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Social control of women in post-war Sri Lanka: its effects on women’s access to secure livelihoods

Posted by Ming-Hua

19 May 2016

“I do not think women should be going out and working in general.” (Male, 26, Passikudah)

Women in the North and East, however, cannot conform to such views if they are to survive.

As in most other cultures around the world, the norm across Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim communities in Sri Lanka, is that the woman is vital to the transfer of culture to the next generation. The manifestation of this norm is hydra-headed, and one specific example is that women are discouraged from interacting with men other than immediate relatives because both women and men feel their culture will get diluted. Furthermore, men feel the need to guard the purity or the reputation of their women, both of which can be defiled through interaction with other men. In the North and East, those who choose not to adhere to these social controls face social stigma and ostracism – which often prevents them from receiving economic or psychological support from their communities. Women are in a sense denied access to ‘male spaces’. For example, in certain fishing communities, women are not allowed to engage in deep sea fishing or beach seine activity because of the belief that if a woman were to even touch the equipment, she would bring misfortune. This blog aims to examine some of the social controls which women face within a post-war context and how they react to them. This article draws upon several studies by the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) which were conducted in 2015 and 2016.

In the Northern and Eastern regions, a large number of women have become the breadwinners of their households due to the 26 year civil war. Men would either be conscripted or forced to flee and of those who survived the war, many were disabled or unable to work to provide their families with an income. As a result, many women have had to shoulder the responsibility of providing for their families and sometimes more than just their families – in Vettikadu, a woman in her 80s has to provide for her son’s family as well as her own because her son was ‘taken’ by the army.

In such situations, women are forced to engage in income generation; to do so they have two principle means. Firstly, they may engage in established male-dominated occupations such as fishing or marketing of fish. However, as in the case of Priya, a woman in her 50s from Vettikadu who engages in fish marketing, they are often subject to sexual harassment. According to a CEPA study conducted in 2016, in the Trincomalee district the women who do engage in fish marketing are only able to do so because of a male relative or connection who is willing to help them. Furthermore, another study reveals that in Vettikadu women in general cannot travel far without the risk of being sexually harassed.

Consequently, few women choose to do so and most resort to their second option: alternate forms of income generation. Within this course of action there are limitations and obstacles too: for example, in Passikudah the local community was barely involved in the hotel industry because its members lacked the required skills and/or knowledge of English.1 Accordingly, even though the tourist industry is booming in the area and investments pour in, the local community hardly benefits. It is important to note that in this situation the lack of skills development is yet another consequence of the war. Social protection and aid programmes which attempt to introduce alternate forms of income generation do exist, however as in the case of a certain village in the Jaffna district where sewing machines were donated and clothes were overproduced, many of the programmes are not context specific and fail to significantly help the women. In some instances, such as the women of Vettikadu who resort to beedi rolling, their occupation is also hazardous to health because as they roll they inhale nicotine and absorb it through their skin as well.

Despite the appalling circumstances these women face, and despite not having access to government or trade union benefits, the informal sector gives them flexibility which is pivotal in the lives of those who are not only breadwinners, but also housewives, caregivers and mothers. This flexibility is what keeps them from descending into complete destitution. For example; a woman whose primary source of income is beedi rolling was also able to earn additional money and a few kilos of rice by cooking for the local school while also looking after her children. Evidently, women exploit the informality of their livelihoods so that they can survive and fulfill their responsibilities; however they compromise their own wellbeing in the process. The women in the beedi industry in addition to nicotine poisoning are also prone to rheumatism as a result of long hours spent on rolling.

Despite the general pattern described above in most of the war affected areas, certain anomalies and oddities do exist, suggesting that the basis of social control cannot be understood in terms of gender alone. In the fisher communities in the Northeast not only were Sinhala women more discouraged from fishing related activities than women of any other ethnicity, they themselves did not want to leave their immediate surroundings. This applied neither to the Tamil and Muslim women who would engage in gleaning (gleaning is the term used for the harvesting of clams and mussels) and lagoon fishing, albeit within groups of homogenous ethnicity, nor to the Veder women who would work alongside men in the beach seine. The Sinhalese communities had been in the area for only a generation or two whereas the other ethnicities have been around for much longer and unlike in most other parts of the country, the Sinhalese were not the majority. It is quite probable that the Sinhalese pockets had a greater fear of losing their identity in such a situation; however, the overarching reason is the mistrust cultivated by war between the Sinhala speaking and Tamil speaking communities. However, ethnicity is not the only other identity category around which anomalies arise. Another inconsistency is that while Tamil women in Vettikadu did not engage in fishing activities, Tamil women in the Northeast were allowed to engage in gleaning and small scale fishing. This was primarily because the women in Vettikadu would have to travel further to engage in fishing or gleaning than the women in the Northeast and the threat of harassment was more obvious as well. The above findings suggest that social controls manifest in different forms which are highly context specific.

It is important to note that across the studies the individuals questioned did not complain about the existing livelihood system; in fact, a few seemed to embrace the independence that the informal sector brought them because it helped them survive. Furthermore, it is unclear if the women in the studied areas actually want to engage in male-dominated activities but if they did want to, it is clear that they did not have the opportunity to do so. The informality of their livelihoods is a crutch which is used to make the barest of ends meet. The complaints that did surface most often were that the government was not providing adequate social security or that the implementation and administration of the programmes and services was inefficient. Despite the adaptations that the women in the north and east have made to survive, it is evident that they are in need of some sort of recognition and relevant state support. The women in consideration will survive regardless of what happens; however, is survival to be their lives’ objective?

This article is part of a series of blog posts synthesizing research conducted by the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium in Sri Lanka. The Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium (SLRC) is a six year global research programme exploring livelihoods, basic services and social protection in conflict-affected situations. www.securelivelihoods.org

Ming-Hua is a past pupil of St. Thomas' College Mount Lavinia. He is currently working at his alma mater and he plans to begin a liberal arts degree later this year.

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