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Sri Lanka’s Development Goals Fall Short on Gender Equality

In peacetime Sri Lanka, women still bear a heavy load in looking for jobs and tending to their families. Credit: Adithya Alles/IPS

In peacetime Sri Lanka, women still bear a heavy load in looking for jobs and tending to their families. Credit: Adithya Alles/IPS

COLOMBO, May 5 2015 (IPS) - When Rosy Senanayake, Sri Lanka’s minister of state for child affairs, addressed the U.N. 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: Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike in July 1960.

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.

"Women also bear primary responsibility for care work – which creates multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination that limits the opportunities for their full integration into the workforce.” -- Rosy Senanayake

As the U.N.’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 told IPS, 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 U.N.’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 U.S. 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.

U.N. 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 CPD 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 – which creates multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination that limits the opportunities for their full integration into the workforce,” she said.

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 contraception.

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 – 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 – enabling female heads of households to integrate into the workforce and access sustainable livelihoods.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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  • yakshadeva

    SL has more gender equality than the USA, UK , of course Saudi Arabia .Only thing SL do wrong is export slaves to the middle east -Saudia, Quatar and Israel .That was started by Sirima and continued by her traitor daughter . Rosy is not a representative of SL she is a british henchwoman.

  • Kailas Pillai

    The Middle-East building boom occurred well after former Lankan Prime Minister Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranayake’s regime The export of Lankan labour to
    Middle-East started in earnest only during the Mahinda regime. The much
    publicised Lankan construction boom used Chinese labour and the Lankans in the Middle-East could not return. Srimavo’s daughter Chandrika (former Lankan President) did not support Mahinda but this does not make her a “traitor” as yakshadeva suggests.
    Ms Rosy Senanayake is the Lankan Minister for Child Affairs. What makes you say that she is a British henchwoman? Is it because she is a woman? If so this is the kind of bigotry prevalent among illiterate Lankans.

  • vishnubrakmamaheswar

    Nobody can teach Srilankans how to treat women right . We elected a woman as the Prime minister 50 long years ago before rusted iron woman was elected in the democratic kingdom ( LOL) . Chandiakka is hooted where ever she goes in the island . Rosy became a minister in a parachuted UNP government – regime change the Brits and their Indian coolies orchestrated . Kailas if you are Srilankan you need to condemn the way your Saidi masters treat SL women . Rosy , Chandiakka , Ranil are “kalu suddhas ” as they call them in SL. They are trying hard to be loyal subjects of their queen. Just like some of tamil diaspora backboneless are doing.

  • vishnubrakmamaheswar

    sirima started the exportation of slaves , All the rest stick to it. India has banned this . I have never seen Indians to manifest self respect anywhere in the history but they had that right .

  • vishnubrakmamaheswar

    Nobody should export slaves to middle east. None of you your British uncles, US uncle Kerry or aunty Hillary gives a damn about middle eastern Saudi atrocities . When SL elected a woman, Martin Luther was asking for voting rights in your greatest masters land . If you dislike SL move to Baltimore or Ferguson .

  • Kailas Pillai

    Fully agree with you that conditions in Lanka compelled people to go to Middle East and end up as slave labour. The workers remitted their meager earnings but the Mahinda regime used the foreign exchange unwisely. The villages from which the workers came never got a new school or hospital.
    Srimavo was the first woman PM but created by a blip in history. You may remember that in 1959 the then PM of Ceylon (now SL) SWRD Bandaranayake was assassinated by Buddhist monk Somarama Thero. The leaderless SLFP pleaded with SWRD’s wife to take over the leadership and she reluctantly agreed. A senator vacated and Sirimavo filled the vacancy and became PM. She was elected to the parliament at a subsequent election.
    You seem to dislike the present government. That is your prerogative but why do you love and worship Mahinda crowd in spite of details of corruption emerging?

larry wolff