Gender Dynamics In Sri Lankan Education System

Despite initiatives to encourage more girls to take up science and technology studies, statistics indicate more males continue to dominate that field. (picture courtesy Ministry of Education)

Sri Lanka is recognised as the only South Asian country that has achieved the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goal for gender equality in education across the board. Yet again, free education and making primary education compulsory maybe the major reasons for this gender balance. Although the Sri Lankan education system has been successful in closing the gender gap with regards to education accessibility, this does not translates to employment rates. With the majority of unemployed females produced from the Arts streams of local universities, it is obvious that females gravitate towards the arts.

Equal rights for males and females are assured in the Sri Lankan Constitution. However, the true educational revolution was set in motion when the government introduced free education, aka Kannangara Reforms, in 1947. In 1946 only 43.8 percent of females were literate as opposed to 70.1 percent of males. The Kannangara Reforms not only put an end to class distinction by doing away with the English medium paid schools, but by enforcing Swabhasha or First Language Education, ensured that non-English speaking public could also get a decent education. The reforms effectively put an end to not only caste and class distinction, but more importantly gender inequality.

But the reforms had unforeseen sociological effects as well. In ‘A silent revolution? ‘Free Education’ and Sri Lankan women’ Carmen Wickramagamage points out that the Reforms had rendered parental discrimination ineffective. From time immemorial males were given educational priority because of entrenched gender norms that deemed males more fit for education as they are the ideal wage-earners and women are intended for house-wife cum mother roles. But with free education, such priorities became null and void, because everybody was allowed the right to an education. Wickramagamage points out that universal free education ‘normalized’ or ‘naturalized’ the notion of the educated woman, at a time when an education was seen as spoiling women for marriage.

An education has its own perks, such as stalling the marriageable age and a tendency to elevate social stature. Consequently, getting a degree may have been more appealing for pioneering women. Ironically, employment opportunities available for men may encourage dropping out of school or university while lack of such opportunities for women have been observed to encourage women to finish their education.

Lack of quality education in the sciences in many schools result in girls opting to study Arts subjects. Unfortunately, Arts graduates, many of them females, struggle to obtain suitable employment.
Lack of quality education in the sciences in many schools result in girls opting to study Arts subjects. Unfortunately, Arts graduates, many of them females, struggle to obtain suitable employment.

As such, Sri Lanka’s gender gap favours girls who are fast outpacing the boys. In fact, as identified by the National Assessments of Learning Outcomes in 2011 girls consistently scored higher than boys in key subjects. However, pockets of educational deprivation that has arisen out of the war and poverty remain. For example, the literacy rate for the Nuwara Eliya, Batticaloa and Ampara Districts, 80.1, 81.3 and 87.2 percent respectively, is comparatively unfavourable.

According to the UGC enrolment and graduation rates by sex in 2015, there was a 40:60 male- female ratio amongst undergraduate students. That same year, 68 percent of university graduates were female. In 2017, 63 percent of the student population was female, whereas only 37 percent was male.

Except in engineering and technology-related fields, performance and enrolment at tertiary level is higher for females than males. As such, there is a clear distinction of subjects of choice. For example, according to UGC statistics on postgraduate enrolment in universities for year 2017, male enrolment for Engineering and Architecture is just shy of 10,000, while the female enrolment is less than half that.

Similarly, more males prefer physical sciences than females, although the pass rate at examinations is still higher for females. In 2017 over 25,000 students enrolled in Arts subjects at university level with only around 6,000 males enrolling for the same subjects. Such gender imbalances could be attributed to traditional gender role stereotypes.

Wickramagamage explores the possibility that the female gravitation towards arts subjects maybe due to lack of access to good schools. For example, type 1AB Schools that offer senior secondary science education are mostly located in urban and semi-urban areas. This obviously tips the gender balance, which already favours males when it comes to science education. For those who are not within easy distance to a senior secondary school that offers science education, enrolling in such a school would mean that parents would have to bear higher costs involved in travelling longer distances. Such parents may not have the economic means to provide private tuition for their children either. This begs the question whether this female gravitation towards the arts is due to economic constraints and unequal distribution of resources.

Wickramagamage argues that since the number of females that take Art related subjects – a stream which records higher number of unemployment – are far higher than the number of males, it is safe to assume that a higher percentage of that number would be female.

Unfortunately, although women are more educated than men at the undergraduate level and equally so at the postgraduate level, this has not led to more jobs for women. Ironically, the incidence of unemployment is more pronounced among the educated group. In 2016, 8.5 percent of women were unemployed, compared to 3.4 percent of men. According to Department of Statistics the labour force participation rate for women in the first quarter of 2018 was 33.5, while it was 73.4 for males.

Majority of Sri Lankan women are employed in the informal sector – such as home-based industries and as household aids – characterized by low wages. Women are disadvantaged by ‘glass ceiling’ barriers that prevents them from securing decision-making positions of power. This is never more evident than in our parliament, where in 2016, only six percent of the seats in the national parliament were held by women. According to a 2018 International Finance Corporation (IFC) analysis only about eight percent of all board positions in Sri Lanka are held by women while the global average is about 15 percent.

Education enhances women’s decision-making capacity and goes a long way to granting autonomy and independence to women. While ensuring access to information and knowledge, a sound education is capable of inculcating a skills set that would allow women to secure jobs with equal remuneration as men.

(This article is the fifth instalment in a series of articles, which will discuss education related issues.)