What is Holding Women Back in Sri Lanka?

2014•12•18 Roma Rajpal Weiß

Sri Lanka has fared well in recent years by promoting health and education opportunities for women. Yet the country still fails to translate these achievements into female economic participation.

The teardrop-shaped island of Sri Lanka lies in the Indian Ocean off the southern coast of India. Today, five years after the end of an almost three-decade civil conflict, the so-called Pearl of the Orient is lauded for its achievements in health and education. These advances have particularly fostered the empowerment of women.

A former British colony, Sri Lanka saw the establishment of single-sex schools during the colonial period. Throughout the 1940s, under Minister of Education C.W.W. Kannangara, the country reformed its education sector and introduced free education for all students. This eliminated the problem for families with limited financial means that would formerly have had to choose to send their sons to school as an educated son was commonly believed to bring the benefits of education back to his family and support his parents in old age.

“The inevitable increase in the school-going population of girls with universal free education ‘normalized’ or ‘naturalized’ the notion of the educated woman,” explains Carmen Wickramagamage, professor at the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka. Educated women came to no longer be considered an anomaly in the country.

Kannangara’s reforms thus fostered equal opportunity education and helped to reduce the gender gap in educational enrolment. UNICEF data show that today enrolment rates in Sri Lankan primary schools are about the same for boys and girls and in secondary school there are even slightly more girls than boys. Sri Lanka’s adult literacy rate is 91.2 percent, which is well above rates in other countries in the region like India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Today, Sri Lanka boasts around 10,000 schools for over 4 million students. Most of the schools are maintained by the government as a part of its free education policy that includes books, uniforms and free meals for students under the age of 14. Institutions established during the colonial period are today operated by the central government. Local state governments control schools established after the 1980s.

Tertiary education is also free but admission is highly competitive due to the limited capacity of the mere 15 state universities on the island. As a result over 80 percent of the country’s eligible students fail to get a place and are forced to seek other options for higher education.

In 2010, the World Bank launched its “Higher Education for the Twenty First Century Project” in Sri Lanka with the objective of enhancing “the capacity of the higher education system, institutions and human resources to deliver quality higher education services in line with equitable social and economic development needs”. The project, which is worth US$40 million and due to be completed in 2016, has so far shown satisfactory results. For example, 55 percent of the students have attained English language skills certificates and 67 percent gained IT skills certificates.

Education policy has benefitted the women of Sri Lanka immensely. It enabled them to break gender norms through education and paved the way for them to gain other benefits such as improved health

Empowerment through health

Sri Lanka inherited a well-developed healthcare system from the British — one that governments since have strived to maintain. The country today has an extensive network of public health units and hospitals. The World Health Organization even notes that Sri Lanka is on track to achieve most of the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals.

The Sri Lankan government has, to a large extent, been successful in ensuring that the country’s health facilities cater to women’s needs and that improvements benefit women particularly. The maternal mortality rate, for instance, has declined over the last decade, with 98 percent of births taking place in hospitals and 99 percent receiving skilled attendance at birth. Neighbouring countries such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, on the other hand, continue to struggle with high maternal mortality rates because of a lack of facilities and education for women.

Sri Lanka’s success in this area is largely due to the fact that the health system provides free services to the entire population, in urban and rural areas, and to the professionalization of midwives. The government also runs special programs specifically targeting women. For example, following reports that pre-existing cardiac conditions and domestic violence were contributing to maternal mortality, the Sri Lankan Ministry of Health set up a program to reach out to newly married couples to provide them with health information and services.

That being said, it needs to be stressed too that women and children remain particularly vulnerable groups in Sri Lankan society. As the BTI report points out, sexual violence against women in Sri Lanka is on the rise, for instance. In 2011, 281 cases of rape of women, 1169 cases of rape of children under 16 years and 604 cases of grievous sexual harassment of children were reported. Only very few prosecutions took place.

Workforce gender gap remains high

Moreover, women’s access to health and education in Sri Lanka has not automatically translated into a strong female representation in the country’s workforce. There remains a huge gender gap in Sri Lanka’s labour force along with regional and urban-rural disparities in terms of education quality.

The Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index (BTI) — which analyses transformation processes towards democracy and a market economy in 129 developing and transition countries — notes in its Sri Lanka report that “educational opportunities for women are excellent, though there are considerable gender barriers to female engagement in society and economy… Low child mortality and high female higher education levels have not translated into greater equity in economic participation and more decision-making power for women.”

In 2013, only 35 percent of the working population in Sri Lanka were women. “Men dominate the more lucrative levels of employment in both public and private sectors and the average wage of females in the higher reaches of the formal sector is less than half that of men,” add the BTI experts.

Verite Research, a Sri Lankan think-tank, argues that two possible reasons for fewer women in the country’s workforce might be that Sri Lanka’s private sector is reluctant to employ women or there is a possible mismatch between the demand and supply of skills desired by employers. According to this study the majority of Sri Lankan female students study arts that result in lower employability compared to management, science, agriculture, medicine and engineering.

Hurdles still remain

Other experts point out that the social context has a greater impact on women’s labour force participation than on that of men. Factors like marital status and fertility, for instance, come into play here. “Traditional familial responsibilities of a female, especially as a mother, constrain women in their choice of employment, as do her family’s and society’s attitudes towards certain types of employment,” ;argues Sunimalee Madurawala from the Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka.

Some feel the hurdles for women empowerment in Sri Lanka are still quite large. “Institutionalised racism-sexism in post-war Sri Lanka is not only essentialising women and their productive and reproductive labour in different ways but also rendering it increasingly difficult to build solidarities and connections across ethno-religious and class boundaries,” writes Chulani Kodikara in a recent article.

Sri Lanka is still recuperating from the civil war, which lasted 26 years and ended in 2009, and is wrought with communal tension. Arguably, the country’s regime led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa could do a lot more to foster ethnic reconciliation between the Sinhalese Buddhist majority and the Hindu Tamil minority. Instead it tacitly supports extremist nationalist Buddhist groups and pursues only “cosmetic changes” to the country’s worrisome human rights record.

Rajapaksa’s wish to consolidate his power is evident is his recent call for snap presidential elections which are scheduled for early January 2015. Election observers warn that the run-up to the polls might become increasingly violent with government supporters and the opposition turning against each other.

Thus, the challenges to good governance remain plentiful in Sri Lanka. And while the country might boast about having produced the world’s first female prime minister (elected in 1960), a gender gap does remain.

What is Holding Women Back in Sri Lanka? by Roma Rajpal Weiß is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Roma Rajpal Weiß is a freelance journalist and blogger based in Bonn, Germany.