By Patricia Brick
Young women in Sri Lanka face rates of unemployment nearly twice that of their male counterparts, with unemployment levels highest among women with secondary school diplomas. But the costs of vocational training and other higher education are prohibitive for many girls. While state universities offer free higher education, these schools accept only a fraction of qualified students. Those who are not accepted must pay to attend private or professional schools, where scholarship funding may be difficult to come by.
The BGR project, “Providing Access to Skills Development for Selected Out-of-School Girls from Low Income Families,” supports Sri Lankan girls and young women in pursuing higher education and vocational training. Administered by the Center for Women’s Research (CENWOR), the project helps young women prepare for careers in such rapidly expanding fields as information technology and civil engineering.
Sri Lanka has a strong history of educating girls and young women, with compulsory education for children of both genders through the lower secondary level and a 92 percent literacy rate. But a significant gender disparity in employment levels persists even among university and vocational school graduates. This CENWOR project aims to give more women a foothold in the labor market by providing funds for their education in high-growth, high-earning fields. The project also leads gender awareness education programs for both male and female students.
This year, a grant from BGR provided assistance to 69 young women pursuing vocational and higher education. Among them is Kanchana Somasiri, who is studying for a career in information and communications technology in Ratnapura. Kanchana lives with her mother, a farm laborer who earns a little over $3 a day at local tea plantations; her father died when she was a young child. Kanchana’s grant from CENWOR is allowing her to complete her vocational diploma at Ratnapura Technical College. She hopes to find a job in her field to reduce the burden on her mother while she continues her studies to the bachelor’s degree level.
Sajani Mandathilaka is pursuing a diploma in construction technology at the Technical College in Ratnapura. Her father, a carpenter, struggles with alcohol addiction; her mother suffers from asthma and is not able to work outside the home. Sajani intends to pursue her education to the senior management level and eventually to begin a career as a technology officer. She has used her grant monies to purchase materials for school. The assistance, she says, has given her encouragement to continue her studies in the face of financial problems and psychological distress at home.
Pramudika Dilmuni is a student in the physical sciences department at the University of Colombo. Her father is unemployed; her mother suffers from cardiac and kidney disease, as well as a recent acute injury complicated by her diabetes. Funding from the CENWOR grant is allowing Pramudika to continue her studies despite the costs of her mother’s medical treatment. “You gave me this financial assistance at a time that I most needed it,” Pramudika said. “It is this money I am now spending for my education. I use this money to buy the books I need and to print the assignments. My family members join me in expressing our gratitude.”
CENWOR article “Vocational Training for Low Income Young Women in Sri Lanka: Half Yearly Progress Report” (2013)
Brookings Institute publication “Why aren’t Sri Lankan women translating their educational gains into workforce advantages?” by Dileni Gunewardena (2015)
Patricia Brick is a writer and editor in the New York metropolitan area and a volunteer staff writer for Buddhist Global Relief.