Gender Equality in Sri Lanka

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Flag of Sri_Lanka
Population (in Mil.) 20.33
Gross Domestic Product (In USD Billions - WB) 59.39
Sex Ratio (m/f) 0.96
Life Expectancy Ratio (f/m) 1.084507042
Fertility Rate 2.2
Estimated Earned Income (f/m) 0.36
Tertiary Enrolment Ratio (f/m) 15.5
Women in Parliament (in %) 5.8
Human Development Index 92/187
Social Institutions and Gender Index 53/86
Gender Inequality Index 92/186
Gender Equity Index 90/168
Women’s Economic Opportunity Index 84/128
Global Gender Gap Index 55/68
More information on variables

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Social Institutions


Sri Lanka was colonized by the Portuguese, Dutch and British. The country gained independence from British rule in 1948. Tensions between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil separatists erupted into war in 1983. The violent civil war, which reportedly killed more than 70,000 people, ended in 2009 after a period of intensification.[1] The Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions reported that more than 300,000 individuals were internally displaced during the conflict and over 21,000 remain displaced in camps.[2] The country is engaging in large-scale reconstruction and development projects following the end of the conflict.[3] The World Bank classifies Sri Lanka as a lower middle income country.[4]

Despite the introduction of policies to promote gender equality including the provision of equal and free access to health and education, the impact of the armed conflict, poverty and persistent discrimination – particularly in the family – continues to pose barriers to women’s equal status with men.[5] According to the World Economic Forum, women remain unequal on measures of economic empowerment including labour force participation, wage equality, income and representation in senior positions. Women also remain severely under-represented in political life.[6] The Asian Development Bank reports that most women are employed in the informal sector and more vulnerable to poverty. It is estimated that there are around 40,000 war widows, who represent a particularly disadvantaged group. The armed conflict also increased women’s vulnerability to sexual violence.[7]

Article 12 of the 1978 Constitution of Sri Lanka guarantees equal rights without discrimination on the grounds of sex. Article 12 also provides for affirmative action for women. Sri Lanka ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 1981.

In 2011, the Human Development Index for Sri Lanka was 0.691, placing the country at 97 out of 187 countries.[8] For the Gender Inequality Index Sri Lanka received a score of 0.419, placing the country at 74 out of 137 countries with data.[9] In 2011, the World Economic Forum ranked Sri Lanka 31 out of 135 countries in its 2011 Global Gender Gap Report, with a score of 0.7212 where 0 represents inequality and 1 represents equality.[10]

Discriminatory Family Code

Family relations in the country are governed by several legal systems. The General Law (civil law) is predominant, but three parallel systems of law may also apply: Islamic, Kandyan, Sinhala and Thesavalamai law are all grounded in customary practices of particular ethnic groups and/or religions.[11] Sri Lanka’s legal age of marriage is 18 years for both men and women. However, the Muslim Personal Law does not provide a minimum age for marriage.[12]

The United Nations reports, based on 2001 data that 11% of girls between 15 and 19 years of age were married, divorced or widowed, compared to 2 percent of boys in the same age range. In 1987, 7 percent of girls aged between 15 and 19 were married, divorced or widowed which indicates that societal acceptance of early marriage has slightly increased in recent decades.[13] The mean age of marriage for women is 24.[14]

The Asian Development Bank reports that the armed conflict and tsunami disaster have created an environment conducive to child marriage. There are reports that corrupt registrars falsify ages of young girls to approve underage marriages.[15] However, the government reports that between 1996 and 2003 there has been a steady decline in the number of Muslim girls married before the age of 16, mainly due to increasing participation in higher education. According to government data the number has dropped from 109 in 1996 to 80 in 2003.[16]

Polygamy is illegal under the Penal Code in Sri Lanka.[17] However, polygamy is permitted for Muslims but the Muslim Marriage Divorce Act requires notification in the event of a Muslim male wishing to enter into a polygamous marriage.[18]

