The Right to Work: women, men and gendered labour by Tehani Ariyaratne

By Tehani Ariyaratne, South Asia Women’s Fund

It is no secret that the Sri Lankan economy is being carried on the backs of women, not just those who engage in low paid, insecure, informal sector work, but those who create the enabling environment for others to work – the mothers, grandmothers, sisters, unmarried daughters who do the bulk of the care work – the cooking, cleaning, child care, elder care – only to be classified as “unemployed” in the labour force statistics. This gender division of labour and larger gender discrimination runs deep through our society, propped up by the archaic notions that women are biologically more suited to bring up children, more capable of house work, and better at managing household finances. It also leads to an instrumental view of a woman – a tool which nurtures and protects children, provides direct access to sex for the husband, and maintains the harmony of the household. Within this pretty picture, the woman as an individual with rights, dignity, ambition, dreams and needs of her own, is ignored.
Female employment and what constitutes as “work” is a contentious topic, particularly when contrasting the feminist perspective with a normative perspective. While employment for and of women has increased over the years, a large percentage are considered out of the workforce or economically inactive. Within these numbers are larger issues of gendered labour, valuing the care economy, and structural and institutional barriers to women’s employment which need to be explored. For the purpose of this article, I will focus on migrant women and a particular institutional barrier in place to restrict their movement, employment and income.

The Family Background Report

Female migration for foreign employment, which hit historic highs in the 1990s has been decreasing through the 2000s and is now at 40.3% of total foreign employment migration [1]. Unskilled level jobs and housemaid jobs are the two categories with the highest number of female migrants [2]. Approximately 88% of women migrants are employed as housemaids, the majority of whom are working in Middle Eastern countries [3]. Relatedly, approximately 60% of the USD 4.1 billion in remittance inflows to Sri Lanka are from the Middle East [4], a significant percentage of which are remittances from housemaids.

Within this framework, the Sri Lanka government, directly and indirectly, has been limiting the movement of women for employment [5]. One of the particularly insidious ways it does this is through the Family Background Report, a report to be filed by a Development Officer recommending prospective migrant women for employment. The latest circular by the Ministry of Foreign Employment, issued in June 2015, explicitly states “mothers with children less than 5 years of age should not be recommended for migration. Further, mothers with children over 5 years of age should only be recommended if the safety of children can be assured.” [6] It also states “Mothers with disabled children should not be recommended for foreign employment”. While these restrictions have already been in place for some years for women migrating as housemaids, the latest circular expands this criteria to include all women migrating for employment. Nowhere in the circular by the Ministry is the word ‘father’ even mentioned, rendering completely invisible their duties and responsibilities towards their children.

Restrictions such as these are derived partly from patriarchal gender roles which position mothers as caregivers and fathers as breadwinners – the ‘woman’s place is in the home’; and partly from efforts to link increasing reported rates of child abuse and neglect to the absence of mothers – the ‘missing mothers’ phenomenon. As migrant women, by definition, are not in their homes, they are an easy scapegoat upon which to lay the blame of child abuse, ignoring the actual perpetrators of the crime, or the State’s role in preventing and prosecuting these crimes, and in ensuring the overall wellbeing of children.

The Sri Lankan government, in violation of the constitution, which holds for both non-discrimination by sex (Article 12) and the freedom of every citizen to engage in any lawful occupation (Art. 14.1), through this circular, perpetuates these gendered stereotypes by placing the responsibility of children’s upbringing, care and protection solely on the shoulders of women.

The role of the State

The response of the State to concern over the physical and emotional wellbeing of children, has been to unfairly restrict the mobility of women and violate their right to employment. 66% of the job offers for housemaids is unutilized [7] for which at least one explanation is that, for the reasons above, the government is actively preventing women from employment opportunities abroad. This is a violation of their right to engage in employment of their choosing, which in this case, often provides a higher pay than they can receive in Sri Lanka; money which is most often used for children’s education, healthcare and improvements in the family’s living standards.

It is also discriminating against a particular class of women, many of whom face economic vulnerability and have little to no bargaining power, in their family, community or with the State. Migration and foreign employment often gives these women opportunities they may never have – increased wages and economic stability, the chance to move out of poverty, to escape domestic violence, purchasing power, the freedom associated with travel and the opportunity to experience new countries. In these cases, the State has an increased responsibility to protect the rights of the most marginalised, and not perpetuate and replicate restrictions women face in their homes and communities.

The FBR and related policies also overlook the State’s role in ensuring the wellbeing of children and in implementing the law and taking action when it is violated. Massive delays in prosecuting perpetrators (up to 6 years) [8] , lack of infrastructure and trained staff to handle cases of child abuse, lack of knowledge and information on what constitutes child abuse among families, communities and schools, lack of institutional and community support systems for parents who leave for foreign employment, all contribute to the atmosphere for this violence to take place.

Most of all, the State has a responsibility to refrain from violating the rights of its citizens, to create a safe environment for all citizens to exercise their rights freely and safely, and to intervene when these rights are violated by others.

Missing fathers and the responsibility of men

Given that the family is considered the most important unit in our society, and many government policies are created on this foundation, why does the State continually ignore the role a man plays in his family, and in the nurture, care and safety of his children? As the number of men migrating for employment increases, is the State concerned about how the absence of fathers will impact children? Government policy often invisibilizes fathers, delegating to men the role of income earner, and stripping them of their identity as fathers, and the joys, duties and responsibilities associated with it. I would posit, in fact, that it is the fathers who appear to be missing – missing from the family, from government policy, from society. Do fathers, in a holistic sense of the word, exist in Sri Lankan society?

If the FBR is partly a response to increasing abuse and unsafe conditions for children, is it addressing the key question – who is committing the abuse? Studies and news reports overwhelmingly show that the perpetrators are male, and in a majority of the cases, known to the victims [9]. However, it seems to be the unstated rule, here, and in violence against women and children at large, that ‘men will be men’; that they are not to be held responsible for their acts, and that women need to protect themselves and their children against these inevitable acts. By downplaying the role of men in perpetrating violence, the State indirectly gives them permission to continue committing violence. In fact, a CARE study on masculinities (2013) [10] found high levels of sexual entitlement and impunity as drivers for sexual violence committed by men.

Curtailing the movement of women is nothing new, and is a tactic employed by men and the State (considered by many to be a patriarchal institution) for eons, to restrict women’s sexual, reproductive and economic freedoms. Money, mobility and independence all give women power, and endangers the control men have and routinely enforce over women. This step, by the Government of Sri Lanka, is yet another one of the many ways in which women are systematically discriminated and oppressed in our society.

Image by Sharni Jayawardena

[1] Economics and Social Statistics of Sri Lanka 2014, CBSL, Table 3.13

[2] Ibid Table 3.15

[3] Migration profile 13-14

[4] Ibid, pg 33


[6] Ministry of Foreign Employment, Ministerial Circular 2015/1

[7] Migration Profile Sri Lanka, Ministry of Foreign Employment Promotion and Welfare, pg 34



[10] Broadening Gender: why masculinities matter, CARE


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