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Are Sri Lankan women visible only statistically?

A woman's place is in the home - that's what they used to say long ago. Today, only few would endorse that view. Ask ten of your male friends. Eight of them would agree that there should be equality in employment and wages. Seven would also agree that women should have the same rights under the law as men do. These are statistically proven facts.

So what is a woman's real place - in society, in the home, and in the world? The question is both delicate and momentous. Are there gender specific roles for women and men? Or are there no differences beyond the obvious biological differences?

Much of the developed world has already settled the issue. In Sri Lanka, women's suffrage was enacted almost 75 years ago. While still not a reality, equal pay for equal work has become a sine qua non of our political correctness. We have elected a woman president, a woman Prime Minister many ministers and MPs.

However, when it comes to one national issue, the so-called equality seems missing. I am talking of economic development!


Women textile workers pay a third of their salaries as rent for impossibly cramped boarding. They need support. Photo Credit:M.A. Pushpa/IPS courtesy - Newsnet.

Economic development in Sri Lanka is often still talked about as if it is mainly a subject for men. Most of the readers would disagree with me but it is a fact. Look at it in a different angle. We all know that in a traditional society like ours, women are the primary caregivers for their families. The unpaid work of bringing up children, preparing food, maintaining a household, and tending the ill, although invaluable, are invisible. But the economic models used by our financial institutions fail to take into account the unpaid work of women which leads to an over-use of women's labour. For example, due to economic necessity, the Government is compelled to enforce structural adjustment policies which often involve cutbacks in state-provided social services and higher prices for basic necessities.

Consequently, women often must work harder to stretch their limited funds. Many have to spend more time shopping for cheaper items, cultivating home gardens to supplement store-bought food, caring for sick family members at home longer before taking them to the doctor, and walking rather than taking public transport.

Unfortunately, in Sri Lanka, no one has studied in depth the potential effects of economic policies on women's status or on sustainable development. Doing so would enable planners to ascertain which groups may benefit from them and which may lose out, and to modify policies to assist groups of women and their communities who would be negatively affected.

Barriers

The UN conferences and summits, particularly the World Conference on Women and the UN Conference on Environment and Development, have underlined that the contribution of women to economic development, social development and environmental protection. They have also emphasized that there is a need for a clear gender perspective and unless the wisdom and contribution of women is recognized and supported, sustainable development will be an elusive goal.

If we are to grapple successfully with the problem of women and economic development, of preparing them to take their due place in the social structure, there are a number of problems to which we must attend.

Of those, I believe, the "invisible barrier" and "the work and family balance" are very important.

The Invisible barrier

The "invisible barrier" keeps people from going past a certain point but transparent and therefore virtually invisible until the person crashes into it. Invisible barrier is an apt label for the phenomenon faced by Sri Lankan women who aspire to positions of leadership. Because increasing numbers of women are entering fields that often lead to leadership positions - law, business, politics, education, science, many assume that getting to top positions is a matter of time and energy. Yet the proportion of women who have made it into high leadership positions remains stunningly small. We do not have official statistics but sample surveys done indicate that the nation's boardrooms remain overwhelmingly male: a simple survey within 50 industries revealed that 85 percent of the senior-level managers were men.

Even women who do make it past the invisible barrier into top executive positions apparently do not reach a place where gender equity is the norm. A recent study of executives in a number of asset-rich companies showed that the women who had reached this level faced a second invisible barrier. These women made the same pay and received the same perks as their male counterparts.

However, they managed fewer people, were given fewer options, and obtained fewer overseas assignments than the men did.

The message is clear. The women can reach the same position as of men, but it does not necessarily imply that they will have the same level of status and clout in the organization. When surveyed, a group of women reported more obstacles and less satisfaction than the men did with their future career opportunities. Clearly, they had moved up as far as they could in their work organization whereas the men were more likely to see new opportunities ahead.

Work and Family Balance

Studies done recently have shown that women spend more hours per week working than men do. However, for women, a larger proportion of time-spent working is devoted to unpaid work: housework and other domestic activities that are not counted when economists try to quantify work. In our country, average of three-quarters of the domestic work is performed by women. While women tend to do the cooking, laundry, housecleaning, and ironing; men tend to do household repair and maintenance. Also, 95 % of women do 95 percent of meal preparation and clean up.

So, it is obvious that Sri Lankan women in general face an invisible barrier that impedes their career advancement, and the necessity to balance home and childcare responsibilities with employment. It is little wonder that they women as a group hold fewer economic resources than men.

Social Welfare

The other point is that our prevailing nature of interventions toward women is welfare-oriented rather than income-generating. Social welfare projects or "female" components in projects (for example, maternal and child health, family planning, hygiene, nutrition, home economics, and gardening) focus mainly on the domestic role of women as homemakers and mothers. Such interventions do not meet with success in altering the fundamental problem of women's dependence on conjugal ties for access to resources.

Income-generating projects, in contrast, will create a situation that helps women support themselves and their families without welfare. They involve upgrading existing skills or teaching new ones, providing the resources needed to use the skills in the production of marketable goods and services, providing marketing assistance, teaching functional and legal literacy, and encouraging women to participate in community-level decision-making.

Regrettably, integration Sri Lankan women's issues are often perceived superficially and they are, at best, grouped together with issues that affect the rural sector in general. In other cases women are considered an underprivileged group, according to the same line of reasoning that sees handicapped children and juvenile delinquents as welfare cases.

If the Government genuinely wishes for fuller integration of women in development, it should seek a wide variety of concerned and involved institutions for support.

Genuine NGOs, national, international and private institutions and professional organizations can help. As we look ahead, it is important to remember that empowering women is a sound investment in a country's future. Advancing the status of women isn't just a social and moral issue. It is also an economic imperative.

 

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