Fifteen months after the end of fighting between Sri Lankan government forces and the Tamil Tigers, women in the north are taking up a new and challenging role as breadwinners - with more and more becoming day labourers to support their families.
A survey conducted by the Jaffna-based Center for Women and Development, a non-profit group, revealed that the northern region had approximately 40,000 female-headed households - including more than 20,000 in Jaffna District.
"Three factors have reduced the male-headed households in number: the war, disappearances or being in military custody," said Saroja Sivachandran, the centre's director.
The Sri Lankan civil war, which began in the 1970s, claimed tens of thousands of lives and displaced more than 280,000 people, primarily in the north and east of the country. The government took control of the east in 2007, and declared victory in the north in May 2009.
Although up-to-date statistics are hard to come by because many people remain displaced, Sivachandran and government officials say the northern and eastern regions combined are home to some 89,000 war widows.
"This has drastically altered their livelihood options. Over 50 percent of them [women who head households] are single parents under 30 years of age supporting their own and extended families," said Visaka Dharmadasa, executive director of the Association for War-Affected Women (AWAW).
Women = cheaper labour
AWAW and other support groups say many employers are discriminating against women, in some cases paying less than US$1 a day.
Maillaiyappal Thangavelu supports her two children, parents and three sisters by working on a construction site.
"My husband disappeared," said the 26-year-old Jaffna resident. "My sisters are still in school. My eldest child is in school. My parents are too weak to work."
She earns a $1.25 a day - but according to Sivachandran, this is half of what a man would earn for the same work.
"It has become cheaper to hire women - men would demand higher daily wages. Women unquestioningly accept what is given, often because they have many mouths to feed," Sivachandran said.
"Women provide cheap labour, so they are preferred," said Nagarasa Thavaselvam, president of the Kampanai Camp Residents' Committee in Jaffna, adding that in some households, men are now becoming dependent on women for economic support. Thavaselvam himself is one of many house-husbands.
Photo: Dilrukshi Handunnetti/IRIN
|The number of female-headed households has increased|
Government security restrictions on traditional occupations - such as fishing and farming, the main industries of the north - have also driven women to work, Thavaselvam added.
At a construction site, a manager gave his own reasons for hiring women over men: "Women report to work on time. They don't drink and provide cheap labour."
Food, livelihood assistance
Although many women are finding jobs, more assistance is needed to boost their livelihoods in a society where many women have never worked outside the home before, and had never imagined they would do anything other than care for their families.
Imelda Sukumar, a government official for Jaffna and Mullaitivu districts, said industries had to be encouraged to create more jobs, but there had been some programmes for community-based income generation and cash for work at small infrastructure development projects.
"These projects are vital for areas where women carry heavy economic burdens," Sukumar said.
Meanwhile, unemployment - particularly with fishing and agriculture still being pieced back together - is fuelling food insecurity, she said.
The UN World Food Programme (WFP) has provided returning families with six-month food packages, but because many households have been unable to access their land and "resume normal activities", they have given returnees three additional months of food support.
While determining the extent of further assistance needed, WFP will move away from free food and to food for work on community projects or skills training - which will also benefit women.
“It is critical that female-headed households are supported with skills training and other appropriate interventions,” Giancarlo Stopponi, officer in charge and head of WFP’s programme unit in Colombo said. “This will better prepare families for a successful transition from resettlement to early recovery, and thus achieving some form of sustainable household activity.”
The Center for Women and Development said one economic support programme for war-affected women is a $100 grant to help them open a shop, pack chillies and coriander for commercial distribution, or purchase a sewing machine.
An AWAW programme assists farmers to secure farmland.
According to an update from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, nearly 6,900ha of abandoned land is being targeted for cultivation.
"The next season is likely to be better, enabling farming families to return to their original livelihoods," said Dharmadasa of AWAW.