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A short essay on human rights issues in Sri-Lanka


Women’s Rights

Constitutionally, Women enjoy all the regular social, cultural and economic rights that everyone is entitled to in the country. Sri Lanka has elected women to the highest offices on more than one occasion. However, according to some local NGOs, women are reported not to have fair access to resources and opportunities.


Like in many other cultures in South Asia, they are often expected to play a subservient role to the male population. However, many reforms and changes have been made to empower women financially, politically and culturally.



Children’s Rights

Almost a fourth of the entire Sri Lankan population still lives below the poverty line, out of which children are the worst sufferers. Owing to the civil war and natural catastrophes like the tsunami, they have had their basic rights trampled upon due to unfavourable economic conditions. Child marriage is still prevalent in the country, with about 12% of young women being married off before the age of 18. Discrimination and racism is another after effect of ages of conflict, though the situation is improving gradually.



Minority Rights

About 73% of are Sinhalese, a majority of whom are followers of Buddhism. The island nation has kept its predominant religion alive despite attempts by colonial powers to convert them to Christianity. The minority communities in the island include:


Tamils: Tamils comprise a little above 8.5% of Sri Lanka’s population. Indian Tamils make up for about 4.6% of the demographics of the nation, and inhabit the central plantation regions of Sri Lanka. The Tamil plantation workers were brought to the country by British settlers and were either repatriated to their home country or naturalized under the clauses of a 1964 treaty between Sri Lanka and India. The Tamil identity in Sri Lanka is not very unified, with differences in caste, religion etc. bifurcating them into upper caste Tamils, lower caste Tamils, Hindu Tamils, Christian Tamils, Protestant Tamils, and even Muslim Tamils.


Muslims: Muslims account for about 7.2% of the Sri Lankan population. They are mostly descendants of the Arab nations and Kerala (a South Indian State). Muslims primarily inhabit the central region and eastern coasts of the island, and speak Tamil. They’ve faced severe repercussions during the Civil War.


Veddas: Considered as the original inhabitants of the island, their population is estimated at about 2,500. They are ethnically related to the Sinhalese. The earliest Veddas survived as hunting nomads in dense forests. Previously belonging to the animalist clan, many of them have now converted to Buddhism and have integrated into mainstream life.



The Burgher community

The      Portuguese started right from the beginning with the experiment of a colonisation based on settlements of Portuguese citizens called “casados”. Since there were few Portuguese women, mixed marriages were encouraged between Portuguese and Asians.


This method of settlement was extremely successful. In fact, after a century of this colonisation, in practically every outpost of the empire, there were colonies of mixed Portuguese, who spoke Portuguese, were Catholic and were better suited to the tropical climates than the European-born Portuguese.


After their conquest of the island, the Dutch also attempted to found some colonies of Dutch citizens dubbed “Burgher”. Such policy was clearly a failure as only a few Dutch families settled on the island. During the first 30 years of Dutch rule in Ceylon, the Burgher community never exceeded 500 in number and it was mainly composed by sailors, clerks, tavern-keepers and discharged soldiers.


The Dutch East India Company (VOC) encouraged the Burghers by supporting this type of emigration to Ceylon in any case: Burghers alone had the privilege to keep shops, were given liberal grants of land with the right of free trade. Whenever possible they were preferred to natives for appointment to an office. Only Burghers had the right of baking bread, butchering and shoemaking. Most of them were civil servants of the Company. Marriage between a Burgher and a native woman – often an Indo-Portuguese woman – was only permitted, if she professed the Christian religion. However, the daughters of this union had to be married to a Dutchman.


In the 18th century a growing European community (a mixture of Portuguese, Dutch, Sinhalese and Tamil) developed in Ceylon. They dressed like Europeans, were adherents of the Dutch Reformed Church and spoke Dutch or Portuguese. With the passing of time, the Burgher community developed into two different communities: Dutch Burghers and Portuguese Burghers.


