Closing that Equality Gap in Sri Lanka

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Conflict affected young girl in a resettled village supported by the NEIAP project, Vavuniya, Sri Lanka

So Australia is huffed that they have fallen behind South Africa and Sri Lanka, not in cricket ICC rankings but in the annual Global Gender Gap Index released a month or so ago. How ignominious to fall behind their cricketing rival, Sri Lanka, who in terms of development is a minion—far behind Australia.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions wailed “Australian employers must do more to encourage women’s participation in the workforce and close the gender pay gap.“

The Global Gender Gap report hardly made any waves here. This year, Sri Lanka has slipped 4 places to 16th place. However, the report says Lanka’s overall performance in 2008 has improved relative to 2007. “Sri Lanka continues to hold a privileged position of having the best performance in the region regarding political empowerment,” said the report. Sri Lanka was ahead of Spain (17), France (18), Australia (20) and U.S.A. (31).

So are we Sri Lankan women more prosperous and hold more equal position at the workplace than the Sheila’s in Oz?

If we look around the World Bank Colombo office, we can be excused for believing that women do have gender parity in Sri Lanka. But most working women will point to the glass ceiling that exists. Sri Lankan women have had equal rights, enjoying universal suffrage since 1931. Women do exercise this right to vote and there’s no doubt we have smart educated women, but the percentage of women who are in political and public decision making bodies remain dismally low.

As the Global Gender Gap Index shows, male to female ratios in Sri Lanka is 0.96. Parity at birth is 0.94, and baby girls are often welcomed as a first born and lucky for holding the family together. Education facilities are open to all without discrimination. Health facilities for women are very good with 97 percent of live births attended by skilled staff and a maternity mortality rate of 58 for 100,000 births.

So where do we women stand in Sri Lanka now? We are better educated than our mothers and grandmothers and live longer but have our burdens lessened? The long drawn out conflict has left many women scarred and bereft – without husbands, without children, lonely without much hope for the future.

In addition, the conflict has reversed the benefits and gains northern and eastern women of Sri Lanka gained from social, healthcare and education services that commenced as way back as 1940. In Jaffna, I met 75 year old Anna Lakshmi begging for a living in the derelict bombed out shell of the Jaffna railway station. She is one who has fallen through the social protection net with no husband, no family except for a daughter who lost a limb in a bomb blast.

Two schoolgirls and a woman walk past a board in Sinhala saying "No to Violence" 

We also earn less than men (US$ 2186 to $5,636 annually) and live longer with life expectancy of around 77 for females to 69 for males; this is projected to increase to 81 for females and 71 for males in 2016. This creates its own problem of an ageing women’s population. But as Leelangi Wanasundera said in her report, Rural women in Sri Lanka's post conflict rural economy, "social development indicators do not always tell the true story of realities when people suffer due to political conflict and inequities in the benefits gained from development."

Another topic that stays subsumed below the surface is the issue of violence against women. Whether it is physical, emotional or verbal abuse, it is something most women have experienced at sometime or other and is not confined to the poor, the illiterate, or the conflict affected.

The Centre for Women and Development in Jaffna in the North of Sri Lanka has started documenting violence against women. (The website collects anonymous information and shares them with other civil society and government organizations to help them better understand the extent of the issue). This program won the Jurors’ distinction award at the Information Communication Technology Agency. These are but small steps but in the right direction -- yet we have a long way to go.

The sad fact is that we Sri Lankan women should be more ahead of the curve considering that we’ve had a woman head of state for 23 years out of the last half a century. Yet most Sri Lankan women fight shy of coming into the political arena. It is considered “not done” for well brought up girls to go into the melee of politics. Therefore, we have a dismal record when it comes to the number of women in public representative bodies from local government to Parliament. This has prompted the birth of a “Political Representation for Women campaign” committed to increase female representation in decision making bodies. The campaigners are convinced that legislative intervention is needed for a speedy remedy.

Students Mathaniga (left) and Tharsike Ratnarajah (right) of Jaffna University

Going out to the field however, it is humbling to see and meet empowered and strong women playing leadership roles and shaping the development of their communities. With little resources, they have achieved much. This is very visible across the gamut of The World Bank supported projects such as the North East Irrigated Agriculture Project (NEIAP), Community Development project Gemi Diriya, the Renewable Energy project, the Health and Education projects, and in the “Empowerment of poor women and young girls” project carried out in Hambantota. All these projects have provided opportunities for women to take charge of their economic, social, and financial affairs through capacity building, self employment through micro credit, setting up of women managed small village banking systems.

In Jaffna, I saw that female students outnumber men in most classes at Jaffna University. Tharsike Ratnarajah and friend my friend Mathaniga are first year agriculture students who were using computer facilities provided by the World Bank supported “Improving Relevance and Quality of undergraduate Education (IRQUE) project.”Thariske was emphatic – she would like to go abroad for studies but would come back to contribute to rebuilding Jaffna. “Most educated people leave Jaffna, but I will return and help Jaffna rebuild its economy,” says Tharsike.

How we help women to help themselves break free from the age old moulds they have been cast into, especially at this juncture of post conflict development will be vital for generations to come.

See Also: Sri Lanka is also on track to achieve the Millennium Development Goal of promoting gender equality and empowering women.

Photos Copyright (c) of Chulie De Silva


Chulie De Silva

Communications Consultant

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