Narrowing gender gap | Daily News

Narrowing gender gap

According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2016, Sri Lanka is ranked in the 100th place out of 144 countries. The study used four major criteria to establish each country’s status in terms of gender equality in economy, education, health, and political representation.

Sri Lanka’s gender gap and gender equality rank declined from 79 in 2014 to an 84 in 2015 and the downward trend continued in 2016. We have been slipping from our privileged position in the top 20 since 2010.

Sri Lanka presents a mixed scenario, with positive achievements in education and health indicators, as well as negative developments such as gender inequality in employment and political participation, and issues of gender-based violence. This article will study briefly women’s declining labour participation, under-representation in politics, sand prevalent gender-based violence. These are the recognised challenges we are faced with. These are the challenges we have to find solutions.


The female labour force participation rate in Sri Lanka is low and has not changed much over time. According to a World Bank report, the ratio of female to male workforce participation is 40.2 %. This means, for every 100 male workers, there are only 40 females. Sri Lanka is a lower middle-income country, and therefore, ideally, we should have an average of 63 per cent.

The Department of Census and Statistics’ 2015 Labour Force Survey data, of the working age population, says only 36% of female population are engaged in the labour market, compared to 75% of male population. However, the ratio of females engaged in the labour market steadily increases with the higher levels of education. In other words. the gap between male-female participation in the labour force comes down at educational levels beyond secondary education. The statistics reveal that this gap is lowest for the females with a degree level or professional qualification.

Therefore, it is obvious that education influencing factor for female workforce participation.

It may be due to number of reasons. Women with higher levels of education delay marriage and childbearing. Since, higher education increases their earning potential, they can obtain the services of a housemaid to look after children and continue with their employment even after marriage. And, because of the considerable income they will feel comfortable to work than stay at home.

Another survey has revealed that the lower fertility of qualified females enables them to increase their participation in the labour market.

Social norms

However, higher education alone will not get more females into the workforce. The market itself also needs to create job opportunities that are conducive to more educated female workers. Unfortunately, the Sri Lankan labour market for females, is skewed towards lower end of the skill spectrum.

There is a serious lack of opportunities in the types of occupations preferred by females with higher skills. This is a serious deterrent for females to enter the labour market.

Our social norms also compliment the lower female workforce participation. Australia’s former Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, who was in Colombo recently explained it.

“Although Sri Lanka is a progressive nation for women, there are still some limitations. There is a strong belief that to be a good mother, daughter of wife is very much about women’s role in the family and house caring. There are strong social norms, which make it difficult for women to both work and care.”

Political empowerment

In terms of political participation, although women have had the right to exercise their vote and to participate in political activities, the representation of women in Parliament has never exceeded 6% and has been even lower in elected local assemblies.

Female political empowerment is measured using three variables – the ratio of females to males in parliament and other legislative bodies, the ratio of females to males at the ministerial level, and the ratio of the number of years with a female head of state to the years with a male head of state (in the last 50 years).

Although, these values are important to track gender equality progress, they do not truly reflect political empowerment. Political empowerment defined by such narrow criterion does not adequately capture women’s political advancements. It should also include women’s political participation in electing leaders. Women’s voting participation rate is also an important criterion of women’s political empowerment. High women’s voter turnout is an important expression of political participation.

Additionally, measure of political empowerment should include women’s participation in interest groups and grass root activities. It is important to measure and value this criterion because it represents an important channel of change in the policy and political environments.

If such a broader set of criteria is used to measure women’s political participation, it is likely that the figures would show increased political empowerment of Sri Lankan women over time.

Nonetheless, having women in official political positions, determining local and national policies, is rather important because a large share of policies that directly affect women are shaped and enforced through local and provincial assemblies.

LG elections

Therefore, it is essential that we look at policies that aim to improve women’s political participation to move towards more equitable governing structures.

One such policy is reserving positions for women in local governing bodies. The Local Authorities Elections (Amendment) Bill which was passed in Parliament recently, has allocated 25% of representation to women in Provincial Councils and Local Government Institutions. The Government authorities indicated that after experimenting the new system at LG Elections, it would be extended to Provincial Councils and National level elections.

Our neighbour, India, has experimented on this scheme some time ago. Although the policy did not show remarkable results at first, the women leaders gradually learned the importance of political participation. The men in the electorates, who previously could not imagine females becoming part of decision making, began to change their thinking.

The high cost of facing an election is also a major reason discouraging women from contesting. Introducing laws to control campaign funding would undoubtedly contribute to encourage women’s participation in elections.


Another effective instrument which could be used to bridge these representation gaps, is Gender Responsive Budgeting (GRB). Gender-responsive budgeting is already implemented in more than 50 countries over the world. The rationale behind GRB is to integrate critical gender concerns into fiscal policies and administration to address disparities.

India adapted it 2005 and every annual budget ever since has included a statement that lists out two parts. There is Part A, which reflects ‘Women Specific Schemes’, namely, those which have 100 per cent allocation for women, and Part B, which reflects ‘Pro Women Schemes’, namely, where at least 30 per cent of the allocation is for women.

Over the years, India has stood out for its implementation of gender budgeting, and with the Ministry of Finance playing the central role, it has managed to successfully institutionalise the concept at both the national and State levels. Studies substantiate the positive link between GRB and improved indicators for women. For instance, a recent International Monetary Fund study found that States that employ GRB has a positive impact on infrastructure spending. 

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