March 8, 2016
International Women’s Day began as an annual tradition more than 100 years ago initially as a way to honor women’s role in labor, advocate for political rights, and end discrimination in the workplace. Every year on March 8, people around the world reflect on the progress women have made, celebrate acts of courage and determination by women making a difference in their communities and countries, and urge greater effort to ensure the success of women. In countries everywhere, when women succeed, society as a whole succeeds. When girls and women are educated, entire societies are educated, and flourish.
Even as we celebrate the rights of women and strive for their empowerment, we also have to recognize the tremendous barriers that can stand in their way. Gender often affects the opportunities available to all of us. From household roles to education and careers, women continue to face social and institutional obstacles to their own advancement.
It is vital that all people – men and women – act to provide women with more opportunities, whether at home or in the workplace. As the young Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai said, “We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back.” To ensure the success of half of humanity, husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons have a duty to support their female relatives in seeking their rightful and complete opportunity to achieve their full potential.
Indeed, since women form half of the potential human capital in any economy, we know that leaving women out of the formal economy leads to lower income levels and higher poverty levels for society at large. According to the International Monetary Fund, legal barriers to women’s labor force participation causes GDP losses of up to 30 percent. McKinsey estimates that if women around the world participated on an equal footing with men, as much as $28 trillion – more than the entire current GDP of the United States and China – could be added to annual global GDP by 2025.
Think about that: $28 trillion in return for equality. No wonder the International Women’s Day 2016 theme is “Pledge to Parity.”
Statistics for Sri Lanka indicate that women represent just 69 percent of the total “economically inactive population” but just 34 percent of the “economically active population.” This untapped reservoir of enterprise, initiative, innovation, and employment can be utilized for the development of the country, while empowering the individual and benefitting society as a whole. Attracting more women first as employees, but also as entrepreneurs and employers, will transform economic growth, create new job opportunities, and improve the living conditions for families, especially girls.
The United States is home to some of the most vibrant and innovative women-led businesses on the planet, and for decades the American people have supported entrepreneurship among Sri Lankan women as a development assistance strategy. Our projects have trained women to become entrepreneurs in agricultural and small industries, facilitated access to credit, and built social and business networks to expand markets. We send talented women business leaders to the United States to learn from and share innovative ideas, then encourage them to be role models and give back to others when they return to Sri Lanka. Through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), we’ve partnered with local businesses to establish new factories in economically lagging and conflict-affected regions with high numbers of female-headed households.
If you’ve ever driven between the Northern and Central provinces along the A9 highway, do consider stopping at the USAID-supported “Taste of Vanni” rest stop in Mankulam, Mullaitivu. Operated by a Women’s Rural Development Society, it provides war widows, single mothers, and female heads of households with an opportunity to return to a normal income-earning lifestyle by selling food, drinks, and local handicrafts. Local women generate needed revenue each day and share the profit, using it to feed and educate their children.
Up the road in Kilinochchi, the USAID-supported Sivanarul Vocational Training and Production Centre packages rice flour and spices made by widows, orphans, disabled, or women heads-of-households. This is not just a business, but also a commitment to improving the community around it by providing women with a source of income and secure accommodations.
Over in the Eastern Province, Liyark Industries began as a small-scale slipper and bag manufacturing operation. With the help of USAID, Liyark opened a new factory to diversify its products into leather shoes, providing stable employment for more young women in an area with limited job prospects. The company is also encouraging savings by depositing salaries directly into bank accounts to plan for the future.
In a country where the World Bank estimates more than 40% of the population lives on less than 225 LKR per person per day (under $2), the U.S. Government focuses much of its development and economic assistance on women who are struggling to make ends meet. For these women it’s not just about the money. It’s the value of coming to work, making new friends, encouraging each other when times are tough, having a voice in family and community decisions, and earning money that will be used to care for, and educate, their own children.
At a speech in 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama said, “You can measure how well a country does by how well it treats its women… Some folks still talk about women’s issues as if they’re something separate, over there, and economics is over here – that’s nonsense. When women succeed, America succeeds. It’s pretty straightforward.”
Our world can reach its full potential only when women and girls are empowered to reach theirs. Indeed, when women succeed, societies everywhere succeed.