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.



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.

Leach, A. (2016, March 14). 12 steps to achieve gender equality in our lifetimes. The Guardian. Retrieved from  

Samaraweera, D. (2006). Working women of Sri Lanka dealing with brick walls and glass ceilings. Sunday Times. Ik. Retrieved from  

World Vision International: Bangladesh (2016). Gender equality. Retrieved from  


Sexual Harassment: An ongoing issue that goes beyond the workforce in Sri Lanka


          Along with the micro-level issues I have explored in the previous blog posts, sexual harassment is an overarching issue that has unfortunately become commonplace in Sri Lanka. Sexual harassment is prominent in the workforce, but women are also subjected to this poor treatment throughout other domains of life. Since this issue continues to be one of the many human rights violations Sri Lankan women face, it requires advocacy on both a local and global level.  

                   Sexual harassment and violence against women has been an ongoing issue not only at Sri Lanka’s EPZ factories, but throughout other parts of the country as well, such as public transportation. Common forms of sexual harassment and violence that Sri Lankan women experience in the vicinity of factories and on public transportation include touching/ groping, sending/showing pornographic material, verbal abuse, and rape (Perera-Desilva, 2015). Sexual harassment against women has become so commonplace throughout Sri Lanka partially because women and their bodies are objectified due to social stigma. “Pejorative terms and phrases have been coined to label female factory workers as things, such as, ‘Garment baduwa’ (garment object), ‘garment kaalla’ (garment piece), and ‘Kalape kella’ (Zone girl)” (Perera-Desilva, 2015, 67). Furthermore, three-wheeler taxi drivers have been proven to be key figures in this sub-culture because they are involved in helping prostitution rings, finding hotels and guest houses for young couples for sexual activities, and locating places for illegal abortions (Perera-Desilva, 2015). This is an important point because women walking by a three-wheeler parking lot or taking a three-wheeler are subjected to unpleasant sexual remarks and gestures. Three-wheelers are located throughout Sri Lanka and sometimes are the only means of transportation women can utilize after a tiring day of work. This abuse is unfortunately unavoidable and, as a result, women are systematically dehumanized by their male perpetrators.

          In addition to garment workers, nearly 29% of female journalists in Sri Lanka have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace (Adaderana. Ik, 2015). This percentage could easily be a lot higher because many cases of sexual harassment and abuse within the workplace are not reported. Incidents of sexual harassment are usually disregarded due to the lack of support from colleagues, and complaints lodged are also typically ignored by the organization (Adaderana. Ik, 2015). For example, when one of the female victims, a Colombo-based English language journalist reported sexual abuse to a female colleague, she was advised to ignore the incident “for the sake of peace;” her Department Head also asked her to withdraw her complaint and sign a document claiming she had “misunderstood” the situation (Adaderana. Ik, 2015). The lack of a support system from authoritative figures is problematic because if colleagues and organization heads are ignoring sexual harassment allegations, not only do female workers have no one to speak to about their experiences of sexual harassment, but they inevitably feel trapped in this abuse. There is ultimately a power imbalance between female workers and male perpetrators; female workers are inexplicably forced to obey the commands of their sexual aggressors because they are viewed as their “superiors.”

          According to Fokus, a forum for women and development, the kinds of sexual harassment that take place in Sri Lanka are abundant, whether it be in the workplace, the street, or in public transportation. Forms of sexual harassment can range from catcalls on the street to the dangerous practice of asking for sexual favors in return for workplace benefits (Gomez, 2013). Sexual harassment was made a criminal offense in Sri Lanka in 1995. Specifically, section 345 of the Penal Code criminalizes sexual harassment and the offense carries a punishment of up to five years imprisonment if found guilty (Gomez, 2013). However, this law has lost its effectiveness because violence against women has become a widespread behavior in Sri Lanka. In other words, the number of reports incidents are negligible because some female workers may feel embarrassed and will not want to ‘make a scene’; the fear of retaliation and repeated acts of violence also keeps many women silent (Gomez, 2013). Therefore, the most effective and long-lasting solution to the problem would be for both victims and bystanders of the violence to speak up against sexual harassment in order to raise more awareness.

