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III. SRI LANKA'S SOCIAL DIVERSITY people, culture, religion, and gender

3.1 Population and ethnic diversity

Present population of Sri Lanka is around 18.3 million (1996) of which 9.3 million are male and 9 million females. The average population density is 250 per sq. km, with 50 to 3 000 as the lowest and highest densities respectively. The growth rate of the population is 1.4 percent (1980–1990), the population expected to reach 25 million by mid twenty first century. The life expectancy of people is 73 years and infant mortality rates are also low (24 per 1 000). A 35 percent of the population is below 15 years and 55 percent of the population above 54 years (EIU, 1997).

About 70 percent of the people live in the southwestern area (wet zone) which occupies about three-quarters of the cultivated land. An 89 percent of the population lived in rural areas in 1991 (EIU, 1997). The urban population is about 22 percent, which more or less remained unchanged since 1980's. However, growing industrialisation may create more urban areas.

Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country. Sri Lanka as a multi-ethnic society, is constituted of Sinhalese (74.0 percent), Tamils (18.2 percent), Muslims (7.1 percent) and remaining 0.7 percent are Chinese, Moors and Burghers of Dutch and Portuguese descendants. A very small number (about 2 000) indigenous people called Veddahs (descendants of the original inhabitants before Sinhalese settlement). Majority of Sinhalese, are Buddhists (69.3 percent), followed by followers of Hinduism (15.5 percent), Islam (7.6 percent) and Christianity (7.5 percent) (Baldwin, 1991). Among the Tamil population majority of them are Hindus with a substantial Christian minority.

Tamils are traditionally concentrated in the north and the east of the country. Sri Lanka has been receiving particularly South Indian Tamils to work in plantation. The Muslim or Moors are concentrated eastern province and Colombo. Veddahs live mainly in the dry zone area of northeastern and southeastern provinces.

Women accounted for 49 percent of the total population (1981 census). According to the last census of 1981, there were 96.2 women per 100 men. This phenomenon of gender imbalance is attributed to male-favoured sex ratio at birth, higher female mortality than male and male-predominated immigration, etc. Men outnumber women both in rural and urban areas. However, the predominance of men is considerably greater in urban areas (94.04 women per 100 men) compared to rural areas (97.9 women per 100 men) (ESCAP, 1997). Demographic Survey of 1994 revealed that there existed a significant proportion (18.6 percent) of female-headed household in Sri Lanka (ESCAP, 1997) (Figure 2).

Figure 2

Figure 2

Source: ESCAP 1997

The quality of life has gradually improved between 1960–80 as reflected in decrease in death and mortality rates, improved health, high literacy rates (men 92 percent and women 87.9 percent) and increased life expectancy (men 69 and women 73 years). In UN measurement of Human Development achievements, Sri Lanka is ranked as 90 and thus medium achiever and ranked at 70 for gender development ranking, thus indicating a considerable progress in gender equity measures.

3.2 Status of women in Sri Lanka

The position of women in Sri Lanka is reviewed in an historical perspective. The historical trend is one on equity to secondary status to men and greater move toward equity through education. Yet, there are persistent gender disparities in selected aspects of social, economic and political spheres and wider gender equity gaps in certain ethnic groups.

3.2.i Past status of Sri Lankan women

From the beginning of the historical times women held a place of responsibility and independence in the structure of Sri Lantern society. Among the indigenous people the woman, was a responsible partner in the family. She was often the key decision-maker, and enjoyed a position of respect and dignity in the community. Similar trends later prevailed in Sinhala, the evolving Buddhist society and consequently gender discrimination or any act of subordination had never been perceptible. Women enjoyed freedom to take independent decisions with regard to her choice for matrimony or follow their conviction, to even to renounce the worldly affairs as a Bhikkuni (Buddhist nun).

In Sri Lankan society, the woman was referred to as ‘Paula’, to denote the ‘wife’ -wife as the symbol of the family (Wickramasinge, 1991). Sri Lankan women deserved this position of profound respect for their abiding concern for security and well being of their families. Invariably, she would be the focal point for all major decisions. This aspect of Sri Lanka's social life was noticed and commended by travellers visiting the country.