Parental authority is not equally shared in Sri Lanka. Fathers are regarded as the natural guardians of children while mothers are viewed as custodians and are usually responsible for the daily activities related to raising the children.[19] Recent developments in case law have reduced discrimination against women in this area by invoking the best interests of the child principle. New child protection legislation introduced in 2007 emphasises the well-being of children, who may be placed with either parent upon divorce. However, this principle has not been incorporated into the law on marital obligations.[20]

Women’s inheritance rights are different, depending on the legal system. Under the civil Matrimonial Rights and Inheritance Ordinance, a widow inherits one half share of the estate and one half is shared among descendants including sons and daughters.[21] In 2009, the Rural Development Institute reported that Islamic law discriminates against women in the area of property in that Muslim women are typically granted smaller inheritance shares than male heirs.[22] Following the death of a father, Kandyan law ties the inheritance rights of daughters to marital practices: daughters who marry in diga (i.e. the bride is taken into the groom’s home) must transfer any inherited property to their brothers or to sisters who have married in binna (i.e. the groom is taken into the bride’s home).[23] Under Tamil Customary Law, both widows and widowers do not have a right to ancestral property.[24]

As will be discussed further in the Ownership section, the Land Development Ordinance discriminates against women by giving preference to male heirs over female heirs. However, the government reported in 2010 that it was considering an amendment to this law to remove gender discrimination.[25]

The war in Sri Lanka has resulted in a rise in the number of female headed households, particularly in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.[26] This has meant that an increasing number of women have become breadwinners, thus challenging the social institution of the male breadwinner in the family. However, there are a number of legal and administrative barriers facing women as heads of the households, including discriminatory provisions in the laws on pensions and social security.[27] For example, in the aftermath of the tsunami, women were disentitled to property as a consequence of the stipulation that the male ‘head of the household’ be authorised to sign official documentation.[28] As such, the legal superiority of male headed households suggests that negative attitudes towards female-headed households persist.[29]

Restricted Physical Integrity

Rape in Sri Lanka is prohibited by Chapter XVI of the Penal Code.[30] Marital rape is not in general a criminal offence under the Penal Code as amended (1995) except in the case where the spouses are separated under a court order.[31] The Prevention of Domestic Violence Act was enacted in 2005. This Act provides for the issue of Protection Orders (POs) where acts of domestic violence has been committed or is envisaged. An act of domestic violence is defined in the widest terms to include physical abuse and emotional abuse. Such an act of abuse becomes an act of domestic violence if it is committed within the environment of the home or even outside, by a ‘relevant person’ defined broadly.

There is no specific criminal provision prohibiting domestic violence. Acts of physical and sexual violence are prohibited under the general provisions of the Penal Code.[32] Sexual harassment is a criminal offence carrying a maximum sentence of five years in prison.[33]

There is limited data to assess the extent of violence against women in Sri Lanka. According to the US Department of State, the Bureau for the Protection of Children and Women (BPCW) within the police received 714 complaints of grave violent crimes and 2,391 minor crimes against women during the year. According to the Bureau, 175 reported incidents of rape were reported between January and August 2009. However, reported incidences of rape are unreliable indicators of prevalence, as most victims were unwilling to file reports.[34] In 2008, the Asian Development Bank reported that the general perception is that there has been no decrease, and even perhaps an increase, in violence against women following the amendments to the Penal Code in the late 1990s to criminalise rape.[35]

Women’s physical integrity in Sri Lanka has also been gravely affected by the decades of armed conflict. The European Centre on Constitutional and Human Rights cites a Danish study on the use of torture by Sri Lankan law enforcement agents. The study showed evidence that sexual violence had been used against women by those enforcing law as a form of torture. The study emphasized that cases of sexual abuses were often not ‘discovered’ and reported, even by organsations or persons working at the local level, due to issues of fear, stigma and shame. Tamil women and girls have historically been the targets of various forms of sexual assault following their arrest or detention at check points. Such assaults were justified on the grounds that they or their family members were suspected members of the Tamil insurgency.[36] Widespread sexual violence and crime has also been a serious issue in internment camps during the conflict.[37]

