Rural women’s farming and farm-based activities are major sources of household income (Sri Lanka Ministry of Rehabilitation, Resettlement and Refugees, 2003). As elsewhere in the country, women do labour intensive work in paddy cultivation such as planting and harvesting. Women in families that traditionally engaged in agriculture work on the farm when possible and want to continue cultivation in the post-conflict period (Field assessments). Landless women labour in tobacco cultivation, mainly carrying water to the fields, and on chilli and onion farms. The greater flexibility in gender roles during the conflict enabled women to undertake more active economic activities. In Trincomalee district women engaged in highland cultivation which allowed flexibility in household labour allocation (Field assessments). Backyard livestock rearing provides stock for consumption or for sale. Women in coastal areas engage in fishery activities such as drying and salting fish, usually done within the home. Some women migrate to find work in other areas of the district. Wages paid to women, however, are half that paid to men for similar work (Field assessments).
Marketing of local agricultural produce is a self-employment activity that usually is done by women. During the conflict women took the produce to market as they could more easily pass the checkpoints than could men. Women also prepare cooked foods, especially rice flour-based foods for sale, run small grocery shops, and make and sell handicrafts. These micro economic activities are extensions of women’s domestic work that bring only very small profits.
Livelihood options for rural women
In Kappalthurai in the Trincomalee district women’s rural livelihood options were limited to cultivation, poultry keeping, goat rearing and trading. Most of the women belonged to families that traditionally engaged in farming. They had the desire and the ability to cultivate, but were constrained by lack of resources.
Almost all the women interviewed were either cultivators or had the desire to cultivate. Women perform a substantial quantity of work in the fields. Many belong to farming families and had been cultivating the land even before marriage. They have the traditional knowledge and skills to engage in farming. Many prepare their own seeds, maintain a home garden and rear livestock.
Marketing of local agricultural produce is a self-employment activity that usually is done by women. Women also prepare cooked foods, especially rice flour-based foods for sale, run small grocery shops, and make and sell handicrafts. These micro economic activities are extensions of women’s domestic work that bring only very small profits.
Most Muslim women who lived in the North prior to their expulsion in 1990 were economically stable though not economically active. Those from Mullaitivu and Mannar were poor; they worked in agriculture and reared livestock. In the East, some Muslim women occasionally earn income but are dependent primarily on male earnings. Very poor women engage in home based informal sector activities such as mat weaving, food preparation, rice pounding, chena or highland cultivation, poultry keeping, dress making and selling betel (Jayaweera et al., 2004).
Women’s role in agriculture expanded during the conflict period due to absence of males, increasing poverty and demand for cheap female labour. In the Wanni region for example, casual wage labour provides income for female headed households, estimated at 20 percent of all households. Internally displaced women who relocated in agricultural areas also engage in wage labour. Women in fishing communities do fish processing, marketing, net making and net repair.
Traditionally, fishing was considered as women’s leisure time activity in Batticaloa and Ampara (Dharmaretnam and Thamilchelvi, 2003). They collected fish in shallow waters of the lagoon. The catch mainly was for consumption while any excess was salted and dried. Prawns and mussels were sold. Muslim women did not fish in the lagoon waters or market the catch, but mostly they repaired the fishnets. Today, women undertake fish harvesting, processing and marketing as well as shallow water fishing in the brackish water lagoon. Women in both ‘cleared’ and ‘uncleared’ areas engage in fishery related activities. “In a community where exploitation of the aquatic natural resources was considered as an extension of the reproductive activities in an earlier generation, it is now considered as a productive activity of women affected by conflict.” The younger generation, however, tends to leave this traditional form of economic activity for more ‘respectable’ forms of employment that include overseas migration (Dharmeretnam and Thamilchelvi, 2003).
During the years of conflict local and international NGOs provided women, especially widows and families who lost income earners, with the opportunity for income generation through micro and small-scale projects. Livestock rearing, petty trading and home gardening projects have been initiated for women. More recently INGOs and local NGOs trained women in non-traditional occupations (Field assessments). Women in Jaffna are skilled in making cement blocks; in Batticaloa they are trained in industrial sewing with which skill they obtain employment in the formal sector. Women are encouraged to start savings schemes and to loan money. A study of the displaced in Batticaloa found women engaged as domestic workers and gathering fuel wood for sale (Wanasundera, 2000). Lack of employment opportunities compel many women to depend on government and NGO relief while Muslim women, especially from the welfare camps, increasingly looked to overseas contract employment as a survival strategy (Field assessment).
Rural women’s lives are inextricably tied to the natural resource base. Collapse of the agricultural sector during the conflict impoverished rural women and their families. Women IDP returnees seeking to recommence farming were constrained by lack of inputs and access to markets (Field assessments). They continue to engage in subsistence level farming and other small-scale economic activities.