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Fighting for recognition: The role of women on Sri Lankan tea plantations

As Sri Lanka demilitarizes, women are still fighting for their right to be heard in the political process and on tea plantations.

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    A Buddhist monk looks on as they march during the annual Nawam Perahera street parade in Colombo (February 22, 2016). Although women make up about half of the workers on Sri Lanka's tea plantations, they are still treated as inferior to men.
    Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters
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Sri Lanka is facing a turning point in its history after years of conflict. While demilitarization and the release of prisoners across the island continues, one group remains largely absent from the current political agenda: women. In particular, women farmers who have continued to produce one of the island’s largest exports, tea, but who remain underpaid and unheard, and lack opportunities to pursue positions of power in their communities.  

Sri Lanka is renowned for its famous Ceylon tea, and in recent years, production has continued to climb. In 2013, the cultivation of tea reached an all-time high for the island and currently 5 percent of Sri Lankans are directly or indirectly employed by the sector. According to a study published by the Human Development Organization, the Up-Country Plantation Tamil form a minority community (about 6 percent of the population) in Sri Lanka. The plantation workers were originally brought from Southern India to Sri Lanka as slave laborers, to work on the plantations in the 1820s under British colonial rule. According to the report’s authors, the people living in the Sri Lankan plantations have been subjected to various forms of discrimination while denied political, socio-economic, and cultural rights. 

In the same study, the authors found that more than 50 percent of tea plantation workers are women. Despite winning an equal wage in 1984, women continue to be treated as inferior to men; the study notes that women rarely, if ever, assume positions of power in the tea sector, and they are expected to work almost twice as many hours per day as male laborers- before their “second shift” of work begins at home.

Agricultural laborers are paid a daily wage in Sri Lanka. Despite technically receiving an equal wage as men, once the longer hours worked by women are taken into consideration, women do not receive compensation that reflects their hours worked, or that provides the quality of food necessary to regain their lost energy. Women in this sector are facing the same problem as farmers across the globe: despite working in the agricultural sector, their own food security situation remains fragile.

The European Union is working to combat these challenges by empowering women working in the tea sector through trainings on leadership and decision-making. One of the participants of the program went on to become one of the first-ever female trade union leaders. These programs show that with the right knowledge and skill-set, women can take an active role as decision-makers. But there is still work to do. Now that women are taking on leadership roles, it is up to the Government of Sri Lanka to listen to their experiences and incorporate their needs into future policies. Through policies that pay women for their hours worked and ensure that their nutritional needs are met, while ensuring their physical safety on the plantations and in their homes, the Sri Lankan Government can uphold the rights and protect the dignity of the backbone of one of their most vital sectors.

This article first appeared at Food Tank.

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