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Sri Lanka : Advancing Gender Equality with Carefully Calculated Strategies

09/25/2013 04:40 pm ET | Updated Nov 25, 2013

Over the years Sri Lanka has been at the forefront of advancing women's issues through the United Nations. Sri Lanka became an early party to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (in 1981) and its Protocol (in 2002). It has been a vocal supporter of the initiatives launched by the Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, to mainstream women's issues. Today there are more senior women in the Organization than ever before. The new Executive Director of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women, Ms. Pumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, a former Vice President of South Africa, was recently installed by the Secretary-General to succeed Ms. Michele Bachelet of Chile. Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka has committed herself to making gender equality central to the Post-2015 Development Agenda which is the most challenging socio-economic preoccupation of the organization at the moment. The UN's emphasis on economic empowerment and poverty eradication, with a key focus on education, especially through the full use of technology and innovation, will bring enormous benefits to women and girls around the world, but it will be the responsibility of states themselves to implement their international commitments domestically.

While the many accomplishments of women and girls, so far, need to be celebrated, it is also necessary to persist with addressing the many remaining challenges, both in developed and in developing countries. Inequality in opportunity for women and girls persists, even in parts of the world which are considered to be developed. While the women's movements originated in Western countries, full equality still remains a distant aspiration in many of them, especially in leadership roles. In many developing countries, the cumulative impact of the food and the fuel crises of 2007 and 2008, and of the financial and economic crises since 2009, have had a serious negative impact on efforts to achieve transformational change with regard to women. The deterioration of economic circumstances has not helped the efforts to advance gender equality. Initiatives undertaken to provide equal access to education and employment opportunities have suffered due to the economic crises. In many places, it is the women who continue to spend the major part of the day fetching water or fire-wood, denying them of opportunities to seek a better life.

Sri Lanka's experience with policies that encourage gender equality and women's empowerment has placed the country in a special category in the developing world. Sri Lanka's political dealership and policy framers recognised early, the mutually reinforcing links between gender equality, rapid economic growth, poverty eradication and sustainable development. Universal adult franchise was granted to Sri Lankans (then Ceylonese) in 1931. Equal access to state funded free education was made possible to all after independence from Britain in 1948. The Sri Lankan state provides free education to both boys and girls from primary to university levels. This is complemented by a range of private educational institutions. The right to participate in the electoral process combined with access to education had a catalytic impact on advancing gender equality in the country. Women with education began to enter the employment market in ever increasing numbers. Educated women ensured that their children also aspired to high educational attainment. More recently, the MDGs were integrated into our development policies as elements of wider national policy targets such as, rapid economic growth, redistributive justice, alleviation of absolute poverty, employment generation, balanced regional development and environmental sustainability, all within a strong democratic framework. Sri Lanka soon assumed an "outlier" position in inter-country comparisons of income levels and "social indicators", achieving commendable human development indicators.

A statistical summary of Sri Lanka's socio-economic indicators makes impressive reading:

  • Sri Lanka was ranked "medium" out of 187 countries in the Human Development Index in 2012 despite the country having attained middle income status only recently.
  • The Gender Gap Report of 2012 of the World Economic Forum ranked Sri Lanka 39th among the 135 countries covered in the Report.
  • The MDG goal of universal primary education will be easily achieved by 2015, with the nett enrolment rate having reached 99% in 2010. The age for compulsory school attendance was recently increased to 16. The employment of child labour has been illegal for many years. Sri Lanka's compliance with global labour standards has been favourably commented by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
  • The adult literacy rate in Sri Lanka for females is 90%. Among youth (15-24 years) the rate is 99%. Girls outnumber boys in secondary education 50.42% to 49.58% (boys). This statistic also reflects the high value placed by parents on education.
  • Life expectancy stands at 78 years for women and 72 years for men.
  • The infant mortality rate of 9.4 per 1000 live births in 2012 was comparable to that of many developed countries resulting in the UNICEF specifically highlighting Sri Lanka as a success story.
  • The maternal mortality rate had decreased to 35 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2010. This is an extremely creditable achievement in a region where infant mortality rates are significantly higher. 98% of births in the country take place in government funded healthcare facilities. This performance has been possible due to a well - developed rural family healthcare system and the use of traditional knowledge by mothers and midwives. Sri Lanka provides state funded free healthcare to all from birth to death.
  • Absolute poverty in Sri Lanka declined from 15.2% in 2006/07 to 8.9% in 2009/10, surpassing the MDG mid-term target.
  • Unemployment is at 3.9%.
  • Impressively, the multi-dimensionally poor in Sri Lanka stands at 1.9% of the population, due to access to safe drinking water, sanitation, electricity, nutrition and schooling.
  • The cellular telephone penetration in Sri Lanka is estimated at 110%. The government has an aggressive policy of increasing IT literacy. Computer literacy is expected to cover 70% of the population by 2016. The knowledge centres established around the country (in temples, mosques and churches) provide access to and training in IT. Jaffna, once the heart of the separatist conflict, has been designated a centre of excellence. The government expects the expansion of IT literacy to open up extensive new employment opportunities for youth, both boys and girls.

