Economically Empowering Sri Lankan Women: One Strategy Does Not Fit All

*This blog is written to mark International Women’s Day on 08 March 2018. This year, Sri Lanka celebrates the International Women’s Day nationally with the theme ‘Strong Woman Reveals, the Path for Progress’.


More than half the working population in Sri Lanka consists of women. But out of the total working age population, the share of employed women is only 18%. At the same time, around 80% of the economically active women of Sri Lanka are from the rural sector. The rural sector also records the highest unemployment rate for women compared to other sectors. The unemployment rate among rural women is 7.3%, which is higher than the unemployment rates for both urban women (6.2%) and estate women (4.1%).


When empowering women economically, it is important to look at the differences in women’s needs and priorities from different settings in order to introduce more effective development efforts. For example, most of the rural women tend to engage in agricultural activities whereas the urban women are employed in the non-agricultural sector. Thus, rural and urban women need to be considered separately.


As part of an IPS recent study*, women from both rural and urban communities were consulted to identify the factors that hinder them from being economically empowered.


Barriers to Economic Empowerment


Limited job opportunities for rural women; no flexibility for urban women: even though there are scores of unemployed women who are willing to work in rural areas, there are only a few job opportunities for them at their villages. Many of them engage in agricultural activities as ‘contributing family members’ (involved in a family business or farming without payment), as they have no other choice. Men from the rural communities overcome this problem relatively easily by migrating to urban areas, where jobs are available. However, limitations in mobility, familial responsibilities, and safety concerns prevent women, particularly married women and those with young children, from leaving their villages to search for jobs. On the contrary, when it comes to urban women, finding a job is not a difficult task, especially for young and unmarried women. But, married women with children from urban areas are concerned about the lack of flexibility in available job opportunities and their difficulties in balancing the job requirements and familial responsibilities.




Rural women lack physical access to markets; all women need better negotiating skills: community consultations carried out by IPS during the study revealed that, regardless of gender, those in rural areas have difficulty accessing markets. They find it challenging to sell their products at a fair price due to the heavy dependency on intermediaries, and failure to establish reliable channels in accessing markets. That being said, women in these communities are even more disadvantaged than their male counterparts. Women find it more difficult to transport their produce to the urban areas (including loading and unloading, finding a suitable vehicle) and are pushed around more when it comes to negotiating. Comparatively, women from urban communities do not face such difficulties in accessing markets, but they also lack negotiation skills which is essential for effective market access.


Both rural and urban women lack financial literacy: there are many loan schemes operated by various parties (state banks, private banks, financial institutes, and micro-finance organizations), in all parts of Sri Lanka. However, due to tight procedural requirements of banks and other financial organizations (e.g., providing collaterals, finding state employees as guarantors), micro-finance organizations are preferred; most of them target women with special loan schemes. However, most of the community members from rural as well as urban sectors are of the opinion that these loan schemes are not helping women improve their economic status, but are a ‘trap’ that weakens women’s economic advancement. This situation has arisen due to the lack of financial literacy and financial management skills of women.




Rural women lack access to training opportunities, urban women lack knowledge on training opportunities: acquiring a recognized vocational training qualification is an important starting point in obtaining a good job or in starting a business. However, rural women find it difficult to attend such programmes, owing to lengthy travel times and transport costs as most of the vocational training programmes are conducted in urban areas; on the other hand, urban women lack knowledge and information about such programmes.


Breaking Down the Barriers


It is important to use different strategies when addressing the issues faced by women from different settings. A blanket approach will not be effective in this regard.


More opportunities, more flexibility: for women in rural areas, the availability of job opportunities is the priority. Women who participated at the community consultations from rural areas suggested setting up industries in close proximity, using resources available in the villages, to create more job opportunities especially for women. Work options such as flexible working hours and working from home can be introduced for women from urban areas.


Better access, smarter negotiation: ruralwomen are mostly engaged in agriculture and self-employment, and therefore, effective market access is crucial to selling their products at a reasonable price. The community members proposed establishing collecting centers at village levels and directly involving the government to buy the produce to facilitate market access. Attention should be given in developing negotiation skills of both rural and urban women as it has been shown that men tend to achieve better economic results in negotiation than women.


Better management and understanding of finances: though micro-finance institutes and loan schemes offered by various institutions have widened credit access opportunities for women, women’s naivety about financial and credit management has prevented the effective use of these schemes. Awareness creation, tight regulation, and more scrutiny can ensure the effective usage of such loan schemes.


Better reach for vocational training: if the authorities can make arrangements to offer vocational training programmes at the village level or at close proximity, it would increase rural women’s participation in such programmes. For urban women, effective communication and information sharing is more important. Use of modern technology (mobile phones) and social media would give more effective results in sharing information with urban women.



*This article is based on the research findings of the ‘A Desk Review to Assess the Sri Lankan Girls’ and Young Women’s Economic and Social Empowerment for Leadership’ done by IPS, with the guidance of the Ministry of Women and Child Affairs, and funding from Plan International Sri Lanka.



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