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Between the Nation State and a Hard Place

A woman from Sri Lanka holding up a placard which has information on why abortion should be legal

Cultural norms and religion no doubt affect the way we perceive the world. They shape one’s behaviour, habits and practices, and values and ethics. They also dictate how we perceive women in relation to the traditional family. In most countries, including those in South Asia like Sri Lanka, nationalism shapes the discourse on family, gender and sexuality. The family unit is seen as building blocks of an ideal nation, and women are treated as national symbols, valued for their ability to birth future citizens of the nation. Such notions about the family generate norms and values that force women to be submissive and honourable in order to play the role of respectable gendered citizens of the country. Women are forced to fulfil their duties as daughters, wives and mothers throughout their life cycle, not only for the welfare of the family but also that of the country. The country’s honour rides on their good behaviour, and women are policed and controlled in order to create the ideal nation. They do not have access to information and services to affirm their bodily autonomy and they do not have control over their fertility. Restrictions in mobility, decision-making and access to economic resources constrain them from enjoying their rights and exercising their choices. The limited power for decision-making in families directly affects the health-seeking behaviour of women.

The rights discourse needs to address nationalism, culture and religion for gender equality to become a reality. Socioeconomic empowerment allows women to change the definitions of marriage, family life, and motherhood, and enhances their roles in private and public spheres. Reducing the importance of child-bearing in women’s lives could make drastic changes in the gender roles assigned to them by society, giving them more independence and ability to enjoy their rights and making a shift in how gender relations are viewed. Autonomy of women leads not only to reduced childbirths but also to later marriage. It also allows families to value female children, opposing notions of son preference, increases knowledge and access to contraceptives and improves the standard of living.

An overall look at the education indicators in South Asia shows that the enrollment rate for secondary education is higher among women in countries like Sri Lanka, but when closely observed the education system limits women’s and girls’ ability to choose the path they want to study and work. Women are often under-represented in trade and technical courses which lead to more lucrative jobs in these developing economies. Not only this, Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) is not provided in schools although a considerable amount of work has been initiated and organised to deliver accurate information and services by the state. According to UNFPA Sri Lanka (2012) and World YWCA (2011) some of the sexual and reproductive health (SRH) challenges in Sri Lanka include but are not limited to inadequate knowledge on SRH, pre-marital unprotected sex, highest rate of sexual harassment in South Asia, increasing number of teenage pregnancies with more than 40000 a year, high rates of rape and incest including 5 reported incidents each day, and high rates of unsafe abortion (more than 750 cases daily), sexually transmitted infections, HIV and lack of knowledge on contraceptive methods. This leads to large number of women graduating from colleges with neither the power to be economically independent nor the ability to be in control of their bodies and sexuality.

Additionally, the ideas of the ideal women stemming from religious, cultural and nationalistic notions marginalize unmarried women. It is not uncommon for young people to engage in sexual activities and to explore their sexuality – and it is evident that they do – but contraceptive services are openly offered only to married people. There is also a lot of stigma attached with SRH related topics, and that again discourages unmarried young women from accessing health services. Such gender disparity issues are also obvious in India where macro level research conducted on contraception and abortion since the adoption of the population policy, show that individual needs of women do not receive any significance under such laws. Motherhood is respected only within marriage. Premarital sex is associated with a lot of taboo and so women do not have the choice of raising children outside of marriage. This also presents public health issues because of the large number of unsafe abortions, suicides and infanticides. It also discourages single mothers from seeking the support they need from the healthcare system.

These issues are interconnected: cultural notions about gender lead to social stigma that restricts the availability of and access to SRH information and services. Having no CSE in schools further thwarts access to contraceptive information and services. This limited access then paves the way to unwanted pregnancies. Additionally, laws related to abortion are either restrictive or poorly implemented, leading to an increase in the number of unsafe abortions. In Sri Lanka, for example, abortion is still criminalised. The penal code of Sri Lanka is an artifact of colonial times but even proposals to legalise abortion in situations of rape, incest and foetal abnormalities are denied because of strong religious opposition. The escalating number of unsafe abortions proves that legal restrictions do not stop women from accessing abortion but only provides the opportunity for back-alley abortion providers to exploit women financially, while providing unsafe abortion services. Colonialism also introduced the ideas of monogamy through law and new practices like testing a bride for virginity on her wedding night. These practices have been accepted as Sri Lankan ‘traditions,’ and lead to a lot of violence against women, discrimination, and stigma, sometimes even leading to suicide in certain cases. These sociocultural norms on female sexuality are additionally complicated because of the armed conflict in Sri Lanka, which marginalizes women of certain ethnicities, and all women living within conflict zones.

Social norms are connected with women’s identities and their emotions. The judgment when a woman does something against the accepted cultural norms, such as complaining against sexual violence, having premarital sex, accessing an abortion service or getting a divorce, make her feel guilty and ashamed. This guilt turns her against herself, making her feel responsible for violence, for being ‘promiscuous’. If she blames herself, she is also less likely to seek support.

Unfortunately, the rights discourse used by governments plays on the narrative of victimhood. With this, they empower themselves as the ones who can ‘give’ these rights to women, and see women as victims, who are in need of the state to uphold these rights, turning women once more into dependent, disempowered citizens. So gender issues are defeated even within a revolutionary discourse that is meant to cast women as autonomous agents, who can take charge of their bodies, sexualities and lives, While human rights are emphasised in international dialogues, there is little discussion on how these rights are perceived or adopted within each country and modified once again to suit nationalistic notions of femininity and family. Women, particularly young, unmarried women are heavily policed, legally and socially, to uphold cultural and religious norms. While some of these ‘traditions’ were introduced during the colonial times, they are often used to challenge women’s individual rights in the name of national pride.

To ensure that women do become autonomous agents within a liberal state, it is important to recognize their right as equal citizens. The state must distance itself from nationalistic debates, and instead adopt a rights framework that allows women to become active agents in decision-making in private and public spheres. They must be able to define their own gender roles and sexuality, and decide the roles they want to play, the lives they want to live and the traditions they want to belong in. Rather than reinforce societal notions of the family, the state must play a role in supporting women and upholding their rights irrespective of their choice to marry into a traditional family unit, or remain outside of one.