Speeches & Transcripts July 14, 2017

Sri Lanka & Maldives' 2017 Top 50 Professional & Career Women Awards

Distinguished guests, colleagues and friends. It is always a wonderful opportunity and honor to be invited to an event that honors women and reaffirms their position in society as career women, friends, mothers, sisters, wives – whatever role we take.  We are accountable for what we are and responsible for who we become.

Congratulations to all the women we will be celebrating tonight.  No doubt your journeys will have had their fair share of obstacles.   

Your achievements give encouragement to those who now see you as mentors and examples of what can be achieved.  Let me also take this opportunity to highlight some key findings of a recent World Bank study on Women’s participation in the economy.

Sri Lanka hosts the 14th largest gender gap in labor force participation (LFP) globally. This is surprising given Sri Lanka’s longstanding achievements in human development outcomes, such as high levels of female education (including gender parity at most levels) as well as its status as a lower middle-income country with steady improvements in economic growth. The 2015 and 2016 Labor Force Participation rates among Sri Lankan women aged 15 years and above were both 36 percent, versus 75 percent for men of the same age for both years.

This study finds that women’s experience in Sri Lanka’s labor market remains characterized by three headlines: (1) low Participation; (2) high unemployment, especially for the population below age 30; and (3) persistent wage disparities between the sexes. While in some areas of Sri Lanka women have progressed well, thanks to opportunities available and/or access to social networks this is not the case in the more disadvantaged areas of the country. 

In the Maldives female labor force participation has slightly improved in the past few years, but it is still low at 47.6% vs. 79.7% for men.  As more than half of the Maldivian population is below the age of 25 years, gender-differentiated constraints and opportunities of youths are critical. For young women, the key constraint is the growing conservatism about women’s roles and its resultant ripple effects on the educational and occupational opportunities of women in adolescence and young adulthood.

While some of these issues need policy interventions to make systemic changes, many of the constraints restricting women’s participation in the labor force are behavioral and social in nature. But we know it’s still possible for women to succeed and the stories of today’s award winners demonstrates that.

The World Bank is supporting the Sri Lankan policy makers in their efforts to bring about systemic changes to encourage female participation in the labor force. For example, supporting interventions for safer travel, gender sensitive public spaces, child care facilities etc.  In the Maldives, we now know that without understanding the cultural context and appropriately tailoring opportunities, interventions are unlikely to be successful. 

So here is the thing.  You are being awarded today for having made it and I applaud you! But what joy would it be if we carried this burden without our men colleagues?  Congratulations, and thank you to those of you who have stood by these women to make them a success.  And I encourage you to make it a standard to help every woman you know.  Start with those you love, your wife, daughter, sister, sister in law and I promise you the difference will be felt.

And I look forward to the day when we don’t celebrate women for having broken the glass ceiling but instead we celebrate achievements regardless of gender.

Congratulations again to all!  And thank you for listening.

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