Visiting a small village in Mannar, I was awed by the vibrancy of the Thrift and Credit Co-operative Society
Photo Courtesy- FAO
(TCCS). What impressed me was that it was young women that were leading the women’s co-operative and the village itself. The TCCS formed in 2018 to take advantage of the debt relief scheme by the Government to counter predatory microfinance, few years later included 120 women members and had generated considerable savings to capitalise the co-operative.
This village of about 225 households, consisted of one hundred farming households, forty households dependent on fresh water fishing and the rest drawing their incomes from multiple sources including day wage labour. About 25 Muslim families of the many evicted in 1990 have returned after the war and are now resident. Tamil-Muslim relations are a bit fraught around land issues, and require greater attention in this village.
I often think about this village as a model for collective efforts toward rural revitalization. The success of co-operation was linked to the post-war struggles of the women, according to the president, secretary and treasurer of the TCCS, all three women below the age of 30. The three of them as with many young women in the village became socially active amidst a struggle for land launched after the war by their Women’s Rural Development Society (WRDS), where by 2012 they were able to gain half an acre of land from the state. Furthermore, in the face of increasing rural indebtedness, they started forming Self-Help Groups (SHGs) with the support of an NGO to provide small loans.
The formation of the TCCS absorbing the SHGs and thereby providing formal channels to access credit as a group, has effectively countered exploitation by microfinance companies. However, there is still the need for land; their current struggle is for a minimum of two acres of agricultural land as they now mainly farm on rented land. They are also seeking access to larger levels of credit for agriculture including from the Mannar District TCCS Union, as local traders continue to exploit the farmers by selling inputs at higher prices and through high interest credit. Nevertheless, in this village the various social initiatives and their social institutions are powerful sources of solidarity for women and support for their livelihoods.
The three young women who lead the co-operative and mobilize their village told me that they had learned from the failures of their parents. They were disappointed that their own education was disrupted, and that they want a better future for the next generation.
"In the post-war context of the North, where women’s livelihoods in many quarters have stumbled along with little traction, there is an important role for the state backed by public funds. A decade after the war, there is a common understanding among development actors and the state that “livelihoods projects” aren’t working"
While this village might be unique for the community leadership of young women, throughout the North, it is the younger generations of women who are sustaining the post-war economy. In the formal service sector from government offices to commercial banks, it is women who are employed in greater numbers; not a surprise given that it is girls that are excelling and completing schooling in larger numbers and women who are the majority of Jaffna University graduates. In the informal service sector, whether it is care work or shop assistants, it is women who are prevalent, though they are exploited with meagre wages. Women though not adequately represented in Farmers Organizations, are in fact the backbone of farms running its day to day operations, particularly when the farms are close to their homes. The question, however, is whether the toil and perseverance of women are leading to sustainable livelihoods? Or will economic shocks continue to undermine women’s social lives?
Land and income
In research visits to many villages, one issue is clear, it is the ownership and control over irrigable land that is a central factor in sustainable livelihoods. If they have land as a productive asset, the years since the war have led to slow but steady growth. Farms are developed for cash incomes and home gardens provide for self-provisioning for domestic consumption, including through the production of vegetables and livestock. Perennial crops such as coconut and fruit trees planted after the war are now a decade later starting to provide incomes.
The uneven reconstruction of villages and women’s livelihoods in the post-war North, seem to impinge on irrigable agricultural land, where some are on the path of accumulation cushioned by the wealth generated over a decade. Those who don’t own land, continue to be in a precarious position, where rented land is an additional financial burden, and every shock in the form of droughts, floods and market fluctuations lead to pauperisation. In urban settings such as in Jaffna town and Vavuniya town, where agriculture is not an option, working class women are involved in a range of small scale production from food preparation to tailoring. Such urban livelihoods depend on regular demand for their products and marketing avenues to earn fair incomes.
In villages, historically denied irrigable land as with the social exclusion of oppressed caste communities as well as Up-Country Tamils displaced to the Vanni few decades ago, another dynamic is noticeable. These communities historically denied agricultural land, depend now on their young women working full time in garments factories and fish processing plants. Such work that requires hard labour and not sustainable beyond their youth, bring relatively higher incomes with regular monthly salaries on the order of Rs. 30,000 or higher. Yet for these young women involved in generating incomes crucial for their families’ survival, there are no plans for when their bodies cannot withstand such difficult labour. Survival and hard work deny them even the time to reflect on the need for alternative livelihoods in the future.
