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SRI LANKA: Female Unemployment Rises With Education

Amantha Perera

COLOMBO, Jan 10 2012 (IPS) - Every weekend it has been the same ritual for so many months. Buying the newspaper, going through the classified and the employment sections inch by column inch, marking job offers that could offer a chance, even remotely.

Unemployment among women is almost three times higher in Sri Lanka. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS.

Unemployment among women is almost three times higher in Sri Lanka. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS.

Next comes the posting of applications, then the wait for interviews. That is as far as Harshini Hathurusinghe has gone. Her friend Anupama Ganegoda has seen life on the other side of the dreaded interview, twice. But both were temporary posts that soon folded.

“I don’t know, but for some reason I have never got a job,” Hathurusinghe told IPS. She is qualified, holds a post-graduate diploma and speaks passable English. But she says that jobs on offer for women like her are far too few for the ever-increasing applicants.

Her friend has had a similar experience despite the two short employment stints; no jobs in the last year and a half. “I think women are getting a raw deal,” she said.

Such inability to secure a job is common in Sri Lanka where unemployment rates among females are higher across the board. The latest labour force data released by the government’s Department of Census and Statistics listed overall unemployment at 4.2 percent by the middle of last year. The figure changes when men and women are taken separately.

The more educated women like Hathurusinghe and Ganegoda are, the higher the rate of unemployment. “The highest unemployment rate was reported from the General Certificate of Education Advanced Level (university entrance exam) and above group which was about 7.8 percent,” the government report said.

“They were 4.4 percent and 11.6 percent for males and females respectively. This shows the problem of unemployment is more acute in the case of educated females than educated males.”

Experts point out that many women with higher education qualifications tend to wait for a job of their choice, like teaching, or in the public sector. “Many educated young women wait for what they consider a suitable job. Hence, the period of time taken to obtain a job can be fairly long,” Harsha Aturupane, lead education specialist for the South Asia Region for the World Bank told IPS.

Ganegoda, who has for the time being suspended her search for a job to complete a masters degree falls into this waiting category. “I did not study this hard to go for just any job, I will wait for the right job,” said the graduate in mass communications. She says the sense of security afforded by a government job and retirement benefits still lure many graduates to the public sector.

Another reason could be an oversupply of arts graduates; more than a quarter of those who graduate from Sri Lankan universities have arts degrees. They find it hard to secure high paying private sector jobs, while public sector openings are limited.

“Not having skills for available ‘good jobs’, the white collar jobs with benefits and good work conditions in the market, is also a reason for the high level of unemployment,” Nisha Arunatilake, fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka told IPS.

Social practices are also in the way of women. “Unlike males, females are not flexible about working long hours and moving out of (the capital) Colombo for work. So they wait for jobs with more attractive working conditions mainly in the public sector,” Arunatilake said.

Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, a Sri Lankan research fellow at Monash University in Australia calls for a fundamental change over attitude to working. Women, Sarvananthan said, should take up jobs in more sectors, while society should actively encourage the process.

Employers still tend be nervous over women taking time off on maternity leave. “The child-bearing role of women and patriarchal family roles and norms also limit employment opportunities for females by design or choice. This is an institutional bias against female employment,” Sarvananthan said.

“An equal opportunities law should be instituted in order to stamp out structural and institutional discrimination against women in the labour market. That is, discrimination of women in the labour market should be outlawed.”

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