|Saturday, 24 January 2004|
Of women, reproductive rights, health and well-being
Address by Urmila Bodinagoda, Vice President, Sathsarana Foundation at a seminar organised by the Society for International Development in Kathmandu, Nepal on November 19, 2003. It was held in association with SID-SAN in collaboration with UNFPA and UNIFEM, New Delhi
All of us gathered here today are here because we have at some point in our lives made a choice. We have made a conscious decision to pursue a career that will afford at least some relief to others less fortunate than ourselves. It is keeping that in mind that I come before you to present to you my finding, working with people affected by conflict.
A very important issue I have had the misfortune to realise is that the worse affected are not confined to the conflict area itself. I can speak with conviction only on the situation in Sri Lanka. Here the conflict area was first identified as the north. It gradually spread on to the East. The conflict-affected families who have lost their family members limbs, homes, lands and property terrorism for the past twenty years have been moving South in search of anonymity and to be free of terror. They disappear into the slums of big cities where the living conditions are far worse than in any conflict area. These slums abound with drug addicts, drunkards, armed thugs and men and women in every kind of degradation.
Victims of terror
These victims of terror, all people who have led the simple but respectable lives of farmers, livestock owners, fishermen are now battling another kind of terror. It is in this environment that a woman has to keep herself and her family. While the attention, the aid, the proposed development all go to the conflict area and perhaps to those who instigated the conflict in the first place, the actual victims, whatever the nationality they may belong to, whatever religious convictions they may follow; go unnoticed, by-passed and unaided. It is under these conditions that a woman has to keep herself healthy and to bring up her family.
In the West a woman has the freedom of choice. She is to a great extent in control of her life. She is able to choose what is right for her on any number of issues that confront her not only on what is up for discussion at this seminar.
The Asian woman on the other hand, in a conflict area or otherwise, is a prisoner of circumstance. Her life is led according to the dictums of those in control. Those in control are not necessarily the legislators of the land she lives in but her husband and older members of his family, particularly his mother and sisters. Very often the law of the land is by passed in favour of more feudal laws considered best by the in-laws. What they do so consider best would not necessarily be the best for her or her immediate family. This situation is applicable to most Asian lands in this region.
The purpose of my speech is not to discuss the condition of women in one hemisphere or the other. Its purpose is to bring to the notice of all those concerned, of what is needed for a woman, particularly a woman in a conflict area or one who has moved South in search of safety, to upgrade her living standards. These women lead lives that are fraught with uncertainty and danger. Either married or widowed they are very often the breadwinners of their immediate families.
They support their children by whatever means they can muster. The husband if he is alive cannot support the family. This is mainly as the changed environment does not permit him to engage in his normal pursuits. The uncertainty of the future, living in the embattled areas or having lived in the embattled areas has somehow affected the men more adversely than the women. They are either disabled, drunkards or addicted to drugs. As such they are not capable of nurturing a family. In fact many a time the meagre earnings of the wife is taken with little or no regard for her wishes to support his addiction.
The Asian culture is male dominated. This tradition and culture to which the Asian woman is born to and force of habit prevents her from openly opposing her husband or his behaviour. He is very much the lord and master of his home. His wishes prevail. The woman has very little rights within her home. Her upbringing prevents her from asserting any of her rights or entitlements. She would assert her rights only if her husband so desires. He would do desire only if the particular assertion is beneficial to him.
What man, when he has absolute power within a home would encourage his wife to assert her rights and so diminish his dominance? As for reproductive rights - these rights of women in conflict areas are practically non-existent. Most of them are not aware that they have such rights. Even if they were informed, it would not occur to them to go against the prevailing religious or social laws, much less against the wishes of the husband.
A widow or an abandoned woman on the other hand is even worse off. On top of being a single parent, providing for her children she is blamed for the loss of her husband. In Asia in particular it is believed that it is the ill luck of the women that deprived the mother-in-law of her son, the sister-in-law of her brother. Instead of receiving the support essential to pull her life together at this time of extreme loss, this unfortunate woman and her children are very often ostracised as bringers of ill luck.
