Sunday, June 4, 2023
Esteemed panelists, justices and judges, Mr. Nawaratne President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka, Members of the Management committee, Members of the organizing committee led by Mr. Musthapa, other presidents counsel, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, Good Morning.
I am honored to be invited to address such a distinguished group this morning at the final session of the National Law Conference. I have tremendous respect for the Bar Association of Sri Lanka.
The Bar Association has frequently served as an essential moderating influence in Sri Lankan society, basing its analysis on the rule of law and engaging in a way that builds bridges and harmony. As recently as last week, BASL highlighted its close attention to the growing tension over religious statements. The United States has stood resolute for freedom of expression as a fundamental human right for nearly 250 years, but we recognize that, like all rights, the freedom of expression must be exercised wisely. I welcome BASL’s attention to this important discussion.
The Bar Association of Sri Lanka has the respect of legal professionals, the public – and me – because you have demonstrated your commitment to the rule of law and the protection of human rights, both so imperative at this juncture for Sri Lanka.
In this, the 75th anniversary year of bilateral relations between Sri Lanka and the United States, the core values embodied in the legal profession are more important than ever. It’s about people, partnership, and progress. You are the guardians of the rule of law – the “guardians of the galaxy” in a sense, as the cornerstone of any civilized society.
I am excited to speak on a topic that means a lot to me: equality in economic and social development and the rule of law.
First, let me provide some context on the issue of women’s economic empowerment. I’m so glad to see both women and men in the audience, because we often mistake women’s rights and women’s advocacy as something just for women – and they certainly are not. We need allies and champions of both genders, across the legal profession, private sector, academia, civil society, and government to recognize this is a shared challenge and to seek shared solutions.
Women make up slightly more than half of the world’s population, and yet they face persistent barriers to full economic participation. Only 32% of women participated in the labor force in 2021, compared to 71% of men, limiting the potential of the Sri Lankan economy and. This gender gap is something we should all address together.
We’ve seen some great strides though, as Sri Lankan women have taken senior positions in both the public and private sectors. Your Foreign Secretary, Aruni Wijewardne, is a woman with vast international experience. I just met with the new Secretary General of the Parliament, Kushani Rohanadeera, the second woman to take on this role. This year the Colombo Club elected its first female President in its 152-year history. Recent multilateral naval exercises included a Sri Lankan female navy diver for the first time.
Fully half of the best and brightest employees are being missed when companies fail to hire women – in all positions. You don’t have to take my word for it; many studies have shown a strong correlation between weak economic growth and wide gender gaps in the labor force. One study found that increasing women’s labor force participation by 10 percent increased real wages – for everyone – by 5 percent. Reducing the gender gap will significantly boost the world’s overall GDP.
So, we know the problem. Now, what can we do about it? How do we retain talented women in the workplace when childcare, eldercare, and other pressures often dissuade women from continuing their careers? Companies can offer childcare programs or credits and flexible work schedules. We can challenge the norms of women doing the majority of household work and childcare duties. We can give women the equal opportunity to compete for promotions, and work overtime in the evenings. We can recognize and reward women for good work just as we do men. We can have men speak up when you see female colleagues being mistreated or denied opportunities even though they are equally or more qualified. We can help young women thrive through internships and mentoring programs.
I’m proud to say the United States has made efforts to help women in Sri Lanka find access to resources and training to get them into the workforce and stay there. First, we aim to increase access to finance for women entrepreneurs. The United States is working with Sri Lankan financial institutions to increase lending to women-owned businesses, and we are supporting initiatives that provide training, financial literacy, and mentorship to women entrepreneurs. We were pleased to provide funding to Hatch Works to launch AccelerateHer – the first female-focused business accelerator in Sri Lanka.
Second, we aim to increase women’s participation in the formal economy, including through initiatives that provide legal and regulatory support to women-owned businesses.
Third, we address gender-based discrimination and violence – significant barriers to women’s economic participation and overall well-being. The United States is supporting initiatives that promote gender equality and combat gender-based violence.
Finally, we aim to change how women are often underrepresented in leadership positions, both in the public and private sectors. The United States is supporting initiatives that promote women’s leadership and decision-making, including through training and mentorship programs.
