Feminist Collective for Economic Justice Co-Founder, researcher, and activist Sarala Emmanuel says that the brunt of the economic crisis has been borne by women and the brunt of the recovery proposals will also be borne by women.
Following is an extract of the interview given to Channel News Asia Radio:
Can you give us a snapshot of how the economic challenges are difficult for women?
It is projected that the Sri Lankan economy is going to contract or has contracted by 10% of GDP this year going into minus growth. Projections by the Peradeniya University economics experts show that poverty levels are now at 42%. This is almost half the population. That’s what we are dealing with; that’s the reality across Sri Lanka.
I think the brunt of the economic crisis has been borne by women, but more importantly for this conversation, I think the brunt of the recovery proposals are also going to be borne by women, especially the austerity measures.
Why don’t we take a step back, because you say that in the east it’s not just about what’s happening now, but the cumulative effect of events, including the war and previous crises. Are we looking at the worst scenario for women in the past few decades?
Cumulatively, yes. Like you said, just to give an example, so many people, men and women, were disabled due to the war, injuries, etc., so we are supporting women living with disabilities. They are marginalised in society without much State support and now with the economic crisis they don’t have basic services.
People can’t access basic transport because transport costs have increased by more than 150%. They can’t access their health clinics nor continue with the small economic activities that they were involved in. You can see the cumulative impact and there is mass hunger and reduction of nutrition of women and girls because people are unable to eat nutritious food.
Ceylon Teachers’ Union Secretary Joseph Stalin said: “People can barely eat three meals a day, this Government has done nothing to support people other than impose more and more taxes. We need solutions, we will keep fighting for them.” Have you had a chance to sit with your sisters in this collective to think of solutions?
Yes, we have very strong demands and one of the main ones is that we need a universal public food distribution system. Not cash grants, not targeted, because that is meaningless amidst this huge inflation of food prices – we are saying that all schools should have mid-day meals for children.
One in seven children have dropped out of school because they are hungry and starving, so that is our primary demand. Within our collective, we are also discussing how women can have collective agriculture production processes to start this. It’s a huge challenge because Sri Lanka has been using chemical fertiliser-based agriculture for more than 40 years, so you can’t turn that around overnight.
Even if you want to have collective production, you are starting with a lot of barriers, but that is what women’s groups are doing in rural economies – trying to help each other, produce together, and share food. It’s a struggle but that is what their strategy has been.
Can you help us understand what the main economies are for women in rural areas?
Most women in Sri Lanka are in the informal economy with no labour rights and there is a high percentage of women engaged in the agricultural economy. Where I live, in the east, women are mostly engaged in agriculture, lagoon fishing, and fishing-related industries.
On the other hand, because of our economic policies, many women have gone for migrant labour to the Middle East. Additionally, as per the post-war economic policies of successive governments, women are also going into garment factories. There have been new factories established as part of the post-war recovery strategy. All of these industries are exploitative – they exploit women’s labour – and that is what has been carrying the Sri Lankan economy even before this economic crisis.
That is what is going to carry us in the recovery process as well – exploiting women’s labour – because the remittances are coming in from garments and migrant workers, and sending migrant workers to the Middle East is the core strategy of the Government now. They are relaxing various kinds of labour restrictions to allow more and more people to go, so you are draining the rural economy of healthy labour and sending them as migrant workers to, as you know, very precarious working conditions, to send back remittances to pay back the Government debt.
We are paying back the debt, that is, the rural economy is paying back the debt. We would even describe these as economic crimes of complete unaccountability and transferring the burden of repayment to poor rural communities.
On top of that, [in the Budget] the tax that has been increased is Value-Added Tax (VAT). You don’t have an income, you are struggling to feed yourself, and on top of that VAT has been increased to 15%. You are paying the tax to pay back the debt which is not your debt. These are some of the impacts on rural women from the economic crisis and the recovery strategies being proposed.
I know you run an organisation and a charity that takes care of women in the eastern region of Sri Lanka, but you have also joined with other organisations around the country under the Feminist Collective for Economic Justice. What do you hope to achieve?
We came together around February, a few of us who have been working together before, because we realised that there was not enough of a discussion regarding putting our kind of analysis and demands into the spaces where policies, decisions, and debates were happening.
We came together just to put our heads together, do analysis together, and put forward our recommendations in whatever public forums we have access to. We are doing research and are very much connected to various rural community groups; our knowledge comes from there. We sit together, analyse, debate, discuss, and then we try to create material on social media, to publish in newspapers, etc. to put our views also into the debate.
What are your immediate targets? Do you wish to see something translated to action or is it a matter of connecting with as many public forums as possible to get your messages out?
We are a tiny group. We don’t have much power to influence. But even so, I think small voices and small groups also matter and we will continue to put our views forward. Our focus has been to mobilise women on the ground, because that’s how we see change happening.
We will continue to have teach-outs with more rural community groups to explain what’s going on in the economy and what our demands should be, so that we build momentum to continue this kind of monitoring of what is going on at all levels of the State, to ask questions, and to challenge whatever the State is proposing, based on women’s real life, lived-in experiences. That’s where our energies lie.
What does this say about political leadership in Sri Lanka and women? Are there not enough women to speak up?
Yes, these are old structural issues. I think Sri Lanka is a disgrace; we have such a low representation of women at all levels of governance.
Representation at local councils is better because we have the 25% quota, but it was a 30-year battle to get this. That is the only place where you have 25% representation of women. At all other levels, it is less than 5%. Those are older battles which impact moments like this when there is an economic crisis – women’s voices are not there, women’s real experiences are not there.
These issues will never be a priority, as, for example, in the Budget which is coming next week. That’s a huge issue and we’ve been working on it and will continue to work on it for as long as it takes. It may not happen in my lifetime, but these are patriarchal challenges that many women in the world face, including Sri Lanka.
You are frustrated when it comes to accountability. In particular, you say it’s deteriorating for women. Can you explain why?
In terms of economic policymaking there is an assumption that women will carry the burden through the economic crisis, through the pandemic, and now through the recovery programmes as well. Women’s care work, the reproduction of the labour force – all this is invisible, taken for granted, not accounted for, and not supported.
In moments like economic crises, the burden of running the household and maintaining the labour force, caring for the sick and children has doubled, even tripled, exponentially. This burden has been transferred very easily to the household and strategies for recovery are also based on women’s labour.
More and more women are now leaving as migrant domestic workers. Men are also leaving. There is added pressure now on the labour force in the garment sector and the plantation economy and their previous demands to increase their daily wage will not see the light of day in this model of recovery that’s being proposed.
What are your thoughts on the $ 2.9 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan that Sri Lanka wants to obtain? Will it be something that will strangle the female population?
I stand by global feminist critique of the IMF. A report has just come out, which says the IMF is pinkwashing austerity measures and we can see that clearly in Sri Lanka. Basically, like I explained, all the austerity measures being proposed are directly, and not even in a trickle-down manner, based on the foundation that women will carry this debt and the repayment of this debt as well.
There are eyewash strategies of targeted social protection schemes which are meaningless when you have taken away energy subsidies. Giving a cash grant is meaningless when you can’t afford your bus fare, when you can’t afford kerosene, when you can’t afford petrol, and when you don’t have electricity. That’s why we call it an eyewash and we are not alone in this.
There’s a global critique of IMF austerity measures, saying they are pinkwashing gender concerns, women’s rights, and basic human dignity.