As early as in 1803, one Robert Percival observed that “A Ceylonese woman is looked upon as a wife and companion.”1 Women proved to be capable rulers, local chieftains, showing vision and capability in dealing with political issues and general welfare of the society. They governed and showed courage and valour while dealing with outside forces.

1 Women in Development: The Sri Lankan Experience: United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women. Beijing 1995. Ministry of Transport, environment and Women's Affair, Sri Lanka.

3.2.ii Turning point in women's status by an external influence

The major turning point in women's role came during the consolidation of British colonial period. The western socio-cultural influx brought in changes in terms of urbanisation, inter-personal relationships and education; new modes of political governance, socio-economic structure related to commercialisation of agriculture and natural resources. Men took over the front-line positions and women were related to secondary roles. However, until recently in spite of the major shift in paradigm, male superiority was not visible in relationship between men and women.

3.2.iii Changing trends in women's status during post independent era

The post-independence period witnessed wide-ranging efforts to uphold women's position in Sri Lankan society, and to promote their equal participation in socio-political, and socio-economic and cultural development of Sri Lanka. The 1978 constitution recognised gender equality and freedom from discrimination on the basis of sex. Subsequently, the UN Charter of Women's Rights was accepted and the UN Commission on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women was ratified. In order to implement the recommendations and safeguard the interest of women, in 1978 the Women's Bureau of Sri Lanka was established. Furthermore, in 1997, the women who hampered their full participation at different levels created the Ministry of Women Affair with Cabinet Rank to address at the national level the problems faced.

The women's role and status have gone through many phases of change over time. The introduction of free education in Sri Lanka has paved the way for women to have equal access to higher education and they have successfully used their educational achievements as an effective tool to breakdown the barriers of a patriarchal society to a great extend. Women have started entering the workforce in large numbers, gained more freedom of socio-economic mobility and shown their capabilities in diverse fields, especially as professionals. Even though women's progress in the recent past has been commendable, there still exists constraints which restrict their participation in development activities” (Changing Roles of Women in Sri Lanka, Department of Census and statistics, 1997).

Hence, it should be noted there are persistent inequalities and prevalence of greater number of constraints for women in certain regions stifled by civil war and dominated by plantation industry. As it is evident as across South Asian Region, disparity between urban and rural women exists in the social and economic gains made, that is negatively biased against rural women.

3.3 Sri Lankan women's equity: gains and gaps

Sri Lankan women have made remarkable gender equity gains in various sectors, but is also important to compare the relative gains and certain social trends that adversely impact on women. Furthermore, these days it is also essential to contrast differences in achievement and access to resources between urban and rural women as well as differences in mobility among men and women of Sri Lanka in the changing socio-economic environment.

3.3.i Female education and literacy

Female literacy rate in Sri Lanka is among the highest in the world. It could be stated that introduction of free education has helped to reduce the gender gap in education. Historically literacy rates among women have increased. Women in younger age groups have taken advantage of the free education facilities. Currently literacy rates for women are at 87.9 percent compared to 92.5 percent for men. The previously prevalent urban and rural contrast in literacy has also been gradually reduced. However, there has been a marked increase in the proportion of population who could not complete primary level of education. It stood at 32.5 percent for women and 35.4 percent for men in 1991, rising from 22.7 percent and 26.7 percent in 1997. Moreover, the rural/urban differential in female literacy rate is non-existent. Both the rural and urban women have the same literacy rate of 84.3 percent. However, the literacy rate for the women in estate communities is only 52.8 percent. In the case of male population, urban sector has the highest literacy rate (94 percent) compared to rural (89.9 percent) and estate (79 percent) sectors (ESCAP, 1997) (Figure 3).

Figure 3

Figure 3
Source: ESCAP, 1997

Note: Northern and eastern provinces have been excluded.

The rural sector, especially the estate sector shows this trend. At the same time men and women who have never attended a school, has shown a sharp decline of 60 percent during the period. Gender differences have become minimal in the formal education system.

In 1994, women outnumber the boys in competitive public examination at the completion of school education. Such success of women in school completion record, has lead to greater enrolment of women in science programs that were traditionally dominated by men. As a general trend, the number of women teachers at school has been higher compared to men. But at the university level prestigious positions in social and economic terms are male-dominated.

