, and action was being taken to combat gender stereotypes in the entertainment industry and in advertising.

Sri Lanka had gone through 30 years of conflict-related violence, during which sexual and gender-based violence throughout the country had been a fact.  The Government had taken a very strong position with regard to the implementation of a zero-tolerance policy to sexual violence.  With the establishment of the civil administration in the north and east of the country, the police was being empowered to address sexual violence, including though training in gender-sensitive policing.  Amendments to the domestic violence acts would be presented soon.  

In their follow-up questions, Experts asked about action taken to address violence against women in the north and east of the country, and also to punish the extortion of mothers or wives of disappeared persons who were asked to give money or sexual services in exchange of information about their loved ones.  There was a ban on migration of female workers under the age of 23, particularly to the Middle East, which might result in illegal migration and trafficking of women from Sri Lanka.

What was the position on compulsory counselling in cases of domestic violence?

The Committee was very concerned about the land grabbing process by the military whose officers were in charge of the civil administration in the north and east of the country, and which led to the displacement of the people.

Were there any intentions to decriminalize same-sex relations between consenting adults?

Responding, the delegation said that seven steering sub-committees had been set up to consider the important components of the proposed Constitution, and stressed that discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation was prohibited.

Women intending to migrate abroad for work were obliged to present a family report, which was a provision introduced in the framework of protecting the family, and was not aimed at discriminating against women. 

Questions from the Experts

A Committee Expert stressed that women’s participation in public and political life was a crucial goal and tool of gender equality.  Sri Lanka had a female President and a female Prime Minister, showing how far it had travelled.  However, women’s political participation was still low, with only 4.9 per cent of seats in Parliament and 3.4 per cent of seats in provincial councils held by women. 

What were the root causes of women’s political participation and what steps were being taken to address the challenges and increase the proportion of women in elected bodies to at least 30 per cent?  How many female ambassadors were in service and which programmes were available to lower-rank Foreign Service officers to help advance their carriers?


Responses by the Delegation

Responding to questions raised on the low representation of women in politics, the delegation said that Sri Lanka was taking measures to address this anomaly and added that it was currently consulting on reform of the electoral law and was contemplating the adoption of temporary special measures in the form of quotas.  The National Human Rights Action Plan had made four recommendations to increase the political and public life participation of women, including the adoption of temporary special measures such as reserving a minimum number of seats for women in elected bodies, and lobbying political parties to agree to the adoption of a quota system in the revised electoral law.

Sri Lanka had 15 female ambassadors and 22 deputy heads of posts; in the Foreign Service as a whole, there were 91 female officers and 83 male officers.  Six female judges served in the Supreme Court, 10 in high courts, and 77 women judges served in district and magistrate courts.

Questions from the Experts

A Committee Expert commended Sri Lanka for the progress achieved in the area of education and asked the delegation to explain primary and secondary school enrolment rates for girls.

What measures were in place – including temporary special measures - to ensure the universal provision of quality education for all girls, from all ethnic and minority groups, and at all levels?

Had the military occupation of schools ended?  What programmes were in place for education as reparation and education for reconciliation?  How were girls encouraged to choose education in science, technology, engineering and mechanics, considering that more than 70 per cent of places in arts were taken by girls?

Another Expert noted that although Sri Lanka had achieved almost universal primary and secondary school enrolment for girls, the progress in education did not translate into the employment sector.  Some 74 per cent of men were employed, while only 36 per cent of women were in work, and this low rate had been constantly decreasing for the past two decades.

What measures were contained in the National Human Rights Plan for the demobilization and reintegration of female combatants, including in education and employment sectors?

Female migrant workers had to present a family background report in order to obtain permission to migrate abroad for work; they also had to appoint guardians for their children, while women with children with disabilities could not migrate at all.  Migrant men were not required to fulfil this obligation.  When would Sri Lanka repeal this discriminatory provision from its migration law in the interest of gender equality?

