Keynote: Women in Leadership (IWD2018)

Recognising Women in Leadership in Sri Lanka.
Keynote Speech at the Launch of the Australian Awards Women in Leadership Network, Sri Lanka.
Sepali Kottegoda, M.Phil, D.Phil (Sussex)
Director Programmes, Women’s Economic Rights and Media
Women and Media Collective
8 March 2018
Your Excellency, High Commissioner Bryce Hutchesson, friends and colleagues, ladies and gentlemen. First, I would like to thank the Australian Awards Women in Leadership Network for inviting me to share my thoughts on Women in Leadership in Sri Lanka. At the outset, I would like to congratulate the Australian Awards Alumni in Sri Lanka and the Australian High Commission for setting up and inaugurating the Sri Lanka Australian Awards Women in Leadership network today. An Alumni myself, as I look around the room, I see that this is indeed an opportune moment for this network, with so many of us who have benefited from the Australian Awards programme.

Today is International Women’s Day. The theme here is ‘#Press for Progress’. How do we understand the position of women in Sri Lanka in accordance with this theme? I would like to begin by highlighting some key factors specific to Sri Lanka that would set the context when we look at the status of women, and men in Sri Lanka. As you are all aware, Sri Lanka is often seen as an exceptional country in South Asia on account of the social development indicators that have been attained, relative to our neighbouring countries. The Global Gender Gap Report for 2017 shows that Sri Lanka ranks among the most developed countries in achievement of gender parity in relation to access to healthcare. We also share high attainment in relation to enrolment of girls in secondary and tertiary education. Parity has also been reached in the field of ‘Health and survival’ in the GGP 2017 indicators for Sri Lanka.

These achievements are the result of decades-long adherence to principles of a welfare state, inherited at the time of independence from Britain in 1948 to provide free healthcare and education for all its citizens. We must also note that these principles are challenged as being economically unviable by prevailing norms of international monetary institutions. However, suffice to say here that a weakening of the role of the state in these fields may lead to significant changes in the areas of parity achieved.

Parity has not been achieved in Sri Lanka in the other two indicators that measure gaps in gender equality – that is, in economic participation and opportunity and, in political empowerment. Out of the 144 countries surveyed, we are positioned at 65th in political empowerment and, lagging quite behind at 123rd in economic participation and opportunity. Hence, Sri Lanka brings to light the critical importance of institutional provisions that cut across class, caste, ethnicity, and gender in the actual realization of gender parity. In the area of economic participation and opportunity, despite an increase of 4% between 2012 and 2017, women’s participation in the labour force remains less than half that of men. In the political sphere, historically women’s representation has been unacceptably low: less than 7% in Parliament, 5% in Provincial Councils and 3% in Local Councils. The amendments brought in to the Local Government Act in 2016-2017 introduced a quota for Local Councils which will, hopefully, bring about a minimum of 25% represenstation of women in Local Councils.

As we look today to ’Press for Progress’, we have to recognize the intersection of economic, social and political factors that frame gender identities – that is, the actual positioning of women and men in society in their relative access to power and resources. According to some viewpoints, women are in leadership per se, for example, as one gentleman informed us at a discussion on women’s political empowerment, and I quote: ”women are the leaders in the kitchen”. Others have been heard to say ”the Buddha at home is the mother”. These are statements that carry little meaning when we look at the social norms that deny women’s agency and opportunity to enjoy their rights across the board.

The recently concluded Local Government Elections brought to light some of the most regressive attitudes towards women sharing, albeit in lower numbers, political power and leadership. There is still little recognition of unpaid care work that is likely the primary factor in the low participation rates of women in the labour force. In fact, it is somewhat confusing to me that all the work that is done in the home, overwhelmingly by women, remain categorized as being ‘economically inactive’ and hence not counted as belonging to the labour force or as contributing to the country’s GDP.

We need to focus on what ‘Progress’ means for women’s leadership. How do we make progress meaningful as we reach towards the goal of gender equality? I see around this room women who are leaders in a range of fields – academia, activism, social work, media, sexual and reproductive rights, to name but a few.
Leadership is earned by practice and by learning. Women’s leadership in the public sphere can be gauged by selected indicators such as those used in the Global Gender Gap Reports or the Gender and Development Index. In practice, women’s leadership in a society, where patriarchal norms prevail, needs to be especially highlighted and recognized in order to counter the continuing regressive attitudes that obstruct such recognition and gloss over the inequality.
In Sri Lanka, the involvement of women in almost all sectors leads me to observe that women are not interested in mere ‘recognition’. Women are determined to take up and practice leadership so that society learns, from its success, the truth and value of empowered womanhood.

I would like to draw on the experiences of the participation of my own organisation, the Women and Media Collective, in the Australian Awards programme which was facilitated by Jera International, Melbourne. Being recipients of this Award twice, WMC was able to bring together 35 women leaders from across the country to learn from and share experiences in Australia of, firstly, women’s political empowerment in 2012 and, subsequently, of women’s unpaid care work and economic contributions in 2017. Delegates came from women’s organisations from Kurunegala, Moneragala, Badulla, Galle Trincomalee, Kandy, Kegalle, Gampaha, Colombo, Batticaloa representing ethnic, religious, language and class diversities. These women are leaders in their communities working on issues such as the rights of women migrant workers, rural women, women workers in the Free Trade Zones, in the plantations, women survivors of 30 years of conflict, sexual and reproductive health and rights and advocates for increasing women’s political representation.

The delegation also included activists contributing to civil society Shadow Reports to global mechanisms such as CEDAW and the Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers. We were invited to speak to like minded organisations and groups in Australia, visit the Office of Women, meet with the Greens Party, the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the Australian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the University of Adelaide for intensive sessions on Gender Responsive Budgeting with Dr. Rhonda Sharp, Aged Care Centres, the Australian Human Rights Commission. The richness of our experience is obvious from this description.

The Australian Awards has thus already opened doors for the WMC delegates who, on their return, have been able to build on these learnings and strengthen their leadership qualities and qualifications. It must be reiterated that we, women, have been able to gain this recognition because Sri Lanka provides for access to free education and healthcare even though access was greatly limited for those living in the conflict affected areas for many decades.

If we are able to move away from ethno-religious nationalist agendas and continue to come together with a shared vision of a society that enables all to stand firm, individually and collectively, in overcoming patriarchal norms and practices, we will be able to contribute to the creation of a society where women’s work in the private and public spheres is valued and included in key economic indicators, sexual orientation and gender identities are not criminalised and where women’s political leadership is given undisputed opportunities to flourish.