Women in Sri Lanka constitute a formidable 52% of the estimated population of 21 million. It is a matter of great concern when out of the total economically-active population of 8.5 million, only 34% are women. Therefore, the balance 66% are deemed unemployed and dependent. Chathuri Ranasinghe, Chairperson of Women’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce (WCIC), who shared these dismal statistics with us, discussed the importance of the need to address this disparity.
If legislators were serious about closing this gap and make women partners in the country’s economy, let us hope these statistics are given serious consideration when policies are formulated.
In a country where there are equal opportunities in education, gender disparity is an issue when women resort to stay at home and being dependent on the spouse. Latest statistics besides indicate that a higher percentage of females who seek higher education pass out with secondary qualifications.
Many areas that had led to this imbalance had surfaced during the varied workshops and surveys WCIC had conducted. Its chairperson says women naturally are capable and possess inherent capabilities to multitask, be resilient and driven. If a woman remains a mere housewife and if these qualities were not effectively harnessed, there is no way she could make a contribution towards the building of the nation. The role of WCIC is to focus on developing them in order to make women entrepreneurs. This will contribute towards the growth of the nation while they fulfil their fundamental duties.
However, she pointed out that if there were State intervention to inspire women to become entrepreneurs, it would benefit the country as a whole. Ms. Ranasinghe states, “The focus on women’s participation in the country’s economy will be an important item on the agenda of the new government. Policymakers, deeply involved in looking out for solutions to economically-empower the country, should consider this as a valuable resource, which is not fully-tapped yet. Proposals which have been included in manifestos and pledges made from election platforms provide a beacon of hope. What is more important is to see the actual implementation of these.”
A lawyer by profession, re-elected, to serve the third year, as WCIC’s chairperson at its recent AGM, for Ms. Ranasinghe there is no compromising when it comes to empowering women. Holding on to the view that working mothers are an accepted reality, she said economic demands of today called for both parents to bring home the pay packet. This calls for a firm determination by the State to open more doors for job opportunities for women while encouraging working women to continue to remain in the workforce. A woman faces more challenges than her male counterpart with the multiple roles she juggles with which need to be considered and supported. With rapid urbanisation and evolvement of nuclear families, traditional support systems are diminishing. This has created a need for different models of lifestyles.
In the employment sector itself, there is room for improvement. Whilst a greater number of women pass out from universities, medical, law and business colleges as well as from IT, accountancy and other varied academic institutions, her journey in the commercial world has limited span. On the boards or decision-making slots of companies, the representation of women has been scant. Ms. Ranasinghe says this is in spite of there being capable women entrepreneurs who have proved themselves in the business world and women professionals who have made a mark in the respective professions.
She suggests adequately-qualified females be encouraged to continue with their respective career ambitions while organisations need to be coaxed to consider including them for the long-haul. Incentives can be provided to organisations that respect gender diversity in the form of tax benefits.
Ms. Ranasinghe makes a strong bid for State-run crèches of high standard to inspire women to enter/remain or progress in their careers. So they could leave their children in safe hands while they are at work. The private sector should also take this into serious consideration to prevent losing valuable resources on account of domestic responsibilities.
Ideally, such centres should be of high standard, should be businesses run by females as they would be capable of delivering the service standards expected. Such businesses should receive incentives to encourage more investment by parties and they need to have the capability to handle children with disabilities as well.
She stated that with a rapidly aging population and relatively dependent youngsters in the country, if the female had to play an active role in contributing to the country’s economy, she needed her children as well as elders to be taken care of while at work. Therefore, setting up of day-care facilities for elders too needs addressing. With the increased life span, age related issues have become commonplace. Such facilities and their diverse needs should be handled by qualified patrons. These are emerging trends in the rest of the world and our country has many opportunities to learn from them.
- "Gender disparity is an issue when women resort to stay at home and being dependent on the spouse
- Equal wages for equal work should not merely be a slogan"
Equal wages for equal work should not merely be a slogan. It should be practised both in the government and the private sectors. New reforms should be introduced to labour laws covering all but especially those relating to women. The WCIC findings have indicated that many women, especially in the garment and industrial sectors, prefer to work nightshifts so they could attend to domestic work during the day. If this were to be made possible, the workplace should be made safe to work at night.
Harassments including sexual harassment in workplaces as well as while commuting are issues that need to be addressed to ease the work of women employees. Some of them stem from deep-rooted complications which require addressing through the whole social fabric. The need to respect a woman has to be inculcated at very early stages of the male child both at home as well as in schools.
WCIS had inked an MoU with the Post-Graduate Institute of Management (PIM) with the intention of creating a joint project on incubator services for women entrepreneurs envisaging start-ups. Workshops and mentoring programmes conducted across the country cover women at grassroots level as well. These programmes are conducted through Regional Women’s Chambers, Women’s Wings and other women’s organisations. It also envisages that such initiatives will bring about communal harmony and bridge any divide that hinders it.
A key limitation applicable to many entrepreneurs has been identified as the difficulty to access finance. Whilst the State had created several policies which support women as well, the actual execution of the projects has been a far cry. Awareness of the availability of products, access, eligibility and obtaining its services have been major challenges.
There have besides been instances when many micro, small and medium entrepreneurs have become victims of devious private sector micro credit facilities that have been offered, which has resulted in them being heavily burdened. Therefore, it has become imperative that women are educated on who should be approached and how to obtain a facility that is suitable to their needs.
The beginnings of WCIC date back to the 1980s when some of the members of Sri Lanka Federation of University Women, in order to promote women entrepreneurs, founded WCIC in 1985. WCIC is the first women-only trade chamber to be established in Sri Lanka consisting of women in business and professions. Being a non-profit organisation, it today works as a think-tank, a voice and a platform to economically-empower women of Sri Lanka in order that their participation contributes to make it a powerful nation-builder. And in the process, help the transformation of the nation’s economic growth.
One of the founder members, Ms. Lakshmi Godamunne Perera, said with the strong support of the Overseas Education Fund, the organisation was set up named Women’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce by its first chairperson Ms. Chloe de Soysa. According to Ms. Lakshmi, this became thus the world’s first Women’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce with the result it was “handsomely funded by US Aid, Asia Foundation and European Agencies. With such a strong foundation made, WCIC grew from strength to strength.”
Ms. Ranasinghe is the nineteenth chairperson of WCIC which has on its membership Sri Lanka’s leading women entrepreneurs and professionals. Of it, over three hundred are active members. They are drawn from diverse fields viz. legal, accountancy, medical, architecture, business, tea, import and export trade, jewellery, optical, printing, beauty care and in the running of spars, handloom textile industry, advertising et al. Therefore, Ms. Ranasinghe says she is well aware of women’s potential, leadership and skills. It was heartening she said that the State granted a 25% female representation in local government bodies. But, she says, we need female representation in higher policy-making bodies to dispel economic disparity.”