A major challenge to ensuring women’s physical integrity in Sri Lanka is the lack of enforcement of laws, gender insensitivity within the police and judiciary and the reluctance of women to report violence.[38] The Asian Development Bank reports that sexual harassment is trivialised and there is a culture of acceptance around violence against women.[39] Further, the Women and Media Collective in Sri Lanka reported a number of limitations of the domestic violence law. When an Interim Protection Order is issued there is provision in the Act for the court to order counselling. It is reported that this has led to women being advised to return to the abusive home environment.[40] The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women has expressed concern about the police seeking to mediate cases of domestic violence.[41] Further, the Women and Media Collective has raised concerns that women face difficulties in accessing court proceedings. They report that from 2005-2009, a total of 219,825 clients sought assistance from Women in Need (a service provider), however only approximately 101 clients filed for Protection Orders.[42]

Female genital mutilation is not a general practice in Sri Lanka, although it is known to occur among some segments of the Muslim population. At present, there is no legislation against this practice.[43]

Limitations on women’s reproductive rights also infringe upon women’s physical integrity in Sri Lanka. Abortion is generally illegal in Sri Lanka. However, the Penal Code has provisions for termination of pregnancy if it is in good faith to save the life of the woman.[44] Access to abortion depends on social class with women from higher income households more easily accessing abortion after consulting a psychiatrist for severe mental depression. The psychiatrist may advise an abortion in order to save the life of the mother, and the pregnancy may then be terminated in a private or government hospital by a qualified medical practitioner. Women from middle-income and lower income households, however, must often resort to abortions performed by “back-door abortionists” under primitive and unhygienic conditions, resulting in high maternal mortality and chronic ill health.[45] The 2006-2007 Demographic Health Survey found that 68 percent of married women were using some method of contraception, with 53 percent using modern methods.[46]

Son Bias

Gender disaggregated data on the rates of infant mortality and early childhood nutrition do not provide evidence of preferential treatment of sons in relation to household allocation of nutrition.[47] Data from a 1999 survey on child labour indicates that girls are more likely to be involved in household chores and for slightly longer periods than boys.[48] This suggests a slight preferential treatment of sons in the allocation of household chores. With respect to access to education, the World Economic Forum reports that Sri Lanka has reached gender parity in primary and secondary education enrolments which suggests that there is no preferential treatment of sons with respect to education.[49]

The Central Intelligence Agency reports that Sri Lanka has the male/female sex ratio for the total population of 0.96.[50]

There is no evidence to suggest that Sri Lanka is a country of concern in relation to missing women.

Restricted Resource and Entitlement

At the time of drafting, the Sri Lankan Land Development Ordinance of 1934 discriminated against women as the statutory law prefers male heads of households. One instance where this discrimination came to the fore was after the tsunami of 2004 where the state allocated new land for those who had lost property to the tsunami. The Hindus and Muslims living in the Eastern Province follow the practice of conferring ownership of the parental home on the daughter upon marriage. According to the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, when the government allocated new land to those who has lost land, it gave it to the person who had signed the relevant form as head of the household. Due to the perception that men are heads of the household, men signed as heads and they were given the new land in their name. The women who had owned property were not given new land. Instead, it was their brothers, fathers and husbands who had signed off as heads of households that received the newly allocated land. A study of 100 cases conducted by the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions revealed that 85 percent of women stated that new property was given in the name of the spouse even though property was in their names prior to the tsunami.[51] In 2010, the government reported that it was considering an amendment to remove the discriminatory provisions in this legislation.[52]

Although there are no reported legal restrictions to women’s access to property other than land, women’s access is limited by the discriminatory inheritance and land ownership practices outlined above. The Women and Media collective reports that women have difficulties registering properties in their names because it is assumed property has to be registered in the name of the male head of the household, which places female headed households in particular in a vulnerable position.[53] Women’s access to property was also affected by the conflict. In the conflict areas in the North many women owned houses which were given to them as dowry upon marriage but were unable to claim compensation for destruction or damage in many instances due to loss of documentation.[54]

