Colombo, Sri Lanka – The apparel sector in Sri Lanka has emerged as a formidable force in empowering women’s career progression, acknowledging their significant contributions to the industry.
However, despite constituting over 80% of the workforce, women remain poorly represented in supervisory and managerial roles. In response to this disparity, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) have partnered under the Better Work initiative to launch the Gender Equality and Returns (GEAR) programme.
Aimed at enhancing career prospects for women while driving operational excellence, the pilot program was implemented across 10 garment factories, benefiting 106 trainees.
The GEAR program has equipped female workers with the essential technical and soft skills necessary for their progression and success in leadership roles. Through targeted training sessions, participants have engaged with managers to foster cultural and organizational change, addressing gender biases and promoting the identification, promotion, and retention of female talent.
Additionally, on-the-job and practical training, coupled with coaching sessions, have played a vital role in building trainees’ confidence as leaders, enabling them to apply their acquired skills effectively and drive continuous improvement.
To mark the successful conclusion of this phase of the GEAR programme, a graduation ceremony was held in June to celebrate the accomplishments of the participants from Vogue Tex, Orit Apparels and Hela Clothing. The event also facilitated insightful discussions on the results and lessons learned, fostering a collaborative environment for exploring future endeavours to support and uplift women in the Sri Lankan apparel sector.
Participants included representatives from the Joint Apparel Association Forum, Employers’ Federation of Ceylon and Women in Management (Sri Lanka & Maldives).
Addressing the gathering, the Head of Cooperation of the delegation to the European Union (EU) to Sri Lanka & Maldives, Johann Hesse, expressed the progress made in the GEAR programme saying that “It is truly inspiring to not only have policies and strategies in place but also witness tangible actions being implemented on the ground. The participants’ achievements are a testament to the positive impact of our collective efforts, giving hope for a brighter and more inclusive future.”
Senior Country Officer of IFC, Victor Antonypillai, meanwhile spoke on the importance of the apparel sector stating that “In a 1.7 trillion USD industry employing 19 million people across the world, it becomes clear why initiating a project of this magnitude is not only logical but essential. Furthermore, Sri Lanka’s apparel sector holds immense significance as a major contributor to the country’s exports. IFC places great importance on the manufacturing industry globally, and we are wholeheartedly committed to unlocking its potential, particularly in terms of women’s employment and female participation, as it only makes economic sense.”
Extending his gratitude to the graduates and partners, Head of the Better Work Sri Lanka programme, Kesava Murali Kanapathy, said “GEAR is more than just a program—it is a transformative learning journey, and we believe that this is only the beginning. The graduates who have completed the program are poised to become true agents of change within the apparel sector. It is crucial to highlight that representation matters, especially at the grassroots level, where women are significantly underrepresented despite constituting 52% of the country’s population. This program is a catalyst for change, enabling us to create a more inclusive and empowering environment that positively impacts lives.”
“GEAR is not just about providing theoretical knowledge to workers; it is also about changing their mindset, developing their creative and problem-solving skills, and inspiring them to pursue life aspirations. Furthermore, it helps factory managers create a more encouraging environment for women. By working with both workers and managers, we believe that GEAR promotes systemic and cultural changes, reduces gender biases, and strengthens the ability of factories to retain and develop their workforce, including in moments of crisis,” said Raquel Scarpari, Gear Program Lead for IFC.
In a panel discussion at the graduation event, trainees and factory managers from the relevant companies shared their experiences on the GEAR programme. They noted that the initiative has been a learning journey and has significantly contributed to identifying solutions to address the gaps in encouraging women to pursue leadership positions. According to Better Work, further commitments have been made to promote more graduates before October 2023. Based on the learnings from the pilot, GEAR will also be expanded as a service in Sri Lanka through the Better Work programme. This includes both a training of trainers model and whole package of curriculum on GEAR.