Thursday, 2 April 2015 00:10
The Young Members Forum of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce organised the very first forum to mark International Women’s Day 2015. The forum was themed ‘Empowering Women – Challenges and Rewards of being a Woman in Business Today’.
State Minister of Child Affairs Rosy Senanayake was the Chief Guest of the event. Rosy asserted that women should be recognised in decision making positions and spoke profoundly about the importance of gender equality.
Female representation in decision making positions
“Female representation in decision making positions is not up to a satisfactory level. If we look at the public sector, 52% is furnished by women and in the private sector it’s almost 50%. In both these sectors, if you’re talking about women at the helm, it doesn’t go past 10%. Considering the decision-making positions with regards to the local council, provincial councils or at the national levels, the local councils haven’t surpassed 2%, the provincial council has only 4.9%. The national assembly comprises of only 5.8% of women; this is an appalling number compared to the rest of the world,” she said.
“In the general indications relating to health and education within the region, Sri Lanka tops the list and we love to brag about it, but if we talk about other areas, we haven’t hit the mark. Going back to the early 1920s, remember that the Women’s Franchise Union got together and fought for universal franchise. These were mostly women from privileged backgrounds and wives of politicians. Within six months they won women’s franchise and by early 1931, we had almost 5% in the council. These women faced many obstacles and their own husbands were critical of them, but they didn’t stop fighting. What surprises me is when the women in that era fought for rights; what are we doing today? We are in the 21st century and we’re still there in the same place,” she said, setting the premise to the discussion.
Women’s rights often considered unimportant
She mentioned that women’s rights were often considered unimportant by male counterparts who were responsible for enforcing laws and regulations.
“I strongly believe that a country can only develop by investing in human capital. However, if you look at last year’s Budget brought in November, Rs. 280 billion was allocated to the Defence Ministry. This is a post-war situation and a time when we should see dividends after the war. A bigger portion of the Budget went to defence while for education it was just Rs. 41 billion. Look at the disparity. We place very little emphasis on education, children and women. But if we look at the economy and foreign revenue, the first three money-spinners are due to women. These are the migrant women, apparel industry and tea or rubber industry. These are the main income revenues. In these sectors 70% are women,” she said.
She further emphasised that even though we have high literacy rates equal to men and the higher education institutes including the law and medical colleges have many women, the majority of these women were only engaged in low-wage, labour-oriented jobs.
“In this global village, where do we stand? We’re still a commodity exporter. But how many of you are willing to come out and say enough is enough, we need a change, and we need to think outside the box?”
Senanayake made it very clear that this fight needed women of all strata to engage with the system at different levels. Taking issues such as malnutrition, she highlighted that more than 40% of pregnant mothers and 55% of children were malnourished, regardless of some of the Government Censuses that report otherwise.
“There is a fabulous women’s network in this country fighting for women’s rights. We managed to put into the 100-day program to have 25% of women in the local council and provincial council. The Prime Minister is also fighting for this cause. We’re asking for a reservation of seats in the councils,” she stated.
Violence against women
Speaking of violence against women, she pointed out that reported cases were very rare in this country.
“It’s said that only one in 10 cases is reported and the reported cases against children are 32,259 and reported cases against women are 39,604. How many perpetrators are right now being convicted and behind bars? Only 713. Aren’t we ashamed? I’m appalled! Right now we are looking at stringent laws and amendments to the laws, we need to make sure the law is strengthened, the people are aware and the necessary action is taken.”
She further stressed on how unaware most women in this country are about laws that are in place to protect them. Senanayake speaks on a TV program called ‘Jeewithayata Idadenna’ on Sirasa TV because she believes there’s a lot to be done to create awareness in women.
Citing an example, she mentioned that war widows hadn’t known for years that they could draw their husband’s pension and even when they went to get their husband’s pension, they would be abused or humiliated.
“I strongly believe that we all have the capacity within us to make a change. To make it happen, we have to come out of our comfort zones, we have to come out of our daily routines and spend a little bit of time, whether it’s on social media or otherwise.”
The Deputy Minister further explained the measures taken by the current Government towards developing early childhood education, controlling malnutrition levels of pregnant mothers and children.
Following that encouraging speech, a panel discussion was held with five influential women who have strived to the top despite many obstacles.