Women also have equal access to bank loans, mortgages and other forms of credit from a variety of sources including the government, private financial institutions and donor-assisted or local credit delivery programmes.[55] The Asian Development Bank reports that low-income women tend to benefit from the micro-level group credit schemes. However, studies indicate that microcredit programs for self-employment have perpetuated poverty among low-income women who desperately need to increase their incomes but who have been limited to producing for other low-income consumers and earning minimal incomes.[56]

Restricted Civil Liberties

There are no reported legal restrictions on women’s access to public space in Sri Lanka. However, as noted in the Physical Integrity section women’s freedom of movement in conflict-affected areas has been infringed by the threat or incidence of sexual violence.[57] Further, women’s freedom of movement has been curtailed in the camps for internally displaced people, where it is reported that they have been subject to widespread human rights violations based on their gender. For example, it is reported that female prisoners who were forced to go naked before male guards and made allegations of rape in the internment camps.[58] There have also been allegations of broader violations of civil liberties associated with the armed conflict and the intensification of the conflict in 2009 in particular. This includes violations such as torture, kidnapping, hostage-taking, and extortion which infringed upon the freedom of movement of both women and men.[59]

With respect to women’s participation in political life, women in Sri Lanka have the same rights as men to vote in all elections, to be elected and to participate in the political and public life.[60] However, this has not translated into equal political representation. The World Economic Forum reports that women make up only 5% of Sri Lankan parliamentarians and 6 percent of Ministerial positions.[61]

The Asian Development Bank reports that Sri Lanka has a number of labour laws that give women and men equal rights. However, observance of these laws depends on self-regulation by employers and the efficacy of labour inspectors. Despite labour inspection procedures, women still suffer from weak and inconsistent monitoring and enforcement of laws concerning wage equality, occupational health, and labour standards.[62] According to the World Economic Forum, women in Sri Lanka are entitled to 12 weeks paid maternity leave, paid at either 86 percent or 100 percent of wages, depending on the employment type.[63]


