Written by 4:56 pm Verité in the News Views: 1

Women scorn ‘cultural reasons’ behind alcohol ban

Women’s groups stringently questioned the “cultural reasons” behind the government’s ban on women buying or selling liquor, saying the ban showed Sri Lankan men lacked confidence in women’s capacity to make rational decisions. “If there are people worried that women drinking disintegrates the morality of the society at large, there are more alarming issues like gang rapes and domestic violence triggered by alcohol that need more attention by policy-makers,” said gender activist and writer Sharanya Sekaram, one of the 11 petitioners to the Supreme Court against the ban.

The decades-old law against women buying or selling liquor, which also incorporated limits on alcohol vending hours, was lifted by Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera on January 10. Even as women celebrated the end of that discriminatory measure President Maithripala Sirisena, in a stunning reversal this week, reinvoked the law.

Minister of Health Rajitha Senaratne stated during a Cabinet discussion that the ban was reinstated for cultural reasons. A petition by women’s groups and individuals was filed in the Supreme Court challenging the President’s action. Asked why women activists had not acted earlier to challenge the colonial law, Ms Sekaram said fundamental rights action could not be filed against an existing law but could be brought against an executive action or administrative action.

“When the ban was lifted and later restored by the executive body it amounted to an executive action,” Ms Sekaram said. “And on those grounds we were rendered an opportunity to file a fundamental rights case.” Verité Research, an interdisciplinary think-tank, stated that there was an “imminent” infringement of a fundamental right in the President’s action, adding: “… any law that is enacted today must be compliant with the fundamental rights chapter of the Constitution, and cannot discriminate on the grounds of sex”.

Ms Sekaram said the patriarchal law reinvoked by President Sirisena was discriminatory beyond the right of women to purchase liquor. “The problem arises when the inability to work in places where alcohol is served affects employment opportunities in the country,” she pointed out. Shreen Abdul Saroor, the founder member of Women’s Action Network and the Mannar Women’s Development Federation said the government had sent a clear indication that it did not consider Sri Lankan women as having the same rights to make informed decisions as did men.

“The ban simply indicated the level of cultural misogyny against Sri Lankan women in the country and despite the overwhelming evidence that the majority of those who misuse alcohol are men. By ignoring all data and facts on the matter, the President has created gender discrimination against women,” she said.

“As a women’s rights activist working within minority communities, the gender discrimination demonstrated by the government on this issue and other gender issues have made many of us very anxious,” she added. The Director of the Women and Media Collective, Dr. Sepali Kottegoda, said the reimposition of the ban confirmed that the male population of the country lacked confidence in the capabilities of a woman to make rational decisions.

“It is a backward and extremely patriarchal law,” she said. “There are other important aspects the country has to look into, for instance marital rape and bringing the rapists to book,” Dr. Kottegoda said. Dire statistics reinforce the case being made by women’s groups. Between 30-40 per cent of women in Sri Lanka suffer domestic abuse and 60 per cent have been victims of domestic abuse at some point, the Women’s UN Report Network has stated. A woman – usually of schoolgirl age – is raped every four hours in Sri Lanka, Sabaragamuwa Province Governor Marshal Perera PC said last October.

Researcher Deepanjalie Abeywardana, who is also party to the court petition, expressed bewilderment that such a colonial law would be considered relevant to current times. “The state’s limitation of access or creation of discrimination diminishes the rights that have been given to women,” Ms. Abeywardana said. Alcohol and Drug Information Centre (ADIC) Executive Director Pubudu Sumanasekara suggested that the alcohol industry’s support of women’s groups over the alcohol ban was self-serving.

“We believe that the manner in which [the industry is supporting] women’s rights through the recent ban is not an honest effort. As an organisation we feel that the alcohol industry is using women’s rights to exploit the law,” he said. Mr. Sumanasekara said that if the ban were lifted an alcoholic husband could force a woman to purchase liquor and this would lead to exploitation and abuse of women and increase domestic violence.

Changing, rechanging regulations on sale of liquor to women triggers campaign
Several petitions challenging the Government’s re-enacted regulation banning the sale of liquor to women in addition to barring them from working in a place that produces or markets liquor, are due to be filed next week and supported in the Supreme Court. This came after Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera on Thursday issued a gazette notification nullifying his earlier January 10 order permitting women to work in places where liquor is produced or served, and also enabling them to buy or be served liquor.His order came just before a petition seeking an injunction restraining the Minister from issuing this gazette was to be supported in the SC. Lawyers for the petitioners say a fresh petition would be filed next week seeking to undo the latest gazette notification on the grounds of gender bias and discrimination which is a violation of the Constitution.

The drama over changing and re-changing the regulations pertaining to the sale of liquor to women has in fact instigated a campaign over women buying and consuming liquor anywhere, according to lawyers, tourism industry officials and rights activists.
It has raised questions like for instance the Finance Minister’s January 18 regulation re-imposing the ban directly violating Section 12 of the Constitution on equal rights; whether the new rule would apply to selling alcohol to foreign women in hotels and restaurants, and that there could be many other regulations that constitutionally violate the rights of women. As at Friday, restaurants in hotels or outside continued to sell liquor to women, continuing an age-old practice.

The first time this issue came to the fore more than 15 years ago in a Sunday Times Business Desk investigation, reported on April 21, 2002 (see http://www.sundaytimes.lk/020421/bus.html), after noticing a tattered poster at the bar of a local cinema which said alcohol cannot be sold to women and those under 21 years of age. Further investigations revealed that while the law is still valid, retail store owners either ignore it or are totally unaware of such a provision and continue to sell liquor to women, thereby committing an offence, the report said. This April 21, 2002 report referred to Excise Notification 447 of 29.4.1955: Section 12 (c) which says “No liquor shall be sold or given to a woman within the premises of a tavern”.

Speaking to legal experts and others this week, it was revealed that while this 1955 notification was inconsistent with Section 12 of the Constitution (on equal rights), Section 16 of the Constitution provided for old laws to remain as they are. This section under the heading “Existing written law and unwritten law to continue in force” stated that “All existing written law and unwritten law shall be valid and operative notwithstanding any inconsistency with the preceding provisions of this Chapter”.

This implied the 1955 law prevailed even if it infringed on the equal rights provisions in the 1978 Constitution. Subsequently, in December 1979, the Excise Department re-introduced the regulations banning the sale of liquor to women among other restrictions. It is unclear as to why this provision was not challenged at that time in the Supreme Court as unconstitutional, legal experts say.
“Unfortunately the Finance Minister in trying to do the right thing and undo an absurd regulation has triggered many issues even though Section 16 of the Constitution on equal rights clearly bars discrimination on the grounds of sex and provides every reason why such a regulation should be thrown out,” one legal expert said.

Taken from The Sunday Times

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Last modified: November 26, 2023