When women have equal economic opportunities, they are better able to support themselves and their families, which leads to stronger communities and economies. At the U.S. Embassy, more than half my senior staff are women, bringing a rich diversity of ideas and problem solving to our senior leadership team.
Now let me turn to equality in the rule of law. The most widely used symbol for a healthy justice system is Lady Justice. You know, the statue of a majestic woman, blindfolded, holding the scales of justice in one hand, and a sword in the other. She’s blindfolded so she fairly administers the law to all, male or female, irrespective of skin color, religion, race, or sexual orientation. She balances the delicate scales of justice, one of the most important and challenging endeavors. She wields a sword as a reminder that justice also involves accountability, which often includes punishment and retribution.
Prominently displayed on the façade of the Supreme Court of the United States is the phrase: EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW. The only way for the law to be applied equally is for there to be equality in those who apply it. Plain and simple. It is especially important to achieve equal representation at levels where the biggest decisions are made, for instance at the level of judges and leaders at law firms, and in government agencies like the Attorney’s General’s Department.
As leaders of the legal profession in Sri Lanka, you have the responsibility to show the way – which you are doing! I heard an amazing statistic the other day. Out of more than one thousand attorneys at law admitted to the bar in 2022, more than 64 percent were women. This is the start to recalibrating women’s representation at higher levels of the justice system.
Currently, two of the 17 Sri Lankan Supreme Court justices are women. And two of the current 20 Court of Appeal justices are women. You just heard in the previous panel about the Utah Supreme Court recently becoming majority women, and that 4 out of 9 current U.S. Supreme Court justices are women. It’s taken many years and hard work to get here, but we can all strive to increase representation in our justice sectors.
So, I applaud you for your commitment to continue to advance equality, diversity, realignment, and agility in the legal profession. I also challenge each of you here today. By the next National Law Conference, what can your firm, office, or organization do, what policies and programs will you implement, how will you as leaders in the legal community make sure you set the tone and standards for others to follow to fully empower women and retain talent?
You are not alone. The United States is committed to helping Sri Lanka achieve greater equality within its justice system. Over the past several years, U.S. assistance to the justice sector has helped provide legal aid, raise awareness on important laws, and strengthen the performance of justice institutions and actors through programs implemented by USAID, Department of Justice, and Department of Commerce.
For example, USAID’s Efficient and Effective Justice program strengthens the Sri Lanka justice sector by improving administrative efficiency and increasing the capacity of justice sector personnel. USAID has offered continuing legal education in topics such as alternative dispute resolution, immigration, land laws, legal research, gender equality and social inclusion, and professional ethics.
USAID is also helping to tackle Sri Lanka’s massive backlog of more than half a million cases by implementing best practices and tools for case management. In addition, an experienced prosecutor from the U.S. Department of Justice works hand-in-hand with you and other lawyers to help improve Sri Lanka’s justice system.
The United States also supported Sri Lankan efforts to modernize court operations so that instead of focusing on the bureaucracy, you can focus on delivering justice to all.
And I am so proud that we brought two prominent women to Sri Lanka this week: the State of Utah’s Supreme Court Justice Paige Peterson and Utah’s first female U.S. attorney Trina Higgins to share with you their thoughts and also learn from you. They’ve both come from small, rural towns and worked hard and sought opportunities to get to their positions; some of you in the audience may have had similar experiences.
In closing, I would like to thank the Bar Association of Sri Lanka again for inviting me to speak today, and for your leadership at the forefront of justice sector reforms. I want to also recognize again Kaushalya Nawaratne, the Bar Association’s new President. During a recent meeting with him, I experienced his passion for equality in the law, and for equal justice across all segments of Sri Lanka. It is no surprise that the first National Law Conference under his stewardship is focused on equality and fairness. I look forward to seeing the impact of the Bar Association under Kaushalya’s leadership.
I would also like to thank the Ministry of Justice, the Attorney General’s Department, other justice sector institutions, and all lawyers who pursue equality and justice. It has been an honor to speak to you and I look forward to more collaboration as we work together to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the Sri Lankan justice system. No judicial system is perfect, including that of the United States or Sri Lanka, but we all endeavor to make it more equal. I hope you have all renewed your sense of purpose and responsibility during this conference. The United States will continue to look for ways to support and partner with you. Thank you.