Equality and discrimination in Sri Lanka and the Maldives

Papaya grower in the North ©ILO/Asitha Seneviratne
Sri Lanka boasts a high literacy rate and in fact the gender balance in terms of education levels overall slightly weighs in favour of the girl child. However, this does not seem to translate into parity in the world of work. Women are twice as unemployed as their male counterpart. Additionally, women in Sri Lanka often find themselves in informal sector jobs where wage disparities compound discrimination. Apart from that, women who are responsible for bringing in the largest proportions of foreign exchange, namely as migrant workers in the informal sector, the garment factory workers and plantation workers of the formal sector, find themselves at the lowest rungs of the employment ladder.

On the other hand, when women do find themselves slightly better positioned in formal sector employment, the working environment and systems do not allude to supporting gender justice in the workplace, in the main. There are however companies in the private sector that have initiated good practices by correcting systemic challenges and following national policy direction on handling gender-related discrimination in the workplace. National legislation in Sri Lanka is well chiseled in the Penal Code. However, gender justice cannot be achieved by laws alone as law follows society and often women victims have neither the courage, nor the support nor the financial means to make use of the legal framework.

The ILO in Sri Lanka, recognizing this practical challenge positioned itself on the pillar of social dialogue to meet with employers and employees to develop tools to support the creation of a more conducive environment that would prevent gender based discrimination in the world of work. A Code of Conduct was developed on tackling sexual harassment in the workplace as was a Code of Conduct on how to handle HIV in the workplace – issues that adversely impact on women workers in the main. Policies have been put in place to ensure sustainability of these protocols and training conducted especially amongst in Human Resources Management personnel. Recognizing that violence and discrimination within the home positions women to take on a subservient and passive role which makes them more vulnerable outside the home as well, the ILO made interventions engaging the communities surrounding the targeted workplace. This was expected to add value to promoting a safer world of work for women by empowering women within the community structures from which they come.

The ILO proposes to continue this work under the UN Joint Programme to prevent Gender Based Violence in collaboration with social partners, government agencies and other sister-agencies of the UN.