Photo courtesy of IOL

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is Count Her In: Invest in Women. Accelerate progress. Sri Lanka, like many nations, grapples with a confluence of crises driven by geopolitical conflicts, rising poverty levels and the escalating impact of climate change. Recognising the pivotal role of women in addressing these challenges, the UN underscores the urgent need for their empowerment. Despite the significant economic contributions made by women globally, alarming projections indicate that over 342 million women and girls could be pushed into extreme poverty by 2030.

Women are disproportionately burdened with unpaid care work, estimated at three times the amount performed by men, with an economic value surpassing 40% of the global GDP. Yet, they continue to face persistent obstacles, exacerbated by widespread violations of the right to education, hindering progress towards gender equality and perpetuating poverty on a global scale. Shockingly, around 244 million children worldwide are deprived of education, with 617 million lacking basic literacy and numeracy skills (UN, 2024).

Spectrum of problems women encounter

Despite the improvements in women’s rights over the years, there have been reversals as well. The current tendencies in social development does not guarantee continued progress for their empowerment.

The world is going through many conflicts, some of them major, adversely affecting women and children. In general, women encounter problems in society due to violence against them, discrimination due to gender, sexual harassment and so on. Rising authoritarianism and dreadful climate change impacts, women face many issues related to education, work, healthcare, legal rights, violence and much more.

Understanding these issues will help communities to work together to achieve gender equality, protect human rights and ensure safety of all people. Worldwide, women face many challenges due to domestic violence, sexism, reproductive rights and discrimination in many sectors. In some communities, women face specific issues due to their own religious practices, cultural traditions etc. leading to genital mutilation and child marriage practices. At workplaces, women have been trying to break through glass ceilings for many decades, though some women run large corporations and hold high management positions. Despite the progress achieved so far, sexism, violence and discrimination still remain.

For example, there is strong resistance in the United States against a woman becoming its president although its government is full of women holding high positions of power. However, in South-East Asia, many countries have had women as heads of state, though the rank and file women in those societies are not as independent as in other countries. In the US women’s reproductive rights associated with birth control and abortion are a major issue. In particular, teen pregnancies can become a major concern affecting young women. On the other hand, in France, the parliament enshrined abortion as a constitutional right, thus giving women the “guaranteed freedom” to choose.

Though not limited to women, domestic violence starting from the teenage days has become a major concern in most of the countries of the world. Abuse and violence take many forms from emotional and psychological abuse to sexual and physical abuse. In Australia, it is a large and growing problem. On a global scale, female genital mutilation has become an issue of concern for many women. The UN has recognised that the practice of genital mutilation is a violation of human rights.

Sri Lanka’s efforts

During the previous International Women’s Day in 2023, Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Women, Child Affairs, and Social Empowerment unveiled the ambitious National Policy on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment aimed at fostering equal rights and opportunities for women across all sectors. Despite these noble intentions, tangible improvements in women’s rights and status remain elusive.

The majority of women are employed mostly in the low skilled service sectors other than a few sectors such as teaching and healthcare. Female representation in high skilled sectors remains limited due to various factors including a lack of awareness regarding available job opportunities that offer fair working conditions. The proliferation of neoliberal economic models has predominantly led to informal employment for women, i.e., jobs lacking in stability and decent wages.

Challenges in ensuring decent work

Formal employment opportunities offering decent wages and working conditions are scarce, particularly outside major urban centres like Colombo. Gender biases persist in hiring practices, with employers often reluctant to accommodate women due to perceived burdens associated with caregiving responsibilities and maternity leave. Consequently, women encounter barriers to career advancement and promotions, further exacerbating their limited participation in the labour force.

Furthermore, the lack of female representation in decision making roles within both public and private sectors hampers women’s access to decent work opportunities. Factors such as education levels and English proficiency influence employment prospects, but the burden of unpaid household work and childcare predominantly falls on women, affecting their ability to engage in formal employment.

Challenges in SMEs and policy frameworks

The economy is largely driven by Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), which often grapple with issues such as poor management, low productivity, limited investment, lack of innovation and product diversification through value adding. Converting informal sector employment into more dignified opportunities presents a significant challenge, exacerbated by the absence of affordable childcare services, particularly in rural areas.

Unlike countries such as Australia, where childcare costs are subsidized, Sri Lanka struggles with pervasive corruption and inefficiency within its governance structures, hindering efforts to improve childcare accessibility and quality. Establishing consistent national policies aimed at fostering early childhood development is essential for ensuring a brighter future for generations to come.

Addressing patriarchy and social conflict

Sri Lanka, like many societies worldwide, grapples with entrenched patriarchal norms, despite notable female leadership figures in politics and governance. Overcoming systemic biases against women requires a concerted effort to shift societal perceptions and responsibilities towards shared parenting and caregiving roles.

The enduring legacy of armed conflicts has further marginalized women, particularly widows who endure economic hardships and face exploitation and abuse. Efforts to address their needs and reduce their social and economic burdens are crucial for fostering a culture of peace and reconciliation in post-war societies.

Combatting poverty and exploitation

Economic desperation, exacerbated by rural poverty, drives many women into informal employment sectors, exposing them to exploitation and abuse. Unregulated micro credit schemes target vulnerable women, perpetuating cycles of debt and vulnerability.

The nation must confront the stark reality that diminishing access to education and employment opportunities, particularly during times of crisis, lead to perpetuating cycles of poverty and inequality. Investing in the education and empowerment of women is essential for realizing the vision of a just and equitable society.

The challenging issue women encounter today can be addressed by fighting against gender and economic inequality. This can be achieved mainly by ensuring the right of girls to access education, providing women platforms and incentives to achieve political and economic independence, influencing the end of domestic violence both physical and psychological by enacting and impartially implementing legislation to prevent such violence and assuring women access to appropriate health facilities.

Addressing the multifaceted challenges faced by women in Sri Lanka requires a comprehensive approach encompassing policy reforms, economic empowerment initiatives, and social transformation efforts aimed at dismantling patriarchal structures and fostering inclusive development. Only through our collective action and unwavering commitment can we truly achieve gender equality and empower women to thrive in all aspects of society.