More and More South Asian Women are Becoming Breadwinners


By Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathipilla

All over South Asia, more and more women are becoming breadwinners, although their contribution is still hardly publicly recognised. Despite the fact that they work as hard as men, they also continue to be paid less.

Take Sri Lanka. Women comprise 50.8 per cent of the country’s total population of 21.3 million and have been part of the workforce for decades. They have worked extremely hard and have made many sacrifices. Today, they continue to contribute to the national economy. Nearly 4,50,000 women workers are presently employed in the garment industry, which accounts for 52 per cent of Sri Lanka’s exports. There are women working in traditional sectors, like in the tea and rubber plantations, and in non-traditional sectors like garments and domestic work, according to the Shadow Report prepared by the Centre for Women’s Research in 2001.

The latest Household Income and Expenditure Survey 2009/10 (HIES) estimates reveal that out of five million households in Sri Lanka, 1.1 million households – or 23 per cent – are women-headed ones. The majority of female heads of households are in the age group of 40-59 years, and of them more than 50 per cent are widows while a small percentage (4.5 per cent) reported as ‘never married’.

The reason for the high percentage of widows can be attributed to the war in Sri Lanka, which was officially brought to an end in May 2009. There are more than 40,000 widows in the Northern Province alone, including 26,340 in Jaffna district according to Centre for Women and Development. In the Eastern Province, there are 42,565 war widows, according to the Child Development and Women’s Affairs Ministry.

Listen to the story of this young Tamil widow from the Northern Province, and the general picture gets clearer, “I got married early and my husband was killed during the last phase of the war in May 2009. I have three children. The existing social structure within the Tamil community prevents me from remarrying. I am struggling to fulfill the needs of my children single handedly. But every day is a challenge. There are a lot of issues I have to face, including the continuing social stigma of being a widow, and the discrimination that comes with it. There is no support for me.”

Women like her are in constant search for a sustainable source of livelihood, and clearly war widows in Sri Lanka can benefit from a structured employment programme tailored to their needs. But so far such a programme has not come into existence.

It is against this background that one should consider a unique initiative, undertaken by the Women Education and Research Centre (WERC) in Colombo, which seeks to open a new avenue of employment for women in Jaffna. Under this project, 10 Tamil women in Jaffna town have already been trained to drive three wheelers.

Explains Dr Selvy Tiruchandran, Executive Director, WERC, “The programme had two parts. The first part entailed training in gender sensitisation, building leadership qualities, personality development, and understanding women’s rights and development. The second part was training in trishaw driving.”

Surprisingly, the programme did not meet with any opposition from the local community, despite taxi plying not being a traditional occupation for women in this region. Says Tiruchandran, “To the credit of the women we found them very cooperative and forward-looking. They seemed inspired and certainly had a lot of expectations from this new sector. They quickly realised that that they will be able to live comfortable, economically empowered lives with dignity and self respect.”

The responses from the women drivers have been very encouraging, especially from those who were unmarried. Observes Mary Patricia Pushparajah, “There is nothing wrong with women being three-wheel drivers.” Adds an enthusiastic Tharmini Visvavanathan, “I am an unmarried woman. I’m ready to face the challenges of this occupation.”

Many, like Kavitha Satheeswaran, are just thankful for the livelihood opportunities that it represents. “I lost my husband in war. Now I have decided to be a three wheel driver to feed my children,” she says. Indravathani Rameswaran, whose husband was disabled during the conflict, also welcomes this initiative, “My husband lost his right leg in the Vanni war, so I’ve decided to be a three wheel driver to look after my family.”

What is interesting is that male three wheel drivers in the Peninsula don’t see these women as intruding into their territory. In fact, they are coming forward to help them and they even share parking space – difficult to come by in crowded Jaffna town – with them. As one man who calls himself ‘Mathan’, puts it, “It is our responsibility to support these women tuk tuk drivers in Jaffna.”

Getting this project on the road was certainly not easy. Recalls Tiruchandran, “The first major constraint was finding the funds to buy the trishaws. We also had a problem, initially, to get permission from the Presidential Task Force to do this project in Jaffna. At first permission was refused and it was only through the help of some sympathetic ministers were we able to convince the Presidential Task Force to clear the project.”

Another constraint, according to Tiruchandran, was the delay in getting the trishaws from Indian High Commission, which agreed to support their acquisition. The Sri Lanka Government was not cooperative about getting this done through a bi-lateral agreement. The Indian High Commission then had to get the process cleared through the Government of India from New Delhi. This delayed things considerably.

Meanwhile, the potential trishaw drivers in Jaffna kept waiting, licences in hand, for more than four months, getting increasingly restive and desperate as time when by. “I have to make a special trip to convince them that somehow we will find the money for the trishaws. They were in a state of total despair. So I personally raised funds through friends and relatives from Sri Lanka and abroad and finally succeeded in buying the trishaws,” shares Tiruchandran. One trishaw costs approximately LKR 3,85,000 plus insurance.

This is the beginning of a journey. Although these women trishaw drivers have generally been objects of curiosity, sometimes they face hostility from other drivers. I watched on one of the main streets in Jaffna, as one angry lorry driver, who had taken a wrong turn at a junction, shouted after he noticed that it was a woman driver, “Can’t you stop and turn?”

States Tiruchandran, “We fully realised that once these women were on the road they would face challenges from the community in the form of comments, ridicule, even harassment. We have prepared them to face those challenges and to strategise ways to deal with them. We have also linked them with other civil society organisations and women development officers to give them the moral courage and confidence to carry on. Additionally, our co-ordinator in Jaffna will also deal with any problem that may arise.”

Today, the Indian High Commission’s grant for the trishaws received belatedly is being given to the women of the war-affected Eastern Province, in Ampara (seven trishaws) and Batticaloa (eight trishaws). The programme has just been initiated there and it is being overseen by the Women’s Education and Research Centre (WERC).

As Trichandran says, this is finally about changing women’s consciousness so that they can empower themselves and transform their lives and those of others.

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