          Women activists have been actively trying get the international community to proactively engage with the state to secure justice for these women who have experienced sexual harassment and abuse (Gomez, 2013). Global UN campaigns have been enacted to end violence against women and girls. These campaigns include the UNite to End Violence Against Women, which focuses on global advocacy, strengthening partnerships and efforts at the national and regional levels, and leading by example through the UN leadership; states are encouraged to enact, strengthen and enforce laws regarding violence against women (United Nations, women watch). Another important campaign is Say No to Violence Against Women (UNIFEM), which is a global effort using the internet to promote advocacy to fight sexual harassment and violence. The movement seeks to make ending violence against women a priority for all governments (United Nations, women watch). These global campaigns are important because not only can they help to deteriorate acts of sexual harassment and violence in Sri Lanka, but they can also make a positive impact in other countries in which sexual harassment and violence remains a prominent issue. Overall, activists play a crucial role in stopping this ongoing issue because remaining silent only condones this type of behavior.

          Lastly, along with these significant campaigns, activists and demonstrators in countries all throughout Asia, including Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Nepal have joined India’s protest movement against sexual violence (Burke, 2013). Despite the united anger against this issue, the social stigma attached to victims that I discussed towards the beginning of this post remains a major problem throughout Asia. However, protesters and activists are not giving up that easily. Specifically, Khushi Kabir, one of the organizers of a “human chain” to protest against violence against women in Dhaka, Bangladesh, said its aim was “to show that people are not going to just let this movement die down” (Burke, 2013). This motivation and determination is key because power is in numbers; the more people who take a stand, the more likely instances of sexual harassment and abuse will receive the attention they deserve. Kabir also addresses that although previous protests on sexual harassment and violence have typically been dominated by women, men are now joining the fight as well. Overall, people from all different parts of society are joining the protests, including lawyers, schoolchildren, teachers, theatre activists and personalities, industrialists, etc. (Burke, 2013). If this grassroots activism continues to expand and grab the attention of more citizens, then victims over time should hopefully be ensured justice and freedom.


29% of Sri Lanka female journos sexually harassed at workplace: Report. (2015, March 9). Adaderana.lk

Burke, J. (2013, January 4). Rape protests spread beyond India. The Guardian. Retrieved from

Gomez, S. (2013). Violence against women in Sri Lanka. Fokus: Forum for Women and Development.

Nadeesha, V. N. (2015). Psychological counselling for women garment factory workers of Sri Lanka. Asian Journal of Women’s Studies, 21(1), 65-76. Retrieved from

United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women: Campaigns. (2012). Retrieved from  

Garment Factories: The female worker experience in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh

A look inside a garment factory in Colombo, Sri Lanka
             A look inside a garment factory in Colombo, Sri Lanka

          In the previous post, I discussed some of that human rights violations that take place at Sri Lanka’s tea plantations, specifically the issue of forced sterilization. Unfortunately, human rights issues expand beyond Sri Lanka’s tea plantations. Garment factories are another dominant source of the inequalities female workers face throughout developing nations; I will focus on Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, in particular. Due to strenuous working hours, threats and intimidation by authorities, and a lack of attention to safety standards, women continue to be exploited in the industrial workforce.  

            Working hours for the majority of garment workers are from about 7am-4pm; tardiness is punished by wage cuts (Samarasinghe, 1998). Quota targets are set for each individual worker, and the inability to meet such production targets often results in various punishments, including working overtime without pay and being subjected to humiliating practices. An example of these humiliating practices is placing a black flag on the individual’s work table, which requires the worker to stand in front of the others (Samarasinghe, 1998). The use of bathroom breaks during work hours is strictly controlled and medical facilities are either minimal or nonexistent. This is problematic because there are laws that have been rescinded by governments in order to promote export production. For example, in 1982, the Sri Lanka government withdrew from ILO convention No. 89 which prohibited night work for women employees because they wanted women to work night shifts (Samarasinghe, 1998). Specifically, night work became an option in which women had to choice to be apart of. However, in reality, women do not have the choice to work a night shift or not because due to their subordinate position, they do not have the power to refuse to work when asked by management.  

