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Economic freedom

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The tragic events of this week have overshadowed Women’s Day but they have in no way diminished its importance. As ever, ensuring economic freedom of women remains a daily and important challenge that the Government and other stakeholders have to increase their dedication towards, allowing for more women to enter the formal workforce and become independent and empowered citizens.

But there are a few essential elements we have to get right to really give women their time in the limelight. 

Sri Lanka has already started out well; investing for decades in public education has provided a crop of highly-educated women, most holding degrees and having the capacity to cross the divide between the informal to the formal sector. But clearly this is not enough. In today’s rapidly-evolving economic landscape that is changed dramatically by technology, entrepreneurship has become a nimble game. 

Many new opportunities for women are in starting ventures that are connected to global supply chains through technology, which has the advantage of flexibility but also creates new risks that traditional market systems may be unable to cope with. This means that the gap between the formal and informal has begun to blur. 

In the US alone an estimated 55 million people work as full-time freelancers, which means they look for work while doing work and often face challenges because they are not part of a formal workforce. Such a set-up is ideal for women but it also means that basics such as health insurance, retirement benefits and other perks are denied to them and new policy needs to evolve to find a way to provide these safeguards as well as finding ways for them to re-skill and retool themselves in a rapidly changing world.

Women face additional hurdles—gender-related and costly—outside the investment environment. So far much has been spent on advocating women’s access to finance (with emphasis on microfinance), building capacity for entrepreneurship, and organising and strengthening women’s business associations. These activities are necessary and useful. But reducing the barriers for all investors to open, operate and close firms and addressing social norms and gender-based differential treatment under the law is also essential.

Levelling the playing field requires building an environment for these skilled women to create their own opportunities. This means addressing social norms about working women and promoting an environment where women can balance work and family. 

Progress on both fronts is an urgent need. The degree of job segregation remains high: most jobs are still in male-dominated sectors that may be seen as inappropriate for women. It also means addressing gender-based differential treatment under the law, which the Government has pledged to tackle but is likely to find a hard and long road. 

Mentoring is another aspect that needs desperate attention. Indebtedness created in some parts of Sri Lanka, particularly in the north, is largely due to female entrepreneurs being lured into making bad financial decisions in limited ventures. For example, handing out sewing machines and chickens would provide little assistance unless they have market access, capital, skills and a way to understand how to run their businesses and expand. In fact in studies done on successful female entrepreneurs, mentorship has been ranked above capital in importance and often makes the difference between a sustainable model and a pipe dream. 

The campaign for women empowerment should not be looked at in silos but understood as an issue that spans the entire economic sphere, only then will positive policies be utilised for true change.

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