Sri Lankan feminists seek urgent response to economic crisis

Emphasise nutrition, food sovereignty, public distribution system, cash assistance 

April 06, 2022 03:15 pm | Updated 07:03 pm IST - COLOMBO

Dissent at doorstep: People protesting in front of Sri Lanka PM Mahinda Rajapaksa’s house in Colombo on Tuesday.

Dissent at doorstep: People protesting in front of Sri Lanka PM Mahinda Rajapaksa’s house in Colombo on Tuesday. | Photo Credit: AFP

Sri Lankan feminists have sought an urgent, comprehensive response to the country’s worsening economic crisis, prescribing specific measures to address the needs of poor and vulnerable communities most affected by the pandemic.

“We are witnessing the unfolding of a humanitarian crisis,” they said in a statement issued on Wednesday and signed by women’s groups and activists across the island.

Watch | What led to the economic crisis in Sri Lanka?

While the impact of the economic crisis is felt in all corners of the island, it is daily-wage earners, those dependent on micro, small, and medium enterprises, the urban working poor, along with communities already marginalised on the basis of ethnic, religious, caste, gender and sexual identities that are the worst affected by this deepening crisis, the statement said.  Observing that many are facing “homelessness and destitution”, it pointed to rapidly rising costs of essentials that are proving an enormous challenge to those already on subsistence wages.

For over a month now, Sri Lanka is reeling under the impact of a severe economic downturn, leading to crippling shortages of food, fuel and medicines, and soaring costs of essential items.

“Communities affected by repeated tragedies - the long-drawn-out war, tsunami, Easter bombings [2019]and the Covid-19 pandemic- are yet again facing a blow to their efforts to rebuild their lives. This while life consuming quests for truth and justice are ongoing every day,” the feminists noted. The burden of a flailing economy “invariably falls on women”, they said, as economic risks are pushed into the home sphere. “Women face the double burden of earning an income while performing unpaid care work at home,” they pointed out.

Sri Lanka’s current economic crisis, triggered by a dollar crunch that stems from a Balance of Payments problem has put the spotlight on key foreign exchange earning sectors including exports, tourism and worker remittances.

The export sector, predominantly garments, tea and rubber, is dominated by women’s labour. A major chunk of worker remittances from abroad too, come from Sri Lankan women employed as domestic labourers in West Asian countries, often in exploitative working conditions. “It is the wealth gathered by exploiting women’s labour that has been squandered. No one is held accountable for this loss. Instead, yet again, women are forced to bear the brunt of an economic crisis,” the statement said.

Cautioning that remedial measures including an International Monetary Fund programme might force the government to resort to “austerity measures”, they emphasised the urgent need to prevent “national starvation and chaos”.

The signatories recommended a series of measures including an island-wide food distribution system, prioritising nutrition and food sovereignty, expansion of cash assistance, a progressive tax regime, and more support for the public health sector, and called for greater consultation of women.

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