Bleak future for Sri Lanka’s female-headed households

Four years after the end of a 26-year civil war and with donor assistance dwindling, tens of thousands of female-headed households in northern Sri Lanka face a difficult future, though many are developing innovative coping strategies.

“There is little evidence that the unique vulnerabilities faced by female-headed households are being considered in the government's policies,” said Raksha Vasudevan, author of a just published report on female-headed households in the north.

“Although they may benefit eventually from the reconstruction of infrastructure and the opening of economic trade activities with the south, for now, it is mostly men who have accessed income-generating opportunities from these developments.”

Researchers and humanitarians working with female-headed households, estimated at over 40,000 by the Centre for Women & Development (CWD) in Jaffna, say the north’s patriarchal social structure, and an economy and reconstruction effort that favours males, have deepened their vulnerabilities.

“The research found that these vulnerabilities [of female-headed households] were simultaneously exacerbated by, and contributed to, psycho-social trauma and an ongoing fear of an unknown future,” the report said. The precarious economic situation also made these women targets of sexual abuseand exploitation. “With many still lacking homes with locking doors, they felt very exposed to attack at any moment,” the author said.

Women whose husbands or partners were killed in the war say they are still struggling to make ends meet, while some continue to spend what meagre resources they have to locate their missing loved ones.

Seetha Kurubakaran, from the town of Paranthan in Kilinochchi District, said she had tried to seek work in various fields - from construction to the civil service (as a clerk) - but without success. All the jobs she sought went to men.

“I don’t want anyone to favour me, but my situation is such that I need a job. I need to feed my family,” the mother of two, said.

Out of desperation she took up sewing dresses at home, but her monthly income is less than US$40. “I live [on] handouts, money my distant relatives living abroad send me,” she said.

Her concern is that her family’s generosity - and ability - to help her is being depleted.

There are no official statistics on unemployment rates in the north, but researchers and analysts believe it could be 10-20 percent, if not higher. Under-employment, where people earn less than a dollar a day, is also believed to be as high as 30 percent.

Ajith Nivard Cabraal, the governor of the Central Bank, told IRIN that since the war ended, the government had invested $3-4 billion in the north, with multimillion dollar construction contracts awarded to build back from almost nothing in some parts.

“Even from a low [reconstruction] base the 20 percent growth rate is impressive,” he said.

However, most of the large infrastructure development projects are centred on the main A9 highway that runs through the middle of Northern Province; employment opportunities are rare elsewhere. And whether near or far from the highway, these projects offer women few jobs.

Discrimination

Meanwhile, many women are trying to do something about their situation in what the report described as “an impressive sign of their resilience”.

“Through a variety of strategies that they employ in their everyday lives, these women endure, contest and resist the structures of domination imposed upon them. These strategies include creating innovative livelihood opportunities for themselves, accessing alternative support sources, tapping into family networks/kinship structures, various community praxes of solidarity and resistance, and finding ways to normalize both the extraordinary circumstances in which they live and the uncertainties they face,” said the study.

“During the war and even before that the practice of women breadwinners was very rare,” said CWD head Saroja Sivachandran. “Even the limited job market still functions on that assumption.”

“They are clearly discriminated against in hiring for most jobs, even though they are willing to work in non-traditional roles, and also face more difficulties than men in accessing credit,” Vasudevan said.

Rupavanthi Ketheeswaran, the top government official in Kilinochchi District, agreed the situation was difficult for women, but said the authorities were working to ease their economic plight. “We will always go that extra step to help out in getting loans and other assistance to these women,” she said, citing special preference on self-employment schemes, seed assistance for home gardens and the distribution of cattle.

However, such schemes should be far more wide-spread if they are to provide women with the sense of purpose and control over their daily lives they now need, said Sivachandaran.

“Female headed households should be recognized as a special needs group at the highest policy-making level,” she added.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam fought against the government from 1983 to 2009 for an independent Tamil homeland in northern Sri Lanka.

ap/ds/cb