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Conflict and women’s status in the North and East of Sri Lanka1

Sri Lanka experienced armed conflict for more than thirty years, first in the South and later in the North and East. The last two decades of intractable secessionist conflict brought substantial social, political, economic and cultural ramifications. The cost of the war from 1983-1996 is estimated at twice the GDP of 1996, and rose from 1 percent to 22 percent of the GDP during this period. Defence spending rose dramatically and direct and indirect war costs are estimated at 168 percent of the GDP at 1996 prices (Arunatilake, 2001; Tudawe, 2003; Kelegama, 2004). Economic growth was below 6 percent during most of the period, recording the lowest growth rate of -1.4 percent in 2000.2 Social costs are even more staggering. Loss of an estimated 60 000 lives, internal and external displacement of nearly a million people, war widows, trauma of survivors, insecurity for children including conscription by militant groups, breakdown of the social fabric, disruption to livelihood activities and deterioration of basic services are some of the conflict’s consequences. Mixed communities in the North and East and in areas bordering these provinces have become ethnically divided.

The social welfare policies adopted by successive post independent governments brought improvement of Sri Lankan women’s status relative to education, health and nutrition and labour force participation. Nonetheless, gender inequities persist. Women have low political participation; relatively few women have access to higher levels of decision making in the public and private sectors and violence against women and rights violations have surfaced. Women who experienced the armed conflict in the North and East acutely felt the reversal of earlier gains in education, health, employment and political participation while at the same time they were subjected to war time rights violations.

In 2001, women were 50 percent of the North and East’s population (1 237 700).3 The sex ratio was 107 whereas the national ratio was 97.6. The number of women in the North declined from 533 000 in 1981 to 526 000 by 2001.4 The female population in the East increased from 466 600 to 711 700 during the same period, attributed mainly to natural increase. Most females (64%) were working age (14-64 years) compared with 32 percent of the males. The female population over 65 years in the North and East was 4 percent compared to 5 percent of the male population and the national figure of 7 percent (Sri Lanka Department of Census and Statistics, 2002). The female dependency ratio of 57 percent was lower than that of males.

Widows in the North and East province totalled 49 612 in March 2002, and female-headed households numbered 19 787 in the five NEP districts in 2000. Were data for Jaffna, Ampara and Trincomalee available, the number of female-headed households would be much higher (Sri Lanka NEP, 2003). A 21 percent of urban households were female headed; in rural areas, females headed 19 percent of households, corresponding to the all island figure (Sri Lanka Department of Census and Statistics, 2003e). Of the widows, 22 323 were in the North and 27 291 in the East. Of the eight districts, Jaffna had the highest number of widows followed by Batticaloa, Ampara and Trincomalee districts. Most widows (69%) were over 51 years of age; 44 percent were over 60 years.

Women’s labour force participation in the North and East prior to the conflict was low by national standards. Cultural norms kept Tamil and Muslim women engaged in household work and income generation within the home. Women contributed to the household economy by working in family farms. However, the changing economic environment, economic stress and conflict related poverty brought increased labour force participation rates for rural women mainly in the rural informal sector and for educated and skilled women in the formal sector. Although women in the North are 64 percent of the working age population, women’s labour force participation rate is only 16 percent, significantly lower than the male’s rate, 55 percent. The female labour force participation rate in the East was 18 percent compared to the male rate, 64 percent. The national labour force participation rate is 32 percent for females and 67 percent for males (Sri Lanka Department of Census and Statistics, 2004b, c). The lowest labour force participation rates for females were in Mannar (13%), Trincomalee (13%) and Vavuniya (14%) (Sri Lanka Department of Census and Statistics, 2004c).

Half the employed women in the North had less education than the General Certificate of Education (GCE) O Level; of these, 17 percent were below Grade 5. A 70 percent of men did not study beyond the O Level, and 21 percent were below Grade 5. In the East, 64 percent of females did not proceed beyond Grade 5 and 77 percent of males had education less than GCE O Level. The proportion of employed females with an education above GCE A Level exceeded that of males; this was more pronounced in the North than in the East. The largest proportion of females in the North was employed in the private sector whereas in the East the largest proportion of women was own-account workers (Sri Lanka Department of Census and Statistics, 2004b).