3.3.ii Labour force participation by women and men

Sri Lankan labour force accounts for more than 6 million in the age group older than 10 years. Female participation is 32.1 percent against 63.8 percent for male. The participation rate of rural women is higher than their urban counterparts. A majority of the labour force for both men and women comes from those who have achieved educational attainment up to the 5 to 9 grades.

The economically inactive women's population has increased. It is more than double the number of men. It is started that household work keeps the women away from entering labour force but men pursue educational goals. This issue needs to be studied in detail in the light of socio-economic and educational background in different agro-ecological zones in the country.

Based on the 1995 Labour Force Survey the largest proportions among employed women (41.5 percent) as well as employed men (35.4 percent) are engaged in agriculture and allied sector. The second largest proportion among employed men (15.7 percent) is concentrated in service sector. However, in the case of employed women, manufacturing sector absorbs the second largest proportion (27.1 percent). This has largely been due to the establishment of export promotion zones in the country, which employ a higher proportion of women than men do. In 1992 about 91 percent of semi-skilled workers, 73 percent of the unskilled workers and 89 percent of trainees in three export promotion zones were women. Moreover, 90 percent of the workers in garment industry are women (ESCAP, 1997). More than 90 percent of own account workers (OAW) and unpaid family workers are found in the rural sector. Additionally, more than 70 percent of women work without receiving wages or profit, in contrast to 29 percent of male workers. One fourth of the women workers have set up self-employment projects dealing with livestock rearing, poultry farming and fish breeding. Women's participation as decision-makers in industry is rather low, though in the small-scale industry sector, their participation has increased. Women are mostly engaged in the industries related to food, beverages and tobacco, mostly making cigars and bidies.

3.3.iii Migrant women workers

Sri Lanka has only a brief history of labour migration outside the country. Starting in the late 1960s, the country experienced the migration of its highly qualified professionals, which consisted largely of men. However, in the recent decades migration of middle-level skilled and unskilled labourers pre-dominated by women is on the dramatic increase. Between 1988 and 1995, 422 416 Sri Lankans migrated from the country out of which 70 percent were women. A vast majority of these migrant women work as housemaids in the Middle East (ESCAP, 1997). A large majority comes from rural areas, from the families falling in to low income groups. These migrant women in order to improve their family prospects take bold step to seek employment in an alien country with language and cultural constraints. The women migrant workers have contributed significantly to family economies as well to national foreign exchange earning. However, this household economic prosperity has come with a social cost. Often there are serious complaints of harassment and exploitation, which the migrant women suffer through middlemen and employers. Other social problems were identified in association with migrant women workers and their families. These are emerging concerns such as emotional insecurity and neglect among children left behind under the care of husbands and other relatives. The husbands tend to become alcoholic and cases of girl child abuse are on the increase.

3.3.iv Female headed households

The number of female-headed households has been on the increase between 1981 and 1994. About one fifth of the household heads are widowed. The demographic survey of the 1994 has revealed that 54 percent of the female heads were widowed while 37 percent were married. This is in contrast to a mere 2 percent of the male heads as widowed, while 95 percent were currently married. Generally, the women heads of the family have low earning capacity, especially those in agricultural sector. They are unable to devote enough time and energy to look after cultivation and family. Besides, the women heads have a lower education, may be are even illiterate. This social phenomenon is attributable in part to the increase in the death rate of adult male population and to the intensification of armed conflict since 1986. In the latter case the widows are of younger age groups and have very small children. It is documented that poor women heads of the households are marginalized to take advantage of the on going economic and skill enhancement programmes to improve the family's living standards.

3.3.v Cases: Farm women as heads of the households

The two case studies illustrate multiple strategies adopted by female heads of the households to secure her livelihood and to ensure food security of the family.

