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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.