Every single voice matters | Sunday Observer
Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow

Every single voice matters

6 March, 2022

As world-renowned American author, poet and activist Maya Angelou puts it, a wise woman wishes to be no one’s enemy and refuses to be anyone’s victim. In her opinion, each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.  

Yes, indeed. When one woman stands up for herself, she stands up for half of the world’s population. 


For the uninformed, women and girls represent half of the world’s population!

Women have struggled against oppression for centuries and have achieved considerable success over the years in various areas or social institutions such as marriage, career, political leadership, and work-family balance. 

Yet the road to absolute success is long and thorny. So every single step matters.

UN theme 

As declared by the United Nations Organization the theme for this year’s International Women’s Day which falls on March 8 is, “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow.” 

“This is largely in recognition of the contribution made by women and girls across the globe, who is leading the charge on climate change adaptation, mitigation, and response, to build a more sustainable future for all,” states the UN Women. With issues related to Climate change and sustainability continuing to make an adverse impact on our environment, women, being among the most vulnerable and marginalised groups, experience the worst outcome. Women still constitute the majority of the world’s poor and depend more on natural resources that are mostly affected by the changes in climate. 

The United Nations also recognises the great contribution by women and girls as effective and powerful leaders and change-makers for climate adaptation and mitigation. 

Currently, women throughout the world are largely involved in global “sustainability initiatives” and actively participate in climate change mitigation. Hence the UN Women considers it is essential to continue to look into the opportunities and constraints to empower women and girls to have an equal say in decision making concerning climate change and sustainability to achieve sustainable development and greater gender equality.  

Without gender equality today, a sustainable future, and an equal future remains impossible, states the UN Women.

UN Resident Coordinator’s views

UN Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka, Hanaa Singer-Hamdy elaborated on this year’s theme. 

“This theme is in line with discussions we plan on having during the sixty-sixth session of the Commission on the Status of Women, when they convene from March 14 to 25. They will focus on achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls in the context of climate change, environmental and disaster risk reduction policies and programs,” she said,

Two important messages 

The Resident Coordinator highlighted two important messages. 

“First, the climate crisis is not a gender-neutral global crisis, women and girls experience the greatest impacts of climate change. The 2015 Paris Agreement takes this into account and makes specific provisions for the empowerment of women given the disproportionate impact on their lives and livelihoods. For example, eighty percent of people displaced by climate change are women,” Singer-Hamdy said. 

She added that women’s survival rates are lower in disasters and their access to relief and assistance decreases, threatening their livelihoods, wellbeing, and recovery. “For example, during the Asian tsunami in 2004, 70 percent of the victims were women, and many women and children were trapped inside their homes while most men were out in the open. If we look at it in a practical sense, cultural and religious norms and their responsibilities sometimes limit women’s abilities to make quick decisions in disaster situations child-rearing responsibilities and even the clothes they wear could limit their mobility during a crisis. In my own experience in conflict zones and crisis situations, it is women who stay behind ensuring the survival of children or elderly people.”

She said that women’s and girls’ health is endangered by climate and environmental crises and disasters, potentially cutting off access to services and health care, and threatening sexual and reproductive health and rights.

 “But now is the time for change. Despite all its challenges, the Covid-19 pandemic presents an opportunity to re-think, re-frame and reallocate responses and resources to better ensure a gendered and more effective approach to climate change. We need a sustainable, feminist recovery centred around and driven by women and girls. As the Secretary-General noted recently, the successful, stable economies of the future will be green, gender-inclusive, and sustainable.  

 “Second, women and girls are essential, effective, and powerful leaders and change-makers to address climate adaptation, mitigation, and solutions. Do we need a better example than Greta Thunberg? It only makes logical sense that those who are most affected by climate change today women, girls, and marginalised persons need to be involved in the design and implementation of climate response actions.”

The UN Resident coordinator added that we need science-based approaches to tackling environmental issues and more women in science. 

“However, today we see that according to UNESCO’s Science Report 2021- the gender gap in science persists. The Report notes that although women account for 33 percent of researchers, only 12 percent of National Science Academic members are women. They tend to have shorter, lower-paying careers, and their work is underrepresented in high-profile journals.

We need change in this area to explore the opportunities, as well as the constraints, to empower women and girls to have a voice and be equal players in decision-making related to climate change. This is essential for sustainable development and greater gender equality.” She explained.

Sri Lanka’s situation 

When asked about her observations regarding Sri Lanka’s present status of gender equality, the Resident Coordinator quoted the UN Secretary-General, who had recently noted that having more women in Parliaments is linked with stronger climate commitments and higher levels of investment in healthcare and education.

