September 2000


Despite impressive human development indicators, Sri Lanka still has a long way to go in fully utilising the skills and talents of its female citizens to move the country’s development and peace processes forward.

By Nelathi De Soysa

Sri Lanka, an island nation of some 17 million people, located in the Indian Ocean, has seen considerable progress in human development since its independence from colonial rule in 1948. Indicators such as life expectancy, literacy, and infant, child and maternal mortality are impressive at a national level, and are directly correlated with historically high government investment in basic health and education.

However, the United Nations Development Programme estimates that the overall level of human poverty in Sri Lanka is substantial (National Human Development [NHD] Report, 1998). In addition to this, the report indicates that although the level of gender development in Sri Lanka is higher than average for an Asian country (69%), gender empowerment (compared with modern standards) is relatively low (20%). This despite its being the first country in the world to produce a female head-of-state.

The purpose of this article is to explore disparities between gender development and empowerment indexes, and to highlight hidden realities affecting women in Sri Lanka - realities which are strongly influenced by social, cultural and economic factors.

To begin with, the ongoing war in the country has had a debilitating effect on women and their status in society. Current information reveals that there are 18,657 war widows in the northern peninsula alone, not counting the growing numbers in the south.

Around 22% of all households in Sri Lanka are female-headed. Many of these women have been thrust into the role of breadwinner with little knowledge of income-earning methods and few coping skills. Moreover, the word withawi (for widow) has connotations of a deplorable and pitiable condition. Social isolation are poverty are inevitable for these women, many of whom are widowed at a young age.

Another factor that does not appear in national statistics is the regional variation in female literacy, which has remained at 87% for several years. Urban and rural disparities still exist, and are not represented in national gender development indexes. Female literacy in urban areas is 91%, while the rural rate is 78%. Furthermore, some statistics, such as the 65% rate of anaemia among women, are not even included in some printed documents.

Education is another matter. Although the percentage of Sri Lankan women entering universities increased from 42% in 1989 to 52% in 1999 (bearing in mind that only 1% of the population has access to university education), women are still under-represented in many disciplines, and tend to find employment at the bottom of the employment pyramid.

When they do find work, it is usually in low-status, low-skilled and low-paying jobs in peasant and plantation agriculture. In addition to this, the female unemployment rate, at 22%, is double that of men in Sri Lanka.

Furthermore, a majority of jobs available to women are in the unorganised and informal sectors, which are outside the purview of labour regulations. An example of this is the growing number of women engaged in the garment industry, who are prone to suffer physical disabilities directly linked to long hours of hard labour.

This same fate awaits the women who represent around 76% of the unskilled migrant labour force working in oil-rich countries and South-East Asian countries. Reports in local newspapers highlight tales of woe where many of these women have suffered untold hardships, including beatings, torture and even death, due to lack of cross-border employment agreements and regulatory practices between national governments.

Besides garment workers and migrant workers, the largest proportion of women in the informal sector is engaged in cultivation. A growing threat to the livelihood security of these women is the increasing mechanisation of agriculture.

As a result, the female whose sense of self-worth was linked to her ability to contribute to the productive process now finds herself left out, and her contribution deemed worthless. This reduces her value within the family and community, and must be considered by governments and NGOs [non-governmental organisations] that may opt to promote mechanisation of agriculture as a means of ‘development’.

Discriminatory practices over land inheritance and custody battles further contribute to the decline in self-worth among women in Sri Lanka. In such cases, males are often given preferential treatment. This despite constitutionally guaranteed laws that grant women equal rights with men.

As for the political empowerment of women, it bears mention that both the president and prime minister of Sri Lanka are women. However, this does not necessarily indicate a high political profile for the average woman, nor does it represent the involvement of women in policy-planning and decision-making at higher levels. A recent survey found that women in Sri Lanka do not aspire to be active in politics, which is amply demonstrated by the fact that few women opt for political careers, and fewer still are elected to Parliament at the regional and provincial levels.

All of these factors indicate that there is a hidden dimension to the image presented in printed statistics - a dimension rarely highlighted and only dimly visible to the observer. Within this context it would be only correct to say that, despite impressive human development indicators, Sri Lanka still has a long way to go in fully utilising the skills and talents of its female citizens to move the country’s development and peace processes forward. - Third World Network Features


About the writer: Nelathi De Soysa is coordinator of the Strategic Planning Unit for World Vision Sri Lanka.

The above article first appeared in TOGETHER (April-June 2000, ‘Gender development in Sri Lanka: a peek behind the statistics’).