          Altering and/or failing to properly acknowledge the presence of legal documents is violating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The United Nations General Assembly ratified the declaration on December 10, 1948 in hopes of universally protecting fundamental human rights. I want to pay close attention to articles three and five in particular. Article three states that “everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person”; article five exclaims that “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment” (UDHR, 1948) Denying female workers reasonable working hours and wages is violating article three because they do not have the “right” or “power” to stand up to business owners. Their freedom is evidently limited because if they refute the commands of owners, they will be punished. Workers do not have the freedom to do certain things that we may take for granted, such as using the restroom without strict supervision and being provided with necessary medical care. Furthermore, business owners are repeatedly violating article five by subjecting workers to acts of humiliation when they do not meet production quota. Business owners are also taking advantage of the workers’ labor by forcing them to work overtime hours without pay. This is ultimately representative of local exploitation at the hands of globalized power relations because this treatment is allowed due to the lack of labor laws that prevent it.  As stated in the previous blog post, the garment industry has launched the “garments without guilt campaign” to improve the image of the sector. With this being said, according to the ILO, enterprises in EPZs should improve the working conditions and pay in the zones. The enterprises should also “abide by the labour laws, in particular, related to equality at work, freedom of association and collective bargaining, and promoting social dialogue” (Otobe, 2013, 18). The goal is that by improving working conditions, the overall employability and productivity of workers will be improved, allowing Sri Lanka’s industrial competitiveness to flourish on the global market.

          The issues in Sri Lanka’s garment factories are also present in one of their neighboring countries, Bangladesh. Since the April 2013 Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, many workers who have tried to form unions to address abuses in factories face threats, intimidation, dismissal, and sometimes physical assault by factory managers or “hired thugs” (Burke, 2015). In addition, researchers interviewed 160 workers from 44 factories in and around Dhaka and they heard complaints of physical assault, verbal abuse, forced overtime, unsanitary conditions, denial of paid maternity leave, and failure to pay wages and bonuses on time or in full (Burke, 2011). Therefore, even though western companies say that they are going to be more thorough in monitoring the working conditions at their factories, Bangladesh garment workers still continue to suffer from poor working conditions nearly two years after these reform vows. This is significant because failure to properly enforce labor laws can lead to future Rana Plaza disasters.

          The lack of attention governments and multinational corporations have paid towards the poor working conditions has caused chaos in Bangladesh. Specifically, in July 2008, 12,000 Bangladeshi workers from five different companies in Kuwait went on a four-day strike demanding pay hikes and better working conditions. According to an article from Bangladesh News, the workers told reporters in Kuwait that they were living under unhygienic and inhumane conditions in the Gulf state (Bangladesh News, 2008) The foreign ministry issued a statement forcing workers to go back to work by saying that it is their duty to obey the Kuwaiti laws (Bangladesh News, 2008). This article is important because if the ministry wants workers to obey certain laws, they in return, need to enforce policies that provide workers with substantial wages and safe and sanitary work environments. Otherwise, the ministry and governments cannot be surprised when workers go on strike and retaliate as a result of their failure to properly address ongoing problems within the workplace.

          Women in garment factories face a disproportionate threat when it comes to issues such as job insecurity, poor wages, subjectivity to harassment, and intimidation tactics. In order to avoid prolonged human rights violations, Western corporations, local governments, and global authorities need to prioritize the safety and well-being of marginalized workers who financially rely on employment in the garment sector.


Bangladeshi workers return to work in Kuwait. (2008, July 30). Bangladesh News. Retrieved from  

Burke, J. (2015, April 22). Bangladesh garment workers suffer poor conditions two years after reform vows. The Guardian. Retrieved from  

Otobe, N. (2013). Globalization, employment and gender in the open economy of Sri Lanka (pp. 1-48, Working paper No. 138). International Labor Organization.—ed_emp/documents/publication/wcms_212721.pdf

Samarasinghe, V. (1998). The Feminization of Foreign Currency Earnings: Women’s Labor in Sri Lanka. The Journal of Developing Areas, 32(3), 303-326. Retrieved from   

United Nations General Assembly. (1948). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


The Politics of Underwear: Access and Attitudes on Sexuality in Sri Lanka


          Last week, I introduced the topic of reproductive justice in a globalizing world, stressing time and time again the importance of looking at the movement as intersectional with race and nationality. This week, I will be incorporating race by specifically discussing the cultural tensions between white, American women and Sinhalese women in Sri Lanka.

