By P.K.Balachandran/Ceylon Today
Sri Lanka’s post-war livelihood strategies for women in the Eastern Province have failed, necessitating fresh thinking based on the experience garnered so far and the findings of researches conducted there.
This is the impression one gets after reading Nayana Godamunne’s excellent monograph: Understanding Women’s Livelihood: Outcomes and Economic Empowerment in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka brought out by the Colombo-based International Center for Ethnic Studies in 2019.
Looking at the preference of the women themselves, it appears that it will best if opportunities for government employment are increased and the government becomes the principle development agent and employer in place of the private sector and individual private initiatives.
The current emphasis on self-employment generation and developing entrepreneurship has not yielded dividends. Conditions for these to thrive do not exist among the people of the war-affected Eastern Province (EP). Godamunne says that the population in EP does not have the requisite resources and skills. The surrounding economy is too weak to sustain and spur successful entrepreneurial efforts.
Delineating State policy since the end of the war in EP since 2007, Godamunne says: “Livelihood rebuilding in the Eastern Province sits within a broader post-war reconstruction strategy which revolves around self-employment promotion, credit expansion and encouraging private capital investments to support two dominant sectors – tourist growth and enterprise development.”
But she adds that “there is no convincing evidence that this approach has increased opportunities and incomes for women. The fact is that most war-affected women are still in survival livelihood strategies, driven by dire need rather than choice.”
“There is also evidence that women’s engagement in livelihoods faces new constraints in the post-war era. For example, whilst improvements in infrastructure such as greater road connectivity and access to markets are visible, the influx of cheap new products is driving some women out of livelihoods due to their inability to compete. Moreover, the presence of the military has restricted and sometimes blocked women’s livelihood activities.”
“The existence of High Security Zones in areas such as Sampoor, for example, has blocked women’s access to arable land and restricted their movement in pursuit of livelihoods. The military involvement in civilian activities has resulted in curtailing women’s engagement in certain types of livelihoods such as running food outlets and grocery stores,” Godamunne argues.
Indebtedness is another post-war problem. According to the author, the push towards self-employment and enterprise development has driven many women to be entrapped in debt. The micro-finance companies have entered the field in a big way replacing the formal banking institutions because micro-finance companies do not seek collaterals like banks and other formal financial institutions.
But this has, by no means, been an unmixed blessing. For various very understandable reasons, the borrowers (especially women) are not able to run their businesses profitably. They get into indebtedness. Being unsuited, or untrained, or incompetent or because of the absence of a favourable economic environment, the women spend the borrowed money, not on improving their businesses, but on consumer goods or on managing crisis situations in the family.
Search for Sustained Stable Incomes
Godamunne says that women are seeking stable incomes, dignity of work and decent working conditions. But she found that the women find that the opportunities they can access under the circumstances do not answer to their needs. “These are informal and unpaid work that guarantees no regular income or stability.”
Therefore, like the men, women too are seeking access to jobs in the formal sector with regular and equal pay and benefits as men. And there is a preference for government jobs, Godamunne notes. She quotes a woman in Muttur who said: “Women should earn money from permanent employment which, I think, most probably is from government jobs. I don’t like farming and other cultivation and self-employment since I think that those don’t give permanent and regular income.”
Government jobs are sought after because of the benefits, security of employment. “Public sector jobs have well-regulated hours, clear worker’s rights such as paid leave, ample public holidays, and access to a state pension upon retirement,” Godamunne points out.
But the State no longer sees itself as an employer and is more and more relying on the private formal and informal sectors to provide jobs. It imagines that by promoting self-employment and individual entrepreneurship, it will provide and raise incomes and jobs. But in an under-development country, which is also war-devastated, privatization of this sort has not worked and will not work. The private sector is too weak to meet the basic needs of the people.
Neganahira Navodaya and Enterprise Lanka projects
After Eelam War IV ended in 2007, the Mahinda Rajapaksa government launched the Neganahira Navodhaya (Eastern Revival) program and the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe regime, which followed it in 2015, continued the strategy. In Rajapaksa’a time the focus was on infrastructure development. But between 2015 and 2019, the focus was on livelihood rebuilding initiatives through government-aided private initiatives.
However, despite the money poured into the Eastern Province, its contribution to Sri Lanka’s GDP has remained stagnant at around 6%, Godamunne notes. EP has lagged behind in other respects too. Whilst national poverty headcount figures have shown a steady decline, they are high in the Eastern Province. In 2017, it was 11.3% in Batticaloa district and 10% in Trincomalee district, she points out.
The researcher cites cases in which the post-war situation has been worse than the situation before the war. For example, a woman who was running a successful “hotel” in Trincomalee Town before the war escalated, had to migrate to another place. When she came back, after the war, she found that she had no money to restart the hotel. So she started a grocery which is not making the kind of money the hotel was making.
Godamunne refers to cases of the military taking over arable and pasture lands and preventing villagers from accessing them. Prior to the war, many women used the lands to graze cattle and for agro-based cultivation. However, since returning, they have had no access to those lands. In the construction projects in Sampoor, it is the military which gets the bulk of the work.
It is said that 25% of households in Sri Lanka are female-headed. But the figure is significantly higher In the Eastern Province, Godamunne says and points out that the female heads of households face multiple challenges. “They have to eke out a living, whilst caring for their children, the elderly, and the disabled.”
Then there is gender-oriented harassment and violence. “Many young widows and girl children from women-headed households are frequently subjected to sexual violence by neighbors, family members, and strangers. Victimization of girl children of remarried women is a real problem now,” Godamunne says. Women are forced into prostitution by poverty and it is said that prostitution in EP is an essentially a post-war phenomenon.
It is in this context that the Yahapalanaya government started programs like “Enterprise Lanka” which targeted young people who had not gained admission to higher education institutions. “Enterprise Sri Lanka” offers government-backed guarantees for the new entrepreneurs. The National Action Plan on Women-Headed Households 2017-2019 focused on promoting self-employment and entrepreneurship amongst women-headed households in war-affected areas. Together with the Policy Framework for SME Development, the government aimed to provide a comprehensive policy framework to generate employment opportunities and reduce poverty.
However, in all the State schemes, the selection of beneficiaries, the kind of help rendered to them, and the release of funds on time have become major issues, Godamunne observes.
She quotes a Trincomalee man as saying: “Some were given cattle, but they do not have pasture land to graze them and some were given water pumps for cultivation, but they do not have lands, since both arable and pasture lands are still occupied by the Navy.”
Admittedly, opportunities have opened up in EP in the new garments sector, leasing, retail and the tourism and hospitality sectors. But jobs prospects here for local women are “very low”, partly on account of lack of qualifications and experience, Godamunne finds.
Local women are themselves reluctant to work in these sectors. Putting them off are long hours of work, and shift work often entailing work after dark. The lack of transportation deters women from taking up shift work, she points out. The lack of required skills and knowledge are other reasons for the low take up of jobs in the private sector.
Then there is labour and gender abuse in the hospitality industry. Women are subjected to delayed wage payments, non-payment of benefits such as service charge, and non-inclusion in government benefits like Employees’ Provident Fund (EFP) or the Employees’ Trust Fund (ETF). The lack of awareness of rights among local women has enabled resorts to avoid adhering to labour regulations, Godamunne says.