How would such a woman support her family? Sometimes the only avenue open to her is to offer herself to a man not through choice but simply to support her children. How does one speak of a woman's rights to a woman who markets the only saleable commodity she has - herself - not through choice but to keep her children fed? This undoubtedly leads to disease at the worst or else another mouth to feed. With children crying out in hunger can this woman afford the luxury of weighting the odds?
The point I am trying to make through all this is that any amount of legislation or discussion at an international level stops just there unless a woman in need has access to make at least some of it work for her. Legislation is formulated in most countries but what use is legislation if it is not or if it cannot be enforced. Taking all this into consideration how would it be possible for a woman affected by conflict to have, as far as possible, a healthy, integrated and productive life?
May I be permitted to strike a personal note? I myself an Asian woman became a single parent by choice, in a society where one hangs onto a marriage at almost any cost. I had three school-going children; one sitting for her Advanced Levels, another for her Ordinary Levels and the third was still in primary school. The house we were living in, given to me by my parents, had been mortgaged. I was not employed and as such had no regular income. A daunting situation one might think. The only factors missing from the equation to make me equally comparable to a woman in a conflict area, was the absence of violence and terror that is the part and parcel of any war zone.
Today my eldest daughter has finished her BSc. She is employed and is hoping to read for her Masters Examination next year. The second has also finished her BSc and has just started work. The third is in her A/level and very happy to be at school.
In retrospect to achieve this, apart from help from various friends on different occasions, the handling of the situation by one man, my father is worthy of comment.
He gave my children and myself sanctuary under his roof. I was given time to take stock, time to assess the situation I found myself in, time to decide what I wanted to do with my family and myself. This was given whole-heartedly with no conditions attached. I was not blamed or found fault with. Advice was given when sought for, with no compulsion to follow through. A gentle, soft spoken man, in his late seventies, he nevertheless stood between us and the rest of the world, absorbing all the brick bats, protecting us, like the great Wall of China.
These two essential ingredients, of time and space in which to assess one's life at a troubled time or at any time for that matter, are the two vital components most women and particularly those affected by conflict lack. All decisions made at an international level, all legislation passed by respective governments to protect the rights of women in any area, are not effective unless the women affected can make use of them. To make use of them, primarily one must know they exist; secondly one must have the freedom to use them without undue repercussions and thirdly one must have the means to do so. The means are often legal and his immediately puts it beyond her reach.
In Asia we have had flourishing civilisations for approximately three thousand years before Christ. We have seen the rise and fall of civilisations. Women have been exalted, they have been liberated and they have been subjugated. In two thousand five hundred BC, this country which is hosting this seminar gave birth to Sakyamuni (king of the Sakyas), Sidhartha Gauthama who admitted both men and women into his order. Within this order the ultimate state of an Arahath was equally attainable by a man or a woman. It is also in the same Asia that a young wife of an ageing man was expected to throw herself into her husband's pyre at his demise.
Let us for a moment leave this region of contrasts and take a look at the United States of America. In as late as the eighteen hundreds groups of settlers from different parts of the Western world were disembarking on those shores in search of a new life. They were fighting bears, panthers, and wolves to tame deep woods. They were building homesteads in an endless prairie that was home to fierce tribes.
Today, in a comparatively short time they have become a mighty force in the world where these issues under discussion are not relevant. What was their secret? What did those early forefathers do to bring this about?
The first thing the early settlers turned their hands to, once their homesteads were built and their crops put in was to build a school. This school was available to all children male and female without discrimination. All children got the same basic education irrespective of whether they were going to be farmers or farmers' wives. All children make and female got the same values, the same principles to live by; the same sense of what is right an what is wrong. The small child, male or female was treated alike. There were no dual standards. There was no discrimination.
The Asian child learns to accept discrimination as a norm from birth. It begins in the home where the mother will pamper the male. His faults are overlooked. The choicest morsels of food are saved for him.
