The F Factor: ‘Carat keeyada?’ 

  • How much for a carat?

By Saritha Irugalbandara

“I am here because I don’t have another option,” says Semini*, as she waits in line at the pawnbrokers. It’s nearing noon and the air conditioning is barely adequate against the unforgiving April sun outside the small pawnshop space. 

Semini is 28 years old and a single mother. She is here to pawn a wedding ring and a single earring. She tells me the other earring was lost some time ago. There was a necklace as well, but she had to pawn that last summer at the height of Covid when she lost her job making ‘cut piece’ cloth for a small-time tailoring workshop. Her daughter is a curious, wide-eyed five-year-old clinging to her mother’s skirt.

When the Covid pandemic disrupted economies the world over, it was not just a health crisis for the economically insecure amongst us. In Sri Lanka, it did not take long for images of lengthy queues outside pawn brokers to circulate online, often coinciding with the lifting of curfew or travel restrictions. 

To many of us spectating these ‘gold queues’ it may have inspired pity – or even anger – at the glaring failings of social security nets that the State often likes to hail as the crown jewel of this supposed Socialist Republic. To others, this was an unignorable red flag for the impending, crippling economic crisis that we are in presently. By the latter part of 2021 and several Covid waves later, it seemed that the steady loss of employment, restricted mobility, and rising consumer goods prices forced many middle-income households to relinquish their precious metal jewellery for survival, too. 

Inflation hit 21.5% in March, the highest since the pre-2009 end of the ethnic conflict. The pawnbroker queues are lower in density, though, compared to this time last year. It’s as if people no longer have gold to pawn off, with bigger, longer queues forming for gas, fuel, and even food rations like milk powder in some areas. 

Gold is coveted for many practical and symbolic reasons. The former, of course, is quite straightforward; the value of gold remains stable globally. This writer is not an economist so she apologises if this is a gross oversimplification, but what is pertinent here is to look at gold within the context of inflation. It makes for a great hedging asset during such a period marked also by rapid currency depreciation because its value either stays steady or increases. The price of gold in the market has increased by 89% over the last year. From March-April the increase was a little over 20%. Gold is wealth, and has far more longevity than currency. 

Symbolically, of course, gold and gold jewellery is relationally gendered. In South Asia, it is intrinsically tied to womanhood and femininity in ways that are both reproduced culturally and through women’s own agentic choices. Anthropologist Nilika Mehrotra writes about how it is the ‘most incorruptible medium of exchange’ within Indian culture, with jewellery or ornaments made out of the precious metal traditionally gifted to girls and women to mark auspicious occasions. The supply and demand is also heavily gendered, Mehrotra remarks, and this applies to Sri Lanka too. 

In a postcolonial landscape where the wearing of accessories is still heavily gendered, gold is used to affirm and reinforce binary gender norms pertaining to femininity. A quintessential gold stud is often used to pierce the ears of female children, while it is also customary in some cases to gift new mothers with ‘push presents’ in the form of jewellery or a gold coin. Reaching puberty is wholly unceremonious for most young boys in Sri Lanka, but can be quite a fanfare for young girls and gold is a key part of the festivities. Like Semini was over a decade ago, many young girls are gifted gold jewellery to celebrate the occasion and as an auspicious blessing for womanhood. 

Gold is transactional within institutions like marriage, where the conventional idea of dowry may be supplanted with ‘gifts’ in the form of jewellery presented to the bride. Patrilineal practices of inheritance might also mean that women are likely to be bestowed jewellery or wealth in the form of gold instead of assets like land. Similarly, gold is passed down generations, usually from a maternal figure to female children in the way of heirlooms. 

A feminist understanding of marriage as a contract of property and kinship as heavily gendered phenomena further infers that gold may have been one of the few sources of wealth available to women within a patriarchal system which instills structural barriers to employment, financial autonomy, and upward mobility. Where traditional wealth is elusive to many socially sidelined due to class and caste, the ability to purchase gold can be a source of security and socio-economic strength for women and families navigating such constraints. For marginalised women within a patriarchal setup this social security can often mean the world of difference.

