Women’s low participation in the labour force is a concern says Deputy Minister Harsha de Silva


Harsha de Silva

Deputy Minister, National Policies and Economic Affairs, Harsha de Silva, said that the Sri Lankan government was committed to women’s empowerment and was analysing the issue of women’s inadequate participation in the labour force. He said the data on education was encouraging and showed 96 per cent of the country’s women were literate, while more women than men participated in tertiary education.

"However, only 36 per cent of women are in the labour force. We are not satisfied by this and are trying to find reasons and solutions," he said.

Minister de Silva was speaking at the international workshop, "Reimagining Women’s Empowerment in South Asia", organised by the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES), Sri Lanka, in partnership with the Urban Institute, as part of the Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women (GrOW) programme. The five-year initiative seeks to strengthen evidence based research on women's economic empowerment. The workshop brought together researchers and policy makers from Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh for a discussion on the accomplishments and challenges of women’s empowerment.

The GrOW programme is supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the Department for International Development (DFID), United Kingdom, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The participants included former UN Special Rapporteur Radhika Coomaraswamy, Canadian High Commissioner Designate David McKinnon, Sudarshini Fernandopulle, Member of Parliament and Prof. Rohini Somanathan from the Delhi School of Economics.

In his address, Dr. de Silva said women’s unpaid work was an issue rooted in local culture. The data for Sri Lanka showed that while women spent twice the amount of time in household care than men, they worked four times as much as men in child care. "Very often, women shoulder the triple burden of care as they provide care for the elderly as well as children," he said. Researchers said the statistics on unpaid care reflected the gap in empowerment between men and women. The minister said that his government had introduced a 25 per cent reservation for women at local government and provincial levels as a means of empowering them. He added that lack of safety in public transport was a factor that prevented the equal participation of women in the labour force.

"Good research is absolutely critical in finding policy gaps that exist," said McKinnon. Speaking about the Canadian government’s international development policy, he said the policy puts a strong emphasis on gender issues. He said the timing of the workshop, a day before the International Day of the Girl Child (October 11) was perfect to discuss women’s issues and the barriers to their empowerment.

Ms Sudarshini Fernandopulle, MP, said empowerment had to start from home. "Education of parents on gender issues, including gender issues in curriculum in educational institutions would be helpful in empowering women, she said.

IDRC’s programme leader Arjan de Haan said the GrOW research shows a relationship between economic growth and women's equality. "The research has found what kind of economic growth leads to what kind of equality." He said the growth in the South Asian region had not resulted in similar economic opportunities for women. "Our research is finding out what the barriers to women’s economic empowerment are and how these can be overcome."

"Sri Lanka has embarked on a process of transforming its economy, its institutions of governance, on dealing with the past, and initiating a process of reconciliation," said Mario Gomez, Executive Director of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES).

He noted that it is vital that women are involved in designing the policies and all aspects of the processes with regard to this transformation. "The success and impact of these processes of transformation are dependent on the involvement and participation of women at all levels," he said.

On Tuesday, researchers presented a range of studies that throw light on women’s access to jobs, and the barriers they face. ICES researcher Ramani Gunatilaka said the study had found that the women who enter the labour market are usually the poor. "Poor women are driven to work, while the better-educated get better work opportunities. The middle lot – around 45 per cent of the population –are inadequately educated to get good jobs. They need to be reskilled for the job market," she said.

Skills development can be helpful, but not always, found a GrOW study in Pakistan. The research as part of ‘Skills for Markets’ initiative found that that skill-building did not necessarily convert into jobs. A ‘market linkages’ intervention was introduced to ensure that women were trained according to the specific demands of the market. "Women realised their skills were not converting into market acceptance, said Feyza Bhatti, the lead researcher. Presenting the findings from a study that connected women’s safety and mobility to economic activity, Charles Cadwell from the Urban Institute, said that the study had found that violence or fear of violence were serious obstacles to women’s economic empowerment and growth. "We strongly recommend increasing surveillance and safety measures and training of public transport personnel to be vigilant about women’s safety," said Cadwell.

Sharing the findings of another GrOW study, Deepta Chopra, Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, Brighton, said she studied women’s work in four countries – India, Nepal, Tanzania and Rwanda and found some of the issues were common across locations. "We found issues such as the need for childcare if women worked, and women being unable to balance their paid and unpaid work were common. She said it was common for women to undervalue their work, especially when they were helping save money (activities such as stitching clothes for family members) rather than getting paid for their work. "We found safety is a big barrier for women’s work," said Dr. Chopra.

Presenting the case of Mahila Samakhya, a women’s empowerment initiative in India, Niveditha Menon said that the attempts at empowerment were met with resistance by men in a large number of families. "Women faced physical or emotional violence for attending meetings of the Samakhya, or for participating in activities that were aimed at their empowerment," said Ms. Menon.

"The studies are being finalised and will seek to inform policy-makers in South Asia for appropriate policy changes," said De Haan.

The programme was held at Jetwing Colombo seven on October 10, 2017.

For further information, please contact:

Danesh Jayatilaka: danesh.jayatilaka@gmail.com or call 0772516958 - (ICES)

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