Women's Chamber of Industry Commerce Celebration of International Women’s Day – Rita A. O'Sullivan | Asian Development Bank

Women's Chamber of Industry Commerce Celebration of International Women’s Day – Rita A. O'Sullivan

Speech | 4 March 2013

Speech by ADB Sri Lanka Resident Mission Country Director Rita O'Sullivan on 4 March 2013 at the Women's Chamber of Industry Commerce Celebration of International Women's Day in Colombo, Sri Lanka.


Gender equality and women's empowerment are essential for meeting Asia's aspirations of inclusive and sustainable development. Gender equality needs to be pursued in its own right for a just and equal society, and for better development outcomes - inclusive growth, faster poverty reduction and accelerated progress towards Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) attainment.

ADB has placed gender equality at the "front and center" of its development agenda. Promoting "gender equity" is included as one of the 5 drivers of change in ADB's Strategy 2020. ADB recognizes that without harnessing the talents, human capital and economic potential of women, Asia's goals of poverty reduction and sustainable development will not be met.

In the two years I have been here, I have seen frightening increases in gender-based violence (GBV). Let me begin by saying, GBV is simply unacceptable. It is a gross violation of women's human rights.

Gender-based violence not only harms women physically and psychologically but also hampers their productivity, reduces human capital and undermines economic growth. Gender-based violence prevents women from exercising their rights, compromises their health, restricts them from becoming fully productive and realizing their full social and economic potential. Gender-based violence is an affront to women's dignity, personal security and well-being. The impacts of GBV endure inter-generationally.

There is no doubt that gender-based violence is a critical development issue. The cost of not addressing GBV is significant for the victim, the society and the economy as whole. Failure to address GBV is, in my view, tantamount to complicity. In the past, this topic was largely within the ambit of NGOs, women's rights activists and specialized UN agencies. Today, it is widely recognized that stopping gender-based violence should be everyone's business and an essential component of the development agenda. Today, the conversation has shifted from a focus confined to women's rights to the broader human, social and economic costs of gender-based violence. Hence, institutions such as ours need to engage with this serious development issue.

To date various ADB supported projects have tackled different aspects of gender-based violence. In Bangladesh, a primary health care project assisted women victims of violence through one-stop shop centers that provided psychological, physical, and legal assistance. In Nepal, police from women's police cells, prosecutors and advocates were trained on women's legal rights and how to more effectively deal with gender-based violence. In Pakistan, the Access to Justice Program helped establish women's police cells, recruit more female judges and introduce the Sexual Harassment Bill. Right here in the Philippines, the Justice Reform program trained the Philippine National Police on handling GBV. At the broader policy level, a regional technical assistance project helped strengthen regional and national legal frameworks to combat trafficking in women in South Asia.

I know of the great work of the WCIC to help the women entrepreneurs to achieve greater confidence, esteem and business expansion. The WCIC is a leading platform that is undoubtedly promoting women's economic leadership and professional growth; serving as advocates to ensure fair treatment and equal opportunities for women in business; encouraging the expansion of women owned businesses in the country; designing and implementing initiatives to assist women become economically independent and last but not least, stimulating the increase of employment opportunities for women.

Challenges in Sri Lanka

We also celebrate International Women's Day (IWM) in ADB, and have several events in the headquarters. This year's theme is 'Voice and Empowerment in the Asia Region'.

In Sri Lanka, voice and empowerment are very important given its emergence as a middle income nation in Asia and the need to improve gender sensitivity in the context of industry and commerce of a growing economy.

According to the Labor Force Survey – Second Quarter 2012, the estimated economically active population on the island is approximately 8.3 million. Of the economically active population, 67 percent constitute males and 33 percent are females. On the other hand, out of the economically inactive population, 30 percent are males while females constitute 70 percent. Women labor force is clearly under-utilized.

The same study also found that women dominate several sectors that make a major contribution to the island's economic growth. These include;

  • plantation sector
  • garment sector
  • migrant worker sector

In fact, 262,960 persons had migrated for work in 2011, of which 48 percent were women. 41 percent of the women migrated for work as domestic workers working in Middle East countries.