According to the World Bank, female labour force participation in Sri Lanka was 30.78% at the end of 2020, and has generally remained stagnant in the 30s over the years. The Institute for Policy Studies also suggests in a 2019 assessment that about 50% of the girls and women in the labour force work in the informal sector, translating to high precariousness of job security, lower wages, and less protections within employment. Many in the informal sector like Semini opt for part-time work due to the load of unpaid care work and traditional gender roles that limit their full participation within the labour market. 

A 2000 research study by Heckman et al also notes that while men and women both face job insecurity within the informal sector, the latter are more vulnerable as they are employed in larger numbers in lower paying and lower skilled categories of work that are more likely to be abolished in difficult economic conditions. The proof is in the pudding for how this manifests in Sri Lanka, where estate workers in the tea sector and FTZ workers were among the first to feel the weight of the impending economic collapse at the outset of Covid-19. 

Exploitative microfinancing schemes propelled by neoliberal frames of female empowerment also pushed many women into debt and poverty, further exacerbated by the stagnating economic growth over the last two years. The pandemic also forced women to either leave employment or downscale to part-time work in order to fulfil caregiving responsibilities for children, the sick, the elderly. Today, women stand in milk powder queues and gas queues, an added burden to home-keeping in the middle of the country’s worst economic crisis that has resulted in unprecedented inflation in all basic necessities. 

These structural factors largely amount to the lack of opportunity for women, especially women within the middle and lower income brackets, to accumulate wealth. Poverty and wealth are both strongly intergenerational, and to break away from the former proves to be a Sisyphean task. The loss of a social security net to an economic crisis while attempting to navigate structural restraints to upward economic mobility is heavily gendered in this regard. The gold queues represent the loss of intergenerational wealth as much as it does the increasing levels of poverty in Sri Lanka. 

The choice to liquidate or pawn off gold is less of a choice and more of a dire necessity for many who visit the brokers. We do not speak enough about the emotional toll of having to pawn treasured items of sentimental value – wedding rings, a present from a deceased parent, childhood earrings that one was hoping to pass onto another generation. For many in the queues and waiting areas there is an urgent need for money, and in recent times this is more likely to be money for basic necessities as opposed to an unplanned emergency. 

Predatory pawning practices that promise quick and larger amounts of money in hand have also trapped more people into debt or forced them to let go of their gold. While the inability to redeem pawned items is not a new phenomenon to lower income classes in this country, the question in current circumstances is how many would be able to recover their gold from the market, as prices of commodities skyrockets while the rupee continues to plummet. 

In the years it takes for the economy to stabilise, it is doubtful how soon the effects would trickle down to the lower stratas of society, at least to a point where they are able to prioritise survival without having to forgo getting back a wedding ring or a prized heirloom. What is perhaps still obscured is the gendered dimension, as women lose not just jewellery but also a source of generational wealth. Inadvertently, this also means the loss of a steady safety net and relative social security at a time when neither are available at a structural level. The economic crisis is crippling across the board, but the long-term impacts are likely to be more entrenched for some than others – economically, socially, and emotionally.

Semini worked part-time as a domestic help, visiting a home in her Battaramulla neighbourhood to do some cleaning and cooking for daily wages. Her employers migrated a month ago and she has not found steady work to afford housing, food, gas, and schooling expenses for her five-year-old daughter. She never recovered her necklace from last year, but she has no option but to pawn off the wedding ring from her late husband. There are arrears for rent to be paid and her landlord threatened eviction. “On the month of Avurudu, at that,” she says, pulling her daughter closer to her. I notice the little girl wears miniature gold studs. Whether or not she said this because she saw me notice the earrings, I am unsure: “I can’t sell those, that’s all I have left to give her.”

*Name has been changed.

(The writer is a social media analyst at Hashtag Generation.)