Empowerment of women, also referred to as gender empowerment has attained prominence in mainstream development discourse. It is a concept that has several different and inter-related components. Empowerment has gained acceptance as a process to effect an equitable distribution of power, in terms of inter-personal relations and institutions.
The internationally agreed Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) underline the importance of gender equality in attaining the goals in the areas of poverty, health, education, environment and development. Promoting gender equality and empowering women (Goal 3) and improving maternal health (Goal 5) are among the eight MDGs to be achieved by the year 2015.
Empowering women through education has important implications for women’s economic empowerment, access to information, knowledge and skills and decent and remunerative work. Viewed in a wider sense, education enhances women’s capability to make choices, develops self-confidence, decision-making power and autonomy.
The Sri Lankan Situation
Education: The Key to Empowerment
Equal access to a wide network of state schools, the provision of free primary, secondary and tertiary education and the importance attached to education at the household level have made a notable impact on gender equity and overall educational attainment. The high net primary school enrolment and completion rates at 96% and gender parity in secondary education is reflected in the increase in female literacy rates from 67.3% in 1963 to 90.8% in 2010.
However, the disparities in the provision of educational facilities and services and socio-economic constraints particularly in urban settlements, remote villages, plantations, and conflict-affected areas have resulted in pockets of educational deprivation. For instance, female literacy rates in the Nuwara Eliya (80.1%), Batticaloa (81.3%) and Ampara (87.2%) districts compare unfavourably with the overall literacy rates.
In contrast to the attainment of gender parity in general education, there are notable imbalances in the intake of female students to the engineering and technology-related courses in the universities, as well as technical colleges. In the Universities, for instance, of the 7,669 females enrolled in the academic year 2004/2005, the intake to the Science, Computer Science/IT and Engineering streams stood at 1543 (or 20.1%). The number enrolled in 2009/2010 in these courses of study grew marginally to 2714 (21.7% of the total number of females enrolled). Gender imbalances in enrolment to S&T based courses can also be traced to the impact of the traditional gender role stereotypes prevailing in the family and society in Sri Lanka.
Employment: Women in the World of Work
Employment, viewed as a source of income generation and livelihood support, is an instrument of empowerment, enhancing women’s autonomy, economic independence and control over household resources.
The growing number of females entering the workforce rose from 1,656,166 in 1995 to 2,068,667 in 2000 and 2,465,265 in 2010. According to the Sri Lanka Labour Force Survey, in 2010 females accounted 33.4% of the employed labour force, as against 30.9% in 1995.
Labour force statistics disaggregated by occupation group indicate that the female workers are concentrated in the following categories:
- Skilled agricultural and fishery workers (24.5%)
- Elementary occupations (22.7%)
- Craft and related workers (25.8%)
- Professionals (10.4%)
Less than 2% of the female work force is employed in the senior officials and managers category.
An indicator of gender inequality in the labour market is the high female unemployment rate. The overall rate of unemployment for females in 2010 (7.7%) is double that of the male unemployment rate. The incidence of unemployment is more pronounced among the educated group. The unemployment rate among females with GCE (AL) and above qualifications is 15.8%, while the corresponding rate for males is considerably lower at 7.9%.
A significant proportion (57.1% or 1,470,000) of the female work force is employed in the informal sector in a diverse range of activities particularly home-based industries, casual wage employment, in domestic and sub-contracted units. Employment in the informal sector is characterized by lower wages, less favourable and exploitative working conditions.
Women constitute the bulk of the work force inSri Lanka’s three leading foreign exchange earners viz. garments, foreign remittances and tea, making a valuable contribution to GDP, balance of payments and overall economic development. However, they are employed at the lower end of the employment ladder as assembly line operators,
in overseas domestic service, and as plantation workers. The adverse working conditions, sexual abuse and exploitation faced by migrant workers have emerged as a serious social issue. Furthermore, garment workers operating both within and outside the EPZs work long hours and under pressure to meet production targets for the export market.
The foregoing depicts the unequal status of Sri Lankan women in the employment sphere-a situation that stands in sharp contrast to the impressive social indicators, particularly in health and education. It is important to note that providing the female work force with higher technical and managerial skills would increase women’s access to productive and remunerative employment opportunities that would enable them to move up to higher levels of employment and authority.
Decision Making at the Household Level: How Sri Lankan Women Measure Up
TheSri Lanka Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) 2006-07, provides information specific to women’s empowerment inSri Lanka. Information and data was collected on women’s control over their own earnings and their participation in household decision making.
The important findings of the survey with regard to women’s empowerment at the individual and household level are outlined below:
- More than 90% of the respondents contributed to decision making either singly or jointly with their husbands on the manner in which their income is used, while 7% were not involved in the decision making process. This is a feature common to both urban and rural areas.
- The majority (57%) of the women with higher education qualifications made joint decisions, while those with the lowest qualification (40%) made joint decisions regarding the use of their income.
- The husband’s control over the wife’s earnings was highest among women with no education (15.1%), as against women who have higher education (3.9%).
The survey report concludes, “In summary, women inSri Lankahave considerable control over decisions about spending their earnings. Despite the fact that a large majority earns less than their husbands, almost half of women have autonomy on spending decisions for their earnings”…implying that women in Sri Lanka “have a strong degree of power in their homes on cash control for the well-being of their families.”
Gender empowerment, which encompasses a wide range of issues ensures women’s equal status in relation to their legal, political, economic and social rights. In this context, education in its widest sense, is a potent instrument that would empower women to reach their full potential.