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Women at work

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Sri Lanka’s economy needs many things and key among them is for women in the formal workforce to increase. However, this cannot be done unless significant effort is invested by both the public and private sector, backed with strong political will.

A new report by the UNICEF, released this week, has urged Sri Lanka and others to implement national policies to support families with young children. UNICEF said whilst Sri Lanka does provide paid breastfeeding breaks during the first six months to women working within the government sector, women in other sectors and especially those employed in the ‘informal’ sector have little or no provision. Furthermore, parental leave is not uniform, if provided at all, and two years of free pre-primary education has still not been provided nationwide. Scant attention has been paid to these issues, if at all.

The number of women in Sri Lanka’s formal workforce has stagnated at about 34% for years, possibly decades, and this is a massive loss when considering that more than 50% of graduates are women and they make up roughly 52% of the population. Unemployment data from the Census and Statistics Department shows that women are twice as likely as men to be without jobs and more than five million women of working age are unemployed in Sri Lanka. In his five-year policy framework delivered to Parliament in October, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe outlined a Government plan to increase women participation in the formal workforce to 40% by 2020.

Having more women in the formal workforce is positive for several reasons. Sri Lanka can get the full extent of its return on investment from taxpayer-funded education by encouraging educated women to stay in the formal workforce. This also means that many thousands of women can be financially empowered and those working in the informal sector at present have the chance to earn better as well as get better treatment.

It means that women do not have to make the often very difficult decision of whether to wait to start a family or give up their careers for families. It means that men can also take equitable share in housework and childcare. It means more women can enter challenging new fields driven by technology, science, and services and rise to the top; breaking gender norms and pushing economic growth at the same time. In the long run it means Sri Lanka’s glass ceiling could be broken completely, or at least be severely cracked.

However, there has been no policy movement on these efforts. Last year’s Budget had a proposal to encourage companies with more than 500 employees to start a daycare, which can be done individually or with another company. They are free to decide the system and funding, perhaps even charging parents a nominal amount to fund the facility, but the Government encouraged them to target low income women and train them so they have access to better paying jobs. Women whose only recourse would be to travel to the Middle East as housemaids would then have a relatively lucrative option.

A year later though, nothing has been done and Sri Lanka is left to trumpet outdated achievements on equality. When will Government and private sector stakeholders take ownership of this need? For Sri Lanka to move forward, everyone must have a share in development.

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