Sri Lanka’s women want to work—and thrive in the workplace

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A Sri Lankan woman is hand painting fabric in a local Batik fabric factory. Matale, Sri Lanka. Credit: Shutterstock. January 3, 2017.

It’s International Women’s Day today, and there is a lot to celebrate in Sri Lanka and beyond. 

Being a woman, mother, sister, aunt – name it, it’s something women wake up to daily and they love it.  None of them question about being enumerated for these roles.  We marvel and revel in the roles. 

But make no mistake. Women are also very capable breadwinners, contributors to the economies, innovators and entrepreneurs amongst many other roles. 

Women want to work, and they want to stay in the workplace. 

What they seek is balance: a gender-balanced workplace, a gender-balanced management, and more gender-balance in sharing wealth and prosperity. 

In that sense, it’s heartening to see some of the proposals put forth in the government of Sri Lanka’s budget: more daycare centers, flexible work hours, and incentives to promote maternity leave. 

These are very welcome changes to think equal, build smart, innovate for change—the 2019 International Women's Day campaign theme—and we encourage those with jobs to implement these policy changes. 

This year, let me share with you a quick analysis of five laws that Sri Lankan women and their advocates have identified as constraining for joining the workforce and staying there!   

1. What the law says to support part-time work: Under the Termination of Employment of Worker Act (TEWA) (Special Provisions) Act No. 45 of 1971, employers must give part-time and full-time workers the same compensation on retrenchment (termination), making them less likely to hire women who may need flexi-hours.

What Sri Lankan women and their advocates say: Advocates consider this ‘low-hanging fruit’ – simply addressing this issue could bring many more homemakers into the workforce and help both businesses and their employees.

2. What the law says to address the challenges for women working at night: The Employment of Women, Young Persons and Children Act No. 47 seeks to prevent female employees from being forced to work at night. It has a tough set of provisions - requiring that employers who want to hire women to work after 10pm must get written sanction of the commissioner of labor for women. Employers must also hire female wardens to ensure the safety of female employees at night. Another provision is that no woman can be employed for more than ten days on night work per month.

What Sri Lankan women and their advocates say: There are certain exemptions and this law was clearly formulated to protect women from exploitation. Unfortunately, it now works against women, discouraging them from seeking employment in fields such as ICT, where offices often work odd hours for the convenience of their international customers.

3. What the law says to provide pregnant women legal protection from dismissal: The purpose of the Maternity Benefits Act No. 32 is to provide pregnant women legal protection from dismissal based on pregnancy.

What Sri Lankan women and their advocates say: Currently, the amount of maternity leave a woman receives is based on how many children the couple already has – a couple about to have their first or second child are entitled to 12 weeks of paid leave, while a woman who has two or more children, is only entitled to 6 weeks of maternity benefits.

Under this legislation, fathers are only allocated three days for paternity leave, which further discourages men from taking on roles as caregivers and active parents.

Finally, different provisions in the Maternity Benefits Ordinance No.32 and the Shop and Office Employees’ Act, mean that maternity benefits are not uniform but different for white-collar and blue-collar workers, with shop and office employees receiving more days than factory workers due to different clauses regarding the inclusion of holidays.

Human rights advocates have responded to this law by arguing that pregnancy-related needs should be conceptualized as a right and not a benefit. The same benefits should be offered to women regardless of the sector they work in, while paternity leave should be increased to allow fathers to spend more time with their infants.

4. What the law says to protect the rights of domestic workers: The Registration of Domestic Servants Ordinance of No. 28, focuses on ensuring that ‘masters’ and domestic workers provide a registrar with details of the latter’s employment history, criminal record, and duration of employment.  

What Sri Lankan women and their advocates say: However, advocates argue that law is insufficient and needs to be revised. It should be updated to cover the challenges domestic workers, many of whom are women, face today by promoting measures such as the establishment and enforcement of laws pertaining to minimum wages, maximum work hours, and equal pay for equal work, as well as safe working conditions for some of the most vulnerable women workers in Sri Lanka.

5. What the law says to address sexual harassment: The Penal Code Act No. 2 of 1883 and its subsequent amendments were put in place to recognize, define and criminalize sexual harassment. However, despite media campaigns, there is inadequate understanding of sexual harassment.
What Sri Lankan women and their advocates say: This law is quite sound, but victims say they are reluctant to complain to the police. Organizations can support their employees by creating a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment which treats such complaints with seriousness, utmost confidentiality and a genuine desire to create safe workplaces for all.

It’s true that many of these laws are clearly well-intentioned and meant to protect women.

Unfortunately, some are also very outdated and play heavily to gender stereotypes. Why do we need an age limit on a job application? Doesn’t that block women from coming back into the workforce? 

Moreover, implementation of the laws remains a challenge, and monitoring and compliance with existing laws has been lacking for years, particularly when it comes to the provision of crèches and washing facilities at workplaces.

In the end, advocates argue that what is required is not protectionist laws, but laws that substantially address issues around violence, safety, health and working conditions in the workplace – and then enforce them.  Share your thoughts in the comments thread below!   


Idah Z. Pswarayi-Riddihough

Country Director, Mozambique, Madagascar, Mauritius, Comoros and Seychelles

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