Eleven percent of women employed in the North were unpaid family workers compared to 31 percent in the East. Of the employed males, 4 percent were unpaid family workers in both areas. Most female employment was in the agricultural sector where in both the North and the East women were engaged in forestry and fisheries (32 percent and 21 percent respectively). More females than males were in manufacturing in both areas. Twenty percent of women in the East were in wholesale and retail trade compared with 12 percent of the males. In the North, women in manufacturing were about half that of men (Sri Lanka Department of Census and Statistics, 2003a).

Unemployment rates show wide disparities. The all island unemployment rate for females is double that of males, but it reaches 32 percent in the North, nearly five times that of males, and 38 percent in the East where the male rate is 9 percent. Younger age groups suffer the highest unemployment in the North and East especially among ages 20-29. Unemployment rates are highest for holders of GCE A Level and above, of whom 45 percent in the North and 38 percent in the East are unemployed (Sri Lanka Department of Census and Statistics, 2004b).

During pre-conflict period women benefited from the extensive health care network established in the late 1940s with pre- and post-natal care extended throughout the country. The improved health over the decades was reflected in declining crude birth rate, crude death rate, fertility rate, maternal and infant mortality rates and child death rate. The conflict reversed these accomplishments. Health services deteriorated and accessibility and availability of rural health care facilities is limited. Compared to the pre-conflict period, the maternal mortality rate (MMR) deteriorated in all Northern and Eastern districts. In Jaffna, the 1981 MMR of 0.3 is now 2.8; the rate increased from 2.7 to 9.7 in Mannar, and from 0.6 to 9.7 in Ampara (Sri Lanka Department of Health Services, 2003). Nationally, 90 percent of households had access to safe drinking water, though only 88 percent of rural households had safe drinking water. Overall, 48 percent of households in the North and East have sanitary facilities, though the rate is lower in rural households. Ground water contamination is a major health hazard as reflected in incidences of typhoid and cholera (Multilateral Group, 2003).

The conflict brought human rights violations (Amnesty International, 2004). Women and men could not participate in elections because elections were not held in all the areas of the North and East. Even when elections were held, allegations challenged whether they were free and fair. Unknown gunmen killed the only woman elected to a local government office. Women have no voice in the peace process.5 Sexual and gender based violence in both domestic and public spheres is a concern (Wijayatilake, 2004).

A woman farmer in post-conflict rural economy

Just six kilometres from the major city of the East, Trincomalee, 32 year old Ambika6 and her family live in a dilapidated house with no electricity, drinking water and sanitation facilities. Her husband is 36 years old. She has three surviving children after two children died when they lived in the ‘welfare camp’ – one at childbirth and the other at age three months. After ten years in a welfare camp, they returned to Kappalthurai in 2002 to find their land occupied by strangers. Now they live and farm on two acres of encroached state land. They are unconcerned about regaining their land.

Ambika was a farmer before displacement. When they returned, she obtained a loan to cultivate paddy but could not repay it due to crop failure on account of the drought. There is no alternative source of water as tanks are in a state of disrepair. Ambika must protect her crop from wild elephants. Despite these obstacles she has a great desire to continue farming. She grows her own seeds, purchases fertiliser from a store three kilometres distant and sells produce to the trader who comes to the village. She attends to household chores and the children. She collects firewood from a nearby forest for cooking and obtains drinking water from a neighbour’s well. When she needs medical attention she must walk several kilometres. Ambika’s homestead has vegetables and poultry. She ensures that her children go to school. Her husband is a labourer, but spends most of his income on alcohol. He likes Ambika to participate in economic activities. She was silent on the issue of domestic violence.

Ambika belongs to the Madar Sangam (Women’s Rural Development Society) but it is her husband who joined the Farmers’ Organisation. She has no awareness of gender issues and accepts her situation. She is unsure of their future and does not want to build up assets or improve their housing condition as they could be displaced if war breaks out again. Her main wish is an end to the war.

1 A major constraint to this study is the absence of research on women’s roles in agriculture before and during the conflict. Research conducted during the 1985-1995 United Nations Decade for Women identified women’s domestic and public roles and critical issues affecting them. The large body of literature on women generated since that time has comparatively few studies on women in the North and East compared to the nation. National level data excludes the whole of the Northern and Eastern Province (NEP).

2 The North and East have been excluded from most of the data. If the performance of these two provinces were included the growth rate would be lower.

3 Parts of the North and East were not enumerated. Lack of data seriously impinges on assessment of women’s situation in the North and East. Rural-urban data are unavailable.

4 The 2002 census of population was conducted 20 years after the previous census in 1981.

5 This also applies to the South.

6 Pseudonym.

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