“However, this is one area where Sri Lanka is lagging, with only 5 percent of Parliament being women.” 

“Sri Lanka has excellent health and education outcomes for both girls and boys. The country has consistently maintained gender parity in enrolment and completion of primary and secondary education and more women are also being admitted into tertiary education, with nearly two female university admissions to every one male admission,” she said. 

“However, women are underrepresented in leading positions, whether in elected office, the Civil Service, or the private sector. They often face several obstacles to participating in political life. The biggest is, of course, structural barriers through discriminatory laws and institutions. Capacity gaps mean women are less likely than men to have had the education, contacts, and resources needed to become effective leaders. They are often side-lined by voters for not being capable enough,” she raised her concern. 

Gender stereotypes

The Resident Coordinator reiterated that it is precisely these types of gender stereotypes and misperceptions that contribute to a lot of the challenges experienced by women in Sri Lanka. “These stereotypes have a ripple effect throughout women’s lives and limit their rights, choices and opportunities: from the types of education to the kind of career they pursue; the amount of care work and household responsibilities they are expected to take on; the social conditioning of what it means to be an ‘acceptable’ woman and to take certain situations in stride without complaint, and the shaming that accompanies any deviation from the norm,” 

Plus points 

“I have seen formidable women in all sectors of society in Sri Lanka, in civil society, the private sector and in governance and let us not forget that Sri Lanka gave the world its first female Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike and also had a female President - Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. |” 

“However, to ensure these gains are witnessed across society and to see gender parity in Sri Lanka, we need increased labour force participation. It is critical to note that this must be access to decent work, safe working environments, and secure incomes. When women are employed in the informal labour force, they tend to work in low-quality jobs in vulnerable conditions. Many women are in the informal labour force with little regulation, poor income insecurity, and often poor social protection systems. Therefore, it is not only about women having jobs, but also ensuring that they have safe and fair working environments.” 

She finally noted that the same is true of gender-based and sexual violence. “If women feel unsafe in their homes and relationships from their intimate partners if they feel unsafe on the way to work (Studies show that 90 percent of women in Sri Lanka are affected by sexual harassment on public transportation) and if they feel unsafe at the workplace or in participating in public life how can we hope to see progress? Comprehensive legislation to prevent, respond to, and punish all forms of violence against women and girls is an essential first step to ending impunity to enable Sri Lankan women to achieve their full potential.”


Despite many noteworthy achievements at work in terms of labour force participation and entry to a wider variety of professions than in the past, women still face discrimination at work and gender obviously plays a powerful role in shaping workplace experiences. 

Senior Professor in Economics, University of Peradeniya, Dileni Gunawardena has conducted extensive research on women’s participation in Sri Lanka’s labour market taking into account both their labor force participation and their earnings in the labor market when they did participate. 

“In terms of participation what was clear was that being married, and the number of young children they had reduced their likelihood of participating in the labour force while being married increased the likelihood for men, and the number of children had no effect at all for men. I think this reflects the kind of breadwinner model we have in Sri Lanka, where a man is expected to earn for his family, and the woman’s primary role is to be the caregiver. I was also looking at what type of skills increased the likelihood of participation in the labour force, and for women, numeracy and writing were important, as was grit. For men, numeracy and being in the Western province were significant determinants of their labour force participation,” Prof.Gunawardena said. 

As statistics reveal Sri Lanka has achieved tremendous progress in female empowerment over the years. What are the areas that we should put more focus on in the coming years, the Sunday Observer asked her.

“Sri Lanka has a score of 65.6 on the Women, Business and Law Index, which can roughly be said to be a measure of women’s economic freedoms in eight different areas including mobility, workplace, pay, marriage, parenthood, entrepreneurship, assets, and pensions. So women in Sri Lanka have 2/3rds the rights of men. This is considerably less than the global average, which is 75.2. “

“So we can see we have quite a distance to go. Our worst scores are in the area of pay, where our score is 25, or ¼ the rights of men, and parenthood, where it is 20, or 1/5th the rights of men. I think these are the areas we have to put more focus on in the coming years. We should think about state-supported childcare and universal paternity leave for men so that we should recognise that looking after children is everyone’s business, not just women’s business. With a rising elderly population, we will soon have a sandwich generation where women have to look after children and elders at the same time. This will have a great impact on female labor force participation. So we should provide the social infrastructure that will allow women to go to work, knowing that their children and parents have other safe options for care,” she said. 

