Saturday, March 7, 2009


Non -provision of restrooms for plantation women, a violation of their rights

Although it is an accepted concept that men and women are equal, in practice women had lived with less social recognition and with lots of discrimination. The attitudes and the structures that maintain the attitudes that lead to discrimination against women need to be changed. International Women’s Day on March 8, reminds men and women that they are equal and are entitled to equal treatment and respect.

Since discrimination against women has been an issue throughout history, on December 18, 1979 the United Nations General assembly adopted the "Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women" – which is best known as CEDAW and was ratified by the Sri Lankan government on October 5, 1981. The important concept of CEDAW is that "anything or any action that stops women from enjoying the human rights and freedoms (political, economic, social, cultural and civil and other fields of life) that men enjoy, should be considered as discrimination".

Part of article 11 of CEDAW stresses the point that women have the right to "health and public security" and Article 14 too speaks of women as having the right to "enjoy health care services". The purpose of this article is to examine whether the plantation women who remain the back bone of the economy of this country, enjoy at least basic minimum health care and health security.

We could take a basic need of the working women in the plantation as an example. These women work in large open tea and rubber fields. Their homes are normally very far from the place of work. Women have special physical needs and arrangements need to be made to protect their privacy while working, but in the field where hundreds and hundreds of women work, there are no rest rooms or toilet facilities for them. Men too work in the field and they too have some physical needs. The men answer their calls of nature without any problem and the way it is done is accepted by society as normal. But women cannot do this. We need to reflect and see how these women answer their calls of nature and attend to their private physical needs in the absence of rest rooms or toilets.

It is also not unusual to find plantation women sitting under tea bushes or on roadsides to have their tea or meals. These women tolerate such discrimination of a high degree without protest. What does this situation mean? The message is that these women are not treated as human beings. In our country, life patterns and the facilities people enjoy have changed and developed so much. The plantation sector itself too has undergone changes and development. But don’t we feel ashamed to realize that even the most basic needs of these plantation women are not being fulfiled, their right to privacy is not being respected? One cannot only blame the plantation companies and the managements for this state of affairs. The trade unions in the plantations who have more than 50% women among their membership have also not taken this matter seriously.

The demand to provide rest rooms with toilets facilities in the field had been a longstanding one by the people. There had been agreements between the plantation companies and trade unions that rest rooms with toilet facilities should be provided. But these agreements remain a dead letter. Having rest rooms with toilets in the field is not only a basic human right of women, it is also an occupational right. In these circumstances the question arises why this demand has not been met. As stated earlier, more than 50% of the membership of all the plantation trade unions is women. Trade unions consider their female members as mere workers but do not see them as women or as persons with human dignity and with special gender needs. Most trade unions do not have women at any level of decision- making. Gender sensitivity in the trade unions is very low. This makes the trade unions treat their female membership, who pay the same subscription fee as men, in a discriminatory manner.

This is the reason why trade unions did not agitate for the implementation of the provision for rest rooms in work locations. The trade unions need to genuinely accept this and change their attitudes and approaches. It is the responsibility of trade unions to collectively stand up for the basic rights of their female membership. They have a duty to enlighten the people about the agreements, mobilise them and pressurise the plantation companies to provide rest rooms in the field to ensure the basic rights of women.

It would be unfair if I do not mention that a few estates have provided rest rooms for female workers. According to reports, some of the INGOs working in the plantations have contributed towards such projects. Anyway, the number of rest rooms is so very few and therefore negligible. However, the question that needs to be asked here is that if a few of the plantations could provide this facility why not the others? All have the same responsibilities towards their female workers.

Finally, it should be stressed that the demand for rest rooms with toilets is not a mere demand, but is really a demand that the women in the plantations be treated and respected as human beings having dignity. On the other hand, it is a demand for a legitimate right ensured by CEDAW and through the agreements entered into between trade unions and the companies.

M. Pushpakumary
Gender Promoter
Plantation Rural Education and Development Organization

Prabath Sahabandu/editor

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