Gender Equality in Human Development: What’s Holding Sri Lanka Back?

Fixing poor political representation and low labour force participation of women in Sri Lanka can boost the country’s human development indicators, argues Sunimalee Madurawala, Research Officer at IPS.


According to the Sri Lanka Human Development Report 2012, launched recently by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Sri Lanka ranks at 97 out of 187 countries – scoring 0.692 on the Human Development Index (HDI)[i]. A key part of HDI for a country is the Gender Inequality Index (GII) which measures inequality in achievements between women and men. Calculation of GII is also based on three dimensions; reproductive health (measured by the maternal mortality rate per 100,000 live births, adolescent fertility per 1,000 women aged 15-19), empowerment (measured by parliamentary representation and the percentage of people who have at least lower secondary education in the age group of 25 years and over), and labour market (labour force participation rate for the 15-64 age group).


Sri Lanka is widely acclaimed as having established excellent human development at a relatively lower level of economic growth. Although Sri Lanka is categorized as a country with ‘medium human development’ with a GII rank of 74, health and education indicators for Sri Lanka are as good as countries with ‘very high’ and ‘high’ human development. With such good performances on health and education indices, what is holding back Sri Lanka from further improving its standing in the HDI?


According to the comparable data given in the table below, the problems lies in the poor female representation in the national parliament and low female participation in the labour force.



Table 1: Gender Inequality Index and related indicators




rate per 100,000 live births (2008)


fertility rate (2011)

Seats in



(% female) (2011)

with at least



(% ages 25

and older) (2010)

Labour force

participation rate

(%) female (2009)

Very high human development







High human development







Medium human development







Low human development














Sri Lanka







Source: UNDP (2011), Human Development Report 2011, Sustainability & Equity: A Better Future for All


13 to represent 10 million


Sri Lankan women are more educated, and participate in the labour market more actively, than most of their regional counterparts. At the community level too, we can observe that females are as actively engaged in social activities as males. The majority of the members of Community Based Organizations (CBOs), such as funeral assistance societies and microfinance societies, are females. In nearly every village in Sri Lanka, women’s societies serve the community in many ways. Sri Lankan culture itself promotes and ensures a woman’s dignity and her place in the society. Sri Lanka has produced the world’s first Female Prime Minister, and elected its first female Executive President in 1994. In such a context, it is quite surprising to see poor political participation by Sri Lankan women. This is not a recent trend but a phenomenon observed since independence. Even though the majority of the country’s population is female, there are only 13 female parliamentarians in the current parliament, of which 3 are from the national list (less than 6% of the total 225 seats). This scenario is even worse when it comes to the district level. In 16 of the 25 districts, the proportion of female representation at the national parliament is 0.1%[ii]. According to the Sri Lanka Human Development Report 2012, political parties are the single biggest barrier to women’s greater participation in politics. Males are preferred over females, both by political parties and voters, to be nominated and to be elected. “Reasons for the low representation of women in politics start at the personal level, where fewer women than men self-elected themselves for a political career because of socio-cultural, economic, and psychological barriers[iii]”. The vicious climate of violence in the election process has also become an influential factor in discouraging interested females from entering the political arena.


Be employed or not to be employed?


In Sri Lanka, labour force participation by females is lagging behind their male counterparts, remaining stagnant at 30% for many years. This means that despite the Sri Lankan economy’s heavy dependence on women (tea, apparels, and migrant worker remittances), more than half of the females in the work force are not engaged in any kind of economic activity and their capabilities are under-utilized. National-level data also reveals that the unemployment rate is higher for women with higher educational attainments,[iv] implying that investments made on them are not generating the expected economic returns to the country.


Labour force participation for women depends much more on the social context than it does for men. Factors that appear to have no effect on male participation in the labour force do affect the level and trend of female employment. For example, other than the standard economic variables such as education, experience, wages and income, many non-economic variables, like marital status and fertility, influence the female labour supply. The social context would dictate that women are expected to play many roles in their day-to-day lives. Despite being engaged in productive activities (being employed), women also have to engage in reproductive activities, and social activities. This sets a ‘triple burden’ on women. It creates career related stress for female employees – adversely affecting their productivity, necessitating more time off, restricting their ability to undergo rigorous training locally and overseas, and working overtime. Traditional familial responsibilities of a female, especially as a mother, constrains women in their choice of employment, as do her family’s and society’s attitudes towards certain types of employment, that keep the job market segregated by gender – with certain jobs being classified as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’. Further, costs related to maternity and child care benefits that need to be borne by employers create gender discrimination against females. Work Related Costs (WRC) tends to rise with marriage and children, thus affecting the balance of benefits and costs of being employed.


Breaking the Barriers


It is true that attempts have been made by several interested groups to increase women’s political participation, including through lobbing and advocating. But progress is rather slow as what is required is a ‘system change’. Women’s political participation should be encouraged from the very bottom (i.e., at the local government level). In this context, abolishing the preferential voting system (which is seen as the main reason for political violence[v]) at the local government level, and passing the new Local Authorities Election Amendment Bill and the Local Authorities Special Provision Bill by the national parliament, can be regarded as a good move. Strong commitment by members at the highest level of political parties is another crucial factor in increasing female political participation. Women, on the other hand, have a responsibility to be vigilant; to vote, and elect women who can address their problems and issues effectively.


Low labour force participation by females can be reduced by addressing issues arising due to ‘non-economic’ factors (i.e., marriage, children, etc.).More efficient government intervention in this regard, for instance, regulating and monitoring existing day-care centers and crèches, is a practical step that should be taken immediately. More formalized regulatory framework would also encourage the private sector to make more investments on day-care centers and crèches and thereby, close the gap in supply. Research on female labour market issues also suggest that the provision of an allowance to working mothers, in order to cover child care costs (for example, Child Care Benefit (CCB) payment in Australia and Universal Child Care Benefit (UCCB) in Canada) would be beneficial to employees as well as to the economy as a whole, as it would bring down the Work Related Costs of working mothers and, thus, encourage them to remain in employment[vi].



image credit: Anushka Wijesinha (2011), All rights reserved. Consent of the subject in this photograph has been obtained prior to use of the image.

[i] HDI is calculated based on three important dimensions of human life, namely health, education and income.

[ii] UNDP (2012), Sri Lanka Human Development Report 2012: Bridging Regional Disparities for Human Development

[iii] Ibid, p 115

[iv] Department of Census and Statistics- Sri Lanka

[v] South Asian’s for Human Rights (2010), Parliament Watch-Sri Lanka, 3rd Quarterly Report October – December 2010 []. Last accessed on 11th October 2012

[vi] Madurawala D.S.P.(2009).’Labour force participation of women in child bearing ages’, Sri Lanka Journal of Population Studies, Volume 11:01-38 December 2009