The working women of 21st century Sri Lanka faces many problems. Though the answers may not be clear cut and problems easily solved, policies need to be revised and there needs to be discourses concerning the problems working women face. Daily News spoke to Senior Lecturer, Department of Human Resources Management, University of Colombo, Dr. Thilakshi Kodagoda who outlined the challenges women face calling for a discourse concerning these matters.

“In Sri Lanka women have free access to education without obstacles because in our constitution females have equal rights, gender is neutral subject. Men and women both have equal access to education and employment. Women representation in education, women representation in higher education, and also women representation in employment is increasing compared to other countries in our region,” said Kodagoda.

According to the University Grant Commission (UGC) statistics, except for the engineering faculty female representation in all other faculties, is dramatically increasing. At present the majority of management faculty students are females. The ratio is 70 – 80 percent. This is not only in management we see this trend in the Arts Faculty and Law Faculty. Female enrollment in higher education is increasing.

“But when it comes to Labour Market, female representation is very low compared to education. In the medical faculty female representation is 52 – 58 percent. But women representation in labour market is very low. There is a gap between women intake in universities and women intake in labour market. At present female representation in labour market is 36 percent. Where are the educated women in higher education? Where are they going? Why is there a gap? Why do they have no presence in the labour market? What are the obstacles women face? We must address the challenges and difficulties,” explained Kodagoda.

We can discuss this in terms of policy matters – working arrangements in Sri Lanka. As we all know in super-national organizations like ILO, UN and World Economic Forum, child care is the main barrier for women to survive in their work place.

“That is one main barrier for women. So we must address this issue of child care. Do we have child care centers? What is the standard of those child care centers? Are the parents willing to put the child in child care centers? Those are some questions we should ask. Are these child care centers trust worthy? As to my understanding, and according to the research I have done, what I have identified is there are a few good child care centers in Sri Lanka, but the majority of child care centers, are not in good condition. Not only in terms of facilities but also in terms of other factors. Are those child care centers trustworthy? Most of the child care centers are run by those who are looking for jobs and who cannot find a good job, so they find child centers as good and profitable. So they start or join child care centers. The staff of the child care centers is not also qualified. They are not trained and they have no understanding of how to look after children/ toddlers,” pointed out Kodagoda.

With child care as one of the main barriers, there is also no proper support from the government or from other organizations for working mothers to continue their careers. Kodagoda stated that something else she has found is gender stereotyping– that women should be submissive. Women should not be aggressive. Women are not good leaders. That misconception still exists in our country and in our society that women should not be in positions of leadership or decision making. It forces women to be in positions of a lower rank.

“Another issue I have found is the long working hours. According to our rules and regulations in the private sector, the standard working hours are eight hours daily. However if you see the statistics, 26 per cent are doing the standard eight hours work but the majority of Sri Lankan employees, men and females work for more than 40 hours a week which is not the standard working hour. When it comes to the mother, who is having children, this is a challenge. As a mother you have a responsibility to your family including child care, and as a worker, you are responsible for your work,” added Kodagoda.

The mother has to balance roles as a worker and as a mother which creates a conflict. The three main problems - child care, attitudes of society concerning women and workplace practices make women give up their careers. There needs to be a discourse here. We need to talk about this and the corporate sector needs to think very carefully about these problems and come to a solution that is fair by everyone.

Workplace leave applies to both child birth and child care. In relation to child birth, there is only maternity and paternity leave. There are two different arrangements for maternity leave in public and private sector. Working mothers in public sector are eligible to take, 252 days maternity leave. Eighty four days full payment, 84 days with half payment and 84 days with no payment. That is the arrangement for public sector working mothers. They are eligible for this. This applies for any number of births.

“In private sector it is different. For them they do not have such long maternity leave. They have only 84 days maternity leave with payments. They don’t have no pay or half pay leave. The other one is paternity leave. That is also different according to organizations. In some organizations they give five days paternity leave, and in some organizations two days of paternity leave or in some organizations ten days paternity leave. But my question is not concerning the privilege they have. It is that the majority of mothers do not use the available policies. That is my area of concern,” said Kodagoda.

Mothers in public sector have strong protection with 252 days maternity leave. You cannot see such benefits in many countries. But only quite a few are making use of this opportunity which is 252 days. One main reason is when you take long maternity leave you are away from your job for nearly one year.

“If you take Principals in schools, they do not like to see such teachers making full use of this opportunity. When they see that the teacher is looking at 252 days of maternity leave, the Principal transfers the teacher. When she comes back to work she might have been transferred to a different school. Transfer is another challenge for working mothers. The transfer is difficult in Sri Lanka. As they fear this and they do not apply for the second and third set of leave,” said Kodagoda.

The leave is there but the employees are not taking it and on the other hand who will look after the newly born child later on? Those are the challenges facing women in Sri Lanka.

“I also interviewed some top level banking people. I found that the new female recruits when they have a permanent job, then their parents force them to get married. And once you get married the next is the baby. That is the norm in Sri Lanka. Banking is a very competitive industry. If one officer is absent, that branch cannot be run smoothly. Once the training period is over they put the women in different branches. You have to compete with the other branches in the area. Sometimes you have to work seven days of the week. Maybe 10 hours. Thus top level management doesn’t like to recruit females. Because once you get married, then you have children, and you are entitled to 252 days maternity leave. If you are away from your workplace, having such a long leave period, how can the branch run? So you have the privilege – 252 days maternity leave, but you cannot use it! This is another challenge mothers’ face,” explained Kodagoda.

Although we say that we have very strong protection for working mothers, it does not reach its objective. The mother must be with her newly born baby with a peaceful mind. So we need to address these issues so that all parties can be satisfied.


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