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The impact of macro-events on social structure in Sri Lanka

The study
The findings

Myrtle Perera
Marga Institute, Colombo, Sri Lanka


Traditional society in Sri Lanka was based primarily on subsistence peasant agriculture and governed by ideological norms within which sex roles were differentiated. This feudal social order, influenced by Buddhist and Hindu values and characterized by occupation-based caste groups, passed through many stages of evolution, including the colonial period which introduced the plantation economy, new Western religious ideas, and education and health initiatives, followed by independence in 1948 and the development policies of successive national governments. Throughout these changes, the interaction between social norms and new influences had specific implications for the roles of men and women, as it continues to do in contemporary society.

These changes have occurred in the context of considerable cultural and religious differences. Sri Lanka's heterogeneous socio-cultural base includes a majority of Sinhalese Buddhists (about 74 per cent of the population), the Tamil community, most of whom are Hindus (18 per cent), a multi-ethnic Christian group (8 per cent), and an Islamic minority (7 per cent). In each of these groups, religious ideology, socio-economic factors, and ethnic traditions have shaped value patterns relating to the roles of women and the family in society. Regional subcultures, such as those of the hill-country Sinhalese, the more urbanized mixed social groups along the coast, and the Indian Tamils on the plantations, have provided even greater diversity.

The agrarian social structure was based on an extended family unit consisting of two or three generations living in separate houses but in community compounds in which each family functioned as an independent economic unit. In the patriarchal system which prevailed, men were ascribed the role of providers and women that of home-makers. Marriages were arranged and required the compliance of family elders. They had to conform to the established determinants of caste, religion, and kin group. The rights of the woman depended on whether the system of marriage was matrilocal or patrilocal. For Buddhists, marriage and family belong to secular life and therefore widowhood or childlessness did not cause the kind of disabilities that occurred in the Hindu tradition. However, certain pre-Buddhistic traditions and taboos imposed restrictions on women at puberty, menstruation, and childbirth. Women passed on these values through the socialization of girls and boys in their prescribed social and productive roles.

Social stability and continuity were ensured by a network of kinship groups and elders, men and women, who exercised sanctions that kept the gender-based roles intact. The segregation of men and women did not constrain women's involvement in economic activities, although these were differentiated on the basis of gender. For example, ploughing, threshing, and sowing were male tasks, while females were responsible for weeding, harvesting, and processing. Domestic industries and crafts were also gender-differentiated. However, women were not perceived as producers: their work was an extension of their family role. Women in the lower strata did agricultural work, but it was not normal for elite women to participate in productive work outside the household. The popular value system allowed some women greater mobility, but it was accompanied by a suggestion of social inferiority.

Colonialism introduced changes which impinged on the long-standing traditional feudal structure. The dual economy of plantation and peasant agriculture which it established brought about not only economic but also social change. New forms of monetized organization resulted in the separation of the workplace from the home and led to the creation of a public provider role for the man and an isolated, home-centred role for the woman. In the lower economic strata, women extended their unpaid family worker role to the factories, which were adjuncts to the plantations, and became wage-earners. However, their differentiated economic value was replicated there, where their wages were lower than men's. In the pockets of subsistence economy that survived, women continued as "invisible," marginalized workers subordinated to men.

In the first half of the twentieth century, new policies, partly designed to grapple with the problems of vulnerable groups and of women and children in particular, were introduced. The catalysts which transformed the social and cultural milieu of women were the granting of universal franchise in 1931 and the subsequent expansion of education and health programmes, of which they were the chief beneficiaries.

Secular education and formal schooling began with Western colonialism. Women from the affluent urban classes were the first to benefit. However, their education was governed by the social norms relating to their gender. When it came to higher education, teacher-training colleges and institutes for art and handicrafts were deemed culturally suitable for women. In any case, since tertiary training did not bring girls any particular advantage, such as better work opportunities, many of them dropped out at the secondary level. Although institutions for higher academic training were opened to females to pursue education on different lines, the small number who went on to the University College or the Medical College did not do so with the objective of employment. From the early 1940s, many became active in voluntary (unpaid) social work to help women in less advantaged groups. Education was not seen to be of direct economic benefit; it was more an added qualification for marriage.

