Two interesting events captured our nation’s attention this past week.
The first one, after a long struggle, the State announced its decision to alter the outdated birth certificate format that victimised non-marital children. The process of registering a birth, henceforth will mark the beginning of issuing a National Birth Certificate that will omit the marital status of the parents. This achievement, as highlighted in the media is a result of years of campaigning by individuals who had lived in care homes as children supported by activists. This is a milestone to be celebrated, not in the least with the intention of undermining the importance of marriage and the family institution, but more so as a redemption for the victims of choices that adults make at some point in their lives.
Throughout history, in most societies, men as a group have controlled the political and economic life of women, and our context has not been any different. For instance, when the registration of birth was made mandatory, it may have been the domain of men in positions of decision making who decided what went into the format, which of course being fair by them may have been dictated by criteria of that time. But, from then to today, it has taken a very long time to acknowledge the inappropriateness of certain requirements and make changes. Despite the historical context and the present reality, the changes to the registration of persons is definitely the way to go for Sri Lanka.
This development allows us to reflect on the social context that we live in. We, in Sri Lanka take pride in a culture that its arbiters proclaim, is nurtured and steeped in history. But this culture is a human product, a social world constructed by humans. In this culture, we have deemed what is appropriate behaviour and not, in effect the type of behaviour and its consequences that should be shunned, identifying the committer who needs to be pursued, exposed and punished. And so, the woman who falls pregnant out of wedlock has been hounded for years, censured and according to today’s cyber jargon ‘slut shamed’ for conceiving outside marriage. The infant that she births is bastardised as a ‘nonperson’ for the rest of the individual’s life. This is our world, our reality even today, mind you in this day and age of technology and tech savvy people and the fourth industrial revolution, but the seeming progressiveness of modernity is disjointed from the deep seated prejudices and archaism that the system breeds from one generation through to the next. It is the hypocrisy of the pseudo conservative cultural context that we live in that screams of discrimination. The arbiters of our so-called well-preserved culture and its values are at best a bunch of charlatans themselves, more the Jekyll and Hyde types who will decode the intricacies of what our culture constitutes, as long as it is personally beneficial, especially in terms of determining the balance of power, providing the morality scripture on how men and women should conduct themselves. The interpretation of culture codes of conduct is so skewed that the weight of accountability is often the realm of the woman and so the fall for the breach in any socially sanctioned behaviour, even if committed together by a man and a woman is endured by the woman. As adults we know that socially sanctioned behaviour alone cannot contain the impulses of human nature, but we do acknowledge that standards of behaviour are essential in order for society to regulate itself and maintain order. Creating the space for comprehensive education on sex and sexuality for both genders in order to safeguard their health, wellbeing and dignity is important beginning from school and continuing through the years to have greater outreach towards communities. Importantly, such a mechanism must adopt a rights-based approach that promotes gender equality and empowerment. Men and women have to be trained to take responsibility for individual choices.
Now to the other incident. One of our leaders in office, in the thick of election campaigning thought it befitting to undermine the ability of an opponent by picking on the fact that he had no children. While the country was celebrating a break from the old to the new by bestowing dignity to non-marital children, on public stage a man and a woman were being ridiculed for their inability to have children. The comments, not surprisingly, is a reflection of society’s inherent preconceptions, the deep-rooted antipathy towards women who give birth outside marriage and women incapable of conceiving and birthing children in marriage. This downright shameful utterances are pure sexist thought and male chauvinism on display for the consumption and approval of an equally vile audience of mainly men. While this tells us that nothing has changed in our society, it reminds us how much remains to be done. Sri Lanka certainly is in a sad state if it is to be governed by people who thrive by gouging on other people’s heartbreaks, because such behaviour sets a precedence for the rest to follow. And those who support and applaud such comments are equally deplorable.
Time to continue the journey that has just started to end the stigma of labelling.
Jennifer Paldano Goonewardane