The Dutch Burghers were those who could demonstrate European ancestry (Dutch or Portuguese) through the male line, were white, belonged to the Dutch Reformed Church and spoke Dutch. The Portuguese Burghers (called later Mechanics) were those who had a supposed (but not sure) European ancestry, had dark skin, were Catholics and spoke Creole Portuguese. The European community supplied the clergy of the Dutch Reformed Church. In the last decades of Dutch rule on the island, the Burghers formed a detachment of citizen soldiers. They defended the ramparts of Colombo during the fourth Anglo-Dutch War.


Although there are no demographic studies available on the Burgher community in Ceylon during the Dutch period, it is clear that the growth of the community was constant. A small, but steady influx of newcomers from Europe mixed with the families, who had settled on the island for generations. Thanks to this, the Burgher community was able to retain its open character and the heterogeneous cultural traditions.


At the time of the British conquest in 1796, there were about 900 families of Dutch Burghers residing in Ceylon, concentrated in Colombo, Galle, Matara and Jaffna. During the British times the Burghers were employed in the Colonial administration like clerks, lawyers, soldiers, physicians and were a privileged class on the island. Under the British, the Dutch Burghers abandoned the use of the Dutch language and adopted English. By 1860, the use of Dutch among the Dutch Burghers had disappeared. In 1908 only six or eight Dutch Burghers could still pretend to know the Dutch language whereas the Creole Portuguese continued to be used amongst the Dutch Burghers’ families as the colloquial language until the end of the 19th century.


Here are some of the usual surnames in the Dutch Burgher community: Andriesz, Anthonisz, Antonisse, Arndt, Bagot Villiers, Baldesinger, Bartholomeusz, Beekmun, Beven, Brohier, Claasz, Crozier, Da Silva, Daniels, de Hoedt, de Kretser, De Zilwa, Deutrom, Ebert, Engelbrecht, Foenander, Frugtniet, Hepponstall, Herft, Jansz, Joseph, Keegal, Kelaart, Landsberger, Loos, Lourensz, Martinus, Melder, Meynert, Milhuisen, Neydorff, Passe, Peiris, Philipsz, Prins, Scharenguivel, Scharff, Spittel, van Arkadie, van Cuylenburg (Culenberg), van Dersil, van der Straaten, van Dort, van Hoff, Van Langenberg, Van Rooyen, Vander Gucht, Werkmester, Wille, Willenberg.




By the end of the British rule the Dutch Burgher community had lost its influence and privileges, and many Burghers emigrated to Australia or Canada, especially after the declaration of Sinhala as the official language of the country by Solomon Bandaranaike in 1956. In spite of this, the Dutch Burgher Union of Ceylon is still in existence in Colombo to this day. The Dutch Reformed Church is now called the Presbyterian Church of Ceylon, the membership presently being 5,000. On the whole island you find 24 congregations. During the last 40 years the Church has lost much of its leadership and membership due to mass emigration of the Dutch Burgher community.


At the census of 1871, there were 14.817 Burghers. At the census of 1901, there were 23.482 Burghers and 6.300 “other” Europeans. At the census of 1921 there were 29.439 Burghers and at that of 1946 there were 41.926 Burghers (0,8 % of the entire population). At the census of 1963 there were 45.900 Burghers (totalling 0,43 %).


At the census of 1981 the Burghers (Dutch and Portuguese) were 39.374 (0,3 % of the population). About 80 % of them were able to speak English, 72 % could speak Sinhalese and 18 % Tamil. About 72 % of the Burghers lived in Colombo.


At the census of 2001 that excluded the areas of Jaffna, Trincomalee and Batticaloa due to the civil war, the Burghers (Dutch and Portuguese) were 35.283 (0,2 % of the population). A similar census in 2011 estimated the Burgher community at over 37.000 (0,18 % of the population).




Homosexuality is banned in the country and is a legally punishable offence with a ten-year sentence. The law is rarely enforced though it prevents homosexuals from coming out into the open about their preferences. However, since 2005, a Gay Pride parade is held in Colombo every year.



Abortion and Birth Control

Abortion is illegal in Sri Lanka. Contraception is reserved only for married couples. This poses a serious hindrance to combat sexually transmitted diseases on the island.






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