The introduction of free education in 1945, the use of national languages as the medium of instruction, and support schemes like scholarships and free midday meals removed most of the barriers which, combined with cultural constraints, had limited schooling for girls. The principle of equal access to education for girls and boys was reinforced by the establishment of a network of co-educational schools throughout the country. There were almost 1(1,000 by the 1970s. Female enrolment rates increased from 36 per cent in 1931 to 48.1 per cent in 1970. However, there were considerable regional disparities. For example, it remained particularly low in the Mannar and Batticaloa districts, where there was a high Muslim population.

The government decision to allow women limited access to the administrative service in the 1960s enhanced the incentive to go on to higher education. The proportion of women in the universities rose from 29.4 per cent in 1950 to 40.1 per cent in 1978. Although a few of them studied veterinary science, science, and medicine, the concentration of females in the humanities persisted. However, economically disadvantaged women had very slim chances of entering the universities in the capital. In 1950, nearly 77 per cent of the females studying there came from the professional and managerial classes.

Female literacy rose to 43.8 per cent in 1946 nearly double the 1921 figure. The gap between the genders began to narrow, and it was only 15 per cent in 1971; it is currently 7.9 per cent. However, there were marked differences between urban and rural areas, which were the result of cultural inhibitions. For example, females were not allowed to travel to school after puberty and girls were not allowed to begin domestic and agricultural work at a very early age. Female literacy was low in districts were there was a large proportion of plantation workers or Muslims. The absence of effective adult education programmes is evident in the differences between literacy levels in the generations which had access to schooling and the older females.

By the 1970s, education had become a passport to employment, and through this to higher social and economic status for females as well as males. The increasing demand for university education saw the number of universities grow to six, with another three campuses and an open university by 1981, although at the end of the 1980s they are still only able to admit 1 per cent of the population in the relevant age-group, and women enrol primarily in the stereotyped fields of arts and humanities, education, veterinary science, and medicine. They remain underrepresented in engineering and physical science. This would not in itself be a disadvantage, except that the areas they choose hold little prospect for employment.

The education system has failed to meet the demand for employment skills. Vocational and technical training courses arc limited in scope and coverage. The lack is felt more by females, who do not appear to have easy access to courses in agriculture, the electrical trades, woodwork or other fields that provide better job prospects but are still perceived as male preserves. The Labour Department and the Rural Development Department have continued to conduct vocational training courses based on gender stereotypes. Inevitably, the courses for women are mat-weaving, sewing, and tailoring. Attempts to introduce new kinds of female training in the early 1970s faced resistance from employers. However, the migration of skilled men to West Asia left a vacuum, and a number of young females have gone into motor mechanics, masonry, carpentry, and telecommunications.

In the 1920s and 1930s, high maternal and infant mortality rates (20.8 and 158 per thousand live births respectively) reflected the poor health status of women and children. This was one of the factors which led to the decision to grant universal franchise in 1931, on the premise that women with voting power would have a better chance of attracting the government's attention. Nutrition, preventive health, and maternal and child welfare programmes resulted in a drop in maternal and infant mortality to 3 and 57 per thousand live births respectively by 1960. Again, there were marked regional disparities and the rates were higher in areas where female education and literacy were lower and where plantation workers and Muslim communities predominated. This breakthrough in the health status of women and children has been successfully followed through and the current (1985) mortality rates are 0.6 per thousand live births for mothers and 24 for infants. However, the infant mortality rate on the state plantations, where approximately half the estate population live, is 50 per thousand. In 1979, female life expectancy was 70.2, compared to 66 for males.

State policies are now being directed against malnutrition. The extent of maternal malnutrition can be inferred from the number of low-birth-weight babies; they are said to make up 21 per cent of all those born in Colombo's main hospital, although data are available only from small ad hoc surveys and personal communications. The mothers' malnutrition appears to be a legacy from their youth: studies done by the Food and Nutrition Policy Planning Division of the Ministry of Plan Implementation have shown that more girls than boys are malnourished. Family planning is now incorporated in an integrated scheme for family health, which indicates the relationship between small, manageable families and their health status. Family-planning programmes have been directed primarily towards women. The proportion of acceptors increased from 32 per cent in 1975 to 54.9 per cent in 1982. A government incentive payment of Rs. 500 for either male or female sterilization appears to have increased the number of such operations. Currently, the State Health Programme concentrates on primary health care, with a particular focus on women and children. A high proportion of children and pregnant mothers are immunized through a WHO and UNICEF segment of this programme.

