Looking back and looking ahead: post-war livelihood interventions in Sri Lanka


In 2009, Sri Lanka’s civil war came to an end after 26 years. Much of the war was fought in the Northern and Eastern Provinces of the country. It had a serious impact on women’s livelihood engagement, especially in the regions where the war was primarily fought. Many women in the war-affected areas have lost the primary income earners in their households, have had their and family members’ education disrupted, among other impacts. Meanwhile, various socio-cultural barriers have also limited women’s engagement with the labour market.

At the end of the war, the government, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector introduced numerous livelihood intervention programmes, including livestock, housing assistance, cash grants, amongst others, to resuscitate employment and incomes. This policy brief discusses the types of livelihood interventions that have been implemented in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka as well as the effectiveness of such interventions in creating economic opportunities for women. The findings discussed in this brief are based on a quantitative and qualitative research and mapping study conducted by the International Centre for Ethnic Studies.

In this research study, two separate research instruments were used; a quantitative survey and qualitative interviews amongst the Tamil, Muslim, and Sinhala communities in five districts in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province. A total of 4025 households were surveyed from January to August 2015, in Mannar, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, Jaffna, and Vavuniya districts. Of this number, 75% of respondents were female heads of households. Another 120 qualitative interviews were also conducted: 48 in Jaffna, 9 in Mullaitivu, 15 in Kilinochchi, 15 in Vavuniya, and 30 in Mannar, during the period of January 2015 to mid-2016. Additionally, a mapping study of livelihood projects targeting women in the study districts was conducted with data collected from Divisional Secretariats in the five districts from 2016 to 2017.

Key findings

Many livelihood intervention programmes had been introduced by the government, non-government and international organizations to the Northern Province in order to stimulate women’s economic engagement. According to the mapping study, of the 1471 women’s livelihood intervention projects in the Northern Province, 388 (26%) are focused on livestock; 264 (18%) are on self-employment, and 249 (17%) are focused on agriculture. Of these intervention projects, the majority, 505 (34%) of are implemented by the government.

In fact, the household survey finds that 85% of working capital interventions, 74% of loans, and approximately half of livestock interventions that sought to benefit respondents were given by the government. However, 48% of housing assistance and 42% cash grant interventions were primarily given by international agencies. Very few interventions were devoted to training and/or training in skills development.

Generally, most respondents found livelihood intervention programmes they participated to be helpful. Respondents found cash grants, which were 21% of all interventions, and loans, to be extremely useful forms of intervention because they enhanced liquidity, increased the range of livelihoods that the recipient could engage in, and reduced production costs when engaging in liveli-hood activities.

As 50-60% of respondents lost their homes or had homes damaged during war, one of the most popular forms of interventions is housing assistance, which account for 24% of all interventions. However, 74% of respondents who received housing assistance stated that the funds given to them were not enough to complete construction and required additional funds.

While most respondents found capital to be useful, fewer respondents found working capital and farm animals to be useful livelihood interventions. In fact, 33% of recipients of working capital found these interventions to be unhelpful with approximately 26% of respondents claiming they could not earn an income through this form of intervention.

Although 47% of respondents received farm animals from the government and 38% received them from international agencies, 39% of all recipients of farm animals did not find this intervention helpful. In fact, nearly a third of these recipients found this intervention to be unsuitable for them. Many women interviewed during the qualitative field work mentioned disease in animals, inability to sustain animals with their limited resources, and inappropriateness of the intervention, as reasons why they could not generate sustainable livelihoods from the assistance.

In the case of both working capital and farm animal interventions, women stated that these interventions prevented them from accessing other forms of gainful employment.

Approximately 50% of respondents learned about intervention programmes available to them through advertisements at their local government offices. Although 85% of respondents were aware that interventions existed, only about half of respondents participated in such interventions. This number consisted of half the sample of female heads of households and 43% of women in male-headed households. More specifically, 37% of female heads of households and 39% of women in male headed households did not receive cash assistance, but participated in at least one livelihood intervention programme. In general, livelihood interventions have reached more female-headed households than male-headed households.

Interventions in the form of direct interventions have helped generate self-employment opportunities in agriculture for 6% of female heads of households, and 12% of women in male-headed households However, these programmes have not increased women’s participation in self-employment in non-farming opportunities although non-farming provides more employment opportunities for women and are preferred by them. In fact, participating in livelihood activities has discouraged many women heading their households from taking up non-farming self-employment activities.

Although follow-upon livelihood intervention programmes is important for the sustainability and effectiveness of the income generating activity, follow-up has varied. In most cases, follow-up activities have been limited to site visits, an additional meeting, and advice and guidance. However, more impactful follow-ups such as setting up mentoring relationships with the recipients, additional training and funds, and enabling access to more programmes have not been carried out

Policy recommendations

As many respondents learned about intervention programmes through local government offices, which may limit their access to them, utilize other avenues such as women’s membership associations to raise awareness and disseminate information regarding livelihood interventions and opportunities. At the same time, promote interventions that support women’s associations and producer groups in order to increase their market power. Find mechanisms for women to access institutional support through greater consultation with the Chambers of Commerce and Women’s Chambers of Commerce when developing livelihood interventions for women.

As a significant number of livelihood interventions were focused on unsuitable forms of livelihood support, strengthen transparency of selection criteria of interventions and set up more rigorous methods fo follow up, monitoring, evaluation, and recalibration of all livelihood intervention programmes.

Impactful follow-up mechanisms such as setting up mentoring relationships with recipients, pathways to additional training and funds, and processes to enable access to more programmes should be implemented. Also increase opportunities for women to participate in interventions focused on training and skills development and develop pathways to livelihoods that bring higher returns.

Since it takes as many as three years following the first investment for almost any commercial enterprises to begin to break even and then to make profits, interventions aiming to promote livelihoods need to have a duration of at least three years.

Although many of the livelihood interventions implemented by government and donors have focused on agriculture, a more diversified approach which takes into account both agricultural and non-agricultural sectors where women can be key players is needed. As non-farming self-employment provides more employment opportunities for women, strengthening local market linkages and value chains through the buy-in of stakeholders in government and the private sector should be a priority. Establishing a macroeconomic and investment climate in line with the comparative and competitive advantages of the region will help increase the stock of decent jobs for women in the Northern Province. Policymakers in both the centre and the region need to invest in more open and proactive policy approaches to enhance employment opportunities through the linking up of investors, institutions, and markets across regions as well as across the national border.

In the long-term, enhancing the employment prospects and outcomes of girls and women affected by conflict requires investing in their human capital. As educational attainment in the Northern Province appears to be lower than the national average, improve general education facilities and services in the region to enhance women’s employability and productivity. Utilizing IT-based educational facilities can help address gaps faster and more cost-effectively.

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 GrOW initiative.

(Brief produced by Savini Ganhewa. Opinions stated in this brief and the paper it. draws from, are those of the authors, and necessarily reflect the views of the GrOW programme partners.)


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