Over the years, Sri Lanka has made significant progress on gender equality, particularly in terms of free and equal access to education and healthcare. However, with structural barriers and societal norms that perpetuate gender stereotypes and biases, women continue to be underrepresented and discriminated in the economic, political and social spheres.
Women’s economic empowerment
In Sri Lanka, women’s labour force participation rate is at a mere 32.5 per cent in comparison to 72.4 per cent for men. Similarly, the youth unemployment rate for women is at 36.3 per cent compared with 21.1 per cent for men. Women’s labour force participation in the country is often compounded by many factors such as the lack of affordable and quality childcare services, lack of support in sharing household work, and some workplace cultures that are not supportive of women employees.
Further, as many women are engaged in informal employment, crises such as COVID-19 have disproportionately affected female-headed households which make up over a quarter of Sri Lankan homes. Many female heads of households, therefore, lack access to social protection and are more likely to carry a triple burden in supporting their family whilst engaging in unpaid care work and domestic work.
Women’s leadership and political participation
At present, women in Sri Lanka are largely underrepresented in politics. Only 5.3 per cent – 12 out of 225 legislators – in the Sri Lankan Parliament are women and the island-nation ranks 182 out of 193 countries on the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU). Despite early achievements of producing the first female Prime Minister in the world, the representation of women legislators at the national level has never exceeded 7 per cent throughout Sri Lanka’s electoral history since 1931.
Sexual and gender-based violence
Harmful social norms continue to act as barriers to women’s empowerment in Sri Lanka. According to the Women’s Wellbeing Survey (2019), 35.3 per cent of women in Sri Lanka agreed that men can have a good reason to hit their wife and 47.5 per cent of women felt men are superior to women. It was further reported that 1 in 5 ever-partnered women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime and crises such as COVID-19 has intensified violence against women in the country.
Our work in Sri Lanka
UN Women has been operating in Sri Lanka since 2014. Presently, the office is leading the implementation of UNSCR 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security, which promotes the protection of women and girls against sexual and gender-based violence, women’s equal and meaningful participation in the prevention and resolution of conflicts as well as decision-making, and women’s equal involvement in participating and benefitting from post-conflict recovery and development.
Working closely with the Government of Sri Lanka and other partners, UN Women has further contributed to concerted efforts in bringing about Sri Lanka’s first quota for women’s political representation at the local level; advocating for evidence-based policies with the launch of the first-ever report on gender, disability and employment in Sri Lanka; and the first comprehensive gender analysis of Sri Lanka’s national budget in 2019 to support efforts to institutionalize gender-responsive budgeting. In line with the 2030 Agenda, UN Women Sri Lanka is working to ensure that women’s economic empowerment is at the heart of COVID-19 response and recovery while ensuring that standards are in place to accelerate progress towards gender equality in the country.