The first panellist was Samadanie Kiriwandeniya, Chairperson of Sanasa Development Bank. Kiriwandeniya spoke about her childhood and the influence of her parents who had contradicting ideas and how she didn’t realise her role as a woman until after marriage. She highlighted that certain corporate structures did not support women in their life objectives and this needed to change.
“Empowering women is a journey we need to begin with ourselves, first we need to engage with ourselves, engage with our sisters and then engage with the system,” she said.
Sanjeewani Ranasinghe De Silva, Head of Corporate Affairs, Brand & Marketing of Standard Chartered Bank, brought her valuable insight into the discussion.
“Women don’t become successful alone; we need the support of men as fathers, husbands, partners, peers and mentors... One big concern and fear most of us have which prevents many women from taking seat at a table at a very top level where we can bring about change, is the fact that we become so judgemental of ourselves. I haven’t met a woman with a career and a child who is not guilty, myself included. But what we should learn is that we’re not going to be super women or super mums but we do our best and stop judging ourselves,” she said.
With an analogy of a marathon, she explained what corporate life would look like to men and women. “Assume an equally-trained group of men and women in a marathon. The gun goes off and the marathon starts. What messages do men hear? Keep it going! Good start! But right from the start women hear, are you sure you want to start this race? Does it make sense to start a race you cannot finish? Don’t you want to have kids someday? The voices get louder as the race proceeds and ultimately women feel discouraged.”
Chandi Dharmaratne, Director, Human Resource at Virtusa added on to what Ranasinghe De Silva said. “The balance between work life and family is hard to achieve, especially with children. This creates self-doubt and guilt when we fail to do things perfectly on time. On the other hand personally speaking, I have enjoyed working with university students and taking steps to stop the brain drain from this country. And I hope one day, my children will share the same values and they will grow up with self-worth. This is the best reward I can have as a mother,” she said.
Dharmaratne further pointed out that being an empowered woman was not only about having a great career. Drawing from the definition from the UN, she said that an empowered woman should have the ability to make choices in their lives.
“Whether they want to stay at home or work is not the issue because it’s about a free choice they make. Women should be able to control their choices and their self-worth. At the same time, it doesn’t matter at which level of the organisation you are at, the opportunity to go forward has to make an impact at a social level and influence social change and that’s what makes an empowered woman,” she added.
Lack of women in
Shazia Syed, Chairperson of Unilever Sri Lanka, is a Pakistani national and she posed her point of view to this discussion as an outsider. Comparing the rest of the region with Sri Lanka, she mentioned that even though Sri Lanka had better facilities and living standards, it’s surprising that there was a lack of women in higher positions.
“Sri Lanka is at the right place at the right time. All you need to do is to take that leap. At least from outside we find that Sri Lanka is ahead of the rest of the region. Often in my presentations I show off the fact that this country doesn’t really belong to South Asia. It’s linking up more with South East Asia, considering the literacy levels, and rural areas which are not very rural compared to India and Pakistan. While there is a small population, Sri Lanka has a lot of potential,” she said.
“Women working in the fields with their babies tied to their scarves are never challenged when they work very hard, hand in hand with men. So why is it that woman are challenged at top levels? Look at that perspective and it will make you feel braver and more confident,” she added.
Tania Polonnowita Wettimuny, Managing Director of Hellmann Worldwide Logistics, shared her experiences of working in a male-dominated industry. She underscored that a right attitude can greatly help women progress in their careers.
“I come from a very conservative family in Kurunegala and I studied in Kandy. When I came to Colombo and when I decided to do an internship in freight forwarding, I didn’t know what I was getting into. A few months later, I had a choice of either making a difference in the industry or finding another career. I decided to remain because I saw that there was a huge potential for women to be involved in the industry. I learnt that if you don’t take a challenge and if you quit, you will never make a change. My biggest challenge was to get my male colleagues to accept who I am and what I am, without compromising my beliefs. To be fair to them, they were good to me because I never compared myself to them,” she said.
There was participation from the audience with a few questions about work life balance, self esteem issues and how men perceive women in the workplace. The discussion was concluded with the encouraging remarks of Kiriwandeniya.
She reminded the gathering that empowerment could come from position power, task power, relationship power, personal power or knowledge power; thus we need to find our strong points and work on them.
Pix by Upul Abayasekara