An economist once said that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. Sri Lanka’s women have been hard hit by twin crises — the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis — that have set back efforts to achieve gender parity in the island nation. “Increasing women’s economic and political participation is vital for economic recovery, and the current crisis presents an opportunity to advance gender equality,” says
the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), a Colombo-based think tank.
Sri Lanka’s women have been battered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Female heads of households, in particular, are disproportionately burdened by the pandemic. They head 25.8% of households, or 1.4 million, in the South Asian country, says UN Women
. Many are widows whose husbands were killed in the decades-long civil war in the country.
The women are more likely to carry a “triple burden
.” They are often the sole breadwinner of the family while engaging in unpaid care work and domestic work, defined by IPS as “all non-market, unpaid activities carried out in households.” The women spend 204 minutes daily on unpaid care work — almost double the 114 minutes per day that men do, reports EconomyNext
Sri Lanka’s current economic crisis has further worsened the plight of these women. “A UN survey in May 2022 indicates women and girls’ vulnerability to violence is increasing at the same time as services, including health, police, shelter, and hotlines, are declining due to a lack of financial resources,” reports UNFPA
IPS says that “promoting gender equality would help Sri Lanka overcome the crisis and create a more resilient economy that can effectively absorb future economic shocks.” It recommends policies such as prioritizing data collection to improve the recognition of unpaid care work and adopting affirmative action for higher female political representation.
There are too few women in decision-making positions in Sri Lanka. Only 12 lawmakers in the 225-member legislature, a measly 5.3%
, are women. This has led to a lack of gender sensitivity in policies and programs.
Countless images of women— some with newborn babies leaving them with equally young children while they queued for gas or kerosene — have filled Sri Lankan television screens, social media, and newspapers.
Women work their fingers to the bone in the country’s top three foreign exchange earners: garments, tea exports, and migrant workers to the Middle East.
“Yet, Sri Lankan policy pronouncements rarely mention working-class women,” write feminist economists Bhumika Muchhala, Kanchana N. Ruwanpura, and Smriti Rao in Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt
. “In a country where women comprise 52% of the population, this is astounding.”Recently
, Sri Lanka President Ranil Wickremesinghe proposed a new bill on gender equality and women’s empowerment to be submitted to Parliament soon. Wickremesinghe stressed the need to increase women’s representation in the Parliament and the public and private sectors.