Women and labour force participation in the North of Sri Lanka


The civil war in Sri Lanka, which came to an end in 2009, has had a large impact on women's livelihood engagement by exacerbating existing barriers while also introducing new opportunities for women. This is especially true for female heads of households who the International Labour Organization defines as women who are responsible for "households where no adult males are present, owing to divorce, separation, migration, non-marriage, or widowhood, or where men, although present, do not contribute to the household income."

While inconsistency in the definition of "female heads of household" has resulted in a lack of clarity regarding the exact number of female heads of households in the country, according to the Department of Census and Statistics of Sri Lanka, in 2012, approximately 1.2 million households, or 23.5% of households in Sri Lanka, were headed by women. Of this number approximately 58,000 female heads of households were in the Northern Province. While not all female heads of households came into their positions as a direct result of the war, they are facing various barriers to meeting their daily household needs and in engaging in livelihood activities. This policy brief will discuss factors impacting on women's engagement in the labour market in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka in the post-war context, emphasizing factors affecting female heads of households. The findings discussed in this brief are based on the quantitative and qualitative research conducted by the International Centre for Ethnic Studies and draws on several papers.


In this research study, two separate research instruments were used for the quantitative and qualitative surveys amongst the Tamil, Muslim, and Sinhala communities in five districts of the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. Survey data was gathered from 4025 households in Mannar, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, Jaffna, and Vavuniya districts of which 75% of respondents were female heads of households during the period January to August 2015. Additionally, 120 qualitative interviews were also conducted: 41 in Jaffna, 23 in Mullaitivu, 20 in Kilinochchi, 16 in Vavuniya, and 20 in Mannar during the period January 2015 to July 2017.

Key findings

In the Northern Province of Sri Lanka, where a significant number of households are headed by women, various factors impact women's engagement in livelihood activities including care responsibilities, access to resources, and mobility, amongst others. According to the study, 59% of female heads of households (FHH) are employed, whereas only 39% of women in male-headed households (MHH) are employed. This may be due to necessity as the absence or inability of male breadwinners to provide sustainable income sources for the household could result in women undertaking the new and unfamiliar responsibility of being a main source of income for the household. Concurrently, as the number of male members of household increases, the number of women participating in the labour market decreases. However, for female heads of households, their income sources are the main household incomes.

While 76% of female-headed households and 67% of households headed by men have only one source of income, a significant percentage of women are engaging in more than one livelihood activity to meet the daily needs of their households. The study finds that approximately a fourth of female heads of households and approximately a third of women in male-headed households are engaging in more than one livelihood activity such as making snack mixtures, fishing, and agricultural labour, amongst others.

While they are not sustainable sources of income, contributions of money, through income transfers and remittances from relatives in Sri Lanka and abroad, ease pressure on women to participate in the labour force. The study finds that for households that are receiving transfers, transfer payments account for 38% of total household income for female-headed households, whereas they account for only 15% of total household income in male-headed households. However, these too are not sustainable sources of income.

According to the study, poor health plays a significant role in women's labour force participation by negatively impacting on the probability of engagement by 16%. A third of female heads of households regard themselves as being in poor health versus 18% of women in male-headed households. This could be attributed to the facts that female heads of households tend to be older and they experience more psychological trauma and stress due to the struggle of meeting household needs without a spouse.

Greater education attainment is positively correlated with higher labour force participation and higher income returns. For female heads of households, education up to GCE A'Levels is correlated with a wage increase of 26%, relative to women with primary level education.

The study finds that care work and the dual responsibility of earning income and household work are burdening and limiting women from engaging in livelihood activities. Many female heads of household have taken up their new role due to loss of lives, disappearances, and displacement due to war, amongst other reasons, which have made it necessary that they balance income earning with care work whilst not having adequate support. Female heads of household with children below the age of five are 36% less likely to participate in the labour market compared to women with older children. Most women in male-headed households cited care work and household work as a main reason for not engaging with the labour market.

Social networks are important for women's engagement in work; concurrently, support from friends and membership in associations are associated with greater labour force participation. The study found that at least a 9% increase in the probability of women's participation in the labour force is correlated with membership in organizations. Stronger relationships with relatives reduce the pressure for labour market engagement, lowering the probability of participation by 6%. However, relatives provide the only substantial protection that many women have. The qualitative study finds that women who have been abused by their husbands may have difficulties overcoming their psychological trauma, which impacts on livelihoods and supersedes the benefits of financial assistance.

Socio-cultural norms and practices related to gender appear to constrain women from engaging in livelihood activities. Rigid gender norms and practices restrict women's mobility and opportunities to engage in the public space and in work outside the household. For women in male-headed households, over 83% of respondents cited household activities as the main reason they do not engage in wage work, and 42% cited family attitudes. Comparatively, only 21% of female heads of households cited family attitudes as a deterrent to wage labour participation. Evidently, for female heads of households, the need to earn an income overcomes the constraints of socio-cultural norms.

Policy recommendations

As the incomes of female heads of households are typically the main income source of their household, increase the range of opportunities for female heads of households to get involved in labour activities that bring higher returns. Concurrently, provide the skills training and support that enable women to engage in economic activities that bring higher returns and which will help them support their families better.

As female heads of households are most likely to neglect their own health while providing care for others, devote more resources to conducting field clinics to diagnose their health problems, and deploy auxiliary cadres to monitor and provide care thereafter.

As care work has a significant impact on women's labour force participation for both female heads of households and women in male-headed households, recognize care work and multiple roles of women and increase care facilities and support for women through national policy and programmes.

As gender-based violence has long-term impacts on women's physical, mental, social, and economic well-being and contributes to livelihood outcomes, strengthen legal mechanisms for addressing harassment and domestic abuse and ensure the psychological well-being of women and improve their self-image through psycho-social support mechanisms.

Many women in the Northern Province have had their education permanently interrupted due to war and displacement. As higher education attainment is correlated with higher wages, increase opportunities for women to re-enter education systems in order to access career paths with higher returns. Provide alternative schooling options for women heading their households, especially those juggling care responsibilities at home.

As educational attainment in the Northern Province appears to be lower than the national average, improve education facilities and services in the region to enhance women's employability and productivity. Utilize IT-based educational facilities in order to fill gaps in available facilities.

As a lack of institutional support prevents women from accessing necessary resources and livelihood options, increase gender awareness and sensitization training among government, NGO, and private sector officials, and within households; and increase male champions for gender equality. At the same time, strengthen the government's social security and social protection programmes for female heads of households.

As part of the International Development Research Centre's (IDRC) multi-country, multi-donor programme—Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women (GrOW)—the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) carried out the study, Identifying Post-War Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women in Sri Lanka, from October 2014 to September 2017. This policy brief presents findings and policy lessons identified in papers prepared by ICES, through the GLOW initiative.

Brief produced by Savini Ganhewo. Opinions stated in this brief and the paper it draws from, are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the GLOW programme partners.

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