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Gender Inequality in Sri Lanka

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Title: Gender Inequality in Sri Lanka  
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Gender Inequality in Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan garment workers

Gender Inequality in Sri Lanka is centered around the inequalities that arise between men and women in Sri Lanka. Specifically, these inequalities affect many aspect of women's lives, starting with sex-selective abortions and male preferences, education and schooling, which goes on to effect job opportunities, property rights, access to health and political participation. While Sri Lanka is ranked well on several gender equality indices in comparison to other countries in the region, there are also some sources that question the verity of these indices.[1] However, globally, Sri Lanka ranks relatively lower on gender equality indices.[2] Overall, this pattern of social history that disempowers females produces a cycle of undervaluing females, providing only secondary access to health care and schooling and thus less opportunities to take on high level jobs or training, which then exacerbates the issue of low political participation and lowered social rights, a cycle studied and noted on by Dr. Elaine Enarson, a disaster sociologist studying the connection between disaster and role of women.[3]


  • History 1
  • Gender Statistics 2
  • Global rankings 3
  • Causes 4
    • Patriarchal society 4.1
    • Dowry 4.2
    • Marriage & Property rights 4.3
    • Son preference 4.4
  • Economic Inequalities 5
    • Labor participation and wages 5.1
    • Access to credit 5.2
    • Occupational inequalities 5.3
  • Education inequalities 6
    • Schooling 6.1
    • Literacy 6.2
    • Reservations for female students 6.3
  • Health inequalities 7
    • Sex-selective abortion 7.1
    • Access to healthcare 7.2
    • Gender-based violence 7.3
    • Reproductive rights 7.4
  • Political participation 8
  • References 9


Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike in Russia with Alexei Kosygin Premier of the Soviet Union

Women in Sri Lanka have had relatively more rights than many other countries in the same region for a greater portion of history. Specifically, in 1960, Sri Lanka elected Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the world's first head of state and Sri Lanka's first female prime minister. Throughout Sri Lanka's history, women have played a large role relative to other countries, especially when it comes to politics and previous armed conflicts.[4] Even given this, there are still many, sometimes less talked about, gender inequality issues in Sri Lanka that have still yet to have been resolved.

Gender Statistics

Sri Lankan woman working

The following table looks at the differences between the two genders when it comes to a number of different issues, as according to the World Bank's Gender Statistics [5]

Global rankings

There are a number of different organizations and developed methods of measuring the amount of development a country has achieved, which can focus specifically on human, economic or social development, as well as a number of other factors. A number of statistics will also combine these focuses to try and have a fuller picture of development in different countries. According to the World Economic Forum, Sri Lanka ranks 55th in the world when it comes to gender equality gap, 109th in Economic Participation and Opportunity rank, 48th on educational attainment and 30th on political participation.[6]

Sri Lanka is ranked 73/187, a .750 HDI (Human Development Index) ranking. This index measures Additionally, it is ranked 75th out of the 149 countries listed when looking at the Gender Inequality Index from 2013.[7] The Gender Inequality Index is similar to the Human Development Index in that it looks at the differences between men and women of different countries and the higher ranked a country is, the larger the gap is between the genders. The GII combines three main factors that tend to create achievement gaps between the genders. Firstly, adolescent birth rates and maternal mortality are measured to demonstrate reproductive health. Secondly, labor market participation rates are measured to convey economic status. And thirdly, they measure the proportion of women who work in parliament and levels of education, which make up the "empowerment" factor labor market participation rates are measured to convey economic status.[8]


Patriarchal society

A patriarchy is defined as "a social system in which power is held by men,through cultural norms and customs that favormen and withhold opportunity from women."[9]

The Nehru family in Sri Lanka

Some of the main causes of this gender inequality is due to the patriarchal nature of Sri Lankan culture and the historical effects of the unbalanced weight put on the value of males.[10] As time has passed, a shift in roles and expectations has started, moving towards more independence and empowerment for women.[11] However, according to Matt Withers and Janaka Biyanwila, experts in labor migration and economies, "Sri Lanka’s labour market remains heavily segmented and offers limited sustainable economic opportunity for a majority of women".[12] Specifically, in markets where men are also deprived of labor rights, like that of crop plantations, women are found to be treated even worse by their male counterparts.[13]

The patriarchal society in Sri Lanka that has been so entrenched in its history is intensely also perpetuated by the use of marriage as a social institution. Even while women may work at the same time as doing the majority of the housework and childcare, they are still marginalized as it is deemed socially incorrect to venture outside of the domestic sphere.[14]

Wedding couple in Kandy, Sri Lanka


Furthermore, gender inequality has also been continued by cultural practices, both legal and illegal, including the use of dowries and certain limiting marriage laws.[15] Dowries have been shown to have both positive and negative effects on women, while on one hand they may enhance their marriageability and allow them to gain in social status, it also places a large amount of stress and pressure on the family of the bride to provide enough funds for the family of the groom.[16] Usually, material gifts will be given to the daughter for her wedding and the groom's family will be compensated for what is sometimes deemed as the burden of the wife into the family.[17] This also can lead to gender-based violence and domestic abuse when the husband or his family believe the dowry was not sufficient.[18]

