Affirmative Actions

What is affirmative action?

Affirmative action also known as positive discrimination is action favouring persons who tend to be discriminated against.


What does the law say about affirmative action?

In Sri Lanka, the Constitution seeks to protect individual freedoms under Article 10 - Freedom of thought, conscience and religion and Article 12 - Right to equality where are all persons are equal before the law and entitled to equal protection under the law; and no citizen shall be discriminated against on the grounds of race, religion, language, caste, sex, political opinion, place of birth or any such grounds:


With regard to language rights, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution affords equality of status to both Sinhala and Tamil languages as official languages in Sri Lanka.


Several pieces of legislation have been introduced to protect women in the workplace and at home such as the Employment of Women, Young Persons and Children Act, Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, the ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the non-binding Women’s Charter of Sri Lanka that ensued. As a result of the dualist system operating in the country, Sri Lanka is bound by the principles of non-discrimination contained in international instruments such as CEDAW and others.


In context of sexual harassment, Sections 345, 365A and B of the Penal Code provide for the prosecution of persons committing any acts of gross indecency with another without his or her consent.


A Ministry for Women’s Affairs has been established in Sri Lanka, as well as the National Child Protection Authority.


The Police Department has established special Children and Women’s Bureau Desks throughout the island, to receive complaints and file action on issues faced by women both at home and in the workplace.


Language parity

In 1956 the government passed the discriminatory Official Language Act No. 33 of 1956 popularly known as the Sinhala Only Act. This piece of legislation replaced English as the official language and gave Sinhala that status instead, while failing to give Tamil language official recognition. This piece of legislation was the forerunner to the long standing dispute Tamils had with successive governments in Sri Lanka, and was one of the core grievances that gave birth to the Tamil struggle for a separate state. This struggle turned militant and ended up as 30 year long civil war.


In 1987, as a result of a peace accord brokered by the Indians, the Sri Lankan government passed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution which stated that Tamil is also an official language. The Official Languages Policy and the Official Languages Commission were outputs of this legislation.


Recent non-legislative affirmative action

President Mahinda Rajapaksa while marking International Women's Day, launched the 'Liya Isuru' interest free loan scheme for women entrepreneurs in the country. Under Liya Isuru, as announced in the 2014 Budget, and implemented by the Regional Development Bank, women entrepreneurs can obtain an interest free loan of a maximum of Rs 2 lakhs without collateral.


A Private Members motion was recently presented in Parliament to increase the number of Kithul Plantations in the country. The production of food products from Kithul (a liquid jaggery) is a cottage industry in which many women are involved. The income from this industry is a direct contributor to the domestic economy.


The flip side

Women working in the major foreign exchange earning industries and occupations such as the tea industry, garment industry and as migrant workers are victims of the sticky floor syndrome. They form the base of the work pyramid and contribute the greatest labour component. The management positions in these industries are held mostly by men.


Women in Sri Lanka have broken through the glass ceiling, but they are more the exception than the rule. The first woman prime minister in the world - Sirima Bandaranaike, the first woman president in Sri Lanka – Chandrika Kumaratunga, the first woman Chief Justice in Sri Lanka – Shirani Bandaranayake and the first woman Attorney General – Eva Wanasundera are a few examples.


However, in a country which has an economically active population of 8.8 million persons, women account for approximately 3.1 million (35%); but approximately 5.6 million women (75%) of a 7.5 million population are considered economically inactive. That means, they are not officially employed in either the formal or informal economies.


The role of women as primary caregivers in their families and communities are not financially quantified nor is the opportunity cost involved considered. Men are able to engage in active employment because their wives, mothers and sisters are caregivers of the young, the elderly and the infirm.


No affirmative action has been considered to support these women who take care of society. Employers have not yet been able to develop work arrangements such as flexible hours, and working from home, etc., in order to capture this female labour component, which can be productive both at home and in the economic sphere.

No quota systems have been established by law to enforce gender balance in the intake of employees into the public service or into politics at national, provincial or local.

The private sector is also not particularly focused on ensuring a gender balanced workforce.


Due to the restriction on the hours that women can be employed at night, women in the IT enabled industry are unable to work the night shift. The Employer’s Federation of Ceylon had appealed to the government to grant exemption and allow women to engage equally in this sector.


While the main trade unions in Sri Lanka comprise the labour forces of the plantation and the garment industries which have a majority female work force, and though women form a large percentage of the membership, the office bearers are mainly men.

Women migrant workers

Recently Sri Lanka and the Saudi Kingdom signed an MOU for the protection of Sri Lankan domestic workers in the Kingdom. This agreement covers 12 categories of domestic workers including housemaids, drivers, cleaners and waiters working in Saudi Arabia. Under this MOU, the sponsors cannot withhold the employees’ passports nor are domestic workers required to surrender their travel documents to their employers as was the case previously under the informal Kafala system.


Furthermore, the employers are required to remit the workers’ wages to their bank accounts instead of the usual practice of paying salaries in cash. Workers can only be recruited through licensed employment agencies and contracts must be drafted in a language understood by the worker,


All benefits and facilities available to the worker must be informed to him/her especially in context of health and personal safety.


Contracts must be terminated after a maximum of two years if the employee prefers to leave the place of employment.


Under this agreement, a unified and well-regulated system for recruitment with emphasis on monitoring working conditions of workers will be established and implemented.

Yet a burning issue remains, and that is the fact that migrant workers have no voting rights, leaving them with little or no bargaining power with governments and politicians. This is a seriously disempowering factor, as it makes migrant workers unable to be a force to be reckoned with on their own and dependent on external lobbying for their rights.

What about collective agreements and affirmative action?

Collective agreements in the plantation sector, have delivered equal wages for men and women. However, in context of the number hours worked, the hourly wage for women is less than that for men. Though it can be argued that the quantum of physical labour engaged in by the men working on plantations is far more than the women.

Women in IT - bridging the digital divide

Many Sri Lankan women are working in the information technology industry as managers, programmers, software developers, etc. While women’s participation in this sector cannot be considered equal to men, as the industry grows, so does the participation of women.


The island is dotted with IT training centres that have both men and women studying there. However, the technical side such as servicing and repairing computers, etc., is a male dominated area. The rapidly advancing telecommunication and IT sectors attract both men and women, and is one of the few industries in Sri Lanka with an expanding labour force that is able to accommodate more women at middle and top management levels than any other.


However, when the overall picture is considered, equal participation by women at all levels in the labour force is more tokenism than a mainstream reality.