Sri Lanka: Working Mothers and Baby Blues

By Sirohmi Gunesekera, Womens Feature Service

“I feel guilty leaving a child at home but we have economic constraints and I have to work,” says Devika Withanage, 37, a management assistant in a government department in Colombo.

Devika’s son, Thenuka, is now one-and-a-half-years-old. She had stayed home for the maximum period of six months allowed to her – three months paid maternity leave plus three months on half pay – to attend to her newborn. “I still nurse him but during the day my mother cares for him and gives him infant formula milk,” adds Devika. What about putting her son in a daycare centre? “He’s too little. Besides, my mother is there to care for him and one cannot depend on daycare centres,” she says. Devika’s husband has a printing job and is supportive, often staying back home if the child falls sick.

Nilanthi Hettiarachchi, 32, a hairdresser, declares that had she and her husband adequate income, she would have preferred to give up her job and be with her two daughters, aged seven and four. “I work from nine am to 5.30 pm and get home by 7 pm. The children wait for me to supervise their homework. Then I have to bathe them and feed the younger one. While I am at work, my mother-in-law cares for the children and my husband helps. He assembles motorcycles, working from home. It is he who attends the Parent Teacher Association meetings at school,” she reveals.

Nilanthi is constantly weighed down by guilt. It doesn’t help that by the time she gets home she is totally exhausted and gets short-tempered with the kids. “I feel sorry for them. Maybe I would be more loving if I stayed at home,” she says reflectively. She is another mother who finds that the daycare facilities available are poor, inadequate or too expensive, and would rather depend on family support for child care.

Devika and Nilanthi represent the thousands of working mothers in Sri Lanka who have to leave their young ones behind every day in order to work. Some do it for the money; others want to be successful career women. But most have a tough time juggling the demands of home and office.

Those who have family support are extremely grateful for it. Manjula Perera, 29, lives in Thalawatugoda, 13 miles from Colombo, and works as a secretary in a security firm in Colombo. She usually travels by bus and spends three hours in commuting daily. “I am an only child and my mother is willing to care for my baby. I stayed home for four months after my delivery and I don’t feel guilty about leaving the child because I know my mother looks after him well,” she says.

Araliya Kannangara, 32, is a lawyer and lives in Kotte, four kilometres away from Colombo. Her husband and she have to pay off their housing loan and both of them work hard in order to meet their financial commitment. Araliya leaves her ten-month-old son with her domestic help but ensures that there is a relative around. “My own mother is working and can’t help me but my aunt is next door and is always there in case of an emergency,” she says.

Anita Perera (name changed), 25, has a seven-month-old daughter and is the sole breadwinner of the family. Her husband is a victim of recession and lost his job last year. He stays home and cares for their baby while exploring opportunities to set up his own business. She is a teacher and an examiner in Speech and Drama. “We live in Nugegoda, a suburb of Colombo. I give private tuitions at home three days of the week, teach in a school for three days and I am an examiner two days a week. At first, I felt guilty about leaving my baby but we have financial problems and we have to manage. I even attend to the needs of my old uncle who lives next door,” she says.

The guilt of leaving the child behind is not only limited to infants. Shafika Gunesekera, 37, a manager in a Corporate Communications and Public Relations firm for a mobile operator, has a 15-year-old son, whom she refuses to leave unsupervised. “Even though I have a maid, I’ve never left my son alone with her. My in-laws care for him and I pick him up in the evenings. My husband is an accountant and is supportive. I try to work out a balance, as one cannot live on a single income today,” she says.

Shafika is philosophical about her situation, “If you bring a child into the world, you try to raise your kid by yourself or, the next best thing, with the help of your family. Daycare is the last resort. I have heard that the corporate sector is looking at options of daycare and creches because of the value of the employee but unless they have a proper system in place, most mothers would prefer to trust family members to look after their children.”

What does emerge from all these various testimonies is that while Sri Lanka has a very well-established tradition of working women, there has not been a commensurate presence of support structures like daycare centres and creches.

Women are generally reluctant to leave their children at the facilities that are available and point out that if the quality of such systems were consistent, reliable and reasonable, they would certainly have considered the option.

“Statistics show 80 per cent of women work in the lower rungs, 17 per cent in middle management and only about two percent reach top managerial positions,” reveals Sharmini Ratwatte, Director of MAS Investments, a blue chip private company. According to an article in Lanka Business Online, Sri Lanka’s workforce comprised 7.52 million, of which women constituted 30.9 percent in 2005. According to the Department of Census and Statistics, the Women’s Labour Force Participant Rate (excluding the Northern Province, which is now emerging from ethnic conflict) was 34 per cent for the fourth quarter of 2008.

These figures indicate that women are emerging as a significant section of Sri Lanka’s working population. They deserve the necessary support in terms of childcare so that they can better cope with the innumerable challenges of being both mothers and working professionals.

Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the website.