Women in the local economy in post war Sri Lanka.


(text of a talk given at the Soroptimist International 40th Anniversary celebrations)

The idea of ‘post-war’  immediately conjures up  the situation in the North and the East where the overt  fighting was most severe, and where the war devastated the infrastructure, displaced communities and destroyed a way of life and living. But at the same time, I don’t think we should be  confining our label of ‘post-war’ to the north and east.  It’s my contention that ALL  of Sri Lanka is in a post-war situation;  the war has affected all of us – in the north and in the south – Tamils and Sinhalese, and all of our institutions and our governance systems, and even our own individual ways of thinking and behaving.  It has polarized communities.  The growing militarization and centralization of government, the encroachment of the military into commerce and other spheres, the disregard for lives and livelihoods of people with no voice – we can see this in Colombo, just as much as in Jaffna  or Mullaitivu.  So make no mistake – this whole country, not just the north and the east, is  facing  post-war challenges.

So, when we look at the challenges for women in the local economy, and the adequacy of response, we need to look at women across the country.  Let’s start by looking at what we mean when we say women in the local economy.  Women, economy are all loaded words, and how we perceive the challenges and adequacies of response to women in the local economy, will really depend on how we understand these terms. Understanding the role that women play in the local economy and the challenges they face, is very much linked to the role that women play in society – and the way in which their roles are perceived and valued.  Patriarchy, tradition, culture, social norms, religion, even the Mahinda Chinthana – all define the way  women are perceived in society, and this has an impact on the way women participate in the local economy.   For instance,  CEPA did a  study on subjective wellbeing in the Badulla District and we found, among other things, that more women than men are dissatisfied with their ability make free choices. Exploring this further,  we found that lack of economic independence, low education and unemployment has discouraged women’s ability to make choices.  But despite that, women accept the traditional male dominance in their households, and have admitted that in most cases they allow the men in the family to make decisions regarding daily situations, and that they support these decisions as a mark of respect.  Sometimes, even though they are more educated, and feel that they are more competent than the men, they follow tradition and stay at home and care for the family.   

 But, women are not a homogenous group – there are as many differences between women, as there are between women and men.  The differences relate to gender power relations, and also to the social, economic, and political relations of the wider society.  In feminist theory this is sometimes referred to as ‘intersectionality’,  and describes the ways in which oppressive institutions (racism, sexism, homophobia, class) are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another .  Women are not just women, they maybe women from a certain class or caste, they maybe Tamil women or Muslim women – and these multiple identities impact the way they are perceived, and the way in which they participate in the economy.

Economy  is generally understood to be the wealth and resources of a region/country, especially in terms of production and consumption of goods and services, usually measured in terms of the GDP.   There are three types of economy.  There is the ‘formal’ economy – that is the economy of formal institutions of production or service provision – the firms, the factories, the offices, government and private sector.  They are taxed, they are bound by labour laws, they are counted into the GDP. Then, there is the ‘informal’ economy – that is the economy that is outside the formal institutions  - the unregulated small service enterprises and production units, self employed enterprises, domestic workers, sub-contracted workers – what the ILO calls  “ the description of activities of the working poor, activities that are not recognised, recorded, protected or regulated by government”  It is estimated that in Sri Lanka 65% of the labour force is engaged in the informal economy.  

 And then there is an ‘economy’ that no one really talks about ,and that is the ‘care economy’ -– this is women’s work in what is sometimes also called the ‘reproductive sphere’ or ‘domestic sphere’.  I prefer the  term the ‘care economy’ because at least by calling it that we make more visible to economists, and as we all know its economists (and bankers) that rule the world.

