Better childcare opens job opportunities for Lankan women

By Sangeeta Dey and Shobhana Sosale


Despite robust growth and reduced poverty, the female labour force participation in Sri Lanka remains at a low 36% compared to 75% for men – below international standards.

This number stands in stark contrast with Sri Lanka’s human capital improvements for women, such as high female education levels and low total fertility rates. Leaving many women out of the workforce means that Sri Lanka loses about 20% of its gross domestic product on average.

Access to affordable early childhood care and education (ECCE) directly affects Sri Lanka’s labour force. A 2018 study found that having a child under five years of age reduced a Sri Lankan woman’s participation in the labour force by 7.4% compared with a woman who did not have a young child.

In Sri Lanka, providing affordable childcare services and improving women’s labour force participation are mutually reinforcing, especially as the country prepares its post-Covid-19 recovery strategy.

Well-designed ECCE systems can improve the lives of children, women, and families and provide significant advantages to national economies. Here are three reasons why:

  1. Expanding quality childcare services benefits mothers as they can seek employment and entrepreneurship opportunities. At the same time, their children are tended to by a nurturing caregiver in a safe, hygienic, and stimulating environment. On the other hand, more childcare centres means a greater need for more trained professional women caregivers, thereby increasing the skilled female labour force in the sector.

Consider Mrs. Wanarani, a Child Development Officer CDO on the Doloswala Estate in Ratnapura, Sri Lanka. She obtained her Diploma in Child Development and Preschool Education and Management in 2017. Her work with children in their early years has drawn respect from parents and her community.

“Before I obtained the diploma, I was only a caretaker of children. As a woman, working in the sector and the training and support I received have paved the path for me to take on a leadership role in my field and greatly improved my career and personal life.”

A confident and inspiring professional, Mrs. Wanarani has helped increase the number of children in the child development centre from just four children in 2017 to 34 children by 2020.

More such job opportunities for women are emerging. There are now 340 CDOs – of which 88% are women – in public early childhood centres and nearly 1,300 CDOs – all women – in the plantation sector. Investing in early-year services will later improve children’s school readiness and learning in primary school, boosting their earning potential in adult life.

In the absence of accessible childcare for employees, Sri Lankan employers face difficulties recruiting and retaining skilled female workers and inadequate leadership diversity, resulting in reduced productivity and slower growth. Conversely, more women in the labour force enhance women’s empowerment and family economic stability, leading to better prospects for Lanka’s economy and positive change in the dynamics of gender norms, equality, roles, and responsibilities within families, as in the case of Mrs. Nayomi Madushika, an Early CEO in Passara, Badulla.

“As a working woman, like other working women, I too face many obstacles in my private and public life,” she shared. “Taking care of children, handling household work, and supporting the husband and family while maintaining a successful, fulfilling career is a huge challenge for all women. Through the ‘Training of Trainers’ (Master Trainers in ECD) programme conducted by the Early Childhood Development Project, I was able to improve my knowledge on ECD services and overcome my own challenges to provide a value-added service to the greater society.”

  1. Investment in effective ECCE programmes can help reduce income inequalities between men and women in Sri Lanka. Governments can better tailor programmes to maximise return to investment by understanding the benefits and the likely long-term positive impact of ECCE. Some countries have experimented with success, either partial or full integration of ECCE services.
  2. ECCE is at the forefront of Sri Lanka’s development. Since 2016, the World Bank has provided significant support through the Early Childhood Development Project to provide equitable access to quality ECCE services. The project seeks to improve teacher training and facilities, and devise assessments for child development, among other activities.

Efforts are underway to introduce daycare centres in ministries. Responding to employees’ needs, child development centres in plantations are already providing integrated childcare services. In the private sector, ECCE is also being promoted through the International Finance Corporation (IFC)-financed “SheWorks” programme which helps member companies to further establish, operationalise, and measure the business case for gender-smart workplace solutions such as employer-supported childcare and by providing knowledge, methodologies, and frameworks.

Since 2000, successive Sri Lankan governments have recognised the need to invest in the early years, providing more efficient services for young children and helping more women pursue their professional aspirations.

As we celebrate this month, Women in Leadership as part of International Women’s Day, support for early childhood development can help more women seize job opportunities and build a generation of female leaders.

(The writers are senior education specialists at the World Bank)