Marriage & Property rights

According to a study by the Brookings Institute, inheritance and property rights are "relatively favorable for women in Sri Lanka", but as they describe, because of the multitude of different cultural groups in Sri Lanka, along with following the general law, they will follow various additional cultural practices and requirements. The Sinhalese, Northern Tamil and Muslim practices vary from practicing Kandyan law, Thesavalamai Law and Muslim law. The Muslims and Tamils additionally use the Kudi, a matrilocal system that is expressed in marriage and religious festivals.[19] Because of these differences, there can be varying degrees of freedom when it comes to women's rights, despite having general laws that would normally protect the rights of women.[20]

Natural disasters such as the tsunami in 2004 and historical ethnic conflicts have greatly affected the dowry system as many women lost some or all of their property and material possessions, also taking away their ability to plan for the future.[21]

Son preference

Additionally, the preference for male sons and ensuing discrimination against girls has been a great detriment to the status of women in Sri Lankan culture. Specifically, prenatal sex selection has been a crucial point of issue when it comes to the discrimination against females, and has been debated by experts as to whether pre-natal sex selection might then subsequently reduce postnatal discrimination.[22]

Economic Inequalities

Labor participation and wages

Sri Lankan woman working in tea factory

Historically, women in Sri Lanka have reduced access to quality employment, and even if they do obtain a job, they are paid far less and are subject to more harassment and limitations as compared to males working the same jobs.[23] The Sri Lankan labor market is deeply separated and leaves little opportunity for women to gain access to jobs. Because of patriarchal policies imbedded in the history of this region, women are over-represented in the low-paid, laborious industries of the country.[24] Specifically, it is in these jobs that women face a disproportionate amount of labor discrimination and lack of proper wages in the name of international competitiveness and the production of additional jobs.[25] However, again due to increased political involvement by females, the conditions for these workers, especially in industries such as export-processing, have been improving in past years.[26]

Access to credit

Additionally, institutional restrictions such as access to credit and property provide also large obstacles in the way of gender equality. According to the NGO programs, poverty-oriented development banks, and savings and credit union and cooperations.[28] Having access to credit has been shown to add greatly to the capabilities of women, as seen in a study in Sri Lanka, being able to take out a loan allowed women to have more power when it came to bargaining with male members of the family.[29]

Occupational inequalities

In many cases women are deprived of equal access to jobs, even when they are not well paid or high status. The unemployment rate for women in Sri Lanka was 13% in 2012, which was six times higher than that of males, according to the Labour Force Survey taken by the department of census and statistics.[30]

Women gathering sardines on a beach of Sri Lanka
Sri Lankan woman working

Even while it may seem that these labor-intensive, export focused jobs and the injustices they must endure through them are detrimental to the status and livelihood of the women, they will in fact be the best possible option for these women and a good alternative to simply completing unpaid domestic work. The collective action and inaction of different nations to take a stand on equal labor rights especially for women is a more complicated issue than commonly described, as according to Naida Kabeer in Feminist Economics.[31] In fact, according to Kabeer, for many of the women in this industry these jobs prove to empower them and allow for additional independence in place of simply limiting their rights.[32] However, other studies suggest that these low-paying heavy-labor jobs simply are taken on by women because of economic necessity and do not contribute to their societal independence within the patriarchal society.[33] Some argue that the reason women will rank their low-paying job as better than other options is because the other options they had as a domestic worker did not allow them to dispute bad working conditions or wages without losing their jobs.[34]

In part because of the globalization of export industries, even while an industry might be becoming more competitive, the wages and working conditions have shown to be getting worse in what has been identified as a race to the bottom as industries look for cheaper and more docile labor to maximize profits.[35]

Education inequalities


Sri Lankan girl in school

Education and schooling of females in Sri Lanka is also another very pertinent sub-topic of this issue as literacy rates and retention rates of females in school is definitely still an issue in Sri Lanka, even while they may appear relatively higher up on rankings as compared to other countries nearby.[36]


Education in Sri Lanka is a large focus for the country as a whole, the constitution of which upholds education as a basic right for all people. The educational system in Sri Lanka was developed after its integration into the British Empire in the 19th century. With a literacy rate of 91.2%, 92.6% for males, 90% for females) Sri Lanka ranks as one of the most literate countries in South Asia.[37]

Reservations for female students

Health inequalities

Sex-selective abortion

Access to healthcare

Related to the cultural preference for sons, females in a family that prefers sons will usually only receive secondary health care.[38] And this, when combined with a lack of education, only permeates the lack of information generally known by women about their reproductive rights.[39]

Gender-based violence

Gender-based violence is another way that women are subjected to the limitations men create for them and how the patriarchal aspect of society is perpetuated through marriage.

Reproductive rights

Political participation

While historically Sri Lanka has been very progressive when it comes to women's participation, there are still many gains they can make before they reach gender equality.[40] Sri Lanka prides itself in having an elected the first female prime minister in the world, Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1960. She was elected following the assassination of her husband.

Even while a greater number of women are holding positions of power today, women in general are still very associated with the domestic sphere.[41]


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