The Sri Lankan civil war ended over a decade ago, but the nation still feels the effects today. The Sri Lankan government tightened and expanded its authority, among other aftershocks of this multi-decade war. These decades of instability coupled with a history of colonial rule created an uphill battle for women’s rights in Sri Lanka. Though women are making tantamount strides, women are up against a long history of instability and patriarchal rule. According to the UN Gender Inequality Index, Sri Lanka ranks 74th among 187 countries. While there is hope for a future of gender equality, women in Sri Lanka still lack representation in government and access to employment opportunities while suffering from cultural preconceptions of female roles. Here are five facts about women’s rights in Sri Lanka.
5 Facts About Women’s Rights in Sri Lanka
- World’s First Prime Minister: Sri Lanka elected the world’s first female Prime Minister. The people elected Sirima Bandaranaike as head of government in 1960. Sirima Bandaranaike entered into politics after the assassination of her husband Soloman Bandaranaike due to pressure from his party and the people. Critics who held the belief that a woman was incapable of running a political party described her as “unruffled.”
- Government Representation: Women have little representation in government. Sri Lanka ranks lowest for women’s participation in politics among South Asian Countries. Women have never exceeded 6% representation in parliament, with less than 5.8% elected in the 2015 election. Representation is even slimmer on the local level, with around 2% of women holding political office. Due to these numbers, UN Women has made strides to increase female political participation in government. Through financing from the Norwegian government, UN Women implemented a two-year program entitled “Promoting Women’s Political Participation in Sri Lanka.” The program supports gender-responsive budgeting, which requires the inclusion of women in political campaign budgeting and ensures that political party nominations are more inclusive of women.
- Universal Free Education: The initiation of universal free education in Sri Lanka in 1945 created educational opportunities for women, leading to huge increases in educational gender equality. In 1946, only 43.8% of women were literate as opposed to 70.1% of the male population. By 2001, 90% of the female population was literate in comparison to 93% of the male population. One can attribute this massive improvement to the requirement that teachers had to teach universal free schooling in the “mother tongue” of the student. Free education benefited females in particular because as long as school was not free, parents with limited resources would choose to educate the men in their family over the women. The statewide implementation of universal free education did away with the economic reasons for parents to keep their daughters at home.
- The Workforce Gender Gap: The workforce gender gap remains high. Despite rising levels of education, the majority of women in the workforce exist in the agricultural and domestic spheres. Many employment opportunities are reserved for male candidates due to a history of gender ideologies. Due to this culture, many women have experienced relegation as “supplementary earners” despite their education or others have consigned them to focus on household work because of views that it is “women’s work.”
- Maternal and Infant Mortality Rates: Maternal and infant mortality rates have significantly dropped since Sri Lanka gained independence. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Sri Lankan government established health units that provided community-based maternal and child care services for free throughout the country. The government also expanded the nationwide ambulance fleet and invested in training midwives in the 1960s. These sweeping efforts to mitigate maternal and infant mortality rates led to Sri Lanka reducing maternal deaths from nearly 2000 per 100,000 live births to only 33 per 100,000 live births in 2015. The Sri Lankan government has proposed that the country will reach a single-digit maternal mortality ratio in the next 10 years.
There is a promise of a future of flourishment for women’s rights in Sri Lanka, given educational opportunities and the upward trend of female health outcomes. The Sri Lankan government invested in many programs in 2017 to promote gender equality such as the National Plan to Address Sexual and Gender-based Violence and the National Framework for Women-Headed Households. The government also implemented quotas for the percentage of women in the workplace and dedicated 25% of the positions in local public institutions for women to enhance political participation. Despite a long history of gender discrimination, the Sri Lankan government is making an important commitment to promoting women’s rights in Sri Lanka, providing hope for an equitable road forward.
– Tatiana Nelson
Photo: Wikipedia Commons