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Project title: Facilitating Rural Women's Participation and Recognition in Sustainable Livelihoods in Post-War Sri Lanka

What is the issue?

Rural Sri Lankan women are ever-present in agricultural economies, but their experiences and contribution is invisible in agricultural policy. Although agriculture has always relied on women’s participation and labour, few accounts highlight women’s paid and unpaid contributions to the sector. Data is needed to document the contribution rural Sri Lankan women make to production and the barriers they face in participating in agriculture, so that women can gain recognition, new opportunities and existing opportunities can be enhanced. As the country rebuilds following a 26-year war, recognition of women’s contribution, and understanding barriers and enablers for participation is vital to working towards economic security.

What are we doing?

This project will work with women from three Districts to identify the barriers across their life-course, that prevent women from participating in sustainable agricultural livelihoods. It will also  identify enablers across the life course, and generate recommendations for policy makers and civil society. The study captures the views of multiple ethnic, religious and age groups. Uniquely, the study emphasised women’s participation through their life-course, contextualised against the social, political and institutional interactions within the broader political economy.

What are we finding?

We surveyed 2093 women and conducted 66 in-depth life narrative interviews in Hambantota, Ampara and Polonnaruwa Districts of Sri Lanka in early 2015. Found that rural Sri Lankan women participated in multiple, at times overlapping agricultural and non-agricultual livelihoods throughout their lives. Rural women performed all agricultural work tasks, except operating machinery such as tractors. Throughout their life-course, women’s contribution to agriculture included: paid/compensated work as day labour on private farms, or waged labour on commercial farms; unpaid labour in family-owned cultivations/farms; subsistence labour (e.g. home gardening) and unpaid social reproductive labour such as care work (cooking cleaning, childcare), as well as civic engagement (community work and political canvassing).

At the time of the survey, less than a third of the sample participated in agricultural livelihoods. Of the households whose main source of income was agriculture, 68% of women from such households were engaged in agriculture as their main source of income. In the interviews, just under 50% of the participants engaged in agriculture at the time of the interview, and the main source of income varied.

A prominent common pattern across different generations, locations and ethnic groups is the relationship between women’s participation in agriculture and unpaid care work such as cooking, looking after children and cleaning across the life course. Prevailing gender norms meant that women were responsible for childcare and during those periods when women had young children, their participation dropped to the lowest rate of participation in agriculture. Yet, their participation in ‘any activity’ peaked during this period. In addition to their role of maintaining and running the household, and ‘helping’ their spouses with paddy cultivation, women faced other barriers of such as conflict and violence, ill-health, domestic violence, climate change factors, unsustainable/unavailable markets, high costs of inputs or underpayment, and restricted mobility. Other factors such as microfinance and political patronage also produced mixed results in both enabling and hindering women’s participation in agriculture.

As most of these barriers are not isolated from one another, there is a greater need to address the impact of challenging gender norms through designing policy and development practices that are cognizant of women’s paid and unpaid labour, roles and responsibilities in rural households and communities in order to create opportunities for these women to have livelihoods that are ongoing and stable.

Outputs and reports



Rural women's participation and recognition in sustainable agricultural livelihoods across their life-course, in post-war Sri Lanka

Executive summaries

Executive summary - English

Executive summary - Tamil

Executive summary - Sinhalese

Research team members

Dr. Samanthi Gunawardana

Co-Chief Investigator and Project Lead

Lecturer, Monash University

Thiagi Piyadasa

Project Lead

Gender Co-ordinator, Oxfam Australia

Balasingham Skanthakumar

Co-Chief Investigator

Oxfam Australia in Sri Lanka