However, these improvements in the quality of life for women have failed to have a corresponding impact on their participation in economic and development activities in the formal public sphere. Labour-force participation rates have remained around 26 per cent over a long period, and female workers tend to be concentrated in services and unskilled jobs. At the beginning of the 1980s the rate of female unemployment was considerably higher than that of men (23 compared with 12 per cent). This is partly because of the undiminished burden of the household, which still very definitely rests on women. Since 1975, however, the focus on women's issues has succeeded in bringing discrepancies in administrative, legal, and social equality to light, and much has been done to remove disabilities in these areas.

The study

The primary objective of this study was to analyse the impact of national policies on individuals and households and to provide insights which will assist in evaluating this and ensuring that all groups share the benefits of development. Its perspective was based on the assumption that gender is a critical element of change within domestic groups. The research concentrated on the adult female members of the selected households, on the hypothesis that changes in the situation of the women have a great influence on the lives of other members, and that together these changes have a synergistic effect on the community. Development programmes can offer new options to women. The leads and lags of their responses and the manner in which these are facilitated or constrained are examined. The study also investigates whether the cultural underpinnings of intra-household relationships are maintained or jettisoned in attempts to adjust to new options in the non-domestic sphere, and looks at the implications of such decisions both for the household as a social entity and for development policy as a vehicle of social and economic progress.

The sample of 356 women, 11 husbands, and 42 children was drawn from a random selection of 40 households in six locations taken from a list drawn up for the 1981 census. On the first visit, preliminary data on all members of the household were collected on a household data card. The information from these 240 cards was used to draw up a profile of the households for the location reports and also to select the main female, extended family females, and all unmarried females of 18 years of age and over. A partially structured pre-coded dialogue schedule, an expanded version of which was applied with the main female, was used in the interviews; mote selective schedules were applied with the other women. Three hundred and fifty-six of these dialogues were carried out. Data for the life-course approach were elicited from a life-history matrix designed to cover work, marriage, migration, fertility, education, and co-residence. This was used with all 356 women. A long, unstructured but focused dialogue, which at times concentrated on specific points of interest in the location or a life-history, was conducted with a specially selected sample of 69 married and unmarried females and 11 husbands. Two households in each location were observed on a normal day and their members' activities recorded for the time-use study. A series of questions was addressed to 42 children between the ages of 6 and 13 to establish their attitudes to issues like mothers' employment, their future aspirations, and their perceptions and images of mothers, fathers, and grandparents.

The methodology was participatory. Researchers who spoke the local dialect lived in these communities for the greater part of a year and visited each household from five to eight times. A multi-technique approach combined life-histories with a qualitative research design that enabled women and men to relate their experiences from their own perspectives.

The study looked at four examples of recent phenomena which have wrought significant change in women's lives: an agricultural, irrigation, and power project, a model village development scheme, West Asian employment for Sri Lankan women, and jobs in the Free Trade or Export Processing Zone (FTZ or EPZ). The impact of these aspects of development was studied in locations that have been exposed to one or more of them - the site of an irrigation project, a traditional village, a model village resettlement, two semi-urban locations, and one urban site. Data from the traditional village was not included in all the analyses as it was not relevant to the issues under consideration.

The Mahawali Scheme followed the ancient tank or reservoir system of irrigation and created new settlements by distributing land around the tank to landless and displaced villagers. Agricultural activities which since ancient times had been encapsulated in a socio-cultural and ideological framework arc now centrally orchestrated by state institutions, albeit with community involvement. Divorced from age-old beliefs and ritual, agriculture in the new settlements now utilizes modern technology and methods of cultivation. One such settlement, adjacent to a traditional agricultural tank village from which some of the settlers are drawn, was studied. It is referred to as the Irrigated Village (IV) in the analysis.

The traditional village (TV) studied is situated nine miles from Kandy in the central hill country of the wet zone. Under royal patronage in ancient times, the village had provided services to the kings, and even today it bears the mark of historical caste distinctions based on occupation, although the lines of demarcation are less rigidly drawn now. During the colonial period some of the best arable land was taken over for coffee and tea plantations, where the dispossessed peasants became part of a casual labour force as pickers. In the 1970s one of the plantations was subdivided into small plots which were distributed to these landless workers, and the dual economy now rests on small-scale paddy agriculture and the tea plantations. The predominantly Buddhist village includes a small but economically powerful Muslim community.

