Time to look beyond box | Daily News

Time to look beyond box

Several factors hinder women’s participation towards uplifting a country’s economy which have impaired their  performance and even driven them away


Contrary to common belief, gender equality and women’s empowerment is not a ‘benefit’ given to women. Investing in women to empower and to support them to fulfill their potential as leaders, would be a benefit for the entire nation.

Rather than a ‘benefit’ for women, it is their right - to be treated equal in all aspects including the workforce. The potential of women can truly be realised when women are provided with a conducive work environment so that women can be productive employees. Although many have realised the importance of women’s contribution to a country’s economy, several factors have hindered women’s participation in the workforce, impairing their performance and even driving them away.

In Sri Lanka, women are well ahead of men in education. Women account for 59.7 percent of students enrolled in universities. Yet, this achievement is not reflected in the workforce where female unemployment rate is an unreasonable 67.71 percent. This is more than double that of men, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). UNFPA adds that women’s total labour force participation has remained relatively unchanged over the past three decades, with the men’s participation in the workforce exceeding women’s labour force participation by 2.6 million. Although Sri Lanka fares well in many aspects of gender equality, female labour force participation is still at a low rate in comparison to its South Asian neighbours.

Many reasons have been cited for this paradox. Gender stereotyping of educational options, lack of flexi-work conditions, minimal child care options and male bias in the private sector are some of the reasons for women’s lack of participation in the workforce. At the panel discussion titled, ‘Investing in women as game changers for Sri Lanka’s future development: What does it take for women to fulfill their potential as leaders?’ organised by the UNFPA recently, reasons for the low number of women in the labour force were investigated at length by experts in various fields while options of how to address this were also dealt with.


Minister Harin Fernando and Deputy Minister Dr. Harsha de Silva


“A main reason for women to stay away from work is their family commitments,” said Foreign Affairs Deputy Minister Harsha de Silva addressing the gathering. “They have to take up household chores. Another reason is harassment encountered in public transportation as well as the workforce,” the deputy minister pointed out.

In most workplaces, there is minimal awareness of sexual harassment or mechanisms to address it. Therefore, employees seeking redress could be unfairly further penalised, transferred to other departments or forced to resign, thereby compounding the injustice.

According to a survey conducted by the International Federation of Journalists in 2015, almost 29 percent of Lankan female journalists have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. In addition, 94 percent of 200 women reported being sexually abused in a survey done at the Maradana railway station in 2004. Thus, women face harassment not only in the workplace but also in public transportation to and from the workplace.

The traditional role of women in the household is another hindrance for women’s lack of motivation to work. Deputy Minister de Silva pointed out that more women can participate in the workforce if attitudes on household responsibilities are changed, where men too are encouraged to share household chores. In addition, by introducing flexi-hours for women, more women would work, he said.

“In the new paradigm of the digital workplace, women can be connected on a digital level. With this, there would be a dramatic increase of women working and contributing to the economy,” de Silva added.


Prof. Savitri Goonesekere
Prof. Lakshman Dissanayake
Shanaaz Preena


According to Telecommunications and Digital Infrastructure Minister Harin Fernando, the government is planning several programmes to expand IT education.

“About 600,000 students fall out of school every year and the majority is women. The government plans to provide them vocational training in IT. With the expansion of IT education, women can be provided with the opportunity to work from home. This would lead to a massive increase in women in the workforce,” Minister Fernando said.

Gender discrimination and patriarchy have pushed women to bear double burden of work and household responsibilities. Working women are trapped in guilt for feeling they are being bad mothers for leaving children to go to work and bad workers when they put their children first. Although women in the workforce are protected through laws such as Maternity Benefits Ordinance of 1941, Shop and Office Employees Act of 1954 and Young Persons and Children Act of 1956, implementation of such laws is lacking.

Minister Fernando pointed out that even though legislators pass laws, attitudes and good behaviour cannot be legislated. “This has to be taught to boys and girls by their parents,” he said.

Emeritus Professor of Law of the University of Colombo Prof. Savitri Goonesekere stressed that the State cannot wash their hands and transfer the responsibilities back to the family unit. The lack of State engagement in law enforcement thus, is another way of legitimising the conduct, she pointed out.

Prof. Goonesekere also opposed to women working from home, stressing that women should be equal partners in the workforce rather than pushing them away. The concept should be for ‘women and development’ rather than ‘women in development’, ensuring that women are active partners equally, striving for inclusive development where women create growth. Women should be given opportunities not because they are marginalised but because they can be influencers of society.

“To do this, women should be provided with personal security so that they have a role in the workplace. In the household, responsibilities should not lie only with women. Women should break with tradition that they have to look after the household. There is a need to do away with gender stereotyping,” Prof. Goonesekere pointed out. The panelists also considered paternal leave in case of child birth, so that the responsibility of taking care of dependents also falls on fathers.

However, the situation is such that the State most often, is a legitimiser of stereotypical values. Women victimised by domestic violence are told by the Police to go back and sort out their so-called ‘family problems’. As such, victimised women do not get redress and the State becomes a sponsor of the offence. “Impunity must be done away with and the State has a major role in value system change,” Prof. Goonesekere added.

Women-go-Beyond Director and Women’s Advocacy for MAS Group Shanaaz Preena pointed out that awareness needs to be created on what is harassment and discrimination in the workplace, as objectification of women has become the norm. As such, the productivity of women in the workplace gets affected. Therefore, companies must ensure that women are provided with a conducive work environment, Preena said.

There is also the issue of female students taking up ‘female specific’ subject streams such as Arts. These have a low employability rate which also results in the low employment of women. Vice Chancellor of the University of Colombo Prof. Lakshman Dissanayake pointed out that women need to be encouraged to take up careers that are considered to be the male domain. For this, career guidance should be done at school level.

“We have to look beyond the box. Women have more capabilities than being seamstresses or beauticians,” he added.

The ability of teachers to impart good values on their students is also questionable. At school level, teachers are accused of being the purveyors of stereotypical values. It is important for the education sector to change attitudes of teachers as well, Prof. Goonesekere added.

The potential of women heading households also needs to be tapped with regard to women’s role in growth, according to the UNFPA. Among the total female heads of households, 34.6 percent are widows while 53.3 percent are married. The large number of female headed households highlights the need for policy and legal reforms to address discriminatory laws and practices in land inheritance that disadvantage women and hinder economic productivity.

Household chores, responsibilities should not lie only with women

Gender equality is also a precondition for advancing development and reducing poverty. Empowered women contribute to the health and productivity of families and communities and they improve prospects for the next generation, according to the UNFPA.

Empowerment of women should be reflected in the workforce as well, not because they need an opportunity but because women could be major contributors to a country’s growth.

Pictures by Sarath Peiris 


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