Case 1
Mrs Chandrani, in Embilipitiya Livelihood and food security strategies: Growing paddy, maintaining homegarden and wage labour
Mrs Chandrani, about 50 years old lost her husband eight years ago. She has three sons and one grown up daughter. The eldest son is married and lives separately in Embilipitiya. He is employed on a low paid job and finds it difficult to spare money for his mother. The two younger sons are studying in the 9th and 11th grades. The daughter has studied upto high school level and now stays at home.
The family owns one acre of tank-irrigated paddy land and a 1/4 acre home garden near Wellawaya. Mrs Chandrani suffers from a serious throat disease, and impaired health. With her poor health and no tangible help from the young children, she is able to manage only half an acre of land. She has given the other half acre, to the neighbouring farm family for 50:50 sharecropping. The half-acre of paddy cultivation yields about 20 bags (1150 kg) each for growing (Yala and Maha) seasons. The family takes loans from a “Mudalalie” (commission agent) at a high interest rate of 20 to 30 percent to meet the expenses related to paddy cultivation. Upon harvest, she sells the crop to him, at the prevailing open-market price. The price paid is invariably lower than the price offered under the official Guaranteed Price Scheme (G P S) fixed for each season. Since the family is under obligation of Mudalalie's debt it cannot use this advantage. The annual income from paddy is not adequate to meet the family's expenses. To supplement the income, in spite of her poor health, Mrs Chandramani works as a casual labourer for 5–6 days per month and is paid Rs 75–100 for each day. Two younger sons work as part-time casual labourers, after school hours. They also sell vegetables as roadside vendors after buying them from the market.
The family's home garden contains a few fruit trees such as coconut, mango, jack, banana, papaya, and a few teak trees. They have also cultivated cassava and a few seasonal vegetables. The home garden product is sold through the middleman, at a low price. For example, one papaya fruit, which fetches Rs. 30–40 in urban areas, is sold each at a price of one or two rupees. Therefore the family's yearlong endeavours do not bring adequate economic returns. They remain constantly in debt and barely meet the day-to-day living expenses. There is no spare money to cover costly medical expenses for her chronic illness, which requires prolonged regular medication.
The farm families know no other skill than the intricacies of growing paddy and other crops. Therefore to earn money, there is no other option but to work as casual agricultural labourer during the season. Though there has been a marked increase in literacy rates, the school curriculum is not designed to teach employable skills to the students.

Case 2
Mrs M.L Karal, in Nona Livelihood and food security strategies: Managing Chena land banana plantation with home garden and wage work in tea plantation
A 45 years old woman head of the household, Mrs M L Karal in Nona lives a life of constant struggle to meet the family's financial requirements. She lost her husband four years ago. The family possesses 2 acres of chena land for the last 25 years. When husband was alive, they did practice chena cultivation to grow vegetables and earned enough money to maintain the family. The shortage of working hands made her decide to convert the land into a banana plantation. She has cultivated 1000 plants of Kolikuta (apple banana), anamalu and embul varieties. The product is sold in the nearby market where the price is decided by the size of the banana. She does not use purchased fertilisers and pesticides due to lack of funds, which affects the yield. The earning is not enough to meet the family expenditure of Rs.2 500 – 3 000 per month. To add to the income she works as a casual labour in tealeaf plucking in the nearby tea estate for 3 days a week and receives Rs 100 for each day of work.
Her 20-year old son looks after the banana plantation, and she and her teenage daughter also help. The daughter is studying in the 9th grade in a nearby school. Mrs Nona's needs financial support to repair the dilapidated house they live in. She is also worried about the marriage of her daughter. With the present hand-to-mouth living, saving money is not easy. In the home garden the family grows vegetables such as garlic, cumin, beans, cabbage, radish etc. In addition there are a few trees of coconut and jack and a few medicinal herbs like gotukola and aruda. The home garden product is mainly used at home and thus in part assures food security.
The situation demands that the administration and local NGOs seek out such poverty stricken heads of the households and provide them economic and medical relief in terms of supportive grants, soft-interest loans and marketing the farm products at remunerative rates. Long-range supportive programmes dealing with post-harvest technologies for fruit processing to convert the product to higher value. One measure is exploiting the market potential of unripe papaya that yields the enzyme papain, which has always been in much demand for pharmaceutical and biochemical industries. Sri Lankan women's public life and political participation

Sri Lankan women are increasingly joining the mainstream of public life in various capacities. They are preparing themselves with required educational and other qualifications to take up professional and managerial posts and are decision-making officers in the political and economic spheres. But the changes are still slow. The number of women candidates participating in parliamentary elections has increased sharply since 1989 onwards. There are distinct class and urban bias in women's parliamentary representation. Relatively more women from prosperous regions and Capital City of Colombo were elected as parliamentary representatives. The number of women in provincial councils and local governance bodies has remained low. It has been observed that in general the women who are elected often come from families with political background.

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