Linked issues

Wednesday, 6 November 2019 00:35 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The International Finance Corporation has launched a project to increase female participation and leadership in retail supply chains. At the end of two years, the project hopes to double female leadership in retail supply chains in Sri Lanka, and more efforts need to be made to identify similar bottlenecks to encourage women to be part of the formal workforce. 

From an economic standpoint, women not only make up the bulk of Sri Lanka’s population, but are also the largest foreign exchange earners. For decades, remittances have remained at the top of Sri Lanka’s earnings, followed by apparel and tea, which are dominated by women workers. Tourism, which has climbed to the third spot, also benefits from significant female employment. Yet women still face massive bottlenecks in every sphere of life. 

Women’s representation in politics has been dismal, especially at Parliament level. Even though a quota was introduced at Local Government level, there is much that needs to be done to increase women’s representation in national politics, and also to encourage women elected to office to work on issues that have significant impact for women. Despite making a marked economic contribution, women are still routinely discriminated on a range of points, including pay gaps, glass ceilings, limited access to credit, low representation in the formal workforce, and transport safety. Even talking of women’s hygiene issues at a political level attracts ridicule.   

The Budget delivered earlier this year outlined a number of measures to improve benefits for women, and increase their involvement in the formal workforce. It gave proposals on creating childcare services within companies, supporting elderly care, and through these measures, creating new jobs for lower-skilled women. Listed companies have been called on to voluntarily increase women at Board of Director level over the next five years, and hopefully this will filter down to lower levels. It has also proposed legal changes to assist women to work flexible hours. But with just a month left in 2019, almost all of these measures remain undone.  

Women are still routinely and persistently harassed, even for tasks as mundane as walking down the road, and this larger societal change needs to be spearheaded by the Government and supported by public stakeholders. While it is positive that all the main presidential candidates are taking up women’s issues, there is a genuine need for the discourse to remain vibrant and constant to hold the winner to their pledges.  

Levelling the employment playing field requires building an environment for 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. 

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. 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’s 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. The time is now.