Honored guests, ladies, gentlemen.
Good afternoon to you all. It is an honor to be invited to address such a distinguished gathering of women leaders and professionals. You are knocking down barriers for women every day in Sri Lanka – and reaching back to mentor young leaders. You are helping to build a stronger, more diverse nation.
I am honored to have been invited by someone so extraordinary as your chairperson, Rifa Musthapha. Rifa, your introductory speech was a clarion call that while Sri Lanka has accomplished so much, like my own country, it has farther to go. Also, I need to say, in reviewing the achievements of the Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Ms. Musthapa was modest:
You do so much. You here in the Women’s Chamber do set an example for the young women and girls of Sri Lanka. Your work is extraordinary and you here in this room are models for the future generation. As the son of a mother who served in the United States Foreign Service, and the husband of a serving United States Foreign Service Officer, and, most important, as the proud father of three daughters, I value your work so much and all that you offer Sri Lanka.
I see my dear and respected friend Faiszer Mustapha in the audience. As men who are lucky to be married to accomplished women leaders, I think Faiszer might agree that nothing makes us happier than when we go to functions as their partners, where they are the honored guests and we are the spouses. It is a wonderful feeling.
Friends, Sri Lanka has a long history of female trailblazers who have opened new doors for the next generation. I think of Queen Viharamahadevi, whom the Mahavamsa tells us was willing to sacrifice her life to save Sri Lanka from a tsunami; or Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who became the world’s first female prime minister and her daughter Madam Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who became Sri Lanka’s first female president.
And then there’s Susanthika Jayasinghe who brought home Sri Lanka’s second Olympic medal in the 2000 Olympics and, of course, Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala, the first Sri Lankan ever to summit Mount Everest, who honors us with her presence here today. These are just a few of the long list of bold, courageous Sri Lankan women who have been at the forefront of changing the global conversation on gender equality and women’s rights.
At the same time, women in the United States are also breaking through the glass ceiling and claiming their rightful place as leaders. The list includes astronaut Sally Ride, who was the first American woman to fly in space; civil rights activist Rosa Parks; Facebook COO and gender activist Sheryl Sandberg; and tennis star Serena Williams. We even have the first female presidential candidate nominated from a major political party on the ballot for the November presidential election. Who knows, our voters might even do what Sri Lanka achieved in 1960.
And here, I must honor the memory of Frances Willis, who was the United States Ambassador to Ceylon from 1961 to 1964. She was the first woman in the United States Foreign Service to be awarded our highest rank of Career Ambassador. For such an august and distinguished diplomat, one of the legends of the American Foreign Service, and such a pioneering woman, to have been appointed to Ceylon shows what a strong relationship our two nations have always had, and how we have a shared history in promoting leadership by women.
Despite these great achievements for women in Sri Lanka, there is still much to be done to ensure women’s equal participation in society. Women’s representation in Parliament is below six percent, even though women account for over half of the population. Women across the country still face several barriers to their full participation in the workforce, including poor access to education, limited access to credit, gender-based violence, and ingrained discrimination. Women’s opportunities in politics remain sparse and their talents underutilized in the private sector.
The current Sri Lankan government has made some progress and taken positive steps to strengthen women’s participation in society. In February, Parliament passed legislation requiring that 25 percent of the nominees for local government elections be female, and there are plans to introduce a quota for provincial councils as well. In June, the Cabinet approved the Policy Framework and National Action Plan to address Sexual and Gender Based Violence 2016-2020 and ordered its immediate implementation. Then in August, Parliament approved Office of Missing Persons legislation to create an office to investigate missing persons reports, most of which come from women across Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka is not alone in its journey towards gender equality. According to statistics from the International Labor Organization and the Asian Development Bank, the entire Asia-Pacific region is losing US$42-47 billion annually due to women’s limited access to employment opportunities. Even in the United States, women still do not have a legal right to paid maternity leave and many women still do not earn equal pay for equal work when compared to their male colleagues.
Together we can work to close the gender divide around the world. As President Obama said, “We must carry forward the work of the women who came before us and ensure our daughters have no limits on their dreams, no obstacle to their achievements, and no remaining ceilings to shatter.” This is a worthy goal and should be our collective mission.
The United States has long been, and will continue to be, a partner and friend of Sri Lanka on this journey. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Cathy Russell came to Sri Lanka in October 2015, demonstrating our high-level commitment to gender equality and women’s rights. She had meetings with dynamic women across the country and learned how we can work together to promote women’s empowerment. As Ambassador Russell said during her visit, “The United States believes it’s in everyone’s best interest to advance gender equality; when women do better, communities, businesses, and countries do better as well.”
The Embassy, through USAID, has supported women and girls in Sri Lanka for decades – from improving access to education and vocational skills, to advocating on behalf of their legal rights, security, and political participation. We created jobs and increased incomes for women, especially single mothers, war widows, and disabled women. We also work to promote women’s entrepreneurship by providing business-plan development training, identifying funding opportunities, and linking them to buyers markets.
I am amazed and inspired by the entrepreneurial spirit and resilience of Sri Lankan women. All across this country, women are working together to fight poverty and transform their lives and their communities. As just one example, there is the “Taste of Vanni” rest stop on the A9 road. It is operated by a women’s cooperative and serves food and drinks and sells products made by local women. USAID partnered with the government and other donors to help this cooperative and now these women, many of whom are widows and single mothers, earn approximately $300 per day and share the profit among themselves.
We also support organizations focused on helping emerging women leaders influence local government authorities to obtain essential services for their communities. In July, we brought renowned businesswoman Samira Cook to Sri Lanka to speak to aspiring women entrepreneurs, including some of you here today, about strategies to grow their businesses. We also nominated 14 women this year to participate in the International Visitor Leadership Program, the Department of State’s premier professional exchange that targets emerging leaders. These women met, and will continue to meet with, other women leaders from around the world – learning about American best practices in topics as diverse as Women Political Leaders; Ending Gender Based Violence; and Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.
Friends, in conclusion, I want to emphasize my strong belief that our world can reach its full potential only when women and girls are fully empowered, tapping their unlimited potential and living their dreams. When women succeed, societies everywhere succeed. Friends, I can assure you the United States will continue to work with you and your government to ensure equal rights and equal opportunity for all.
Thank you again for the opportunity to address this gathering.