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Why Sri Lanka Reinstated Ban on Sale of Alcohol to Women

Picture of Orana Velarde
Sri Lanka Hub Writer
Updated: 19 January 2018
For almost 40 years, women have not been allowed to legally buy alcohol in Sri Lanka. However, with a new ruling last week, it seemed that was all about to change.

The financial minister of Sri Lanka, Mangala Samaraweera, announced on Wednesday that the government would lift their ban on women buying alcohol, which had existed since 1979. It was a monumental moment is Sri Lanka’s legislative history.

Not long after, however, President Maithripala Sirisena came out in protest, saying that he did not know about the reform and calling for it to be revoked. As a result, Samaraweera’s ruling was cancelled on Sunday – just three short days after it came into law.

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In reality, very few people felt the effects of the 1979 ban. In fact, it is so old that some people didn’t even know it existed. In cities like Colombo, women have been buying alcohol in supermarkets for many years without a problem. Only now that the ban has been brought into the public eye have people become aware of the ruling and it’s implications. A national and international debate has been sparked about gender equality in South Asia.

What exactly does the ban entail?

There was more to the law than just a ban on women buying alcohol. The 1979 ruling also stated that women could not work in any establishment that sold alcohol without first getting a permit. On top of that, alcohol was only allowed to be sold in Sri Lanka, by anybody, between the hours of 9am and 9pm. Samaraweera planned to extend that from 8am to 10pm.

President Sirisena’s reversal

President Sirisena has received extensive criticism after reinstating the law, with many believing it shows huge hypocrisy. Sirisena, on numerous occasions, has stated that he would like women to begin to play a more important role in the government. But this latest decision seems to undermine that stance. Sri Lankans do not understand how the president can be supportive of women’s roles in society and, at the same time, restrict their ability to make a choice about buying (or not buying) alcohol.

“The idea was to restore gender neutrality,” said financial ministry spokesman Ali Hassen. Now those hopes seem lost.

However, some were not surprised – or upset – by the reversal. President Sirisena, like many other Sri Lankans, has a strong anti-alcohol stand. There was plenty of backlash about Samaraweera’s lift in the first place – especially from the Buddhist sector. People believed that allowing women to buy alcohol, and extending selling time, would threaten Sri Lankan family values and result in women becoming addicted to alcohol. For them, the president’s reversal came as a relief.

How much do Sri Lankan women drink anyway?

Sri Lanka is a majority Buddhist society, in which women hardly drink at all. It’s part of the Buddhist religion to abstain from drinking alcohol. It is generally frowned upon for women to drink, so they tend not to. According to data collected by the World Heath Organization in 2014, 80.5% of Sri Lankan women do not drink at all, in comparison to 56.9% of men.

What about female foreigners in Sri Lanka?

If you are a female tourist or traveller in Sri Lanka, it’s unlikely that you will have a problem buying alcohol. However, now that this old law has come to light, things might be a bit different and liquor stores might be inclined to stick to the law and not get into trouble. Inside the hotels you shouldn’t have a problem.