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Dr. Harsha de Silva | Pic by Gihan Alwis

– Deputy Minister Dr. Harsha de Silva

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

“However, only 36% of women are in the labour force. We are not satisfied by this and are trying to find reasons and solutions,” he explained. Minister de Silva was speaking at the international workshop ‘Reimagining Women’s Empowerment in South Asia’ which was held at the JETWING Colombo Seven on October 10, 2017 and was organized 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 policymakers 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), the United Kingdom, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The participants included former United Nations Special Rapporteur, Radhika Coomaraswamy, Canadian High Commissioner Designate, David McKinnon, State Minister of City Planning and Water Supply, Dr. Sudarshini Fernandopulle and Faculty Member of the Department of Economics of the Delhi School of Economics of the University of Delhi, Prof. Rohini Somanathan. In his address, Dr. de Silva noted that women’s unpaid work was an issue rooted in the local culture.

The data for Sri Lanka showed that while women spent twice the amount of time engaging in household care than men, they worked four times as much as men in childcare. “Very often, women shoulder the triple burden of care as they provide care for the elderly as well as the children,” he elaborated. Researchers said that the statistics on unpaid care reflected the gap in empowerment between men and women. The Minister pointed out that his Government had introduced a 25% reservation for women at local government and provincial levels as a means of empowering them. He further added that the 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 added that the policy puts a strong emphasis on gender issues. He explained that 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.

Minister Dr. Fernandopulle said that empowerment had to start from home. The education of parents on gender issues, including gender issues in the curriculums in educational institutions would be helpful in empowering women, she added. IDRC’s Programme Leader Arjan de Haan said that the GrOW research showed 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 added that 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 Executive Director of the ICES, Dr. Mario Gomez. 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 added. 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 that 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% of the population – is inadequately educated to get good jobs. They need to be re-skilled for the job market,” she added. Skills development can be helpful, but not always, found a GrOW study in Pakistan. The research as part of the ‘Skills for Markets’ initiative found that skills-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 realized their skills were not converting into market acceptance, said Lead Researcher, Feyza Bhatti. Presenting the findings from a study that connected women’s safety and mobility to economic activity, from the Urban Institute, Charles Cadwell said that the study had found that violence or the 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,” added Cadwell. Sharing the findings of another GrOW study, Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, Brighton, Dr. Deepta Chopra said that she studied women’s work in four countries – India, Nepal, Tanzania and Rwanda, and found that 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 added that 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 that safety is a big barrier for women’s work,” explained Dr. Chopra. Presenting the case of a women’s empowerment initiative in India, the Mahila Samakhya, 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,” added Menon. “The studies are being finalized and will seek to inform policy-makers in South Asia for appropriate policy changes,” noted De Haan.