Educating the world on gender

Lihini Ratwatte, a Gender Studies graduate of Monash University, shares her thoughts:
"From the Agrarian age to the Industrial Revolution to the present era of technological advancement, human beings have dwelled within a myriad of social norms and constructs. Patriarchy is one such social construct that, over time, has become institutionalized as a predominant social system.

"In essence, patriarchy systemically allows men to claim more power and visibility over women and sexual minorities, particularly in roles of political leadership, social privilege and moral authority.[1] More often than not, patriarchal societies are also patrilineal, thus ensuring the passage of property and titles through the male line of the family. Patriarchy and patrilineage often thrive within existing societal power structures.

"Put simply, the accessibility to unlimited power by one portion of society results in the manifestation of unequal power structures that fuel discrimination against the other ‘less powerful’ portion of society. This is validated with data that portray incidents of gender-based-violence, particularly against women, girls and sexual minorities as a direct consequence of unequal power relations rooted within patriarchal systems that have prevailed throughout centuries.

"Societies across the world have continued to experience the convergence of patriarchy, patrilineage and power within existing laws, policies and customs. For example, issues concerning property rights, labour force participation, customary marital laws, representation in leadership, reproductive rights and laws against sexual harassment/abuse continue to disadvantage the ‘powerless’ at the expense of the ‘powerful’.

"Growing up, such issues were so commonplace that I was desensitised at a young age and as a result, I was unable to understand the obvious inequalities arising from institutions and systems that are so ingrained within patriarchal power structures. Today, however, I am fortunate enough to have gained a deeper understanding of the principles of gender, to the extent that I am able to apply these concepts within my current realm of work as an international development practitioner.

"Gender as a discourse was introduced to me at Monash University Malaysia as an undergraduate pursuing a Bachelor of Arts Degree. With no prior knowledge of gender or related concepts, I was astonished to learn that most inherent inequalities that underpin society stem from gender roles, norms and perceptions that are ascribed to men and women from childbirth onwards. It pained me to realise how my own lived experiences had been so heavily gendered merely because I was born a woman.

"From hereditary remarks of ‘Girls should only be seen and not heard’; to catcalling experienced on streets that I had continued to endure and ignore; to sexual harassment experienced in public transport that I was led to believe as my fault because of ‘what I was wearing’ – all resulting from social and cultural expectations leading women to behave in a certain way, even at the expense of their civil rights and liberties.

"The Gender Studies courses that I followed at Monash University Malaysia changed my worldview for the better and I was keen to make a difference. Since graduating from Monash, I have worked across national, sub-national and grassroots tiers across Sri Lanka in an effort to educate and inform communities on gender equality and its long-term benefits to the country’s sustainable development agenda.

"A key area of my ongoing work supports policy and advocacy related efforts aimed at addressing the needs of women heads of households. As a direct consequence of the armed civil conflict that ended in 2009, one in four households in Sri Lanka (roughly 1.2 million households, or 23% of households[2]) is currently headed by a woman.[3]

"This poses a double-burden to the women concerned, given that existing institutions are not geared to support the multi-faceted vulnerabilities faced by women heads of households, due to the country’s traditional and preferred ideal of a male-headed household. For instance, the country’s property laws recognise the male next-of-kin, thus inconveniencing women when accessing land and livelihoods.

"In addition, a large number of these women have to deal with cultural stigmas associated with widowhood. Most women are also subjected to sexual exploitation and bribery in the form of sexual favours, often when accessing essential public services. In essence, these women are caught up in a converged system of power, patriarchy and patrilineage.

"Through my work, I have come to realise that uprooting systemic patriarchy cannot be done overnight. However, I firmly believe that continued and coordinated efforts of lobbying, advocacy and awareness can bring about positive change in the long run.

"In my case, I am thankful to Monash for my introduction to Gender Studies. Ancora Imparo! (Yet, I am learning)!"

Lihini Ratwatte is an alumna from School of Arts and Social Sciences, Monash University Malaysia.

References

[1] Walby, 1989, Theorising Patriarchy, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0038038589023002004[2] Department of Statistics, Household Income and Expenditure Surveys, 2002, 2005, 2006/7, 2009/10, 2012/13.
[3] Census of Housing and Population, 2012. Population by relationship to head of household, marital status, sex, and sector.