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

Join the Conversation

November 17, 2009

You ask the question "So are we Sri Lankan women more prosperous and hold more equal position at the workplace than the Sheila’s in Oz?" The answer is NO. There is no comparison between the women in the workforce in Sri Lanka and Oz. The majority of women in the work force in SL are in poverty based jobs -plucking tea, working in garment factories and living away from home or literally in slavery in the middle east.
My heart bleeds for these sisters. Global Gender Gap Index fails to see these glaring inequalities which even Blind Freddie can see.

November 17, 2009

I find the information provided by Chulie De Silva on the equality gap most comprehensive. As there are so many agencies and organizations to glean information from, I find this an excellent overview of the subject. So appreciate the photos, especially the one with the sign "No to violence." It is encouraging as are progress reports on World Bank projects. Will stay tuned.

November 18, 2009

Anonymous, you say "there are so many agencies and organizations to glean information from". Be warned, Research to people without common sense is like a lamp post to a dog or a drunk, something to lean to.

November 18, 2009

Pala: Thank you for the answer to my question "So are we Sri Lankan women more prosperous and hold more equal position at the workplace than the Sheila’s in Oz?" Your answer viz a bold NO brings home the point that we have to do more work where women and poverty are concerned and seek no comfort in research reports. I must say I was being polite and not saying these statistics don’t tell the whole story. And these stats mean even less to the poor women in the categories you mentioned.

A woman who knocked on my door selling fertilizer works for another villager who is supported by a samurdhi ( Government’s national program to alleviate poverty) grant. The smart thirty something woman said her husband left her for another woman, he pays no alimony and she is struggling to bring up and educate a son. When I wanted to photograph her, She was savvy enough not to want her photograph taken to be on the Net and said lots of photos are being doctored and used for nefarious purposes. So you see Pala there is another side to Sri Lankan women which tells me that they are very street smart, knowledgeable and resourceful. So, let’s take her and tell me how does she match to an Aussie counterpart?

November 18, 2009

nice story chuls

i agree that breaking free from age old moulds is key.

very often in Sri Lanka, it is women that limit the capacities of women - and tradition and custom ( a good sinhala/ tamil / muslim girl will not do that ) is the standard excuse.

Sunil Rodrigo
November 18, 2009

It is well known that the most significant gaptowards prosperity in rural Srialanka is the communication gaps and lack of approaches in dessemination of knowledge downwards to achieve just in time interventions ,practices and approaches. When compare the other countries in the regeion application of ICT4D in Srilanka is very much low.But the oppurtunity is very high as mobile enable communication has become a trend and habiit at grass root level.HEnce take this oppurtunity to make use of this trend in filling the communication gaps in rural development would definitely de productive towards improved lifestyle of rural poor.

Ranjit Rupesinghe
November 19, 2009

agree with Pala's point to an extent but I'm somewhat reticent to label the jobs that majority of women hold in the workforce in SL as "poverty based" for the simple reason that it's a harsh characterisation of what they do to keep the home fires burning. There is dignity in labour. It would be interesting to learn what measurement is used to categorise such occupations as "poverty based". It is clearly an economic imperative.

What comes to mind here is an old Chinese saying - "employment is nature's physician - it's essential for human happiness". Be they "degrading" jobs in the Midle East or tea plucking in the rolling hills of S/L, one has to accept that it provides some income for these women to keep their families going and the wolves off the door, unfortunate as the case may be. As a caring society, we must strive to find ways and means of bringing about a semblance of fairness to ensure that women so engaged, are dealt a fair hand-how that is achieved is another matter because we can talk 'til the cows come home about international labour conventions etc but at the end of the day a solution has to involve both government and business at the local level

November 19, 2009

Very interesting discussion you started, Chulie. I will stick to the question asked till that question is finally answered and then I may go meandering with the other points raised by others. The question asked was "So are we Sri Lankan women more prosperous and hold more equal position at the workplace than the Sheila’s in Oz?"
Chulie: these statistics don’t tell the whole story
Ranjit: agree with Pala's point to an extent but I'm somewhat reticent to label the jobs that majority of women hold in the workforce in SL as "poverty based" for the simple reason that it's a harsh characterisation of what they do to keep the home fires burning.
Pala: So you see, we have got into a debate about the "harshness" of calling the Sri Lankan women's' jobs "poverty based," "this report does not tell the whole story "etc etc . So let me repeat, the answer that is being sought is YES or NO to the question "are we Sri Lankan women more prosperous and hold more equal position at the workplace than the Sheila’s in Oz?" My answer is NO what is yours? I get the feeling that all your contributors accept that the majority of the women in SL labour force are poor (but it is not PC to call them so). Chulie, you may enlighten us with a definition of who is poor in World Bank terms ($ earnings per day or calorie intake per day etc) in Sri Lanka and who is poor in Australia in WB terms. You may see the answer to your original question in those numbers.
Without the Global Gender Gap Index and without any stats from WB I stick with my conclusion which is based on my own travels and observations that the Sri Lankan women in the labour force are much worse off than those in Oz.
Tea is based on poverty, garments are based on poverty, ME labour is based on poverty. Think about it, the day Sri Lanka achives a GDP per capita viz 1/2 that of Singapore ($37600 -WB) there will be no one in SL to pluck tea, stitch garments or to go into "slavery" in the ME. We must work towards that goal with the right distibution of GDP.

