SRI LANKA: Battles Ahead for Women

Thursday, September 8, 2011
Southern Asia
Sri Lanka
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
General Women, Peace and Security
Reconstruction and Peacebuilding

More policies and programmes must address the needs of female-headed households in Sri Lanka's former conflict zone, experts say. "Most programmes don't take into account the unique role of women here," Saroja Sivachandran, director of the Center for Women and Development (CWD), an advocacy body based in northern Jaffna, told IRIN. "They may be providing for the families, but [women] still have to cook, look after children and do all household chores." Since returning to their villages in the conflict-affected north at the end of the country's 26-year-long civil war in 2009, women have found their traditional role of household chores and child-rearing expanded with the burden of making a living, rebuilding damaged houses and a host of other tasks. "Unfortunately, very few [organizations] seem to have recognized this," Sivachandran said.

Though no official figures are available, the CWD estimates the war left 40,000 widowed, female-headed households in the north, not including women whose husbands went missing during the conflict or who are in government detention for ties to the defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who had been fighting for an independent Tamil homeland.

In August, the World Bank re-launched a cash-for-work programme in the Northern Province, originally modified in 2010 to accommodate women's familial obligations. Sixty-five percent of participants were women and the programme allowed them to choose how long they worked, and provided day-care by paying elders to look after the children, said Susrutha Goonasekera, a social protection economist for the World Bank.

But, more than two years since the end of the conflict, adapting to the changing role of women in the northern Vanni is still lagging, locals say. Aside from balancing work with other responsibilities, a high demand for labour for jobs such as building roads has made appropriate work scarce for this population of both bread-bakers and winners. "Women can't compete with men for those jobs," Sivachandran said, adding that except in cash-for-work programmes, where pay was equal, women also tended to get paid less than men for the same work.

he lack of new jobs, partly blamed on the slow inflow of private investment, is also a big factor behind many of these women feeling helpless, according to government officials.

Working from home

In some cases women have formed small groups to start cottage industries, said Nagmani Rathnaraja, deputy director of the Re-awakening Project for Mullaithivu District, under the Ministry of Economics, such as poultry and vegetable cultivation. In Allankulam, a village in the Vanni about 320km from the capital Colombo, Selvakumar Arundha has started a small poultry farm with six other women using funds saved from a cash-for-work programme. The group invested US$450 and now each member makes about $12 per week without going far from home. "We could do much better if we had assistance and outside buyers," Arundha said, standing in front of the chicken coop. Sivachandran said this type of planning was lacking. "We need someone to assist in poultry farming and finding buyers, then there will be large income generation. Now the sales are limited to what the village wants and people are already poor here," she said. Arundha, who looks after two teenage children, said a job that did not require her to travel was essential. "Who will cook then?" she asked.