Gender and Migration in Sri Lanka

11.09.2017 / Esther Marthaler, Program Advisor, HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation, Sri Lanka

About two thirds of all migrant workers around the world are women. They leave their countries and their families to improve their own lives and even more so to increase the chances in life of their loved ones. These women take great risks as they are particularly vulnerable when disconnected from their families.

During the last decade, Sri Lanka experienced economic growth and increased employment in all economic sectors. Nevertheless, economic growth has not moved hand in hand with employment generation. Furthermore, female labour force participation rates in Sri Lanka are low  . If women are employed at all, it is often in low skilled positions and in informal set-ups. Normally they earn significantly less than men.
However, the salaries that migrant women expect to earn and bring back when migrating, are only slightly higher than what the local economy would be able to offer to some prospective migrants. This is especially true for low skilled domestic migrant workers, for whom similar salaries would be a possibility when working in increasingly unionized industry jobs (e.g. garment) or in domestic positions in urban environments. Yet, many low skilled rural women still see labour migration as one of the best options to improve their lives, even though they are aware of the risks this entails.

Just why do they do it? It is interesting to look at the conditions that drive low skilled women into labour migration. While poverty is certainly the most important driver, this is only part of the story. Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation’s experience with more than 6 years’ involvement in project implementation in Sri Lanka shows a more complex picture.

Looking at disadvantaged women, it becomes clear that they have very little choices to determine their own lives and little access to information as well as to economic, social and political rights. Their lives are guided by gender norms, hierarchical family relationships, various dependencies, restrictions of movement and mobility, and little access to decision making on family finances. They also often experience gender¬‐based domestic violence or abuse at home or in the community. Migrant women commonly mention several reasons for their decision to migrate, such as no access to employment, indebtedness (often of near-kin male family members), education of children, abusive relationships as well as health problems of family members.

Women seeking to escape their situation through labour migration are subject to great risks during the whole migration cycle. Furthermore, they face numerous obstacles in their own country like misperceptions of female migrants at the community level, the frequently critical attitude of government officials, paternalistic and discriminatory policies (e.g. Family Background Report). Migrant women are also often blamed for the negative impacts of labour migration. The database collected during the years of project implementation moreover shows ample evidence of all kind of abusive practices towards female labour migrants, ranging from false promises, forged documents, contract substitution, trafficking, to all forms of exploitation in the destination countries. What is more, family members in charge of children in many cases do not invest the remittances productively but rather spend or waste it on consumer goods.

However, many female returnees report a generally positive effect of the migration experience (see the report of the Women and Media Collective) .  The referenced report as well as our own experience shows that a woman who becomes a primary income provider often undergoes a deep transformation. Where they have been subject to other family members’ decision making before migrating, they are now primary income earners. They are responsible for the education of the children (and tend to place more value on education for girls), they provide for social expenses like weddings, funerals and dowries, buy or build houses and often spend big amounts on economic benefits for the extended families. They are suddenly recognized as a person the family turns to, to solve problems and take decisions. At the same time, they have left their villages and have gained incomparable experiences. Despite all the negative experiences of exploitation and abuse by many, frequent re-migration speaks of the benefits of the effort even though some are forced to re-migrate by unconducive conditions at home. Pride of the achievements, increased self-esteem and some recognition within their communities often have a positive impact on the family as a whole. Most regretful for women though seems to be their inability to support their children to achieve higher education, due to their absence.

The Labour Migration Project in Sri Lanka (LMPSL) funded by the Swiss Government and implemented by HELVETAS has been able to address several conditions and practices in Sri Lanka, which are obstacles to safe labour migration for women and men. However, many of the most important driving factors that push women in Sri Lanka into labour migration are unfortunately still far from being addressed and much work still needs to be done.
Sri Lanka would benefit tremendously if it would protect these brave women from all forms of violence, found fair ways to include them in the countries’ labour force and foster their participation in community affairs for good governance and equitable development.