November 19, 2009

Sunil Rodrigo: Thank you for your comment. I couldn’t agree more the need for better communication and the skills building in IT for our rural sector. Although Sri Lanka still lags behind some countries we are trying to catch up. The World Bank Supported e-Sri Lanka project with the Information Communication and Technology Agency ( at the helm is making very good headway enlarging Sri Lanka’s e- footprint through the e-society program. Please see my blog post (…) on the e-Swarnabhimani awards for creative digital content developers. This will give you a good idea of the creativity of our young and quite a number of awards went to the rural sector. See also the article recently in the Bottomline paper titled “e-Sri Lanka transforming a nation through ICT” ( . Then there is the “One lap to per child initiative of the Sri Lanka Ministry of Education which is supported by the World Bank’s Education Sector Development project (

In addition, your comment makes me realize that we are not doing enough to communicate the work that is going on in Sri Lanka. We will try to rectify that.

Mohammad ZIaul Ahsan
November 19, 2009

In the innovation of five capital development at the homestead attended with reproductive health care management & nutrition supplement in the rural community on a special human resources development training & credit program.

To develop natural capital, physical capital, social capital, financial capital & human capital at each rural homestead attended with reproductive health care management & nutrition supplements to each homestead members. The human resources at each homestead will be brought in chains of five capital development through home based training & health & nutrition supplement in a special credit program.

That every targeted member of household in a homestead will be trained and updated to the needs of homestead five capital development and for human resources development. Health & nutrition will be an added step for each homestead member under the program and in due course, all areas will be covered.

The content of the proposal may be perused and a tentative budget has been shown to start with the program in any area proposed as assigned by the donor agency.

We are always be ready to furnish all necessary information as required in this connection.

November 19, 2009

The political empowerment part in the gender report deserves a closer look. We are ranked high in spite of below average representation of women in politics becasue of the two ladies whose rule added up to 24/60 years.
See the post in….

Sunil Rodrigo
November 20, 2009

Chulie- Yes ofcourse I agree with you the role so far played in bring in ICT towards grass root level and being a person present on that day ,it was very much encouraging innovators comimg out from the rural base. In regrd to the women role in rural development, if the oppurtunity given and with the built up capacity to face the changing envirnment of the society,I feel women could do either equal or sometime a better role than men in rural development.It is true that ,the common thinking of placing rural women only in agro base/tea & garment sector and when look at very grass root level ,still it is a male dominating envirnment-Ex; In majority of the dairy farming at village level the majority of all the hard work are bieng done by women in the house hold but selling milk and handling milk money is the authority of the male of the house holds. To change this it need to empower and make aware house hold women with relevant information through ICT application to over come these communication and information gaps- this is better communication facilites and capacity building and application of ICT4D in their day to day applications.You can have a look at the Dambadeniya stories ,being pioners in introducing ICTand good management practices at village level,had empowered them to handle their own affairs whcih led them to become the one and only and largest women own enterprise with 10 billion worth assets in Srilanka[Dambadeniya Export village] own and mange by 3800 women share holders who are from so called poverty base.
Dambadeniya story is a good example for the whole country for make women the leaders of rural development towards poverty eradication and application of ICT at very gras root level to manage htier own affairs.

It is true that ICTA has done a wonderful job in taking ICT to villages and giving the oppurtunity for our youth to become more innovative and productive.But when compare to other countries in the regeion we are far behind in application of ICT for thier day to day affairs.
The best examle is the recently initiated e dairy pilot project where small dairy farmers with very much low educational level handling using mobile enable e services to their day to operations.
Hence I feel it is a requirement to make apply ICT4D for rural development.

November 20, 2009

Sujata: Thank you for poiinting us in the direction of this site and this good post that clearly shows that "empowerment of two Bandaranyakes does not in any way reflect the political empowerment of women in Sri Lanka."

Other readers: Please see this site for this analysis and more on the signature campaign for political representation in Sri Lanka.

Nishantha Kamaladasa
November 25, 2009

As you quite rightly put absence of open discrimination does not imply that there is no subtle discrimination. Open discrimination/equality get in to different indices but subtle not. Hence indices have to be carefully read.

December 31, 2009

It is true that ICTA has done a wonderful job in taking ICT to villages and giving the oppurtunity for our youth to become more innovative and productive.But when compare to other countries in the regeion we are far behind in application of ICT for thier day to day affairs.

Chandrika Gadiewasam
February 15, 2010

The "No to Violence" poster is by the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) /Centre for Policy Alternatives.

February 26, 2017

Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I truly appreciate your efforts
and I am waiting for your further post thank you once again.