Lessons Learnt when Kneeling Down

‘I promise you Sir, I will commit suicide!’, finally the strained silence on the eternal suffering was broken. Ms. Bavani, the female Principal of the Tamil Girl’s School in Badulla district stated to the member of the Parliament Mr. Vadivel Suresh in front of the media.

Tamil Girl’s School in Badulla which is over hundred years old is a School which accommodates over 1300 students and 60 teachers, striving to maintain high standards in the Uva Province. One of the leading Tamil medium schools in Badulla district, the school was taken under the government administration in 1963. Though it offers education to both boys and girls from all three ethnicity – Tamil, Muslim and Sinhala, later the school was renamed as Tamil Girls’ School as there were no other Tamil medium schools in the area. Today this school has been put to shame by the unethical behaviour of a politician.

The recently happened incident in the Tamil Girls’ School became highlighted in the province, due to the actions of the government authorities that followed the incident. The Principal of the school was allegedly summoned to the Uva Province Chief Minister’s residence and been made to kneel down at his feet as a punishment and confession for not standing by his orders. The Principal had refused to enroll a student who had been recommended for enrollment, by the Chief Minister.

The Chief Minister, being the Minister of Provincial Education, is responsible to ensure equal access and quality education in the Province, and ensure a safe learning environment for students through assuring of non-politicized education administration.

According to the press and the statement made by the Chief Minister, the Chief Minister has issued a letter to the Principal for the enrollment of a child of one of his party members. This member was also a candidate for the forth coming local government election from the political party.

The Principal, who had first denied the media of the humiliating incident of kneeling down before the Chief Minister, later claimed the truth and stated that she was pushed by the Secretary of the Provincial Ministry of Education towards lying.

One could not expect much good from the present politicians. But, it was shocking to know that the Provincial Education Secretary who had forced the Principal to deny the incident to the media was a woman herself. A ‘woman’, who is supposed to stand up for another woman, had not only been silent when the Principal was forced to her knees, but had denied it too. In addition she had demanded that the Principal remove the complaint lodged at the police.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals speak about achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls: ‘Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls’ [Goal 5]. Target 2 under this Goal ‘Eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation’, clearly speaks of the importance of empowering women in all socioeconomic spheres.

According to the UN, empowerment is the process of enabling people to increase control over their lives, to gain control over the factors and decisions that shape their lives, to increase their resources and qualities and to build capacities to gain access, partners, networks, a voice, in order to gain control.

While pointing out towards the Chief Minister for his immoral behavior and wrong doing, we tend to forget the other main perpetrator here – the female Secretary  to the Ministry. It could be argued on her behalf that she too was forced upon towards her actions. A staff of the Sri Lanka Administrative Service also holds enough power to decide on the right and wrong. In our country the Police have enough power. Being a wife of Senior Police personnel gifts the Secretary with more possibilities of using her capacity to handle the issue of the Principal in a constructive way. Yet, it was pathetic how politically biased a government official in this country is.

Women’s empowerment does not imply women taking over control of those previously held by men, but rather it is the need to transform the nature of power relations. Empowerment is sometimes described as being about the ability to make choices, but it must also involve being able to shape what choices are on offer. [Wallerstein, 1992].

In this scenario, the female Ministry Secretary selected political power over justice and dignity for the sake of her own beneficial survival.

When the Principal spoke out at last, she witnessed the unity of power. Many political and social groups rose against the act of the Chief Minister. The moral and active support of these groups empowered the Principal to fight for justice.

Though every media, political and social groups, as well as the public, blamed the man behind this inhuman act, they failed to see that a woman too was involved when another was put to shame and disgrace. It is also a question why, women led community, and non-government organizations remained silent in this aspect. The society habitually blames men for all discriminating acts against women; yet today there are women who endure silence towards women’s sufferings based on their own beneficial grounds.

Teachers and Principals are considered as Gods by parents. Especially in a country like Sri Lanka, where cultures and traditions still form values, we see parents almost worshiping persons attached to the education sector. The Tamil population who give high priority to education, the Tamil Hindus who treat education as Goddess Saraswathy found it hard to digest the fact that a female principal was forced to bow at the feet of a politician. “I was terrified when I heard about it; my daughter cried a lot. She attends the same school. Bavani madam is a mother to our daughters. We can’t tolerate to see her in this state”, said a mother of a student from the same school.

This is not the first time that women have been forced to bow down and this will not be the last. It is our generational duty to seek and obtain justice for not only the unfair acts of men, but also for the inaction and ignorance of women who turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to unfair unlawful behaviors and deeds of both men and women.

Abirami Parasuram | Sri Lanka