The delegation was asked about access to health services for women affected by the conflict, including for women with special needs and for former combatants.  Due to the lack of disaggregated data per urban and rural areas, and for different regions of the country, it was not clear whether the low maternal mortality rates and the high rate of the use of contraceptives prevailed everywhere in the country.

Replies by the Delegation

The delegation noted that women represented almost half of students in areas such as nursing, medicine, dentistry, or architecture, but their involvement in engineering and information technology fields still lagged behind – women represented only 20 per cent of engineering students in 2014/2015.  This state of affairs was largely due to girls’ perception about the professions as well as the perceptions of their parents.

The family background report for female migrants did not require the authorisation of the husband for a women to migrate; the purpose of the report was to assess the absence of the woman on the situation of her children and ensure that each child was adequately protected.

The Ministry of Justice was taking steps to amend the law to decriminalize abortion in special cases which included rape and incest, pregnancy occurring in a girl under the age of 16, and serious foetal impairment.

The military was slowly withdrawing from the northern and eastern areas, from business ventures there, and was returning land to owners.

Questions from the Experts

A Committee Expert expressed appreciation for steps taken to address the needs of conflict-affected women, particularly widows and female headed households.  However, access to various programmes depended on the definition of female headed households that was used.  Did this category include families where husbands were in detention, prison or disappeared, and also households where husbands did not make economic contributions?

Were the qualification requirements for access to loans and credits from private and public financial institutions the same for women and men?  Were there intentions to introduce interest free loans and credits for the poor?

Many women, particularly in the north and east, had lost documents, such as birth certificates, land deeds, and others – was there a well-coordinated system of issuing replacement documents and so enabling women to access economic, livelihood and financial schemes?

Responses by the Delegation

The delegation explained that the definition of female households included women who were separated, divorced, widows, single and former combatants.  The amendment to the land development ordinance that proposed to address discriminatory provisions in relation to inheritance and land ownership had been drafted and sent to the legal commission for clearance.

There were two schemes for women to obtain loans, through group guarantees and through the housing loans for female headed households.  The Government provided support to individuals to return to their lands that were released in the northern and eastern provinces, including through mine clearance, construction of new houses and rehabilitation of damaged ones, and immediate relief for the newly returned families. 

Questions from the Experts

A Committee Expert noted that the Muslim personal law applied to some 15 per cent of the population who could not opt out of it.  Discriminatory provisions in this law were well known, including on marriage, property, and decision-making. 

What assurances could be offered that a dead end in the consultations on reforms of the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act would be resolved?  Why were more educated women not included in the process?  Was the Government considering giving Muslims a possibility to opt out of the Muslim personal law, as a number of other countries had done?

Responses by the Delegation

In response to the issues raised by the Experts, the delegation said that the Government was mindful regarding concerns about discriminatory provisions in a number of personal laws.  The issue of early marriage was currently being discussed by all stakeholders, including the Muslim community.  Muslims represented 9.3 per cent of the country’s population, and the Government was under an obligation to take their views into account.  In 2009, the Ministry of Justice had adopted a Committee recommendation to consider and propose changes to the Muslim personal law; the Committee included women representatives, and considered the age of marriage, the need for gender mainstreaming in the appointment of Quazi courts, adequate compensation during divorce, and more gender sensitive personal laws governing the Muslim community.

Concluding Remarks

CHANDRANI SENARATHNE, Secretary, Ministry of Women and Child Affairs of Sri Lanka, said that the dialogue was very useful as it allowed Sri Lanka to understand the concerns of the Committee and also to report on the progress made.  Sri Lanka would carefully consider the Committee’s concluding observations and identify areas that needed to be expedited.

DALIA LEINARTE, Committee Chairperson, commended Sri Lanka for its efforts and encouraged it to address various recommendations which the Committee would issue with the purpose of a more comprehensive implementation of the Convention throughout the State party.

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