Gender inequality in the workforce in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh: What needs to be done to increase female empowerment?

Progress Bar Loading with the text: Equality

          A common theme that has emerged throughout the past four blog posts is that Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi female factory workers are poorly treated due to the lack of gender equality. In contrast to the education and health sectors which have made substantial improvements, the labor market remains a primary source of gender inequality in both countries. Due to labor exploitation, sexual and physical violence, and minimal access to certain social and political advantages, women continue to be placed on a lower platform than men.

          Throughout Sri Lanka, “women make up the majority of the vulnerable groups that have emerged, which include those retrenched under economic reforms, female heads of less affluent households, and women who have been affected by armed conflict and the tsunami who have lost their livelihoods and are in urgent need of access to income earning opportunities” (Jayaweera et al., 2007, 43). Since women are relatively disadvantaged in the employment structure, they are not receiving the incomes they need to survive. Specifically, many women have sought employment in both garment factories and overseas domestic labor, in which they are solely at the bottom of the power hierarchy. The international and local labor market continues to demand low cost/low wage female workers because it has been a “comparative advantage for national policy makers” (Jayaweera et al., 2007, 44). In other words, due the presence of hierarchical gender ideologies in Sri Lanka, women are viewed as the “subordinate” group. As a result, business owners are able to treat them solely as they please in order to keep the cost of goods low and maximize their profit. Unfortunately, the gender inequality women in Sri Lanka experience goes beyond economic exploitation. In addition to low wages, female workers experience job insecurity, long working hours, hazardous working environments, physical and sexual harassment/abuse, etc. Although these issues may not always be reported, there is evident documentation proving that this is a widespread issue in Sri Lanka.

          Since increasing numbers of females have entered the workforce in Sri Lanka, the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the Employers Federation of Ceylon (EFC) urge that Sri Lankan companies become more gender sensitive. According to a study commissioned by the ILO and EFC titled, “Beyond Glass Ceilings and Brick Walls; Gender at the Workplace,” there are various forms of gender bias in the Sri Lankan workforce (Samaraweera, 2006). For example, regardless of their qualifications, men have a greater chance of being recruited or hired into certain types of employment. Men are also more likely to be promoted to higher positions. What’s interesting about this finding is that men are not always promoted based on their track record for better performance or better decision making skills (Samaraweera, 2006). In other words, male workers can easily be promoted to top positions simply because they are male and are viewed as the “superior gender” in Sri Lanka. With this being said, because women are perceived as the “inferior gender,” they are primarily concentrated in lower positions. Although business owners may be benefiting from the goods workers are producing, companies in the long run are not making the most of educated human resources by hiring and promoting males strictly due to their gender and not necessarily their qualifications. Gender inequality becomes an important issue because both men and women have equal potential in the workforce. The main barrier to achieving gender equality are the biases and stereotypes surrounding women. Therefore, the most effective way to help women begin to get ahead in the workforce is to facilitate women’s empowerment.

          Similar to Sri Lankan women, Bangladeshi women face many barriers and disadvantages in their lives that go beyond a lack of economic opportunity. The other main struggles women encounter in Bangladesh are access to health care, political participation, and control of finances (Hasan, 2016). Specifically, Bangladeshi women are fighting to establish their rights in family, society, and in the state; however, discriminatory laws and policies hinder formal equality and certain social and political conditions continue to prevent women from exercising their rights (World Vision International, 2016). Another challenge is that even though there are certain laws to prevent violence against women, the enforcement of these laws remains unsatisfactory. Fortunately, the USAID has been working to set up programs in Bangladesh that solely focus on women’s empowerment. The USAID seeks to increase female participation, reduce gender inequality, and raise awareness about the positive impacts of empowering women and girls throughout society (Hasan, 2016). For example, in 2014 the USAID programs in Bangladesh trained more than 33,000 women farmers to use fertilizer deep placement technology; as a result, this helped them reduce fertilizer use by as much as 30 percent while increasing crop yields up to 20 percent (Hasan, 2016). Not only is the USAID working to place women on the same platform as men, but their advocacy is increasing community connectedness throughout Bangladesh. Additionally, men have become more knowledgeable on these gender issues and are starting to form joint alliances to help fight for the equal status of women. The USAID programs in Bangladesh can positively affect Sri Lanka as well because the USAID has the power and resources to expand their advocacy in other countries or regions in which gender inequality is an evident issue.