Sometimes the female children are given the left overs. A brother may hit out at a sister with impunity but a sister may not raise her hand to her brother. A husband may be drunkard, a womaniser, a gambler or all three. A wife will throw a blanket over all this rather than bring it out to the open to find a solution. He may be physically abusive - not in private but quite openly. The wife will accept this as his integral right.
What is the message the children of such households receive in their formative years? Does not the message say it is right to discriminate? Does it not say it is right to use physical abuse?
If building a school was one of the first thing those early settlers did the next thing they did was to build a church. This church, built primarily for worship had many other uses as well. It was a community center. It provided them with a break from the drudge of their daily lies. It was a place where people could meet. A place where one could communicate with others besides one's family members. A place outside their homes where there was a kindly ear to listen to their troubles. A place where they could go with impunity, with no fear of repercussion. It was a place where advice could be sought. A place where a solution to a problem was found. In other words it was a sanctuary.
The basic needs of time and space essential for anyone to assert one's rights; essential for one's well-being; essential for sound mental health which is a vital criterion of sound physical health has been identified very early by the Christian Church and an answer had been found. Hats off to them!
Now, I am by no means suggesting that one goes about building churches in all the conflict areas. I have grown up in the best of Buddhist traditions where a healthy respect for another's religion is maintained. I have been taught to find out for myself, to question to analyse everything that comes my way - even my own religion. It is therefore with an open mind that I have looked at the community activities of the Christian Church and realises that we - all of us have to take a leaf out of their book.
The Church based organisations are very competent at providing all the necessary support to any troubled woman. The only drawback is that the support she gets is conditional.
She has to convert. This was not a problem in the West as the people were Christians anyway.
It is not a problem here to an isolated woman who has no kith or kin. However when one looks at it from an Asian point of view where the woman seeking solace could be a Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist it does create unimaginable problems within her household.
Take for instance a typical Tamil woman who has been born into and married into a typical Hindu household. Since birth a daughter is trained by her mother to be a perfect wife. Whatever educational qualifications she may achieve, however competent a professional she may be, her role in life is to be a wife in order to produce a son. Her most sacred possession is her Thali - the talisman put round her neck by her husband at the time of marriage. Once put, this is not removed by any self-respecting Hindu woman until her husband passes away. It is only the death of a spouse that will warrant the removal of this talisman.
Now is such a woman free to go to any church based organisation for solace? Is it not that kind of woman that abounds in our conflict areas? If she is baptised and her Thali removed will it not create untold of problems within her household and between husband and wife. What about the woman herself?
Can she come to terms with the loss of what she has lived for? What kind of trauma will it create within her? Can she talk about it with her husband? Can she talk about it with her family? Can she talk about it with those who came to her aid? The dimension of psychological problem this situation creates is beyond measure. Whilst offering a solution to one situation has not another been created?
The conflict areas in Asia are necessarily ethnically or religiously diverse. People are divided on religious grounds on ethnic grounds, on caste, class and everything else. If we look at the conflict areas in my country - Sri Lanka, it encompasses Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. The pain of a Tamil mother who has lost a child to child - conscription is no different to the pain of a Muslim mother whose child has been abducted by terrorists or to the pain of a Sinhala mother whose child has been bombed or has got caught in a land mine. The pain is the same. It transcends all barriers of religion, caste, class or creed. So does every other human emotion, every human need.
It is from a gathering of such international eminence as this, that compassion and generosity can be directed towards people the rest of the world has forgotten. Most of you have better credentials than I do to compel people to take heed of what you have to say.
What I do have is the knowledge and experience acquired within the past few years dealing with the most unfortunate of people. Ordinary people leading simple lives who through no fault of their own, have lost, besides their loved ones and everything they own, every vestige of human dignity.
May I now be permitted to make an exhortation from all of you who can make that difference in their lives? A difference that would enable them to live in dignity. I am, in conclusion, asking you, to give them what they need most.
What they need most is a body of people who can go beyond all barriers of race, religion, caste or class. A body of people who are above political motivations internally or internationally. A body of people who can offer a 'safe house' to all those affected by conflict. A body of people who can give the ultimate gift of time, space and support.
Produced by Lake House