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Gender, status and empowerment: A study among women who work in Sri Lanka’s export processing zones (EPZs)

In the last three decades, there has been an enormous shift towards export-oriented industrialisation in over 130 countries, with Sri Lanka being one of the forerunners in this development (Hancock, 2006; Engman, Onodera & Pinali, 2007; Ruwanpura, 2009).

Export processing zones (EPZ’s) are large industrial estates specialising in manufacturing for export. They promote trade and attract foreign investment through free trade conditions and special incentives from host governments such as tax exemptions, cheaper utility services and in many cases, lax labour laws (Engman et al, 2007).

Sri Lanka has 11 government controlled EPZ’s and they are a significant source of employment for women in Sri Lanka and are dominated by garments and textile industries. Based on data from the Sri Lankan Board of Investment, EPZ’s employ approximately 50,000 women and 30,000 men. Women are typically young (aged between 17-25) and migrate from poor rural areas to EPZ’s.

The study

While EPZ’s are a viable source of employment and poverty alleviation for women, they have also been a source of controversy due to labour and social issues (Engman et al, 2007). Much attention has focused on the impact and outcomes of this rapid shift to formal employment on women in developing countries (Hancock, 2006).

In 2004-2005 we conducted a study of 370 factory women working in Sri Lanka’s EPZ’s to trace the impact of
formal employment on women’s status and to provide new understanding into the way in which women’s empowerment is conceptualised (Hancock, 2006).

The main findings were that factory women faced significant societal and community disempowerment as a result of their roles as workers (Hancock, 2008). Despite the hardships of factory work and societal subjugation, many Sri Lankan women showed resilience and were able to overcome the obstacles to empowerment as a result of factory work (Hancock 2006).

A larger follow-up study to the original 2006 research has been funded by AusAID and is the basis of this report. The aims of the research were to further measure the extent to which women have been able or unable to turn their employment experiences into economic and social empowerment.

In addition, the study focuses on the appropriateness and applicability of using the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM) and the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI) as measures of empowerment in Sri Lanka. The original 2006 study found that relying on these two measures to study empowerment was not adequate to understand the complex experiences of the women. The importance of qualitative data was emphasised in the previous study (Hancock, 2008) and is an important feature of the current study.


Dr Peter Hancock
Professor Swarna Jayaweera
Indika Edirisinghe
Dr M Samarappuli
Dr C Malalgoda

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