The care economy includes all those activities done, mostly by women, for the care of children, care of older people and people with disabilities.  It is important because it delivers services that lead to the reproduction of the labour force and the development of human capabilities.  But the ‘care economy’ is rarely measured in economic terms – though calls for gender budgeting etc have requested that it is so.   In fact women participating in the care economy are not even considered part of the labour force.  When statisticians calculate the labour force they count what they call the ‘economically active’ population – that is women and men over 10 years of age, who supply the labour for the production of goods and services – it consciously excludes  people who are studying, retired and old, disabled etc AND those engaged in household duties (i.e. people in the CARE economy)

So not surprising that the women’s  labour force participation rate (or the percentage of economically active women)  is half that of men (32% for women, 66% for men)-and interestingly that it has declined since 1990 (when it was 39.4%) i.e. fewer women are in the labour force.

Women’s participation in the local economy.  So what does this all mean in terms of women’s participation in the local economy?  And what sort of responses does this engender?

It means that women’s economic activities are often invisible.   I have a colleague who is doing an ethnographic  study of fishing communities in Trincomalee who says that  fishing is very much a men’s occupation.  The men talk about different fishing technologies  - gill nets, long lining, trap fishing, crewing in multiday boats etc.  But when she asks community leaders and fishermen what is women’s involvement  in the fisheries sector – they point to an essentially support role (making their meals) and processing (drying fish).   But what my colleague has observed is something very different – women are in lagoons and shallow seas areas, collecting matti (gleaning clams) catching prawns with their hands or collecting seaweed.   And for the fisher households in Trincomalee, these activities are really important: one because they ensure household survival in most cases.   And two because they can ensure long term economic stability – one young woman told my colleague how her grandmother used to use the money she earned from catching prawns in the lagoon to buy jewellery for her granddaughters, and their daughters - her way of ensuring that they acquired some assets.

 The invisibility has consequences for the kind of support that these women receive from the Fisheries Departments and other institutions – which makes technical support inaccessible (they continue to operate at a very basic level) and also disadvantages them in negotiations with  other stakeholders e.g. the military.

Women, particularly poor women, end up at the bottom of the heap in informal sector activities such as sub-contracting or domestic work. 

CENWOR (the Centre for Women’s Research) has done studies that showed that labour contracts, piece rate processing and assembling at small units and at home, all existed outside the labour legislation.   Men were the sub-contractors, and the women who worked for them in electronics, embroidery, coir and nylon products, sewing, construction and tobacco cultivation – were more often than not, perceived as low cost labour.  Their work was monotonous and arduous, they had long, irregular hours, poor economic returns from piece rates, were paid below minimum wages in the formal sector, had no social security and unstable and sometimes hazardous work environment.   They were thankful for  the work as an only avenue  to even a limited income but also recognized that the sub-contractors were exploiting them.  

CENWOR says there  is a regulatory framework for sub-contracting   - but much of it is bypassed in practice  and that there is no system of registering contract labour and no monitoring of evasion or abuse.    Domestic workers also work in an unregulated environment, without a minimum wage, stipulated hours of work or social security though I am aware that there is a move towards developing a regulatory framework. 

Women in the formal economy can also be vulnerable.  Women workers on our plantations are mainly engaged in labour intensive tasks such as tea plucking and rubber tapping, and though in comparison to women in other agricultural sectors, women plantation workers have greater access to employment and equal pay,  the strong gender segregation of tasks in the sector constrains the women from moving beyond manual labour.   

In CEPA we have found in our studies on the plantations, that the chronic poor in the tea and rubber plantations are mostly women headed households.  Women balance their plantation economy role with their care economy role, and this restricts their physical and occupational mobility.  They also have to work in the estate  if they are to continue to have their house.  Estate households that have moved out of poverty have to have at least one household member working outside  the estate – outmigration  and diverse income portfolio is critical.  Men have that mobility but women don’t.

There are many attempts, especially by the bigger, better managed, regional plantation companies to improve the working conditions of the women plantation workers, and providing them assistance with their responsibilities as care givers.  However, there will always be a tension between social and occupational mobility for the estate worker, and the need for management to retain labour.

Women workers in the plantations have migrated (internally, or internationally)   to improve their families’ income .  But migration does not necessarily improve the working conditions of women and its impact on household poverty depends on  a range of factors including whether migrant households manage their finances wisely.