The Model Village Development Scheme makes land and shelter available to the homeless, using previously unprofitable or uncultivable land to provide uniform plots and homes for villagers who had been in poverty. Initially, the schemes are managed by a project officer, the ultimate aim being the evolution of a basically self-sufficient community. The selected location (MV) had been settled about five years before the research began, when landless peasants from neigh-bouring traditional villages were allocated parts of an old tea plantation. It is also in the hill country fairly close to Kandy. This is an artificially created community of mixed caste and ethnic origin, whose only common denominator had been landlessness and deprivation. It was therefore a homogeneous economic group whose members had been given new status and hope with the ownership of their house and land.

One of the semi-urban locations (SU-K) had also been an ancient agricultural village which had been transformed during the colonial era, in this case by the development of the country's western seaboard. It is only 81/2 miles from Colombo, to which it has road and rail access, and its urbanization has been accelerated by the expansion of the capital's suburbs. The women came from both Buddhist families who had long been settled there and migrant groups of different castes and religions. This intermingling had exposed them to a range of influences which had led to the relaxation of some of the more rigid social norms. The influx of tourists into the coastal area had also broken down some inhibitions and opened the doors to new ideas. They had more access to knowledge and information about opportunities for employment in West Asia and the FTZ and were eager to take advantage of them.

The other semi-urban location (SU-K) is about 20 miles from Colombo, close to the FTZ and the main airport; indeed, it has developed because of its proximity to the airport and centres of employment. Most of the people are migrants from rural areas. They are of various castes; the majority are Catholics. Although there is some fishing, very little agriculture, and some cottage industries utilizing coconut fibre, the location is in some ways closer to an urban than a rural settlement. About 75 per cent of the families worked for the government. Employment opportunities for women (and, to a lesser extent, for men) had expanded in the previous decade with the establishment of garment factories in the nearby FTZ which provided jobs for those with only a basic education. For those without marketable skills, domestic work in West Asia was a popular choice.

The urban location (UL) is in the Municipality of Colombo. It was originally a residential area and there are still some rich elite groups living there in their own rather isolated residences. This location has the broadest mix of social classes, for it also includes middle- and low-income groups. The latter were mainly migrants from southern villages who began to come to the area 50-60 years ago. Many lived in conglomerates of shanties and small gardens which had replaced some of the big old residences; others became squatters on crown land. Some of them found employment in the old government textile mill, and as time went on they claimed ownership of their originally temporary shacks on the canal, where they were living in crowded and insanitary conditions at the time of the survey. In keeping with the heterogeneous social groupings, economic activities ranged from informal trading, fruit and vegetable sales, illicit brewing, and other home-based enterprises to high-level professional, business, and government work. This location offered telling insights into both the beneficial and adverse effects of development. While economic activity had clearly been stimulated, the effects of unaccustomed cash earnings and, especially among the conventional Úlites, conflicts of values were also apparent.

In order to measure the impact of change, responses to key questions in the study were designated modern (M) or traditional (T). Average M or T scores provided an indicator for comparison - but not value-judgement - of the nature and degree of response to change in each of the locations.

A work-intensity score (WIS) and a stress score (SS) were used to compare female work over the life-cycle. The WIS ranged from I to 3 depending on the type of work and the support and facilities available at different stages in the woman's life. A typical life-pattern score from youth to old age- 1, 2, 3, 2, 1-was evolved and considered as a norm. A score of 4 indicated stress arising from loss of resources, family support, or other deprivation.

Work activities were categorized as waged work, including all activities in the formal or organized sector, whether permanent or casual; remunerative work comprised of ad hoc or seasonal cash-generating activities in the informal sector; and non-remunerative work, which included housework, child care, and agricultural, craft, or trade-related work for domestic use only. The tasks of females in both the urban and rural settings were investigated longitudinally (through life-histories) and cross-sectionally (across communities). They were found to be crucially linked to women's role and status within the household and the community, and work was an important symbol of social differentiation.

Work was also the area most affected by the perception of the female as secondary to the male, which had given rise to a chain of repercussions which are only too well known and documented. The study investigated changes in work arising from varied interventions in the diverse backgrounds. Over the years, these changes have been both conceptual and empirical; some were gradual, while others catapulted women's work into wholly new dimensions. They have included women's positive response to employment, new agricultural activities, and their involvement in non-traditional occupations.

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