Our Perspective

Young Sri Lankan Women Need to Take the Lead in the Economy


Why do most Sri Lankan women often hold themselves back from actively participating in the economy? While Sri Lanka clearly needs to provide more economical facilities and possibilities for men and women both, why are young Sri Lankan girls especially unenthusiastic about pursuing careers and improving their professional skills?

An entire nation can prosper and thrive when both genders have equal opportunities and power to reach the top. Greater gender equality also enhances economic efficiency, produces more profits and increases productivity in the economy. To eradicate poverty and to achieve the country’s economic goals and sustain social, financial and political development, creating equal opportunities for young women around the country while increasing the overall female participation in the labour force is crucial.

Persistent Gender Gap in the Economy

Out of the total estimated population of 21 million in Sri Lanka, 57 percent, the majority, are females, but only 34.7 percent of women actively participate in the economy. Nearly 75 percent of the workforce consists of economically inactive women. The National Youth Survey 2013 (NYS) shows the female employment rate was at 36.2% and the female unemployment rate was alarmingly high at 61.1%.


More Women Pursue Higher Education than Men

In contrast to the low female contribution to the labour force, the NYS shows that more women engage in higher studies than men. At the undergraduate level, the share of females is at 60%, yet a higher number of these highly educated females opt out of the workforce, such that fewer female graduates remain employed. Education remarkably empowers young women, but what prevents these educated females from pursuing careers?

Gender Inequality and the lack of possibilities for women.

Very few females work in senior positions in the commercial sector, as gender differences in skill levels and limited opportunities to get to the top in their preferred careers cause discouragement and a withdrawal of young Sri Lankan women from workforce. Young rural women encounter a worse scenario due to a lack of life skills, experience and poor functional literacy required for satisfactory employment.

Regardless of educational qualifications, women receive low wages and incentives. The inequalities in the selection process of many enterprises that prefer men over women dishearten enthusiastic females. Additionally, limited access to financial facilities and assets restrict young women from gaining benefits as equally as men.


Socio-cultural Barriers and Lack of Self-Confidence

The cultural and social norms in Sri Lanka — especially in rural areas — expect young women to play the traditional role of a mother and a housewife. After marriage or giving birth to kids, family responsibilities continuously grow and require the complete focus of women, which often results in the loss in enthusiasm for employment. Regardless of professional, educational and social factors, the choices of family or spouses often obstruct young women’s individuality and ambitions. Family always comes first, but having a family should never prevent anyone — man or woman — from pursuing career or personal goals.

Religious beliefs and views of families also prevent female youth from actively participating in financial, political and economic systems. These socio-cultural boundaries keep the majority of young women in Sri Lanka from reaching their potential and contributing to the development of themselves and the country.

Ladies themselves set the worst boundary above all; lack of self-confidence. They hold themselves back by being too judgmental about their abilities.


Overcoming the Obstacles

Breaking existing social norms, more young women nowadays seek employment. Families and parents babysit their grandchildren to support young working mothers, which can be seen as a great encouragement.

The Vocational, Education and Training Plan, implemented by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in the Sabaragamuwa Province, with the help of provincial authorities that recently provided career guidance to 15,000 young people was a big step. To alter the attitudes and behaviours of society toward the economical participation of young women, women entrepreneurship must be promoted to create awareness for men and women equally. Introducing career guidance and including job market and entrepreneurship studies in all secondary schools throughout the country would be an effective solution too.

To eliminate the serious impediment of minimal job market information and to help young women make more informed choices in local and foreign employment, career guidance centres should be established regionally. Enhancing the business skills of young women in rural areas, domestic workers, migrants and low-skilled young women in IT, nursing and the hospitality industries will enable female youth to meet the qualifications to succeed in their careers. Offering equal wages, flexible working schedules, and jobs to work from home will effectively provide more incentives for women to work.

Reforming and enacting sound policies to secure young women’s equal access to financial facilities, assets and industrial skills training is highly necessary to reduce gender inequality. Furthermore, leadership and personality development programs must be implemented in schools from the lowest academic levels to produce more powerful young women and assertive graduates in the near future.


Be Driven and be the Change

As a young woman, the biggest challenge I encountered was the impact of socio-cultural boundaries. As soon as I mentioned wanting to take an internship overseas to gain thorough experience and enhance my professional skills, which would immensely help my career and the service I provide for my country, some of my relatives’ eyes widened and they immediately gave me thousands of reasons as to why I shouldn’t take such a wonderful opportunity. All of the reasons come down to one; I’m a woman and being too career-focused as a woman is unacceptable.

Regardless of the society’s views, the female – a fearless and confident woman, who believes in her capabilities – takes chances and excels beyond doubt in any direction. I feel like many young women restrict themselves from overcoming such challenges, as they are unsure of their abilities and lack self-confidence, because listening to society takes precedence to listening to themselves. Real-life examples of leading business women in Sri Lanka who opened doors of possibilities for themselves and other women include:

·         Linda Speldewinde – Founder, Academy of Design & Sri Lanka Design Festival

·         Otara Gunewardene – Founder, Odel & Embark

·         Niloufer Anverally – Founder, Cotton Collection

·         Sandra Wandurugala/Selyana Peiris – Founder/Chairman/Business Development, Selyn Handlooms


Similarly, many powerful and confident females exist in every professional field, who never gave into the pressure of socio-cultural norms.

So, young ladies, dare to take the lead, be empowered and empower others. Sri Lanka awaits her growth and it starts with us.



Youth Blog post Gender equality

UNDP Around the world

You are at UNDP Sri Lanka 
Go to UNDP Global