Kussi Amma Sera came rushing into the living room shouting, “Mahattaya balanna, mey kalabala kale, kaantavan-te thamai karadara”. (Sir, when there are problems, it’s mostly the women who get affected.) She was carrying the Lankadeepa newspaper in one hand and delicately balancing my morning’s, steaming cup of tea on the other, not dropping an inch [...]

Business Times

Multi-faceted roles of women


Kussi Amma Sera came rushing into the living room shouting, “Mahattaya balanna, mey kalabala kale, kaantavan-te thamai karadara”. (Sir, when there are problems, it’s mostly the women who get affected.)

She was carrying the Lankadeepa newspaper in one hand and delicately balancing my morning’s, steaming cup of tea on the other, not dropping an inch of tea with a steady flow of angry words to explain the crisis Sri Lanka was facing this week (only a woman can manage these two roles effectively).

The reason for the commotion was the stories not only in the newspapers but also on radio, television and social media about extremist forces wreaking havoc in the towns of Digana and Teldeniya near Kandy.

Kussi Amma Sera’s outburst is understandable and has a much, deeper meaning. For instance, it’s the woman in the house who has to bear the brunt of the loss of a family member (in this case, the driver — as her husband and also the mother of the youth whose body was found in a shop). It’s the woman who will grieve for days on end for the loss but also get on with her life of maintaining the family and household equilibrium. It’s the woman who keeps the family unit together and would implore the males not to get involved, and if they did again put back together the family and household.

In the wider context of the economy and even as other sectors take a hit from the economic fallout from the riots, it’s the woman who will ensure that foreign earnings keep trickling in – working harder in the tea plantations, sewing more pieces for export as garments and toiling in a foreign household in Asia. In this particular instance, it was tourism that took the first hit (always the case when a country is faced with unrest in whatever form) with a dampening of foreign investor sentiment, most likely to follow.

After a few years of peace, Sri Lanka has once again been hit by a thunderbolt. As one erudite Buddhist monk said in a plea-for-sanity message widely circulated on social media, Sri Lanka has been at peace for less than seven years since independence.

His reasoning is based, in his own words, on the fact that the first communal riots occurred eight years after Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948. Thereafter, Sri Lanka saw violence in 1956, 1958, 1971, 1977, 1983 to 2009 and, in his own words; “if you divide the number of years Sri Lanka existed in peace we see that the maximum duration Sri Lanka has lived in peace is less than seven years”.

Having said that, the point of today’s discussion, to a large extent initiated by Kussi Amma Sera’s concern for the woman in a family unit, is on the multiple roles that women perform in Sri Lanka – homemaker, sole breadwinner (largely in the North and the East when husbands were killed or went missing during the conflict), as a key foreign exchange earner (tea, garments and as migrant workers), keeping the peace at home (against drunken husbands and rebellious sons) and stretching the family income. Add to this young, working mothers who have to keep a watchful eye (from the workplace) on the ‘little one at home’ ironically looked after by another woman; her mother or mother-in-law or a female domestic aide. These thoughts came to my mind when reading through an interesting piece by former journalist-turned-banker Delrene Seneviratne titled ‘Banking for women or banking on women?’ which appears on Page 8 of the Business Times.

She writes: “Almost all leading Sri Lankan banks offer special products/accounts dedicated to women with a multitude of offerings including additional interest, gifts, card offers and insurance packages to lure the consumeristic woman to open an account. Although most such endeavours have yielded results amongst the salaried middle income suburban and urban clientele, little or no impact has been made to truly optimize and integrate this powerful force as a vital contributor to the national economy other than harping on the contribution made by the migrant workers and the garment factory workers who are the largest contributors of GDP.” Absolutely true, Delrene, absolutely true!

The sizable contribution that women have made to the economy over many decades in tea, garments and migrant workers is often extolled by a man (minister in parliament) during budgets or when foreign earnings are discussed. That is the only recognition they get and beyond that they become mere dots on an economist’s chart trying to balance the budget or examining the gap between the country’s earnings in foreign exchange and spending these earnings on imports.

Shortage of foreign exchange? Then let’s export more women or employ more in the plantations or in garment factories. That’s the thinking. Or stop them from going abroad because of the social disruption at home, ignoring the fact that a job lost means the woman must find other income measures at home to sustain the family!

Politicians are thoughtless creatures. Once a minister suggested an awards scheme for the best foreign employment agent to reward them for the number of job orders they get (contributing to the national economy, it was proudly mentioned) but was stopped in his tracks when someone at the same public event, angrily pointed out that if its awards, it should be a migrant worker who should be considered more than the agent! Unsurprisingly, best awards scheme for job agents was never mentioned again. Then on another occasion, a smart alec in the Sri Lanka Foreign Employment Bureau wanted to provide a uniform to female migrant workers going abroad to “show some respect for these women” until someone pointed out that it would work the other way around and end up in disrespecting women at the airport lounge.

Which comes to the final point of my argument, i.e. the celebrations to mark International Women’s Day and the kind of media blitz of publicity and costly advertisements taken out by corporates, banks, retail outlets in commercialising this day. Hotel events, gala parties … everyone jumps on the bandwagon praising the virtues of women in the field, and in recent times in management and the boardroom.

Groups are formed to take forward the voice of women in the upper echelons of management. Yes, these are laudable initiatives but what about using this ‘international’ day to strengthen (and more importantly sustain) the voice of the woman in the plantation sector, in a garment factory or those working in a foreign household. These voices should not only be raised from wherever they are, but strengthened to the point that they don’t continue as dots on a chart on the economy but as human beings living in dignity and respect.

In the new economy Sri Lanka has seen since 1977, once powerful voices like the Housewives’ Association have all but faded away. There were also popular programmes on radio like ‘Housewives’ Choice’ many years ago, and if continued today with the same breadth and vigour would provide a strong voice for women.

On a parting note, if women were in charge, they would have reacted faster to end the crisis in Kandy for the simple reason that like Kussi Amma Sera, they understand better the wider implications of a national crisis on family, the neighbourhood and importantly on the economy.

On a parting note too it would be nice if International Women’s Day is also used to reinstate respect for the mother (ah, I forget there is a special ‘mothers’ day for that too which is another commercialized event)! While women represent a larger percentage of Sri Lanka’s population (51 per cent), their economic contribution is much greater. Their extraordinary role in society, in the workplace, in the economy and multi-tasking functions should be a cause for celebration, beyond mere tokenism.

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