ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday March 23, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 43


Smart women, right decisions: a recipe for decent work

Rupa Manel Silva

The Global Employment Trends for Women 2008 report shows that in 2007, 1.2 billion women around the world were employed, almost 200 million or 18.4 per cent more than ten years ago. But the report also highlights that the share of vulnerable employment, although decreasing from 56.1 to 51.7 between 1997 and 2007, continues to be higher for women than for men, especially in the world’s poorest regions. “Increased labour force participation of women has great potential as a contribution to economic development, but only if the jobs in which women are engaged are decent” says the report.

“The model to aim for is one in which women are able to contribute to growth and, at the same time, profit from this growth as participants in labour markets, keeping in mind that the one does not automatically follow from the other.” This is something Rupa Manel Silva, founder of the Women’s Bank in Sri Lanka, can relate to. She was one of five siblings born to a rural family who dreamed of sending their children to university. But the death of her father sent the family into deep economic crisis.

“My mother considered giving us in marriage as a means of easing her burdens. I received a proposal from Colombo. I married in 1978 and went to live in the capital. I was 19 at the time,” recalls Ms Silva. “When a woman has no other opportunity to engage in some social activity other than contacts with the people around her, she is invariably confined to the kitchen,” adds Ms Silva, who despite these constraints started collaborating with the National Housing Development Authority (NHDA) to carry out development projects where she lived. Due to her leadership skills, she was soon encouraged to set up a small women’s banking team, a type of organization that already existed in Sri Lanka.

“Though I did not devote serious attention at the start to the women’s banking team, I soon realised that I was undertaking a long journey with them,” recalls Ms Silva. The idea of these teams was simple: to encourage poor women to begin saving regularly, no matter how little, to establish a basis for loans. The pooled amount was given each time to a different member of the group to start a project.Over time, these small financial enterprises grew in size and quantity and became a bank led by Ms. Silva.

Employment can take many forms, but as Ms Silva likes to stress, “if women are treated fairly and with respect, and are given the chance to take decisions and be responsible for their actions, then decent work becomes a reality.” Decent work is at the core of the ILO’s agenda. In the words of its Director-General, Juan Somavia: “The primary goal of the ILO today is to promote opportunities for women and men to obtain decent and productive work, in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity”.
A goal which is not only right, but smart.

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