A question we have all been tempted to ask at one time or another – how does it play out in the country’s economic scenario when it comes to gender equality? Certainly, in the boardrooms and plush offices of Sri Lanka’s burgeoning private sector, there is no glass ceiling for women in most aspects. Women managers are accepted and respected and most men, particularly the younger generations have no issues working for a woman. There is no gender issue there, at least for the most part.
The same goes – with a few hiccups perhaps – for the state sector, where despite setbacks, women have been accepted in key positions and as figures of authority. We currently have a female Chief Justice and a female Attorney-General which must make us proud of the achievements women have made in Sri Lanka. There are many more important positions in the government sector headed by women.
Yet, for all the achievements, there are many other sectors where women face less opportunities and more hurdles in achieving a fine balance of work and managing a home. Often, poverty plays a role in keeping these sectors primitive in their attitudes towards women who work in those areas.
Women in agriculture
When it comes to agriculture, which still forms the backbone of the country’s economic growth, women are actively involved yet with lesser recognition and even lesser opportunities. In the estate sector, which is dependent on its tea pluckers and rubber tappers who are often women, poverty and a low level of education have resulted in neglect of these women.
Poverty and alcoholism go hand in hand for most of the families who live on the estate. To escape both, some come in search of employment to the city were they often do well, thanks to their hard work and efficiency. Most women who come this way find lucrative employment as domestic workers in the city, given the fact that working women are in desperate need of domestic help. Men who follow the path to the city are often taken in for employment in shops and eateries where they find good employment.
But for those who stay back, life is nothing less of a drudgery that must be endeavoured day in day out, a vicious cycle that seems tough to break. Even though there have been improvements, it seems not to be enough to break out of a culture and a lifestyle that is unique to this sector. In the rest of the country where women engage in agricultural pursuits, they have also had to struggle to keep home fires burning – often, these women support their husbands or sons in farming families and communities where they engage in farming as a unit.
On the whole, women who man agricultural and other village-based businesses lack marketing know-how and opportunities which result in an inability to achieve a considerable level of success.
Courageous Lankan women
In the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, I worked with a group of women in the tsunami-affected south where we introduced an entrepreneurship project. Our project was aimed at empowering them with the expertise and know-how and also sourced markets and imparted marketing know-how.
I was able to personally witness the enthusiasm and the courage of these women, who had lost everything, some of them even members of their families in the raging waters, to bounce back and be economically independent. On the whole, if the right opportunities come their way, I am of the view that Sri Lankan women are courageous and capable and will not hesitate to rise above poverty and ignorance to achieve outstanding results, wherever they are.
No article on Sri Lankan women is complete without the acknowledgement of the women working in the Middle East and elsewhere who earn one of the biggest slices of foreign exchange for the country. They toil and work hard to send the money back home to keep the children in school and fed.
They often find themselves in trouble due to lack of knowledge about handling themselves in awkward situations concerning their employers. Although the state has been engaged in empowering them with skills before they travel overseas, much remains to be done to ensure they can truly and confidently engage in employment outside Sri Lanka.
Sri Lankan women, like their counterparts everywhere, also man banks, engage in nursing and related professions, teach in schools and higher educational institutions and engage in other economically empowering careers. They may face prejudice and scorn from the men at times – there are several gaps that still tilt the gender scales in favour of the men.
Much needs to be done, yes, in truly making sure that women in this country are indeed fortunate to be born where they are, where they have access to opportunities and a better lifestyle. It is my hope that we can eventually get there, if not now then in my five-year-old daughter’s lifetime.
(Nayomini, a writer, senior journalist and a PR professional can be contacted at email@example.com)