By Aruni Goonetilleke, Chairman of Hatton National Bank
One of the most famous women in history once said, “In crisis are the seeds of opportunity.” The source of such a powerful truism? Marilyn Monroe, a woman who clearly possessed great wisdom, but who is sadly remembered for her physical beauty than for her intellectual and emotional strength.
While it can be difficult to focus on growth during turbulent times, those who are able to find these seeds of opportunity ultimately receive disproportionate benefits. Today, Sri Lanka is in the midst of such a moment. There is of course a unanimous consensus that our nation must urgently identify and utilize all available opportunities to help revive and rejuvenate our economy. But the devil is in the details.
Therefore, in weighing our options, we should consider a few key details. First, we must recognize that this is a compelling reason why women’s empowerment is often discussed alongside economic development. Globally, countries are estimated to lose $160 trillion in wealth due to income differences between women and men. This equates to an average of US$23,620 for each person in the 141 countries surveyed by the World Bank.
Second, despite Sri Lanka’s rich history of female leadership at the top and exceptional female education rates – including near gender parity in tertiary education, female participation rates in Sri Lanka’s labor market (FLFP) has been consistently rooted at a dismal 32%; the same as ten years ago and among the lowest in South Asia.
More importantly, research has shown that Sri Lanka can increase its gross domestic product (GDP) by up to US$20 billion every year until 2025, simply by advancing the cause of gender equality1. The question we must collectively ask ourselves this year is simple; Can we afford to neglect this potential any longer?
Our hope, on this International Women’s Day, is that in responding to Sri Lanka’s current economic challenges, we will also take time to reflect on the important contribution that women have made to the development of our nation and that we will achieve a firm consensus on the broad steps we need to take to empower many more Sri Lankan women to reach their full potential.
Forge a path to progress
Many of the obstacles facing Sri Lankan women today are the product of generations of regressive attitudes and ideologies that have become entrenched to the point where today they have created systemic failures. While these issues are certainly not unique to Sri Lanka, the solutions we create to address these issues will have to be.
One area that has the potential to have the most impact is encouraging and supporting more women to become entrepreneurs. The Central Bank of Sri Lanka’s directive to the national banking sector to allocate 5% of its loan portfolio specifically to women-led businesses was certainly a step in the right direction. It is now up to our industry to pursue this initiative with greater enthusiasm.
So far, approximately 3% of our total SME portfolio, comprising 126,216 total clients, has been channeled to women-led businesses. This means that in total, we have helped over 3,000 women-led SMEs realize their entrepreneurial dreams and gain an unprecedented level of control over their own finances. These businesses cover a variety of fields, including home gardening, agriculture, food, fashion, packaging, and stationery.
In 2022, we aim to increase our SME lending by 20% year-on-year (YoY). In the process, we hope to further expand access to finance and opportunities for more women entrepreneurs. Capacity building will be another key focus area, with a total of 40 structured capacity building programs already organized during the year, across the island.
HNB also partners with USAID for some short-term SME development programs. Similarly, we partnered with ITC and the Sri Lankan Export Development Council to provide targeted capacity building and financial literacy training to 100 women to support their aspirations to compete in international markets.
We are also partnering with CIMA Sri Lanka to train and mentor women entrepreneurs, to help them unlock disproportionate growth potential in the SME space and leverage that growth to create more employment opportunities for women. women.
Over the course of the year, HNB hopes to increase awareness and focus on these programs to ensure funds and training are directed to where they are needed most. However, while Sri Lankan women are on average more educated than their South Asian counterparts, they are less likely to use this education to secure economic benefits. Part of the problem is that our education system itself needs reform so that our next generation is better prepared with the hard and soft skills needed to enter the workforce.
Likewise, we must focus on extending technical and vocational training to more women while dispelling myths and prejudices against women taking certain jobs and not others.
Going forward, Sri Lankans must join in creating an enabling environment for female entrepreneurs and address the specific issues that are most responsible for keeping women out of the workforce. These include practical investments in systems to ensure safe childcare and transport.
Legal reforms are an important element, such as national ratification of the International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 190, which enshrines the right of everyone to a world of work free from violence and harassment. However, legal reform will not get us far.
True progress requires that we also address the cultural dysfunction at the root of all gender discrimination. Because ultimately, change has to start with each of us. In our homes, schools and communities. As the stakes for economic development have never been higher, we must ensure that we get it right, in order to build a better and more equitable future that serves all Sri Lankans, regardless of gender.