Driving evidence based policy reforms that enhance women’s economic participation and empowerment


Advocata Institute held the “Women’s Policy Action Network” (WPAN) conference recently to put forward Advocata’s continuous and WPAN’s research on the gaps, barriers and potential solutions for further enhancing women’s economic empowerment in Sri Lanka.

The primary aim of the WPAN is to lobby for evidence-based policy reforms that support greater labour force participation of women, despite the societal burdens expected of them. The conference explored two of the most pressing barriers; the unpaid care work burden, and the lack of access to the digital economy.

The event consisted of representatives from civil society organizations, policymakers, and forward thinking leaders who generated strong advocacy conversations on solutions and implemented projects that support women participation in the workforce.

The project donor, represented by The Deputy Head of Mission of the Kingdom of the Netherlands said that, “Gender equality is the key to accelerate economic growth in any given scenario, even during an economic crisis, or should I say especially in an economic crisis. We believe that goes for the Netherlands, for Sri Lanka and all other countries.”

The first panel on social infrastructure for gender equality and empowerment was preceded by a research presentation carried out by Akhila Randeniya and Thathsarani Siriwardana on care work. It was highlighted here that 60% of women who don’t participate in the labor force cited “housework” as a reason. Childcare, elderly care and  parental leave were identified as core issues under the umbrella of care work. It was estimated that by 2050 Sri Lanka’s old age dependency ratio will double and thus disproportionately affect women who bear the burden of unpaid care.

It was also stated that it would only cost the government Rs.5.9bn to cover maternity leave benefits, which amounted to 0.5% of 2021 tax revenue.

Recommendations were, for better monitoring and regulation of child and elderly care centers, and engaging the State to share the burden of maternity leave benefits instead of the employer particularly for the SME sector.

The panel, moderated by Niroshi Perera, consisted of Gayani de Alwis, Isuru Gunasekera, Dr.Ramani Gunatilaka and Rosy Senanayake. The panel reiterated the importance of standardisation of care centers as well as recognising part time and flexi work arrangements to help alleviate this gendered burden.

Research on “Unlocking Women’s Potential in the Digital Economy” was presented by  Chantal Dassanayake and Thathsarani Siriwardana. The presentation highlighted four key barriers that impede women's pursuit of digital entrepreneurship and economic empowerment: limited accessibility, expensive devices and internet access costs, low digital literacy, and inadequate digital payment systems in Sri Lanka.

The digital economy's potential to enhance women's participation is tied to its flexibility, multitasking, and revenue opportunities. It was stated that subpar digital infrastructure hampers women's access. Sri Lanka's internet costs are notably high compared to its neighbors. Despite a relatively high digital literacy rate of 57.2%, email usage remains low at only 17.8%. Additionally, internet usage doesn't align with the digital literacy rate. The research further highlighted that lack of trust in digital payments serves as a significant barrier to the adoption of digital payment systems. The panel consisting of Chiranthi Cooray, Chadika Yahampath, Amira Gaffoor, Anishka De Zylva and moderated by Dr.Roshan Perera discussed issues faced by the modern women in the digital space. They spoke of educational and societal barriers that disincentivized women from engaging in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). There was also discussion about issues with digital payments and infrastructure.

The keynote speech, delivered by Lakmini Wijesundera, who shared her journey as a female entrepreneur in the digital space. She ended her speech with words of advice to females everywhere, “it's all about believing in a dream, working towards it and achieving it.”

Advocata is an independent policy think tank based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. We conduct research, provide commentary and hold events to promote sound policy ideas compatible with a free society in Sri Lanka. Visit advocata.org for more information.

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