Last edited: July 16, 2004

Sri Lankan Activists Push Gay Rights, Dowry Change

Reuters, September 7, 2000

COLOMBO — Sri Lanka’s long and bloody ethnic war may be the main issue in next month’s general elections, but social activists also want sensitive issues such as gay rights and dowry payments put on the political agenda.

A gay rights group is pushing to legalise homosexuality and a radical leftist party is pledging to abolish the archaic but deeply entrenched dowry system.

"This is a good opportunity for main parties to make their stand clear on the decriminalisation of homosexual behaviour," Sherman de Rose of the gay rights group Companions on a Journey (COJ) told Reuters.

De Rose said his group would seek a meeting with the ruling People’s Alliance and the main opposition United National Party (UNP) before the election scheduled for October 10.

Though it is not fielding its own candidates, COJ has been campaigning since 1995 for a repeal of provisions in the 19th century penal code which makes homosexuality a criminal offence.

The Marxist People Liberation Front (JVP) unveiled its election manifesto on Wednesday pledging to abolish the dowry system if it won power.

The tradition of dowry obliges the bride’s parents to give property or large sums of money to her new husband’s family.

Sri Lankan newspapers are filled with marriage advertisements from parents offering or seeking huge dowries. Critics say the system is unfair.

"The dowry system has led to the exploitation of poor rural women," said Wimal Weerawansa, propaganda secretary of the JVP.

But analysts say neither the dowry problem nor the gay rights issue are likely to make much headway in conservative Sri Lanka.

The JVP, a former rebel group which has launched two bloody insurgencies since 1971, has never polled more than eight percent of the national vote and analysts say the party is unlikely to fare much better this time.

And a gay rights platform may just be too much to ask from parties facing a staid, war-weary electorate.

"We don’t expect either party to endorse our cause and we are only looking to open a dialogue," said de Rose.

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