It was noticed that some international and local media reported on the issue of alcohol and women and thus arousing the curiosity of many locals and internationals about the state of women’s rights in Sri Lanka. The facts that have been included in the media reporting were largely correct but the interpretation and the tone seemingly not accurate and fair when considering the problem with an open mind. Alcohol policy changes were proposed and approved in the near past, under the patronage of the minister of finance in Sri Lanka, appeared to be strange. This dialogue started in the end of September 2017, when we started receiving hints that the minister of finance is about to change the alcohol and tobacco policies in an unfavorable way, with regards to sustainable development, public health, government revenue, and tobacco and alcohol control in Sri Lanka.The assumptions and clues we had were proven correct when the Budget proposals were finally presented on November 9, 2017. It included the following proposals, which were consequently approved by the consent of the majority of the members of parliament.
- Reducing beer tax by 40%
- Removing can beer tax
- Releasing the license issuing procedure to sell alcohol at shops
- Issuing licenses to import tobacco into the country for new companies which had been under a monopoly market previously.
As Alcohol and Drug Information Centre (ADIC), we put so much of effort into informing decision-makers and the public with scientifically proven facts about the negative consequences of the proposed changes. These unfavorable policy decisions would lead to higher alcohol initiation rate, normalizing alcohol and alcohol myths, bigger burden of alcohol related illnesses and many other social and economic losses to our society. ADIC press releases for the past few months explain the flow of the issue well. It is not difficult to understand that well planned activities are being implemented in favor of the beer industry – something the alcohol industry has been lobbying for for many years. There was sufficient support from the media, the general public, health and development professionals and academics, and civil society, all agreeing that the move would be detrimental to people and communities in Sri Lanka. As evidence more than 11 editorials and 290 print media posts were published in the newspapers raising the issue. Feedback was highly positive from many parties apart from the Ministry of Finance. On the other hand, as the issue unfolded, it became obvious that the minister of finance’s focus was on promoting the narrow interests of the alcohol and tobacco, where he chose not to pay attention to the public interest, the scientific evidence nor the objection of President Maithripala Sirisena against the proposed changes in alcohol policies in the parliament.
After budget proposals were approved, minister of finance, Mr. Mangala Samaraweera announced that the Excise ordinance Act in Sri Lanka was subjected to change with following amendments :(10.01.2018)
- Women are allowed to buy and sell alcohol (which was prohibited since Excise ordinance Act approved in 1979).
- The time duration which bars (liquor shops) open will be extended.
Exactly after 4 days (14.01.2018) after the changes were made public, HE the President announced that the proposed changes in the Excise Ordinance Act would be rejected and it was officially reversed with the endorsement of the minister of finance.
Meanwhile, I should mention that there was no single protest or least a request from any women movement in Sri Lanka to abolish the law of prohibiting women to buy or sell alcohol over the past 39 years that the law was in effect. To be truthful, many Sri Lankan women were not aware that buying and selling alcohol is prohibited, as with the traditional value system and culture women have not assigned value to alcohol, neither to purchasing it, nor to selling it.
To be specific 95.5% of Sri Lankan women have never used any alcohol according to STEP survey 2015. At the same time consuming alcohol has not been prohibited for women. Alcohol use is only prominent among a niche group of women who belong to the upper middle class and business class of our society.
Sri Lanka is a country that has high respect for women and their rights. When it comes to equal rights for women, the right to buy or sell alcohol should be same as men in the technical perspective of course. But within the culture, norms and traditional values of women and communities, women themselves reject alcohol and advocate for their husbands to also live free from alcohol. And that is the general opinion of the majority women in Sri Lanka.
Furthermore it is important to consider the basis for a fight for a certain right. What does a certain group of people expect after a tedious fight for achieving a specific right? Of course to gain something they will cherish, benefit from, uplift their quality of life, help to protect and promote their well being or experiencing respect and acknowledgement.
I think it is important to rethink whether the above expectations are actually fulfilled by the possibility to buy or sell alcohol? According to the scientific evidence, alcohol is a toxic, psychoactive, addictive, carcinogenic, terratogenic substance. Alcohol is a chemical depressant and clearly not a stimulant – despite the pervasive industry myths. And alcohol harm is a Women’s Rights issue. Evidence from Sri Lankan villages and communities around the island shows that it is women and girls who suffer greatly from their husbands’, fathers’ and relatives’ alcohol use.
At closer look and after considering these facts, the situation we ended up in is clearly a trap created by the alcohol industry. If anything, women and girls need more protection from alcohol harm; not more alcohol availability.
Therefore, I wonder if any of the (mainly Western) women expressing concern about oppression and gender inequality with regard to alcohol purchasing and selling actually have a clear understanding of what they are going to achieve or the understanding of deep rooted concepts behind equal rights they should seriously consider; they should think wisely whether it is carefully settled up trap by alcohol industry. It is unfortunate that women and well-meaning advocates for Women’s Rights, gender equality and female empowerment do not consider how they can be used to fulfill interests of other parties for monetary benefits. Of course women and girls should have the same opportunities and responsibilities, the same rights and duties as men and boys. The outrage about this very specific and culturally sensitive issue exposes a distorted discourse: where is the outrage over decades of alcohol harm disproportionately affecting women and girls, their health and well-being, their empowerment and freedom, their Human Rights?
In view of the flow of this issue, we noticed that there is a hidden agenda of the alcohol industry to use women in Sri Lanka for their advertising campaigns and drag more women into alcohol use by creating a trend and establishing a completely new norm. The ultimate victims of the agenda would be the women from low income families who are seeking jobs in cities, where they will be exploited by the industry, potentially not having enough activists and supporters in society to stand against their oppression. The example of young women looking for economic opportunity and ending up as “beer girls” comes to mind, a practice wide-spread in South-East Asian and Sub-Saharan African countries.
With the understanding of the big picture behind these created issues by the industry and minister of finance, it is clear that prohibiting buying and selling alcohol is stupid decision for a country as well as generalizing the state of women rights in Sri Lanka by this kind of merely symbolic issue. According to our experience, industries like tobacco and alcohol have mastered techniques of manipulating public discourse and utilizing and manipulating the voice of certain groups of people to generalize and spread industry messages as public opinion. Therefore the energy of few women is knowingly or sometimes unknowingly wasted on achieving commercial goals of alcohol and tobacco industries – instead of achieving real and lasting progress for women and girls.
Alcohol and Tobacco industries are well skilled in achieving their commercial targets by misleading policy makers, key public personalities, opinion leaders and the general public. It has been proven in many instances in history and I’m certain that the issue of women and alcohol as we see it unfold in this distorted perspective in Sri Lanka today, will be another one of those cases added to the history, once the hidden agendas are revealed.