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Girls rising: Perspectives from Sri Lanka

By Salma Yusuf 

The right to education has been recognized since the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948 which states in Article 26 that the UDHR proclaims that everyone has the right to education. It highlights this right to be universal and not discriminated based upon factors among which are gender, ethnicity and religion.

The right was further enshrined in a range of international conventions including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. More recently, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Millennium Development Goals also underline gender equality in attaining goals including education. However, it must be remembered that though the right to education is universally recognized, it interpretation varies substantially in a national context, that is, the mode of securing this right varies with location. In some countries, the right is enforceable through national legislation, and in others, it has persuasive effect in the making of public policies.

While there is no place for complacency in the present situation, we have every reason for hope because the discrimination is not in principle or policy against women and girls, but rather in practice which is also not directly discriminatory.

Sri Lanka introduced free education for all children from primary to university level in 1945. It has been argued that in the case of Sri Lanka, women have been benefiters of this policy. The law made it compulsory for child to gain a school education in Sri Lanka and went one step further to cast a duty on all parents of a child not less than five years old and not more than fourteen years old to enable such a child to receive an education.

Moreover, in Article 27 (2) of the Constitution of Sri Lanka, the state is pledged to the complete eradication of illiteracy and assurance to all persons of the right to universal and equal access to education at all levels.

It is positive reality to not live in a country where laws, policies and principles are directly discriminatory against girls and more importantly, not culturally and socially stigmatized.

The importance of educating girls cannot be overstated. It is said, when you educate a man, you educate an individual but when you educate a woman, you educate a family and a generation. Moreover, empowering women through education has important implications for women’s economic empowerment, women’s access to information, knowledge and skills and access to decent and remunerative work. Viewed in a wider sense, education enhances women’s capability to make choices, develops self-confidence, decision-making power and autonomy.

The challenges that Sri Lanka faces in this subject are several. The content of education is gendered; it reproduces stereotypes through teaching methods and textbooks. Further, it is found that young women tend to enroll in courses such as cosmetology, sewing and cookery that do not train them for formal employment. Women who choose ‘non-traditional’ courses face difficulties finding trainings, apprenticeships and employment. The disparities in the provision of education facilities and services and socio-economic constraints in urban settlements, remote villages, plantations and conflict-affected areas have resulted in pockets of educational deprivation.

In contrast to gender parity in general education, there are notable imbalances in intakes of female students to the engineering and technology-related courses in universities, as well as technical colleges. This gender imbalance in enrollment to courses in science and technology can also be traced to the impact of traditional gender role stereotypes prevailing in the family and society in Sri Lanka.

Undoubtedly, one of the social groups that have benefited most from the revolutionary educational reforms implemented is women. The figures tell the story: in 1946, when overall literacy rate for the country was 57.8 per cent, only 43.8 percent of the female population was literate as opposed to 70.1 percent of the male population. By 2001, however, the percentage of literate women had gone up to 90 percent of the female population in comparison with the 93 percent of the male population. How did the gap between male and female literacy come to be narrowed so rapidly and significantly during the intervening 60 odd year period? The answer is ‘free education.’

The enlightened policy of ‘free health’ was another revolutionary welfare policy measure that went hand in hand with ‘free education; bringing about a remarkable improvement in Lankan women’s physical quality of life. There was a time when Sri Lanka was touted as the ‘poster child’ in UN development circles for this reason. As women live longer, parents become more willing to invest in their education. This is within the underlying rationale, that human beings tend to prioritize their struggles, and when health and education are competing claims, the former is the winner. Therefore, in the case of Sri Lanka, when free health was provided, education became an option for consideration.

The question then that begs an answer is how did ‘free education; benefit women in particular? As long as education is not free, parents with limited resources must make a choice regarding whom to educate and how much. Given the deep-rooted gender norms in Sri Lankan society, it would seem logical for parents to expend their limited resources on educating their sons. This is the economic rationale that has been addressed when it comes to educating women in Sri Lanka.

The cultural rationale still persists but in a lesser degree progressively, in Sri Lankan society. For long years, ‘education’ was seen as ‘spoiling’ women for marriage and hence less desirable, hence parents prefer to save funds for dowry of than invest in education of their daughters.

Therefore, it is only through more girls being educated that societal attitudes toward women can be challenged and translated to positive gender roles in communities and cultures.

* Salma Yusuf was invited to present a Sri Lankan perspective following the screening of the Girls Rising: Education of Girls documentary in Colombo.

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Salma Yusuf

Salma Yusuf has a Master of Laws from Queen Mary, University of London with a specialization in Public International Law and a Bachelor of Laws with Honours from University of London. She provides legal, policy and advisory services at both national and international programmes in the fields of International Law, Human Rights, Transitional Justice, Social Justice and Reconciliation. She is Lecturer in Law at University of Northumbria – Regional Campus for Sri Lanka & Maldives and previously at University of Colombo and University of Sydney. She has published extensively including at the Seattle Journal for Social Justice, Washington; Sri Lanka Journal of International Law; Frontiers of Legal Research, Canadian Academy of Oriental and Occidental Culture; Complutense University of Madrid, Spain; Harvard Asia Quarterly; International Affairs Review; Journal of Human Rights in the Commonwealth and The Diplomat. She holds numerous academic and professional positions both nationally and internationally, has been invited to present in her fields of expertise at local and international conferences and seminars and has received leadership awards both at home and abroad. Yusuf was the main author of the Jaffna Memorandum which was the outcome document of a historic event that took place in Sri Lanka in March 2015

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