Sri Lanka – Many Female-Headed Post-War Households
Author: Womens UN Report Network
Date: April 25, 2011
Jaffna is the Capital City of the
Northern Province of Sri Lanka.
Also Via Women’s Livelihoods –
SRI LANKA-JAFFNA – MANY
FEMALE-HEADED POST-WAR HOUSEHOLDS
By Dilrukshi Handunetti – in
Sri Lanka-Women are often the new breadwinners in the
family, setting up small businesses and helping to support or supplement
Saraswathy Thanabalasingham sells garlands and basic costume jewellery in
close proximity to the fabled Nallur temple in
Her husband is a landmine victim and she is unable to sell her wares regularly.
“People call it a mobile service. I am out there during the festivals and
also when I can. The recent Jaffna Music Festival brought over 100,000 people
to the city. I had great sales”, she beams.
The truth about the average Jaffna citizen is that many things have changed
there. First, the military engagements have ceased. But infrastructure
development, industries and other requisites that are required to make a city
vibrant may take a while to come. The protracted war has also resulted in
a change in the roles played by men and women. And that’s saying a lot
for conservative Jaffna.
Nearly two years after the formal conclusion of the war, the role of women has
drastically altered. There are many Saraswathys in the once war-torn Northern
More and more women like Saraswathy are taking up a new and challenging role
as family breadwinners. For some women, it is about supporting their young
families without the support of the husbands. For others, it is a
question of supplementing the home kitty.
But there is a difference. The Saraswathy examples are but a few. With
an estimated 40,000 female-headed households in the Northern Province, more and
more women are becoming day labourers to support their families.
According to Saroja Sivachandran, Director, Center for Women and
Development, a Jaffna-based, non-profit organisation that develops livelihood
skills of women in Jaffna, this survey conducted by her organisation was the
basis for mapping support for Jaffna women. “The roles are
changing. Their role as traditional homemaker has changed to one of
day labourer. Let’s also not forget that women’s labour will be cheaper
than men offering labour”, she said.
According to the survey, the entire northern region had approximately 40,000
female-headed households. Over 20,000 such households are located in the Jaffna
Some 89,000 war widows live in the north and east, Sivachandran said, a
claim endorsed by Jaffna and Mullaitivu Government Agent, Imelda Sukumar.
“Post war, a statistical update is difficult as the displaced remain
scattered,” adds Sivachandran.
Executive Director, Association for War Affected Women, Visaka Dharmadasa
says that most northern women belonged to households without the chief
occupants. “This has drastically altered their livelihood options. Over 50% of
them are single parents under 30 years of age supporting their own and extended
families. The social cost of the war is tremendous”.
“Three factors have reduced the male-headed households in number — the war,
disappearances or being in military custody,” explains Sivachandran.
These support groups agree that women have low earning capacities and are
forced to work as cheap day labourers for less than a US Dollar per day.
Maillaiyappal Thangavelu (26), a Jaffna resident, supports her ageing
parents, three unmarried sisters and her two children by working as a day
labourer on a construction site. “My sisters are still in school and my husband
disappeared. My eldest child is schooling and my parents are too weak to work.
Do I have a choice?”
Nagarasa Thavaselvam, President of the Kampanai Camp Residents’ Committee in
the Jaffna District admits to men becoming dependent on women for economic
support. “There are no jobs and women provided cheap labour, so they are
preferred. We can’t find work”. As we spoke, he stayed at home to look after
her young while his wife was working on a work site.
“Fishing is the main source of income and the fisheries industry in the
north still suffers due to existing restrictions. Because of high
security zones, we have lost our land that could be cultivated. In the absence
of an opportunity such as farming and fishing, the burden of supporting
households is now shifting to women. ”
It is also not just the restrictions on traditional occupations that drive
women to work. Besides having fathers and/or husbands killed in the war,
disappeared or in military custody, there is also a high prevalence of women
being abandoned by their husbands.
At the Kampanai camp in Jaffna, 15 out of 35 households are female-headed.
Many have young families in addition to having siblings who still school.
Nisanga is a 20-year old single mother and the abandoned wife of a fisherman.
She works on alternate days as a labourer with the help of her siblings who
cannot afford schools and help her to look after her one year old daughter. “I
need to feed five mouths and I need to work. I don’t choose because I have no
real choice,” she said.
Kalaimagal Arulampalam is the only woman to have a small boutique within the
Kampanai camp premises and proudly claims that it has “everything one needs”.
She opened her humble boutique as her husband is unable to go fishing. “We have
a toddler and parents to care for. But I have everything people here need”, she
For the educated women in the north too, it is Hobson’s choice. There are no
suitable jobs for young women, despite 65% of the unemployed graduates in the north
being women. Parameshwary Kandasamy, an unemployed graduate lamented that
women’s choices were less and even then, finding suitable employment was only
an idea. “We have colleagues who are compelled to undertake odd jobs simply to
keep the home fires burning. Some are even working as day labourers.”
In the north, traditional cultivations including paddy, chillies and onion
are slowly recommencing. Some field workers complained that land
degradation was affecting cultivation activities.
Government Agent, Jaffna and Mullaitivu Districts, Imelda Sukumar said that
the number of female-headed households was high in the Northern Province as a
direct impact of the war. She said the livelihood programmes need to be
improved and more industries encouraged to cater to the dire need for jobs.
Sukumar attributed the food insecurity in the region to lack of employment
opportunities, also the reason for the World Food Programme to extend their
food support initiative.
“Returnees with regular incomes have been excluded,” she said. The north is
experiencing some livelihood assistance programmes for community-based income
generation, cash for work at small infrastructure development projects. “These
projects are vital for areas where women carry heavy economic burdens”.
According to Saroja Sivachandran, there are new economic support programmes
designed specially for war-affected women. “We give a grant of Rs. 10,000 to
run a boutique, packet weighed chilies and coriander for commercial
distribution and sewing machines. It is a drop in the ocean but we do try,” she