Address by Mr. Alain Sibenaler
UNFPA Representative & Chair of the UN Gender Theme Group
Delivered on behalf of the UN Resident Coordinator
Event Marking International Women’s Day organized by the Sri Lanka Women Parliamentarians’ Caucus
10 March 2016
Committee Room 1
Parliament of Sri Lanka
Honourable Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe,
Honourable Deputy Speaker Thilanga Sumathipala,
Members of Parliament,
Heads and Representatives of Missions,
Representatives from the Government, Academia and Civil Society,
Colleagues from the UN,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a pleasure to address you all today as we come together to celebrate International Women’s Day. Throughout history women have made extraordinary contributions to their societies. They have played pivotal roles in political, economic, social and cultural spheres. When reflecting upon their achievements, we have much to celebrate.
Sri Lanka in particular has made progress in a number of different areas relating to gender equality. Notably, Sri Lanka produced the first female Prime Minister in the world. Sri Lanka has also made significant strides to ensure gender equitable access to education. In terms of primary school education, the ratio of boys to girls reached a staggering 99.4% in 2012, whilst enrolment for females in secondary education climbed to 102% that same year. With such successes in mind, we continue to work towards the full and effective implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which seeks to achieve gender equality not only in terms of education, but in all dimensions of life.
While much progress has been made, we must however not lose sight of all that still remains to be done. International Women’s Day is not only a celebration of the achievements of women, but also marks an urgent call to action. Despite our many accomplishments, gendered inequalities continue to pervade the lives of women both in Sri Lanka and across the world- in the household, the workplace and the greater public sphere. Accordingly, the theme for this year’s International Women’s Day, “Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality,” is very pertinent.
Focusing our attention on the political and economic empowerment of women, I would like to emphasize that greater female participation in both spheres is particularly important. This remains exceptionally applicable to Sri Lanka, where female representation in both these areas has greatly stagnated.
With less than 6% of women holding seats in the national Parliament, Sri Lanka has one of the lowest levels of women’s political participation in the world. This has placed Sri Lanka 128th out of 140 countries with regard to female representation in parliament, which is one of the lowest not only in South Asia, but in the world.
While concerted efforts are needed to increase the number of women at all levels of elected office, we must also emphasize the need to ensure their participation equally at all levels of civil service, including within public administration entities and the judiciary. A recent Bill passed by Parliament, which seeks to include 25% of females in local government bodies before the next polls, is an encouraging step. However, it must be noted that we still have a long journey ahead of us in terms of achieving complete gender equality. I cannot adequately stress the importance of enabling and empowering women to reach positions of power and decision-making if they are to incite meaningful change, and facilitate our transition to a future free of gendered inequalities.
This applies equally to the economic sphere, where women face numerous barriers, which have made them more susceptible to conditions of poverty, unemployment, discrimination and low wages. Contrary to high rates of female education, female labour force participation (approx. 34%) in Sri Lanka remains almost half that of male labour force participation (approx. 74%), whilst unemployment for women correspondingly remains twice as high. Moreover, there has been a tendency in Sri Lanka for women to be concentrated in low-skilled jobs, with low wages and less job security. Addressing such problems and realizing full equality among men AND women, necessitates equal recognition and appreciation of the contribution of both genders to the economy and to society, in addition to their work, experience and knowledge. Female workers concentrated particularly in migrant domestic labour, the plantation and textiles industries form the backbone of Sri Lanka’s economy, albeit there is little to no institutional support for these women despite their profound contributions.
These two fields remain but a few of those where women face severe disadvantage. Women in Sri Lanka also continue to be disproportionately exposed to physical and mental abuse in a variety of different contexts. Equally, the rapid increase of female-headed households has exposed many women to various social and economic vulnerabilities. These are all issues which warrant greater attention.
Accordingly, it is important that barriers to women’s empowerment are recognized and our efforts in addressing them accelerated. We must strive to improve the outcomes for women in Sri Lanka. We must invest in women’s education, health, property rights, financial literacy and access to information, and adopt a more multi-dimensional framework that approaches women’s rights in a holistic and systematic manner. We need to remove the structures and barriers that keep women and girls on the fringe of political, economic and social life.
The new development agenda, the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the global community in September 2015 aims to achieve such development targets. The new development agenda places greater emphasis on inclusivity, women’s empowerment, environmental sustainability, peace and democratic governance. The SDGs look for integrated solutions beyond sector-based goals. They integrate aspects and elements of sustainability across all goals, as well as principles of equality, and social justice. While gender specific targets and indicators are embedded across all 17 goals, the SDG Goal 5 focuses specifically on the realization of gender parity in all spheres by 2030.
Accordingly, the UN continues to work towards achieving such goals by leveraging our unique strengths in policy advisory and capacity building. We have established an inter UN agency platform that is devoted to addressing gender specific issues. We are currently in dialogue with the Government of Sri Lanka on addressing specific vulnerabilities faced by female domestic migrant workers and female headed households. A multi-sectoral and multipronged initiative to address issues related to female headed households in a holistic manner is one such initiative that is currently being discussed with the Government of Sri Lanka. We hope to be able to launch this programme in the near future.
We remain committed to supporting the Government and the people of Sri Lanka to further gender equality in all dimensions of life. I have no doubt that our collaborative efforts will ensure the realization of this noble objective.
We look towards a future here in Sri Lanka where all women can freely exercise their ability to make decisions, and realize their rights – the right to be able to attend school, to work, to earn equal pay, to participate in political processes and to live free from violence and discrimination. Gender equality is not a choice. It is a right.
I thank you once again for the invitation extended to the United Nations in Sri Lanka to speak at this important occasion. I firmly believe that today’s event will be the starting point for many collaborative achievements to come. We are all part of an incredibly exciting and critical stage in the history of achieving gender equality- the future is what we make it to be today.