While women are contributing to the economy in these sectors to obtain valuable foreign exchange, they are less protected, suffering from vulnerable employment, and more often than not, receiving less remuneration than their male counterparts.

Women's empowerment in Sri Lanka is thus important, and it can be achieved with the greater involvement of women at senior decision making levels, be it through an association like the Women's Chamber of Industry and Commerce, with an organizational structure or from a trade union.

Women cannot always delegate their representation to men, as men don't always have a good grasp of the special needs that female workers have in relation to their work places. Women are better able to place gender issues on the table than men for obvious reasons. Moreover, women have first-hand experience of disadvantages in terms of access to labor markets and the choice of employment. Therefore, giving a voice to women in the labor market cannot be under-stated.

ADB's contribution to women's empowerment

On the issue of under-utilization of women in the labor force in terms of labor force participation rates, we at the ADB try to address with project designs that are geared towards making women become active and economically empowered individuals and groups. In many of our projects, the ADB incorporates gender sensitivity or gender action plans to ensure that the women participants or beneficiaries are fully involved and empowered to have their say in the project navigation.

Mainstreaming gender is the strategy adopted by ADB to address and integrate gender-related concerns in ADB-funded projects of the government. This involves carrying out a gender analysis at the time of project preparation and incorporating measures to address identified gender concerns in the design of these projects. The modality that is usually adopted where there is significant gender impact from the project is the development of a Gender Action Plan (GAP) which has specific activities that contribute to giving women a voice in the process of project design and implementation and to their economic and social empowerment through the benefits they receive from the project.

The North East Coastal Community Development Project (NECCDP) was a community-focused project which was implemented during the conflict in the north and east of the country. Within this multi-sector project, there was a strong emphasis on revitalizing and re-establishing Women Rural Development Societies (WRDSs), providing them with micro-finance through local NGOs, giving their members training in leadership, organizational management and skills training for home-based economic activities.

This project ensured that the village development plans (VDPs) for the target villages were developed through separate consultations with men and the women, in order to enable women's voices to be heard and to create a space where their specific needs and priorities would be expressed and addressed in project outputs. The project worked with a large number of WRDSs and provided training for women who either started or were able to grow their home-based enterprises and improve the well-being of their families.

In another ADB-funded "Improving connectivity to support livelihood and gender equality project" supported through a grant from the Government of Japan, 270 km of rural access roads were rehabilitated primarily through women's participation and labor. This project, which was implemented in the Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Trincomalee and Batticaloa Districts, targeted 2,340 community members to participate with 50% women participation but achieved 2,918 community members participation with 80% women participation.

The training was selected by the women and a large number were provided with skills training to support ongoing economic activities or to start new ones. Training included the traditional types such as Montessori training, dress-making, beauty culture and cookery as well as new skills like driving.

In the words of one of the women beneficiaries; "Thanks to ADB and Japan now I can drive a three wheeler taxi. I take children to schools for my livelihood" These efforts may seem modest in the context of the needs of women in Sri Lanka to be able to voice their opinions, express their needs and requirements and have access to opportunities for market-oriented training so that they too can contribute to the economic life of the country. Yet, these women's pride in having a Savings Account in a bank with money they have earned, being able to decide how the money is spent, and being a significant contributor to the family income demonstrates a positive change in their status within the family and community.

This economic strength enables them to have a stronger voice in family matters and in the wider community. Their participation in community level women's organizations develops their capacity to engage pro-actively with the outside world.

International Women's Day

Many traditional gender roles and domestic tasks e.g. home gardening, poultry keeping and sewing can now being converted to business opportunities. This provides an income but also more intangible benefits such as increased self-esteem and a better standing in the family and community.

While ADB provides support to lower the burden to start the business, it is not always sufficient. Women sometimes need someone to encourage them. The WCIC is indeed important in the sense.

Through the various efforts of the WCIC like hosting the International Women's Day event, women will find encouragement and role models for their hidden talents as entrepreneurs, which is a powerful push for those thinking of starting their own business. I cannot imagine how many women are encouraged, and how many of them actually started their own business.

I wish you all the best in our joint efforts to give voice and empowerment to all women across the island and happy International Day, week and year to you all.