Economic and social risks
In this way, in thinking about women’s livelihoods in the post-war North, I would categorize them into four broad categories: 1) those with irrigated land as an asset and involved in agriculture, 2) those without adequate land but struggling to make it in agriculture, including through other forms of production and day wage labour, 3) those working for regular wages in factories, and 4) those involved in urban-based production and services, including as cleaners and carers. However, this raises the important question of the mechanisms available to address the economic disruptions that are increasingly prevalent with climate change and market shocks, aggravated by the Covid-19 disaster and the ongoing economic depression.
Women involved in agriculture and on the accumulation path characterized by for example the capacity to purchase farm machinery, have the most stable livelihoods. While they do need support for marketing, purchase of inputs at fairer prices and greater access to credit, the overall environment with the importance given to agriculture and food is favourable to them, provided they can withstand the climate related shocks with their existing assets. Those involved in wage labour in factories are sustained by their regular incomes as long as the economic depression does not affect those enterprises; but their longer-term prospects are in question as it is not clear how those young women would earn a livelihood once into their late thirties and forties. It is those involved in rural and urban livelihoods of self-employment and small scale production that are most vulnerable to shocks, where they can easily fall back into the cycle of poverty.
"In research visits to many villages, one issue is clear, it is the ownership and control over irrigable land that is a central factor in sustainable livelihoods. If they have land as a productive asset, the years since the war have led to slow but steady growth"
In this context, there needs to be sustained efforts by the state and social institutions to provide fairer avenues of marketing and a range of supports for small scale rural and urban producers. Given that scale is a problem for reasonable access to inputs, credit, value-addition of produce and marketing, social institutions such as co-operatives need to pool small scale producers to achieve economies of scale. Such pooling of resources and a fund created out of the profits should also be available to cushion the impact of natural disasters and economic shocks. However, given the reality of debilitated social institutions and the scale of contemporary disruptions that can even devastate large enterprises, the state needs to underwrite the risks of some shocks, including those of climate change and disruptions in trade. Trialling state services for risk reduction for social institutions, which in turn shoulder the risks of small scale producers, can greatly enhance the sustainability of livelihoods. Setting women’s livelihoods and incomes on the path of accumulation including mechanisms to manage their risks, should be the focus of development policies and programmes.
Failures and alternatives
I would like to end with the village in Mannar I started with, where an initiative by an NGO to encourage groups of women into milling and packing flour and chillies recently failed. Women’s livelihood projects without strong local ownership and dictated by external actors, including by the local bureaucracy in the form of individualized livelihood programmes and some NGO initiatives for collective production, continue to fail miserably. The crucial issue concerning the conceptualization of women’s livelihoods is the lack of macro framing of the development challenges in each region and a holistic view of women’s income streams to sustain their households.
In the post-war context of the North, where women’s livelihoods in many quarters have stumbled along with little traction, there is an important role for the state backed by public funds. A decade after the war, there is a common understanding among development actors and the state that “livelihoods projects” aren’t working. Engagement needs to move beyond targeting individuals to the meso (divisional secretariat) and macro (provincial and national) levels of conceptualization and planning. There is a need to address the risk and various shocks affecting livelihoods, and the state has a role in either providing or incentivizing such services and resources.
With all the discussion of women’s livelihoods by donors and the state, there are few effective mechanism for working women to advocate for their own development needs. Women’s organisations such as WRDS and Women’s Societies under the Women Development Officers, even when federated to the District level do not have any resources, and not even their own office space. Formal traditional institutions that have access to some resources such as co-operatives, Farmers Organizations and Rural Development Societies continue to be dominated by men.
While we hear of individual successes at the community level, which are often celebrated for their tremendous efforts, if we want to achieve impact for the majority of women and their livelihoods issues, we need to fill the void around women’s voice heard at higher levels. Indeed, women themselves should advocate for their needs and ambitions. Such efforts should be designed through broader consultative processes and the resources to self-sustain such women’s initiatives for advocacy must be deployed from the outset.
The lesson I draw from that village in Mannar is that confidence and empowerment comes from collective initiatives and continued engagement among themselves, but there is also the need for resources. It is when women from the margins of society involved in production can advocate for themselves and lead their own struggles that those left behind by scarce resources and social inequality can take off on the path of accumulation and sustainable livelihoods.