Sri Lanka is currently facing a third wave of COVID-19 and is experiencing approximately 2,500-3,000 new cases every day. The economic fallout of the pandemic has exposed the lived experiences of many vulnerable communities, such as women-headed households (WHHs) who are trapped in a cycle of poverty.
Over 25 percent of households in Sri Lanka (one in every four) are headed by a woman. The majority of women household leaders have lost a spouse or a partner as a direct consequence of the 30-year armed ethnic conflict that ended in 2009. WHHs were considered vulnerable even before the pandemic, as the majority of these women were only able to engage in low-paying informal employment and/or daily income generation activities after the conflict. WHHs are also prone to becoming indebted from microfinance loans. Research from U.N. Women indicates that given the majority of WHHs are engaged in informal employment they are not entitled to employment benefits. Since they lack access to adequate social protection mechanisms, they are burdened with unpaid care and domestic work, and as a result, lose their livelihoods faster during times of crisis. The mobility restrictions imposed due to COVID-19 have severely impacted the socioeconomic security of WHHs as they are faced with a double burden of trying to find work while taking care of dependents at home.
A number of state and non-state actors have implemented programs that target some of these women; however, to date there has been no inclusive national socioeconomic strategy focused on WHHs to be operationalized during emergency situations like COVID-19.
The drafting of a National Action Plan on Women-Headed Households (WHH NAP) spearheaded by the then Ministry of Women and Child Affairs in 2017, is still to be finalized due to intermittent administrative and portfolio-related changes within the government. For the first time in 23 years — since the establishment of a separate Women’s Ministry in 1997 –– the present government does not have a dedicated cabinet ministry for women’s affairs. Instead, there is a secondary state ministry that not only oversees women’s affairs, but also focuses on child development, preschools, primary education, school infrastructure, and education services. This has diluted the focus on women’s rights and has slowed the progress of key legislation concerning women.
Due to the WHH NAP still being at a draft stage, there is no nationally accepted definition for WHHs, thus prompting a plethora of de facto definitions and categorizations. The lack of a consistent definition has led to the generalization of WHHs as a homogenous group and excluded certain vulnerable categories of WHHs such as women with disabilities, women with spouses who are living with disabilities, divorced and/or abandoned women, elderly women, ex-combatants, and widows of former combatants. These groups of women are loosely categorized as “war widows,” and they often fall through the cracks of government welfare and social protection schemes such as Samurdhi. For example, following COVID-19 lockdowns and mobility restrictions, the government initiated a relief program for 10 categories of eligible beneficiaries from low income backgrounds, but WHHs were not considered a priority group for government concessions granted under the emergency situation.
The lack of a proper definition has also resulted in the absence of disaggregated data on WHHs, which makes it difficult for practitioners to identify the most vulnerable women. The latest household income and expenditure survey of 2016 categorizes WHHs only by sector, province and district.
Further, there is much debate on the terminology used to identify these women and their situation as “women headed households” or “women heads of households.” The former gives attention to the overall household headed by a woman, including her dependents, while the latter takes a more feminist standpoint by prioritizing the rights of the woman who happens to be heading the household. This disagreement surrounding terminology is one of the main reasons for the WHH NAP to be contested by both government and civil society advocates. A further point of contention is that by formally acknowledging women heads of households, it may diminish the status of the traditional male head of the household, which is the accepted norm within the largely patriarchal society of Sri Lanka.
Another problematic area is the geographic focus of WHHs. Since conflict-affected areas are mainly concentrated in the north and east of the country, most research, advocacy, and media attention are concentrated on a few regions. However, WHHs are prevalent across the country, the majority being “military widows” or the living spouses of government military personnel that died during the conflict. For example, while the district of Batticaloa in the east constitutes the highest percentage of WHHs at 32.3 percent, the district of Kandy in the Central Province is home to the second highest percentage of WHHs at 31.2 percent. Other districts in the Southern (Galle), North Central (Anuradhapura) and North Western (Kurunegala) provinces also have high percentages of WHHs at 28.5 percent, 27.2 percent, and 26.7 percent, respectively. The perception is that WHHs who are military widows are economically stable, as they are eligible for a government-mandated salary and the pension of their deceased spouse, while other war widows do not receive any form of redress. Due to this prevailing notion, most targeted COVID-19 relief efforts for WHHs are heavily focused on Sri Lanka’s Northern Province.
However, research shows that in addition to significant economic burdens, including indebtedness through microfinance loans, military widows have to live with societal stigmas associated with widowhood and are subject to sexual bribery and other forms of sexual exploitation.
It is also pertinent to note that most “war widows” are Tamil, while the majority of “military widows” are Sinhalese. Therefore, these women fall on either side of the ethnic divide that was catalytic to the prolonged conflict. What is often overlooked by policy practitioners is that by bringing these women to the forefront of policy attention, it would not only support sustainable economic development, but also strengthen key peacebuilding conversations that are vital to Sri Lanka’s post war rebuilding and recovery.
With COVID-19 shedding a spotlight on the adversities faced by these women, it has reached a point where immediate policy attention is essential, particularly since WHHs make up 25.8 percent of households in Sri Lanka. The scope and scale of existing social protection programs in Sri Lanka is still limited, with most poverty-targeted schemes failing to reach the poorest families. Delivering effective long-term social protection to all people — especially those that are left behind — will support communities more effectively in the aftermath of the pandemic. Further, applying a gender lens in designing social assistance programs and investing in women’s economic empowerment is an opportunity for Sri Lanka to bounce back from the crisis. Above all, priority must be given to formalize the WHH NAP through Cabinet approval so that there is a definitive criterion for government and development partners to work for the betterment of these women through holistic and inclusive approaches.