  1. BBC (n.d.) Country Profile: Sri Lanka, available at, accessed 8 March 2011
  2. COHRE (2011) Shadow Report to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Sri Lanka: 48th Session, available at, accessed 8 March 2011.
  3. Central Intelligence Agency (2011) World Fact Book: Sri Lanka, available at, accessed 8 March 2011.
  4. World Bank (n.d.) Online data: Sri Lanka, available at, accessed 8 March 2011.
  5. Asian Development Bank (2008) Country Gender Assessment: Sri Lanka, available at, accessed 8 March 2011. p.vii
  6. World Economic Forum (2010) Global Gender Gap Report 2010, Available at, accessed 20 October 2010 p.276
  7. See reference 5 p.vii
  8. United Nations Development Programme (2011) Human Development Report 2011, available at, accessed 29 February 2012 p.128
  9. See reference 8 p.140
  10. World Economic Forum (2011) The Global Gender Gap Report 2011, available at, accessed 2 March 2012.p.10
  11. See reference 5 p.4
  12. United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) (2002) Concluding Observations: Sri Lanka, CEDAW/A/57/38, New York, paras 270, 274
  13. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2008) World Marriage Data 2008, available at, accessed 10 October 2010.
  14. See reference 6 p.276
  15. See reference 5 p.4
  16. United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) (2010a) Consideration of Reports Submitted by States Parties Under Article 18 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women: Combined fifth, sixth and seventh periodic reports of States parties, Sri Lanka, CEDAW/C/LKA/5-7, Geneva p.8
  17. Rural Development Institute (RDI) (2009) Women’s Inheritance Rights to Land and Property in South Asia: A Study of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, available at, accessed 8 March 2011.p.69
  18. Reference 17 p.69
  19. The Women and Media Collective (2010) Sri Lanka Shadow Report: To the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, available at, accessed 8 March 2011.p.32
  20. Reference 19 p.32
  21. Reference 17 P.11
  22. Reference 17 P.10
  23. Reference 17 P.10
  24. Reference 17 p.10
  25. United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) (2010b) Responses to the list of issues and questions with regard to the consideration of the combined fifth, sixth and seventh periodic report, Sri Lanka, CEDAW/C/LKA/Q/7/Add.1, Geneva. p.2
  26. See reference 5 p.5
  27. Reference 2 p.6
  28. Reference 2 p.7
  29. Reference 19 pp.32-33
  30. Reference 16 p.24
  31. Reference 19 p.30
  32. Reference 16 pp.23-24
  33. US State Department (2010) 2009 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Sri Lanka, Available, accessed 8 March 2011
  34. Reference 33
  35. See reference 5 p.35
  36. European Centre on Constitutional and Human Rights (2010) Alternative report on the implementation of the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW): Sri Lanka, available at p.13
  37. Reference 36 p.14
  38. Reference 33
  39. See reference 5 p.36
  40. Reference 19 p.35
  41. Reference 25
  42. Reference 19 p.35
  43. Inter-Parliamentary Union (n.d.) Legislation and other national provisions on FGM, available at, accessed 8 March 2011
  44. United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) (2010a) Consideration of Reports Submitted by States Parties Under Article 18 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women: Combined fifth, sixth and seventh periodic reports of States parties, Sri Lanka, CEDAW/C/LKA/5-7, Geneva. p.11
  45. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2008) World Marriage Data 2008, available at, accessed 10 October 2010.
  46. Department of Census and Statistics (2007) Demographic Health Survey 2007/2007: Preliminary Report (Draft), available at, accessed 8 March 2011.
  47. Reference 46
  48. Understanding Children’s Work (n.d.) Online data: Sri Lanka, available at, accessed 8 March 2011.
  49. See reference 6 p.276
  50. Central Intelligence Agency (2012) The World Fact Book: Sex Ratio, available at, accessed 5 March 2012.
  51. Reference 2 p.8
  52. Reference 16 p.7
  53. Reference 19 p.47
  54. Reference 19 p.49
  55. FAO (n.d.) Gender and Land Rights Database: Sri Lanka Country Report, available at, accessed 8 March 2011.
  56. See reference 5 p. 25
  57. Reference 36
  58. Reference 36 p.16
  59. Reference 33
  60. CEDAW (2002) p.73
  61. See reference 6 p.276
  62. See reference 5 p.5
  63. See reference 6 p.27

The Women, Business and the Law

Where are laws equal for men and women? 

The Women, Business and the Law report presents indicators based on laws and regulations affecting women's prospects as entrepreneurs and employees. Several of these indicators draw on the Gender Law Library, a collection of over 2,000 legal provisions impacting women's economic status. This report does not seek to judge or rank countries, but to provide information to inform discussions about women’s economic rights. Women, Business and the Law provides data covering 6 areas: accessing institutions,using property, getting a job, providing incentives to work, building credit, and going to court.Read more about the methodology.

For detailed information on Sri Lanka, please visit the Women, Business and
the Law Sri Lanka


The FAO Gender and Landrights Database

The FAO Gender and Landrights Database contains country level information on social, economic, political and cultural issues related to the gender
FAO logo.jpg
inequalities embedded in those rights. Disparity on land access

is one of the major causes for social and gender in rural areas, and it jeopardizes, as a consequence, rural food security as well as the wellbeing of individuals and families.

Six categories

The Database offers information on the 6 following Categories:

  • National legal frame
  • International treaties and conventions
  • Customary law
  • Land tenure and related Institutions
  • Civil society organizations
  • Selected Land Related Statistics

For detailed information information on Sri Lanka, please visit the report on in the FAO Gender and Landrights Database.


External Links

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