Reverse the widening gender gap | Daily News

Reverse the widening gender gap

Since the Independence, there has been significant progress in the achievement of women’s rights in Sri Lanka. Specifically, following the International Women’s Year in 1975 and the United Nations Decade for Women from 1976 to 1985, a number of policies and laws were enacted to enhance the rights of women.

Further developments included the establishment of both the National Plan of Action for Women and Women’s Charter in 1996. The National Plan was the result of the UN meeting on the Commission on Status of Women, which was held in 2005. Its purpose was to achieve gender equality via legislative changes and policy programmes.

Thus, Sri Lanka has led the way to female liberation and has had an early start in comparison with other South Asian countries. Yet, gender equality remains a distant dream for the majority of our women.

Gender inequality

According to a recent report by the World Economic Forum, Sri Lanka’s gender inequality has widened over the last decade and gender equality index (GII) has also declined. For example, Sri Lanka ranked 12th global position in rank in 2008 and by 2018 it has fallen down to 100th position.

It may be useful to examine why Sri Lanka, as a country with high human development, has failed in closing the gender equality. To gain a clearer picture, we need to go into details how GII is calculated.

The GII is measures gender inequalities in three important aspects of human development - reproductive health, (measured by maternal mortality ratio and adolescent birth rates), empowerment, including political participation and educational achievement, (measured by proportion of parliamentary seats occupied by females and proportion of adult females and males aged 25 years and older with at least some secondary education), and economic participation, (measured by labour force participation rate of female and male populations aged 15 years and older).

According to the report for 2018, our scores and rankings for these sub-units were as follows: (a) economic participation and opportunities- 55% with a ranking of 125, (b) reproductive health status-98% with ranking of 01, (c) educational attainment- 99% with 90th ranking (d) political empowerment- 19% with a rank of 85. There were 149 countries involved in the survey.

The GII is built to expose differences in the distribution of achievements between women and men. It measures the human development costs of gender inequality.

What it reveals

The figures reveal that our educational attainment and health care are in strong positions. The successive governments have invested heavily in education, health and welfare programmes and this has been associated with the country achieving levels of life expectancy and literacy that are comparable to other regional countries.

Female literacy rates which stood at 55.5% in 1953 and 67.3% in 1963 recorded substantial progress to reach 90.8% in 2010 and currently it stands at 98.6%. Records indicate that 52.2 percent of the school-going population are females and the percentage of women entering state universities has increased to 62.2 percent. Universal access to education has had a noticeable impact on the attainment of gender equity in general education.

The social policies introduced on the eve of our national Independence promoted free health services that were made increasingly available to women in all economic strata. This island-wide network of health services, especially maternity and child health services has contributed significantly to the improvement in the health status of women. Since independence in 1948, to the 2018, the crude death rate fell from 21.9 per 1,000 to 6.9 per 1,000, maternal mortality rate from 16.5 per 1,000 to 3.38 per 1,000, and the infant mortality rate from 140 per 1,000 to 7.5 per 1,000.

However, despite these positive indicators, the country’s overall level of women gender empowerment is below the average level of developing countries, especially because of the extremely low involvement of women in politics and low female participation in the labour force. Let us study how we could improve and develop these two specific fields.

Gender and Labour Market

According to the Department of Census and Statistics 2015 Labour Force Survey data, of the working age population, only 35.9% of females were engaged in the labour market, compared to nearly 75% of males. These percentages have remained more or less unchanged over the years. According to a recent World Bank report, Sri Lanka has the 14th largest gender gap in labour force participation globally and the situation is getting worse by the day. It also said that young women have the highest unemployment rate in Sri Lanka—29 percent for the 15-24 age group.

However, independent surveys have revealed that the percentage of females engaged in the labour market steadily increases at higher levels of education. At the same time, the disparity between the male and female labour force participation rates have decreased steadily for those with higher levels of education.

The claim becomes obvious when we look at the following data on percentage of female labour participation: with O/Level–29.2%: with A/Level - 49.9 %: Graduates - 83.9 %: Post-graduates – 81.7


The reasons are also clear. Higher education increases the earning potential and therefore, it induces a female to think twice its worthwhile to stay at home. Better pay allows women to obtain child care and domestic help, thereby giving them more space to enter the workforce. Women with higher levels of education generally have lower fertility which increase their potential to participate in the labour market.

Therefore, one of the solutions to reduce the gender gap in labour market, is to introduce and implement policies for improving the education level of females at least up to A-Levels and beyond.

Government policies

In addition to the continuous education till A-Levels, the Government must also work out a policy plan to create job opportunities suitable for educated females. The labour market for females in Sri Lanka is more weighed towards low-skilled workforce. The lack of opportunities in the types of occupations preferred by females with higher skills could also be a deterrent for females to enter the labour market.

Getting educated women to work will require embracing comprehensive and multi-pronged strategies that require collaboration between various stakeholders, including the private sector.

Whatever policies the Government plans in implementing need to be holistic in nature. Measures should facilitate work-life balance of a female and also improve their skills so that they could grow up in their careers. Work-life balance includes facilities like parental leave and child care. Research studies have proven that short working hours, extended paid parental leave increases women’s labour force participation, enabling them to improve the balance between family and employment responsibilities.

Tax reforms are also needed ones which are working women-friendly. In Japan, for example, when both husband and wife are employed, a deduction on the wife’s tax are allowed as an incentive for married women to return to work. The overall economy, families, and all benefit when barriers to women’s economic participation are removed, allowing for a fuller use of women’s talents.

Political empowerment

Equal participation of women and men in political life is an internationally recognized human right, an indicator of the quality of democracy. It is also an instrument for economic development.

However, at the local and community level all the way to the highest levels of government in Sri Lanka, women are often underrepresented in political and leadership positions, left without a voice in decision-making and ignored as an electorate.

We have 11 female Members of Parliament of a total of 225 parliamentarians and the percentage is 4.88. Among them are two Cabinet ministers, two state ministers and two deputy ministers. Historically, the highest number of women’s representation in the Sri Lankan Parliament has never gone beyond 13 out of the 225 seats.

When women are under-represented in all facets of the political process, it means there are two obstacles. First, social-cultural barriers for them to enter the political field and second, absence of training and resources for women’s political organising.

In Sri Lanka, there is a serious lack of public/social support and political party support to the political participation of women, unless of course, she is the wife, sister or daughter of a popular politician. Most of the aspiring candidates lack financial means and capacity building opportunities. Often, they are also confronted with gender discrimination and division according to ethnic or religious lines.

The women’s organisations also have a key role to play in promoting women’s political participation. They need to explore various strategies for effectively advocating for women’s rights for political representation.

In light of the importance of the current gender inequality, a national forum needs to be initiated with the overall objective to provide a platform for discussion among different stakeholders to find solutions to strengthen gender equality, women’s rights and women’s political participation in Sri Lanka.



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