The Struggle for Economic Recognition
Sri Lanka — Uniterra
Sri Lanka; a country filled with spice, colour, and nature. All the new smells, sounds, and looks increased my level of curiosity for this country even more. My 8-month journey was just beginning and I could not wait to have a new experience in a very different but vibrant culture.
Began my first day in Sri Lanka with this beautiful view!
As my journey slowly passes, I have begun to adjust to the culture, environment, and people, allowing me to feel comfortable in my new home. Despite this feeling, I occasionally experience moments of unease due to the nation’s high presence of gender inequality. From gender stereotypes to abuse, women are constantly being mistreated and objectified. This notion is engraved so deep into society, that many Sri Lankans blame their sex for the way they are mistreated. However, it is the result of gender and its construction made by societies, cultural traditions, and family members. This idea needs to be deconstructed in order to gain equality.
As a female, I can feel the unwanted attention placed on me as I walk by a group of teenage boys, or see the confused look on a man’s face when I show signs of strength or knowledge. In this country, all women are automatically placed into the same category; weak and dependent. Sri Lankan women experience these discriminatory labels every day, whether it is at home, work, school, or on the street. Throughout my studies of international development, we have continuously discussed gender inequality and its impact on the development of a nation. Since being in Sri Lanka, I have discovered that it is one thing to learn about gender inequality, but it is completely another thing to witness it.
Gender inequality is visible throughout the nation, but is specifically strong within the economic sector. This can be seen as a result of the country’s 26 year long conflict and 2004 tsunami. These catastrophes delayed socio-economic development and growth within the region. With the loss of dominant males in their lives, Sri Lankan women faced multiple tasks of fighting to survive. Women were forced into the business industry in order to support and provide for themselves and others . Many had educational experience, but due to the country’s ongoing discrimination against women, females were often denied positions in big services because they “lacked” the appropriate skills and education needed. Therefore, women geared towards opening small and medium businesses in tailoring, textiles, tourism, and office services .
Meet my counterpart, Shiroma. Shiroma is the Field Supervisor for the Women’s Entrepreneurship Program (WEP). WEP supports small/medium scaled female entrepreneurs, while addressing the issue of gender inequality through capacity building.
Women involved in small and medium businesses often receive little assistance, as it is uncommon for females to take on such roles. This lack of support has made it difficult for females to enter and remain in the entrepreneurship industry, obtain permits, receive start-up capital, be taken seriously by men, and receive support from society . Sri Lankan women currently struggle with social recognition, treatment of equality, and appreciation in the workforce, and unfortunately, this is something I witness here. Even though the nation began to experience steady economic growth, the number of women partaking in Sri Lanka’s workforce has decreased to 36% in 2016 from 41% in 2010  as a result of the nations ongoing gender issues.
I recognize these disparities everyday within my host organization INDECOS and the Women Entrepreneurship Program (WEP). As a gender equality officer, I am constantly working close with female members who are greatly affected. WEP is a microcredit loan program that aims to empower women, strengthen family conditions, and support women who are unemployed, vulnerable, and/or self-employed. A majority of these women have been previously denied a place within the economic sector, and as a organization that promotes gender equality, we seek to provide a safe and encouraging place for women and their businesses.
Meet some of my lovely co-workers! These Project Field Officers assist in providing micro-credit loans to our 5000+ WEP members.
As WEP’s gender advisor, I have been in charge of organizing gender workshops for our beneficiaries, to help educate and build awareness about the equity issues in Sri Lanka and the economic sector. Developing such a workshop was difficult, but it has finally allowed me to inform women about a topic I am very passionate about, build meaningful connections, and assist on a community-based level. The role of social and economic recognition is crucial in internationalizing women-owned small businesses in Sri Lanka, as it portrays them as trustworthy entrepreneurs, and builds confidence within themselves and the people they work with . Therefore, in order to assist in the economic empowerment of women, it is crucial that these workshops exist.
Pictured is a co-worker discussing the significance of leadership and equality in the business industry. This photo was taken at our first workshop out of 10.
After learning about gender equality and experiencing it, it has come to my attention that empowering women will allow for the elimination of obstacles and increase the overall employment rate for women in Sri Lanka, especially in my mandate location, Matara. Getting more Sri Lankan women to work is crucial to achieving the country’s growth and equity goals. Eliminating gender disparities can be recognized as “smart economics” and will assist in the development process of the country; it enhances economic productivity and improves growth results .
During my 4 years of studies, every professor has made it clear that international development is multidimensional and complex. This saying is something I could never truly understand until coming to Sri Lanka. Gender equality has been present in this country for a long time, incorporates many different perspectives, sectors, and traditions, and is complex to address. These difficult dimensions are the reason why women in Sri Lanka continuously struggle to gain economic recognition, and most importantly, an equal place in society.
1. Attygalle, K., Hirimuthugodage, D., Madurawala, S., Senaratne, A., Wijesinha, A., & Edirisinghe, C. (2014). Female Entrepreneurship and the Role of Business Development Services in Promoting Small and Medium Women Entrepreneurs in Sri Lanka. Retrieved from http://www.ips.lk/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/female_entrepreneurship.pdf
2. Ayadurai, S., & Sohail, M. S. (2006). Profile Of Women Entrepreneurs In A War-Torn Area: Case Study Of North East Sri Lanka. Journal of Developmental Entrepreneurship,11(01), 3-17. doi:10.1142/s1084946706000234
3. Hewapathirana, G. I. (2011). The role of social identity in internationalization of women‐owned small businesses in Sri Lanka. Journal of Asia Business Studies,5(2), 172-193. doi:10.1108/15587891111152339
4. World Bank. (2017, November). Closing Sri Lanka’s Gender Gaps in the Workforce. Retrieved from http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2017/11/15/closing-sri-lanka- gender-gaps-workforce