Projections for 2031

Prof. Gunawardena said that there is a lot of commitment and also awareness among leaders in Asia to increase gender equality and to deal with the issues that prevent it. “The biggest battle for Asia will be to deal with the adverse cultural norms which make it difficult for women to face a level playing field, both at the workplace, and home. But culture changes, even slowly, and I am hopeful that women’s economic freedoms and their economic choices will be larger in 2031,” she added.

Feminist economics 

It has been argued that traditional economic thought has historically ignored gender issues by disregarding or underestimating women’s lives and work and this is where Feminist Economics comes to the scene. 

Feminist economics is a growing field in economics that has gained recognition by holding economic thought to a standard that requires human well-being to be the central measure of economic progress. Traditional economic thought has historically ignored gender issues by disregarding or underestimating women’s lives and work.

Professor of Economics, American University, Washington DC, Maria Floro said feminist economists have shifted the notion of the economy away from what is mainly defined by monetised, market activities to one that is constituted by provisioning activities, which include paid and unpaid activities aimed at generating the basic necessities of life.

“A distinct aspect of feminist economics is its contesting of the purpose of economic inquiry. In so doing, it has deconstructed the rhetoric of economics and its tendency to obscure questions that matter such as the significance of unpaid work in reproducing and maintaining the labour force and in meeting human needs.” 

As she highlighted what is distinct in the feminist focus on provisioning is the emphasis on the importance of unpaid caring labor for provisioning individuals, communities, and societies. 

She said that the extent and nature of women’s participation in the paid labour force have responded to the strength of demand for women’s labour (deemed by employers to be cheaper, more docile, and have ‘nimble fingers) as well as to the nature of gender norms. 

“ I would also argue that the effect of women’s labor force participation and access to earnings has the potential to increase women’s decision-making and self-esteem and, in some cases, it gives women the ability to act and defend their interests, it can also increase women’s well-being and status. However, participation in paid work can also ‘intensify’ forms of women’s subordination to men. For one, employers (and managers, usually men)may deliberately preserve and utilise some traditional norms to maintain discipline and control, and these practices, in turn, may reinforce women’s submission to patriarchal rules to the household, “ Prof. Floro said.

She added that getting a job rarely accompanies a commensurate decline in women’s unpaid work responsibilities in the household, resulting in an increase in women’s total workload. 

“While they may no longer be income-less or income-poor, they can be time-poor as women continue to perform their socially-ascribed roles as caregivers even when they have joined men in the labor force. Moreover, increased paid work participation or economic opportunities can increase violence in its various forms -sexual harassment at the workplace or spousal violence,”

Hence women’s participation in the labor force can lead to new forms of gender inequalities such as relative greater income insecurity and economic vulnerability and reassertion of gender norms that emphasise women’s dependence on men, giving priority to men in job hiring and promotion, she said. 

Long way to go 

Professor Emeritus of Sociology, University of Colombo, Siri Hettige defines gender equality as equal access to life chances, material and non-material resources, and opportunities for decision making enjoyed by individuals regardless of their gender.

“Achievement of sustainable development by 2030 is the overall goal set by the UN for all countries in the world. One of the SDGs is Gender Equality. While many countries lag behind in many SDG’s including Gender Equality, countries that lag behind in Gender Equality need to do everything that is needed to achieve it.”

Prof. Hettige added that in this regard, Sri Lanka has a long way to go, despite some significant achievements in the recent past in women’s health and education. “But, many socially, culturally and structurally rooted issues need to be solved through evidence-based policies and interventions.”

Prof. Hettige also agreed that the areas where Sri Lanka has to concentrate are equal opportunities for women in employment, career advancement, and higher-level decision-making in politics. “While labour force participation of women is low, opportunities for getting into political positions at higher levels are grossly inadequate, particularly at the national level. An appreciation of the barriers here needs to be based on a detailed analysis.”

The eminent Professor emphasised that whatever past achievements in this area should not be used to gloss over the persisting issues that need to be addressed. Male domination and tokenism are real issues in Sri Lanka that need to be recognised. 

Suggestions to improve gender equality 

Creating equal opportunities and life chances for women in many areas has remained an illusive target for Sri Lanka due to a whole range of factors, social, cultural, institutional and structural. 

“These need to be identified based on research evidence in order to formulate tailor-made policies and state interventions to address them. It is also necessary to find out why past initiatives for change have not brought about the change desired in areas such as institutional development, legal provisions and policy decisions.

“ It is such an appraisal that can help move forward.” Prof. Hettige added.