Public school in Galle, Sri Lanka. Strict cultural norms prevent women from exploring their full potential.
‘Deranged cultural standards’ - How Sri Lanka’s misogyny is impeding its economic recovery
The economic crisis which hit Sri Lanka in 2022 had an immense impact on the economic wellbeing of all citizens. Yet, the ones who were the most impacted by the soaring inflation and workforce layoffs were the ones who were already struggling to make ends meet – women.
Even before the crisis, there was a stark discrepancy in labour force participation, an obvious manifestation of gender inequality in Sri Lanka. According to the World Bank data, as of 2020, 75% of Sri Lankan men participated in the labour force, while the rate for women lagged significantly at 33%.
Behind the gender disparity is misogyny, an attitude that is deeply embedded in Sri Lankan society, resulting in women’s disadvantaged position in accessing resources, significantly limited work opportunities and insufficient political representation.
As early as 2019, the McKinsey Global Institute estimated that advancing gender equality in Sri Lanka could add $64 billion to its GDP by 2025.
After the economic collapse, it seems that addressing the issue of misogyny and promoting women’s economic inclusion should be a top priority for Sri Lanka’s economic recovery efforts.
Although the women Harbingers’ spoke to in Sri Lanka seem to be aware that strict cultural norms prevent them from exploring their full potential, these interviews also show how multifaceted a challenge the misogyny poses.
Gaulle, Sri Lanka. Journalist Tharushi Weerasinghe: “As of now, a woman’s life stops at pregnancy, especially when they are both workers and homemakers.”
One of the main issues faced by Sri Lankan women is that their lives from a very early stage are dictated by marriage and motherhood.
“As of now, a woman’s life stops at pregnancy. Especially when they are both workers and homemakers,” said Sri Lankan award-winning journalist Tharushi Weerasinghe, a reporter with Colombo-based The Sunday Times.
She went on: “A lot of it actually has to do with the lack of comprehensive sexual education. Due to insufficient sexual education in schools, women don’t know how to plan a family.”
Continuing to state how ‘teenage pregnancies are a problem in Sri Lanka and with the stigma attached to it, the first step is always to get the girl married off. Because of this, a woman’s life can be virtually over at the age of 15.’
On average, a woman in Sri Lanka gets married at the age of 24. That is more than six years earlier than the average for the United Kingdom – and according to a 2017 study, what is now normal in Sri Lanka, was typical in the UK in the early 1970s.
Even if a woman evades the requirements of forming a union at an early age, there is not that much she can do to support herself, especially during the economic slowdown.
Journalist and human rights activist Buwanaka Perera explained that during the crisis, women were the first to withdraw from economic activity: “When it comes to opportunities for women, there is a disparity. Women are expected to take a step back from the workforce.”
Furthermore, leading an independent life may prove dangerous for a woman. “I can go down the street but it’s not possible for a woman. She will either get catcalled or molested, and it’s something that women of all ages will face on a daily basis,” Buwanaka stated.
This reality shapes the decisions of families. Serika, a 21 year-old university student, shared her opinion: “The view regarding young girls is that they are a burden rather than an asset. From the get-go, a daughter is looked at as a burden because she can’t work in the fields, she can’t do manual labour, and so the only thing she can do is grow up and get married.”
“Sri Lanka doesn’t provide young girls with sufficient conditions to get a valuable education. Girls are more likely to drop out [of school] than boys. A lot of it has to do with period poverty.”
“They don’t have adequate and hygienic facilities at schools so girls will often choose to miss that week of school rather than have to deal with the complications outside of their homes. There are a number of constraints to women’s education in this country.”
Girls at a public school in Gaulle, Sri Lanka. “The view regarding young girls is that they are a burden rather than an asset." | Picture by Nadia
One of the primary reasons for the low economic activity of women is the strain of unpaid caretaking.
While women account for 73.5% of Sri Lanka’s economically inactive population, according to the 2020 Sri Lanka Labour Force Survey, 60.8% of them claimed that household work restrained them from participating in economic activities.
I caught a glimpse of this during a visit to a local education facility in Galle, where I interviewed Nadeeka and Renuka, who work at the school.
Nadeeka’s life story appears to confirm that marriage is in Sri Lanka perceived to be a more valuable asset than education.
“There were problems with my mother and father. My home environment was harmful to me. I dropped out [of school] a week before my A-level exams, and I got married because I wanted to leave my home. I was 17. The man I got married to was my neighbour. His father pretty much raised me when I was younger. The day he died, he told my now-husband to bring me to their household, so I went,” she recounted.
She and her husband, however, seem to be trying to make a change for their children. “Because of the troubles we experienced when we were young, we send our children to school even if it means going hungry. We know how important it is, we try to lay a path [for them] that wasn’t laid for us.”
"We send our children to school even if it means going hungry." Gaulle, Sri Lanka | Picture by Nadia
Her friend Renuka, who also works at the school, is an embodiment of how unpaid caretaking restricts women from contributing to the economy. “School ends at 1:30 pm, after school we do housework. We work till we go to sleep. We get up early, cook and get the kids ready for school. We wake up at around 3 or 4 in the morning.”
The allocation of Renuka’s time to domestic responsibilities curtails her capacity to actively participate in the labour force, subsequently diminishing her potential to acquire income, which in turn restricts contributions to government tax revenues and curbs discretionary consumer expenditures.
Sri Lanka could make significant progress by supporting women in having their households equipped with automatic appliances and providing them with affordable education and childcare services.
This would take a lot of the burden off women’s shoulders and allow them to focus their energy on growing their careers, thus positively contributing to the Lankan economy.
Policies aiming at sharing parental duties between men and women, limiting menstrual poverty, and improving pregnancy prevention awareness and access to contraceptives would empower women to enter and remain in the workforce.
Changes would enable as many as five million women – 22% of Sri Lanka’s population – to engage in paid employment, allowing the nation to benefit from a larger and more diverse talent pool, leading to increased productivity and tax revenue for the government, boosting the GDP by almost $9 billion annually – a growth rate of 10% if five million women were paid Sri Lanka’s current minimum wage of $1,619 a year.
Briton Saskia Walker organised English lessons for kids in Colombo. “Usually, no female students would show up. The girls’ parents deemed the trip too dangerous, as sexual assault on public transport is a common occurrence.”
Sasika Walker, an English teacher at a local school in Galle, referenced her own story to showcase how the lack of women’s safety in the country impacts Lankan girls’ education.
She organised English lessons for kids in Colombo city centre outside of school – free of charge conversations so children could practise their English.
“Usually no female students would show up. Apparently, the girls’ parents wouldn’t allow their daughters to travel to class because they deemed the trip too dangerous, as sexual assault on public transport is such a common occurrence.”
Tharushi Weerasinghe confirmed: “Women don’t feel safe most of the time. It’s the fear of getting hurt that’s holding them back. Education is the best tool we have, to deal with the patriarchy, misogyny, and deranged cultural standards.”
The emphasis women put on education is not incidental – investing in education provides a powerful catalyst for economic growth, especially amongst the members of underserved communities like Sri Lanka’s women.
Arguably, once women are provided with equal educational opportunities and encouraged to pursue higher education instead of deeming homemaking the only realistic aspiration, women would gain access to better job opportunities and higher-paid positions, which could in turn help bridge the gender wage gap.
In the long term, an educated female workforce would drive innovation, entrepreneurship, and productivity.
The inclusion of women in the Sri Lankan economy, however, would have to be preceded by a deep reconsideration of societal norms, making it a long and difficult process for the Lankan society.
The change would improve not only women’s societal position but the wellbeing of the entire nation.