Additionally, last week’s post loosely revolved around themes of sterilization and long-term birth control. However, it is important to keep in mind that the control of pregnancy and birth are not the only facets of the movement. Instead of merely focusing on birth control, conversations about the reproductive justice movement in Sri Lanka will focus on attitudes about sexuality as a whole.


             In a chapter titled The Politics of Underwear in Caitrin Lynch’s Juki Girls, we learn about how globalization and the implementation of export-processing zones comes into conflict with Sri Lankan attitudes on sexuality. The chapter is central to ahinsaka, or “good girls” in Sri Lanka (Lynch 93) — an identifier that is challenged by juki girls, or female workers in EPZs, especially when manufacturing underwear. Lynch claims that in Sri Lanka, the colloquial use of the word underwear is loosely translated to “unmentionables” (Lynch 94). The product is a taboo, and is often made at home rather than purchased (Lynch 94). In connecting to globalization, Lynch claims “the implication was that innocent girls, who should simply be associated with local traditions, were now working in the global capitalist industry. Worse yet, they were sewing immoral products for white women” (Lynch 93).

This is a direct connection for how the influences of powerful nations hinder reproductive justice. Not only has the United States had a hand in implementing the factories that directly conflict with Sri Lankan values, but furthermore, it has served as a place in which the people are a taboo, not just the product. Suddi, or white women, are “hypersexualized figures” in Sri Lanka (Lynch 94). That is, there is a combination of women from a culture with a lack of sexual discourse, combined with both a product and a population that is seen as very sexual.

This conflict of cultures manifests in horrific ways for workers in EPZs. In 2014, one of Sri Lanka’s headline newspapers, ColomboPage, wrote an article on the increase of rape and assault in the country. Often times, sexual assault will occur within the factory, operating on structures of power. One women says “‘I am in search of new work, but I am afraid to take a job at another garment factory. There is no protection for women,’ she said. ‘I was not the first to be raped and I am scared that it will happen again'” (ColumboPage 1). In 2011, the United Nations claimed in a special report that a goal around the world is to “eliminate the exploitation of workers and protect their labour rights through fully enforcing national legislation on labour standards and promoting decent working conditions” (United Nations 6).

However, maybe that is not what Sri Lanka needs. Instead of continuously implementing these factories (and strategies to manage them), superpowers in the United States can stop having underwear produced in Sri Lanka. This is where I recognize my own biases: from a Westernized perspective, my first thought was that Sri Lanka should learn to embrace discussions around sexuality, or at least educate the populous on the idea that “underwear” and “white women” does not necessarily equal “sexuality”. At the same time, though, the Western world seems to generally not care. In my own research, in which I searched “Sri Lanka reproductive health” and “Sri Lanka assault” on BBC, nothing concerning the power dynamics inside and outside the factory appeared. Rather, there was one article on a specific instance of rape and murder (BBC 1).

This goes to suggest that a discourse on sexuality in Sri Lanka cannot be instigated by the Western world, which as a whole, is only doing so for means of production. Instead, I believe that the answer is to fully recognize each factor of the United States’ imposed attitudes of sexuality, whether they are implicit or explicit. It must be looked at an angle in which the reproductive justices of women are more important than manufacturing underwear.

What do you think?


Works Cited

Lynch, Caitrin. Juki Girls, Good Girls. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. 2007. Print.

“Outrage in Sri Lanka over teenager’s rape and murder”. BBC News. British Broadcasting Company, 20 May 2015. Web. 26 Mar. 2016.

“Rapes surge in Sri Lanka amid weak laws”. ColumboPage. ColomboPage, 17 Aug. 2014. Web. 26 Mar. 2016.

United Nations Inter-Agency Network on Women and Gender Equality. Gender Equality and Trade Policy. United Nations, 2011. Web. 26 Mar. 2011.