The remarkable progress recorded by Sri Lanka towards attaining the MDGs was made despite the widespread destruction of life and property by one of the most ruthless terrorist groups in the world, the unprecedented 2004 tsunami and the global food, energy and financial crises. Today, there is hardly any physical evidence of the devastation caused by the tsunami and rapid progress is evident in rebuilding and rehabilitating the North which suffered extensively from the terrorist conflict. The government has established women's desks at police stations in the former conflict affected North to deal with complaints made by women and children. Special attention is being paid to provide life skills to widowed women, many of whom are heads of families. Family reunifications are progressing with the assistance of the ICRC and the UNICEF. (Human Rights Watch estimates that over 21,000 children were drafted by the terrorists for combat duty and used mainly as cannon fodder).

It is also noteworthy that almost 80% of Sri Lanka's population has remained in rural areas despite the country's rapidly increasing prosperity. Sri Lanka exploited cross-cutting interactions of health care with basic education, improved water and sanitation, malaria control, and integrated rural development - including building rural roads, to achieve the exceptional human development indicators. Our macro policies have ensured transformational change in the lives of Sri Lanka's women and our experience could serve as a model for other countries.

Girls who compete on equal terms with the boys to gain access to institutions of higher learning in the country, comprise the majority who graduate from the medical, teaching and nursing schools and constitute a significant portion of the public service. The doctors, nurses and teachers are required to serve in rural hospitals and schools. The Rural women's functional literacy and numeracy skills have also enabled them to effectively avail themselves of financial services, including micro-credit facilities, concentrated in the rural sector. Micro credit has enabled rural women to become successful entrepreneurs. The government provides tangible incentives for private sector investors to locate enterprises, including industrial ventures, ICT outsourcing facilities and tourism related businesses away from the main cities. This policy has enabled educated rural men and women to find employment close to their homes. As a consequence, Sri Lanka has successfully avoided the many social problems of cities elsewhere in Asia, Africa and Latin America which are bursting at their seams due to the drift to the cities by youth in search of work. Sri Lanka's labour laws accommodate the special needs of women and children. Child labour is not tolerated and maternity leave for women is very generous.

Sri Lanka's women having been politically empowered since 1931, it was not surprising that Sri Lanka produced the first democratically elected woman Prime Minister in the world in 1960. However, women's political representation at the national level remains at a low of 5%, and at the local and provincial levels, it is lower. According to anecdotal evidence, women have shown little enthusiasm to enter into politics. This is an area that is being studied by the Government with the assistance of the UNDP and civil society. It has also been observed that many, both young men and women, seek employment abroad, largely because of the perception that the grass is greener elsewhere. The overseas drift of both professional men and women is an issue that Sri Lanka is currently addressing. Sri Lanka will continue to expand the legal framework to create gender sensitive laws, set up institutional mechanisms and seek to bridge the implementation gaps to deal with the areas where gender equality remains inadequately addressed.

Sri Lanka has welcomed the theme of the 68th session of the UN General Assembly, "The Post 2015 Development Agenda -- Setting the Stage". The continued emphasis on achieving the MDGS, especially with women and girls in focus, would be central to improving the condition of humanity as a whole. Sri Lanka will host the 2014 World Youth Forum and expects to welcome many youth, young men and women, from around the world to share in our success and enjoy the legendary hospitality of our wonderfully diverse island in the sun.

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