          Gender issues are fortunately now being prioritized by aid and development agencies as seen in the USAID programs in Bangladesh. However, gender inequality remains one of the biggest development challenges of the twenty first century. Therefore, it is important to conclude with a discussion of how the world can be a more equitable place for women and girls. The western newspaper, The Guardian, recently published an article discussing twelve steps that need to be taken to achieve gender equality on a global scale. One of these solutions is to stop sexual harassment. In Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, in particular, sexual harassment is a prominent issue in both the workforce and other areas of life. Not only is sexual harassment a violation of fundamental human rights, but it is also a major barrier to women’s full potential (Leach, 2016).  Another important solution that has been discussed multiple times throughout my blog posts is the need to give proper value to “women’s work.” Specifically, the low-waged work women and girls do provide the foundation for the global economy. Increased research and awareness on this point would be beneficial in emphasizing the key role women and girls have in the economy and the need for proper recognition and compensation (Leach, 2016). In addition, there needs to be a global increase in campaigns for equal pay and equal work. Lastly, there is a need to stop violence. Gender inequality is associated with violence; because women are viewed as inferior to men, they can be treated a sexual objects. The UN has found that globally, one in three women will experience violence in her lifetime (Leach, 2016). Fortunately, many actors, including the UN, ILO, and USAID have done a significant amount of advocacy work to raise more awareness on the issue of violence against women and discuss effective prevention and response strategies. However, there is still a lot more work that needs to be done until women experience true equality with men in all facets of life.

References

Hasan, W. (2016). GENDER EQUALITY AND WOMEN’S EMPOWERMENT. USAID. https://www.usaid.gov/bangladesh/gender-equality-and-womens-empowerment

Jayaweera, S., Wijemanne, H., Wanasundera, L., & Vitarana, K. M. (2007). Gender Dimensions of the Millennium Development Goals in Sri Lanka (Publication). Colombo: Centre for Women’s Research. http://www.undp.org/content/dam/srilanka/docs/mdg/Gender_Dimensions%20of%20Sri%20Lanka.pdf

Leach, A. (2016, March 14). 12 steps to achieve gender equality in our lifetimes. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2016/mar/14/gender-equality-women-girls-rights-education-empowerment-politics  

Samaraweera, D. (2006). Working women of Sri Lanka dealing with brick walls and glass ceilings. Sunday Times. Ik. Retrieved from http://www.sundaytimes.lk/060813/ft/4.4.html  

World Vision International: Bangladesh (2016). Gender equality. Retrieved from http://www.wvi.org/bangladesh/gender-equality  

 

2 thoughts on “Gender inequality in the workforce in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh: What needs to be done to increase female empowerment?”

  1. Hi Erica!

    You discussed that there are laws in Bangladesh to protect women, however they are not sufficiently enforced, and I think that is a significant barrier towards achieving equality. I fear that in the eyes of the government or even outsiders looking in, seeing laws masks the severity of GBV. Yes, there are legal protections but if they are not enforced then they are useless. I wonder if there are ways to increase enforcement of these laws? I’m also curious if there have been successful legal cases against law enforcement that failed to keep women safe? I think that seeing law on paper gives too many people a false sense of comfort and that until gender laws are taken seriously, equality will be difficult to achieve.

  2. Hi Erica,

    Thanks for your blog post. The work that USAID is doing is very insightful, and not something I’ve had a chance to look into. While reading your post a number of questions arose. What role do you think transnational corporations have in maintaining unequal gender relations in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka? Do transnational corporations create new gender inequalities? And do you think that entering the workforce is always going to be liberatory for women? From my understanding, many of the jobs that men have in these countries are exploitative as well.

    Best,
    Ian

Leave a Reply to Ian Jackson Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*