Women’s Economic Empowerment

Mugunthan Jeyavinoja [far-right] a participant in UN Women’s economic empowerment programmes, pictured with her co-workers at her grocery shop in Puliyankulam, Vavuniya, Sri Lanka on 8 December 2022. Photo: UN Women Sri Lanka/Ruvin De Silva

The issue

Women’s labour force participation in Sri Lanka is less than half the labour force participation rate of men and currently stands at 31 per cent - reflecting a 2 per cent drop during the COVID-19 pandemic. A large proportion of women are engaged in procuring livelihoods work in informal sectors including agriculture, owning or operating Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) and domestic work. In the context of crisis, there are shifts in the engagement of women in the economy, although not always for the better. Given rising desperation and poverty, vulnerable women – especially those from rural communities – are increasingly transitioning to forms of employment which leave them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Parallelly, vulnerable women – including those operating or owning MSME are increasingly turning to largely unregulated exploitative micro-credit facilities which have a legacy of targeting the most vulnerable women such as women heads of households, and war and military widows in the aftermath of the armed conflict. As girls’ access to education decreases in the context of crisis – with families choosing to invest in the education of sons and with girls being married or entering the workforce earlier, the future landscape of women’s economic engagement and progress remains bleak.

How are we making a difference?

  • In advocating for evidence-based policies, UN Women launched the first-ever report on gender, disability and employment in Sri Lanka and conducted the first-of-its-kind study on the relative demand for women workers in Sri Lanka’s formal enterprises which has resulted in policy influence to support women workers in Sri Lanka.
  • Through a tried-and-tested innovative model of women’s entrepreneurship, we have collectively supported small businesses of women entrepreneurs around the country which has enabled them to expand their businesses and improve their livelihoods. From 2019 – 2022 UN Women has trained over 800 women entrepreneurs to start their businesses through training ranging from financial literacy to business planning. These efforts have contributed to ensuring that Sri Lankan women are economically empowered and resilient in the face of crises.
  • UN Women's efforts have also resulted in a 2016 cabinet circular mandating a 25 per cent allocation of all rural development projects to be set aside for women.
  • As part of the UN Women's project on durable resettlement, 98 per cent of surveyed respondents indicated that their confidence to raise issues of concern with local government officers has improved and 96 per cent of those who had participated in the livelihood development programmes indicated having used the new knowledge gained to improve their existing businesses, and by extension improved their economic empowerment.