Sri Lanka has long been recognized for its advances in gender equality and human development. Female literacy is close to universal. Free and mandatory education for boys and girls was established shortly after independence in 1948, and girls have seen equal access to education at all levels (UNICEF 2013). Universal franchise for both sexes was established in 1931, and Sri Lanka elected the world’s first female head of state, Sirima Bandaranaike, in 1960. Major investments in women’s health following independence led to falling maternal mortality, more girls staying in school, and families investing more in their daughters (Jayachandran and Lleras-Muney 2009).
Sri Lanka is tied with Botswana in 97th place overall on the WPS Index, which is at least 30 places ahead of Bangladesh and India, for example. Yet major gaps persist, and Sri Lanka’s ranking on the index is 17 places below its income ranking. In 2016, the employment rate for working age women was less than half that of their male counterparts, and it has remained stagnant in recent decades. Women are also systematically underrepresented in management and decision-making positions in the public and private sectors, and their political representation in parliament is extremely low, at below 6 percent (Kovinthan 2016). While the WPS Index uses the United Nations Population Fund estimate of the lifetime rate of intimate partner violence of about 28 percent, higher rates have been reported by the Women’s UN Report Network and PeaceWomen, for example (Nikolau 2016; PeaceWomen 2016).