Still, a far cry
When Rosy Senanayake, Minister of State for Child Affairs, addressed
the UN Commission on Population and Development (CPD) in New York last
month, she articulated both the successes and shortcomings of gender
equality in a country which prided itself electing the world’s first
female head of government: Ms. Sirimavo Bandaranaike in July 1960.
In peacetime Sri Lanka,
women still bear a heavy load in looking for jobs and tending to
their families. Credit: Adithya Alles/IPS
After surviving a 26-year-long separatist war, which ended in 2009,
Sri Lanka has been registering relatively strong economic growth, and
also claiming successes in its battle against poverty and hunger.
As the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) move towards their
targeted deadline in December 2015, Sri Lanka says it has reduced
poverty from 26.1 percent in 1990-1991 to 6.7 percent in 2012-2013
achieving the target of cutting back extreme poverty by 50 percent far
ahead of end 2015.
Still, it still lags behind in gender equality “even as 51.8 percent
of the country’s total population (of 21.8 million) are women, with only
34 percent comprising its labour force.
Pointing out that Sri Lanka has enjoyed significant progress in its
social and economic indicators, Senanayake said, it is also one of the
few countries in Asia that has a sex ratio favourable to women.
But Sri Lanka’s advancement, in light of changing demographics, will
ultimately depend on its ability to enable women and young people to be
active participants in the country’s post-2015 development agenda and
the UN’s proposed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
This requires an increase in sustained investment targeted at gender
equality and social protection, she added.
Addressing a meeting in Colombo last week, visiting US Secretary of
State, John Kerry, praised the women of Sri Lanka for playing a critical
role in helping the needy and the displaced.
They’re encouraging people to build secure and prosperous
neighbourhoods. They are supporting ex-combatants and survivors of
sexual and gender-based violence, and they’re providing counseling and
other social services. And these efforts are absolutely vital and we
should all support them, he said.
But we also have to do more than that, he noted.
Here, as in every country, it’s crystal clear that for any society to
thrive, women have to be in full control, they have to be full
participants in the economics and in the political life. There is no
excuse in the 21st Century for discrimination or violence against women.
Not now, and not ever, Kerry added.
The country’s positive development goals are many and varied: Sri
Lanka has almost achieved universal primary education; the proportion of
pupils starting grade 1, who reach grade 5, is nearly 100 percent; the
unemployment rate has declined to less than four percent: the maternal
mortality rate has declined from 92 deaths per 100,000 live births in
1990 to 33.3 in 2010; and the literacy rate of 15- to 25-year-olds
increased from 92.7 percent in 1996 to 97.8 percent in 2012, according
to official figures released by the government.
UN Resident Coordinator in Colombo Subinay Nandy says since the end
of the separatist war, Sri Lanka has graduated from lower to middle
income status. Still, despite strong health and education results, Sri
Lanka struggles to provide gender equality in employment and political
representation. Referring to the MDG country report produced by the
government, Nandy says, Sri Lanka, overall, is in a strong position.
The good performance noted in the report has been sustained and Sri
Lanka has already achieved many of the MDGs and is mostly on track to
achieve the others, he said. But the negatives are also many and varied.
The proportion of seats held by women in the national parliament
remains very low the number of HIV/AIDS cases, despite low prevalence,
is gradually increasing; tuberculosis remains a public health problem;
there has been an increase in the incidence of dengue fever; and Sri
Lanka’s debt-services-to-exports ratio remains relatively high compared
to other developing countries in the Asia-Pacific region.
The eight MDGs spelled out by the United Nations include eradicating
extreme poverty and hunger; achieving universal primary education;
promoting gender equality and empowering women; reducing child
mortality; improving maternal health; combatting HIV/AIDS, malaria and
other diseases; ensuring environmental sustainability and developing a
global partnership for development.The targeted date to achieve these
goals is 2015.
Senanayake told, the unemployment amongst women is more than twice as
high as unemployment amongst men, while women migrant workers and women
in the plantation and export processing sectors bring in significant
foreign exchange earnings to the country.
However, a majority of women who participate in the labour force do
so in the informal sector.
This leaves them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse during their
course of employment. Women also bear primary responsibility for care
work â€“ which creates multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination
that limits the opportunities for their full integration into the
Sri Lanka recognises that inclusive development rests on ensuring
equality of opportunity in work.
As such, we are firmly committed to making the necessary legal and
structural investments to bolster a decent work agenda in marginalised
sectors, she noted.
These investments demand a broader discussion on the value of female
participation in development.
This includes the availability and promotion of sexual and
reproductive health and rights; robust mechanisms to prevent violence
against women and girls; and strengthening measures to bring
perpetrators of violence to justice.
These, she said, are critical in ensuring Sri Lanka’s demographic
dividend can be leveraged.
Meanwhile, the introduction of family planning services by the Family
Planning Association was well integrated into maternal and child health
services and later expanded to reduce the stigma surrounding
This strategy accounted for more than 80 percent decline in
fertility, according to Senanayake.
Additionally, the Government of Sri Lanka, through her Ministry, has
introduced a scheme that provides a monthly nutritional supplement to
all pregnant women in the country to reduce rates of anaemia, low birth
weight and malnutrition â€“ which affects both mother and baby.
Still, Sri Lanka faces the problem of unsafe abortions unintended and
teenage pregnancies, which pose significant challenges to the health and
well-being of women and adolescents. In this respect, she said,
strengthening comprehensive reproductive education through school
curriculum can help young people access accurate information on gender,
sexuality, sexually transmitted infections including HIV and increase
their awareness on the effective use of contraception.
Currently over 23.4 percent households are headed by women.To combat
these demographic pressures, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has set
up a National Committee on Female-Headed Households and a National
Centre for Female Headed Households âenabling female heads of households
to integrate into the workforce and access sustainable livelihoods.