Launch of UNDP's Mobile Interactive Gender Exhibition in Colombo

‘A Journey of Transformation and Women’s Empowerment’ held from the 7th to 10th of March, 2024 at the National Museum, Colombo

March 11, 2024
Azusa Kubota, RR at UNDP Sri Lanka speaks at the event

Hon. Geetha Kumarasinghe, State Minister of Women’s and Child Affairs
Hon. Dr Sudharshini Fernandopulle, Chairman of the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus
Ms Rosy Senanayake, Advisor to the President
H.E. Mizukoshi Hideaki, the Ambassador to Japan in Sri Lanka
Excellencies, Colleagues from the UN
Honourable Ministers, Secretaries, senior government officials
Development partners, Civil Society partners, distinguished guests, 
Ladies and Gentlemen

1.    On behalf of UNDP, I warmly welcome you to the Mobile Interactive Exhibition: A Journey of Transformation and Women’s Empowerment.

2.    Colombo is the 3rd destination for this exhibition. It first started in Kandy in November last year, followed by Kurunegala last week. We are thrilled to open the exhibition at this historic museum in the Nation’s Capital on the eve of International Women’s Day with the theme of ‘Invest in Women’. And we are deeply grateful for your presence to witness its opening.

3.    We have come a long way as a global community, yet we know that gender bias persists, well into the 21st century.

4.    No matter where women live, women are paid less, shoulder more unpaid housework, child and elderly care, and are wildly under-represented in leadership roles both in the public and private sectors. In 59 countries where women are now more educated than men, their income is still on average a staggering 39 per cent less. Women are better educated than ever before, including here in Sri Lanka, but this has not been enough to close the income gap.

5.    Here in Sri Lanka, in the aftermath of a series of cascading crises, 31% of Sri Lanka’s population lives in poverty. Sri Lanka’s first Multidimensional Vulnerability Index (MVI), published last year by UNDP Sri Lanka and Oxford University, outlines that 55.7% of Sri Lankans are multidimensionally vulnerable.

6.    Women in households have been at the forefront of taking the brunt of the hardships while trying their very best to protect the well-being of their families and communities, with fast-disappearing economic means.

7.    Over and above the economic hardships, women continue to face violence. Even before the pandemic, the 2019 Women’s Wellbeing Survey, conducted by UNFPA and the government, revealed that in Sri Lanka, one in five ever-partnered women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime. 1 in 4 have experienced physical and/or sexual violence since age 15 by a partner or non-partner.

8.    It is not hard to imagine that the growing socio-economic pressures have resulted in increased incidents of violence against women, as witnessed globally during the COVID-19 pandemic.

9.    Gender equality is the 5th Sustainable Development Goal, and its principle is the foundation for all 17 Goals. It is because inequality hurts, and a sustained development process is not possible by leaving half of the global population behind in decision-making processes. A recent UN study estimated that if we continue at the current pace, we will need another 300 years to achieve gender equality.  

10.    Then we must ask the question – what would it take to accelerate our efforts towards gender equality? Certainly, we do not have 300 years to wait around.

11.    And in UNDP we believe that the solution lies in shifting our mental models. UNDP’s most recent Gender Social Norms Index (GSNI) 2023 quantifies biases against women, capturing people’s attitudes on women’s roles along four key dimensions: political, educational, economic and physical integrity. The report revealed that around 90 per cent of men and 87 per cent of women hold internal biases against women—roughly the same numbers as a decade ago. This means we are not progressing in changing our perceptions about gender roles.

12.    The gender-based biases, which we carry into voting booths, board meetings, interview panels and beyond, are barriers to women achieving their full potential. 

13.    To bring about the necessary shifts in our biases, we wanted to tell stories of courage and inspiration led by women. There are role models whose stories challenge our biases. And they are often ordinary women you find in your family and communities.

14.    In my travels across the country, I have witnessed first-hand heroines in action who are constantly trying their best to break these barriers. The stories of determination, resilience and kindness often remain unheard, yet serve as a reminder of the inherent core of what it means to be a woman leader in her own right.

15.    After interacting with women across the country, I was firmly convinced of the importance of investing in women across Sri Lankan communities. And when we do that, the results will have an exponential impact because women invest in others – often the most vulnerable and marginalized members of the family and community.

16.    While touring the exhibition, you will quickly see that achieving gender equality must go well beyond addressing the trends and symptoms that are visible.

17.    We must go deep below the iceberg to understand the existing mental models and systems that give rise to what is visible and invest in women from all angles.

18.    As evident from the spirit of the National Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment Policy, attaining gender equality requires a broad-based approach and multistakeholder partnership. This is why UNDP has worked closely with all stakeholders across sectors, who share our collective vision for the betterment of the well-being of women in Sri Lanka and beyond.  

19.    These meaningful stories of transformation range from women’s contributions to food security, climate adaptation, community-led action and livelihoods.  These efforts, supported by UNDP Sri Lanka in partnership with many of you in this room over the years, have been instrumental for us in achieving the Gold status of the Gender Equality Seal in UNDP. 

20.    The Gender Equality Seal is UNDP’s corporate standard for gender equality. UNDP Sri Lanka is proud to be one of the first countries in the Asia-Pacific region to receive the honour of a Gold seal for its commitment to Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment. And we are determined to maintain the Gold Status in the years to come.

21.    This requires a multi-dimensional approach that encompasses legal reforms, economic empowerment, access to education and healthcare, and the promotion of women's leadership and participation in decision-making processes, to name a few. And all the work featured here, and other past, ongoing and future initiatives would not have been possible without support from many of our partners in this room, including the Government of Sri Lanka, civil society organizations, local government partners and development partners. 

22.    I would like to in particular acknowledge that this exhibition would not have been possible without the generous financial support of the Government of Canada and the Royal Norwegian Embassy. I also would like to sincerely thank Ambassador Mizukoshi of the Embassy of Japan for supporting several of the activities featured in the exhibition geared towards rural women in climate adaptation in agriculture, food security and entrepreneurship.

23.    Let me take this opportunity to sincerely thank the dignitaries who are present today, the First Lady Professor Maithree Wickremesinghe, Madam. Rosy Senanayake, Honorable ministers and all other partners, for their unwavering commitment to equality and justice.

24.    Lastly, I would like to thank the curator of this exhibition, Sulakshana De Mel, for her artistic creativity. I also would like to congratulate my UNDP team for their tireless efforts in making this mobile interactive exhibition a reality.

25.    For the last few years, a confluence of crises, characterized by the pandemic, climate emergency, and the rising cost of food and energy, to name a few, has led to a fast-shrinking space for feminist activism while women have experienced the pandemic and cascading crisis disproportionately.

26.    It is indeed time for us to reclaim the space by investing in women, based on data, evidence and focused and impactful policies and programmes.

27.    And it is our sincere hope that you will draw inspiration from the stories shared in the exhibition and reaffirm our shared commitment to investing in incredible women we see every day in our lives.  

28.    Our journey from Colombo will continue to other parts of the island to Jaffna, Batticaloa, Nuwara Eliya, and beyond. Please spread the word and encourage friends and colleagues to visit the exhibition in these locations in the coming weeks.

Once again, thank you for your partnership throughout our journey.