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FOKUS Sri Lanka urging CEDAW committee to hold government accountable

Photo: Lakmin Jayathilake

On July 25th, FOKUS Country Director in Sri Lanka Shyamala Gomez urged the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) to include issues faced by female heads of households in their examination of Sri Lanka

17.08.2016 By: Magnus Holtfodt

Gomez attended the CEDAW Pre-Sessional Working Group Meeting in preparation for the examination of Sri Lanka in February 2017. The CEDAW Committee will make a list of questions for the government of Sri Lanka.  In her statement, Gomez asked the Committee to include issues faced by female heads of households in this list.

Statement on Shadow Report Presented by FOKUS WOMEN to
CEDAW Pre Sessional Working Group
66th Session, Geneva, 25 July 2016
Review of Sri Lanka

This statement is made on behalf of FOKUS WOMEN and addresses specific issues faced by female heads of households in Sri Lanka after the war.

Female Heads of Households

The thirty-year war has had a disproportionate impact on female heads of households in Sri Lanka (hereafter FHH) and has resulted in an increase in their numbers. Currently, a woman heads or is responsible for one in every five household in Sri Lanka.

(1) Uniform Categorization of FHH

The Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) has no official definition for FHH. Studies done reveal that inclusion or exclusion of FHH in welfare programmes depends on the definitions and terms used. The terms include war widows; female headed household; and a single parent family. It is not clear how inclusive these terms are. For instance whether women whose partner is missing and women whose husbands are in detention are included in these definitions is unclear. The actual number of FHH is unknown and there is no national disaggregated data that recognises the diversity of FHH.

The state must adopt clear and inclusive categorizations of FHH that will be used uniformly in welfare and resettlement policies and programmes and it must issue guidelines on how to select FHH as beneficiaries.

(2) FHH and Tesawalamai Law

The Tesawalamai law discriminates against a Tamil married woman by requiring her husband’s consent for all transactions related to her immovable property. Where consent cannot be obtained for example, where her husband is missing or is detained, the District Court is authorised to give consent.  The woman is required to make an application to Court each time such consent is required. The married FHH under Tesawalamai is therefore faced with an excessive burden in dealing with her own immovable property.

(3) Sexual Exploitation of FHH

Studies reveal that FHH are subjected to sexual exploitation by public servants and those in charge of public security; health care workers; and employers of civil society organizations. Offenders act with impunity and target vulnerable FHH.  For instance where the spouse is detained or is missing, FHH are dependent on the military and the police to investigate into the matter. Due to poverty FHH seek employment and assistance to meet their financial needs. Post war, FHH also need access to land, documentation and housing and they seek the services of government officers.  FHH include ‘military widows’ or widows of members of the armed forces who died in the war.

(4) FHH and Transitional Justice

To date, there have been no specific state led transitional justice or peace building initiatives in which FHH could participate and be involved in.  In 2011, the CEDAW Committee recommended the inclusion of women in the ‘country’s post-conflict, reconstruction and peace building process.

(5) FHH and Access to Justice

Where FHH seek or access justice they are faced with numerous discriminatory practices including language barriers; discriminatory religious courts and cultural stereotyping. Due to the lack of Tamil speaking officers at police stations, and lack of translators during court proceedings, Tamil speaking FHH claim that they are discouraged from seeking legal remedies.

The shadow report submitted by FOKUS WOMEN highlights the issues faced by female heads of households from the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim communities and are based on documented information collected through research by FOKUS and its collaborating partners.   

Taking the above facts into consideration, FOKUS WOMEN respectfully urges the CEDAW Committee to include the following in its List of Critical Issues to the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL):

1. What steps has the GoSL taken to adopt clear and inclusive categorizations of FHH that will be used uniformly in welfare and resettlement policies and programmes?

2. Has the government taken steps to maintain a disaggregated database on FHH in Sri Lanka?

3. On what basis does the GoSL target FHH for specific welfare programmes?

4. What steps has the GoSL taken to ensure that women and FHH are represented in discussions on the establishment of Transitional Justice mechanisms for Sri Lanka?

5. What are the measures the GoSL has taken to ensure that FHH, including military widows, are not subject to sexual exploitation, in the delivery of government services?
6. What steps has the GoSL taken to amend the gender discriminatory provisions of the Tesawalamai law?

7. Have steps been taken to issue Certificates of Absence to married FHH so they are able to deal with their immovable property in situations where their husbands are missing or are disappeared?
8. What measures are in place to monitor the implementation of the Official Languages policy in the war affected areas?

9. What measures has the GoSL taken to improve women’s access to justice particularly in the post war context?

10. What are the measures the GoSL has taken to address the psychosocial needs of women, including FHH, affected by war?