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Budgeting for people

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Budgets made by Sri Lankan governments, especially for an election year, tend to be focused on political gains rather than financial ones. But there are ways to ensure that people’s needs are prioritised without sacrificing fiscal prudence. Gender-responsive budgets have been increasing around the world, with more gender sensitive policy making being used to meet the needs of vulnerable populations. 

Gender-responsive budgeting is not about creating separate budgets for women, or solely increasing spending on women’s programs. Rather, gender-responsive budgeting seeks to ensure that the collection and allocation of public resources is carried out in ways that are effective and contribute to advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment. 

This makes sense for Sri Lanka because women make up a higher percentage of the population but have significantly less political representation. With less than 5% of women’s representation in Parliament, women often do not get a say in how policies are made. However, women are responsible for the bulk of foreign exchange earned by Sri Lanka. 

In remittances, apparel, tea, and increasingly even in tourism, which make up the top four top foreign exchange earners, women feature prominently. Yet this economic contribution is hardly acknowledged and women are usually side-lined when public-funded policies are made. The more usual occurrence is that women are considered only in some segments of policymaking such as education and healthcare because that is seen to be part of a women’s cultural role, with little focus on empowerment. 

Economic indicators suggest that if Sri Lanka’s women can make such a significant contribution even when they only make up about 34% of the formal workforce, having gender sensitive policies could tap into larger growth opportunities. Increasing the number of women in the formal workforce would improve household income levels, social security, transport accessibility, retirement options, healthier and more educated children and even open up new industries. But these need to be underpinned by changes in legislation and regulations that motivate the private sector to focus on these options. 

A recent report by UN Women mapping the numbers of differently-abled women countrywide and their access to economic opportunities showed that even though the 2012 Census of Sri Lanka revealed that there are more women with disabilities than that of men in all age groups, women comprised only 15% of employed persons with disabilities in Sri Lanka. The report, which was tipped as the first attempt to use gender responsive budgeting, showed that women with disabilities encounter multiple barriers in access to economic opportunities and women with disabilities are twice as disadvantaged.

The report provides a set of recommendations to create an inclusive, accessible and enabling social environment to ensure women with disabilities enjoy equal rights and opportunities. It calls for a thorough review of the National Action Plan for Disability from a gender perspective to ensure that indicators are gender-responsive and the targets are sex-disaggregated. Further to that, the report recommends that gender-sensitive key performance indicators in Budget Call Circulars should be expanded to include disability dimensions wherever relevant.

Gender-responsive budgeting has been carried out in countries as varied as Pakistan and Ireland. As many as 90 countries are estimated by UN Women to be implementing gender-responsive budgeting at some level. Sri Lanka stands to gain much by doing the same.

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