 Women in the garment  sector are usually  young unmarried women who have fewer care economy responsibilities.   Their working conditions, reportedly vary, depending on the size and the  ownership of the enterprise. Smaller and older factories provide worse working conditions – in extreme cases, working six days a week with mandatory overtime, working successive shifts without a break, being fined for lateness, talking or having toilet breaks. Such companies  tend to be more hostile towards trade unions, and pay little respect to labour law, and health and safety at work. Sri Lankan laws equally apply in EPZs as in the rest of the country but generally speaking,  women receive lower wages compared to men, and are not accorded equal career development  opportunities in the factories. There are also sexual harassment cases, which tend to be un- or under-reported due to the social stigma and shame attached to such.  There is also an issue of low quality support infrastructure and services such as board and lodging and transport.  

More recently however, women are becoming less interested in working in the garment factories,  due to the harsh conditions, and also the stigma of being a ‘juki’ girl – and it is reported that factories are now facing labour shortages.  Hopefully this may  encourage employers to provide better conditions.

Women migrant workers – not strictly women IN the local economy, but women contributing to the local economy in terms of remittances.   Most vulnerable are the poor women with limited skills and little education who  migrate as domestic workers.  89% of the women labour migrants went to work as housemaids.   Many women  and their families have benefitted from this type of migration, but there are huge protection gaps, and human rights abuses including exploitation, violence, trafficking. 
Dr  Sepali Kottegoda says the primary driving force is to better their households and themselves both economically and socially, but that there are also women who migrate to get away from  abusive relationships at home (and sometimes find that they have gone from the frying pan into the fire) but don’t always recognize that there could be social costs, such as unfaithful spouses, children being sexually violated or neglected.  Because they are extremely dependent on the income they receive housemaids often don’t protest their conditions.

The response to the situation of female migration has been to restrict migration of women with young children and to discourage unskilled migration as housemaids.  However this is only one aspect of a response – because what is happening here is that the state is imposing on women’s choice, especially the choice of the poorer women.   A more adequate response would be to:
·         Create in-country opportunities for employment for poor, uneducated women to earn a decent living
·         Provide strong institutional care support to the dependents of migrants.



I want to end with a small note about women in the local economy of the north of Sri Lanka, particularly about women headed households.  CEPA recently did a study for the SDC about indebtedness among housing beneficiaries in the North.  Our data showed that there is overall indebtedness  - its endemic in the region, but the vulnerability of poor households stems not just from having taken the loans, but also from the inability to pay.  And the inability to pay arises because of a sluggish local economy that has few or no job opportunities for local people.   For some people the situation is exacerbated because of disputed land issues that prevents them from farming their land – and for women headed households, the lack of opportunities for work, the burden of the care economy, and the added costs of housebuilding (because self construction is not possible) makes the situation  much worse. 

There doesn’t seem to be an acknowledgement that these issues exist – at a recent conference organized by UN Habitat  the PTF denied that there was any indebtedness despite several people confirming that there was.  And recognition of the problem has to be the first step  to responding adequately to it.


I think what I have tried to highlight, with examples from  the research of my organization and others, is that patriarchal orientation of society and the formal institutions,  and the unshared burden of the care economy, push poor women, in both formal and informal sectors of the economy, to the lower levels.  If you are a woman in the North, this situation is probably worse!  It is not possible for the institutions of the state to respond adequately to pulling people up from  this level, because the state institutions themselves are caught up in the same sort of thinking (e.g. that fisheries is about what the men do). Patriarchy permeates some of the representative organizations (e.g. the plantation trade unions, which are dominated by men, even though a significant proportion of  membership is female).  Women have begun to distance themselves from the garment sector, for example, but there are no signs of their being positive institutional responses to that.    So basically, the responses are inadequate – and will probably continue to be so, unless we are able to tackle the problem of patriarchy. 

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