Breaking through barriers on a road to empowerment

Domestic chores unfairly impacting women's workforce participation.

‘Women’s empowerment' is a phrase oft-repeated across the world and specifically in South Asia, where there is growing recognition that greater female participation in economic activities is vital for sustainable development and social justice. Yet, South Asian women still face significant institutional and cultural barriers when attempting to access such opportunities.

On Tuesday, at the Jetwing Colombo Seven hotel in Cinnamon Gardens, a conference was held, fittingly titled, 'Reimagining Women’s Empowerment in South Asia,' which gathered representatives from Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Nepal—as well as the United States, Canada, and Germany—in an attempt to promote a regional dialogue between parliamentarians, policymakers, researchers, and practitioners.

The goal? To identify clear and actionable evidence-based policy pathways that will enable women’s economic empowerment. Sponsored by the Urban Institute, the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, and the Canadian Government’s International Development Research Centre, the event included a series of expert panels and country-specific working sessions, as well as remarks by Canadian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka David McKinnon, Sri Lankan Constitutional Council Member Radhika Coomaraswamy and National Policies and Economic Affairs Deputy Minister Harsha de Silva.

The conference was a capstone to the 'GrOW' programme, which stands for Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women. For five years, researchers in more than 50 countries worked to strengthen the evidence base linking economic growth and gender equality. Now entering its final year, researchers are trying to disseminate their findings so they are used by local policymakers.

‘Unfair expectations’

A woman running her own tailoring business.

“Good research is absolutely critical in finding policy gaps that exist,” said High Commissioner David McKinnon, in his opening remarks. He emphasized his country’s commitment to supporting gender equality in international development.

The first panel of the day, moderated by Urban Institute Center Director Elizabeth Peters, was titled, 'Impact of Economic Empowerment on Economic Growth and Welfare: South Asian Perspectives.' Its aim was to foster an understanding of the basics of why and how gender equality is fundamental to the transformation of societies in order to achieve greater social and economic well-being, human rights, and social justice.

The panelists began by addressing a problem particularly apparent in South Asia: that even as the educational gap between men and women is closing, women’s participation in the labour force is not catching up. “We are trying to understand what affects women’s lives in these markets,” said Rohini Somanathan, a Professor of Economics at the Delhi School of Economics.

Minister Harsha de Silva, in remarks delivered to a crowded room, focused on how local, cultural and religious practices and beliefs may be a reason for women’s low participation in the labour force. He informed the audience that while 96 percent of Sri Lankan women are literate—an impressive number not just for South Asia, but for the world—only 36 percent are in the labour force. He also referenced unpaid labour by women—including household work, which is twice as much for women as men and child care, which is four times as much. “There seem to be barriers that restrict women’s agency,” he said.

He named a few of those barriers: harassment on public transportation and in workplaces and unfair expectations of disproportionate domestic work. “Very often, women shoulder the double burden of care as they provide care for the elderly as well as children,” he said.

In addition, “harassment in public transport has been coming up over and over and over as a reason women don’t want to go to work in those packed buses and trains,” he said. He said it was an “embarrassing” situation.

De Silva said people must work these prejudices out internally and he praised the Government’s recent initiative to establish a 25 percent quota for women in local elections.

Culture as main barrier to workforce entry

Other GrOW researchers also pointed to culture as a main barrier to workforce participation. Speaking after De Silva, Mona Sherpa, Deputy Country Director at HELVETAS Swiss Interco-operation in Nepal, said progress could not be made without attacking these pervasive gender norms. “If this traditional role is not managed, no amount of development will be enough to bridge the gap,” she said.

Case studies from Pakistan emphasized how educational achievement and job training does not always translate into workforce participation. Feyza Bhatti, a lead researcher with GrOW, said that in her study, “women realised their skills were not converting into market acceptance.” As an intervention, her team designed a “market linkages” programme to make sure women were trained for specific job placements.

Charles Cadwell, from the Urban Institute in Pakistan, said a study had found that violence and the fear of violence, were significant barriers to women entering the workplace. “We strongly recommend increasing surveillance and safety measures and training of public transport personnel to be vigilant about women’s safety,” he said.

To close off the day, event participants broke out into country-specific working groups. Leading the Sri Lankan working group was Ramani Gunatilaka, a Research Associate at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Sri Lanka. Each country’s working group was tasked with determining two issues which—if solved—would significantly increase the potential for empowerment of women in the respective countries.

The Sri Lankan working group discussed an array of issues and determined unanimously to select issues that didn’t just impact the country as a whole, but the oft-disadvantaged north and east too. With this in mind, the leaders of the group ended up selecting the transformation of education—both specific policies as well as norms and stereotypes enforced in a child’s educational career—as the issue to focus on.

But other issues discussed in the working group have much relevance to the gender conversation too. There were suggestions to zero in on workplace sexual harassment by ensuring there are modes which allow women to report it safely and without fear of retribution. There were suggestions to create a legislative framework for flexi-hour work—that is, work that is less traditional, not done in an office full-time, but either part-time, from home, or a mix of the two. There were suggestions to create a better path to self-sufficient livelihoods for women who’ve been pushed by varying agents into the agricultural field, which participants pointed out often has low returns, is still brawn-based and less sympathetic to the female body, and is quite risky today given the ebbs and flows of climate change.

Afterward, each country presented their issues. Notably, representatives of India focused on ensuring direct investment in programmes working toward women’s empowerment, representatives of Bangladesh focused on preventing child marriage, representatives of Pakistan focused on stopping domestic violence and gender-based violence more generally, and representatives of Nepal focused on institutionalizing community childcare centers.

Leaving the conference after nearly nine hours of intense discussion, thought, and determining next steps, the mostly female participants felt satisfied with the day. And as more than one told me while walking out the door, they’re excited to get back to work. 

Women and men as equals in the workplace

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