A move to grant women in Sri Lanka the same rights as men to legally buy alcohol has been overruled by President Maithripala Sirisena. According to a senior official, President Sirisena has also prohibited women from being employed in places where the drinks are produced and sold, saying that such restrictions are in line with the country’s cultural values. The decision came only a week after the nation’s finance minister Mangala Samaraweera revoked the 38-year-old ban.
Officials at the finance ministry said the ban was lifted after repeated requests from the tourism industry to extend bar hours and allow female tourists to buy alcohol. However, the overturning of the law was criticized by opposition, saying the overruling would sully Sri Lanka’s Buddhist founding values. Sinhalese Buddhists account for more than 70 percent of the island nation’s 21 million population. The National Movement for Consumer Rights Protection accused the finance minister of encouraging drinking and urged Sirisena to intervene and restore the restrictions.
Government spokesman and health minister Rajitha Senaratne reinstated the ban during a weekly meeting with the President’s cabinet. “Its removal violated the country’s cultural and moral values. Alcohol is not a requirement of women in this country. This is against our culture,” Senaratne told reporters. “Although alcohol is part of the social system and foods and drinks in Europe, it is not so in Sri Lanka. Therefore, laws on alcohol are different here than Europe.”
Liquor vendors in Sri Lanka are also forbidden to sell spirits to police or members of the armed forces in uniform. “Strict curbs on Sri Lanka’s licensed liquor manufacturers only encourage a black market for spirits, and deprive the state of much-needed revenue,” according to finance minister Mangala Samaraweera.
Many Sri Lankan women and social and political reformists had welcomed the change, despite the previous law not always being strictly enforced. Many businesses had employed women to sell and serve alcohol and sold alcohol to them in spite of the ban, but the reform would have allowed women over the age of 18 to buy alcohol, officially and legally, for the first time in over 60 years.
“The idea was to restore gender neutrality,” according to ministry spokesman Ali Hassen. As a result, however, critics have accused the president of hypocrisy, as well as of not taking gender equality seriously. Just a few weeks prior to reinstating the ban, President Sirisena encouraged women in the country to play a more active part in politics, even going as far as saying that last year, his government acted to ensure more women returned to future elections.
In addition, several Sri Lankan women have filed fundamental rights petitions in the Supreme Court against the president’s decision. The women, including popular Sri Lankan actress Samanalee Fonseka, have challenged the government’s decision, stating, “This prohibition was a draconian measure that was arbitrary, irrational, unreasonable and discriminatory to the female citizens of the country.”
Though there is no word if the ban will be re-lifted, the Sri Lankan government will hold elections and re-elections in February 2018.
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