The devastating effects of war
26 years of war has uprooted thousands of people in the northern and eastern regions of Sri Lanka. Although the exact figure has yet to be determined, the often-quoted number of women-headed households is at 15% or 90,000 households, that is 50,000 households in the north and 40,000 households in the east.
Before the war began, these people mainly earned a living through agriculture. Having returned to their original villages where their homes and assets have been destroyed, they are now forced to rebuild their lives from scratch. A lot of basic infrastructure has been destroyed, especially irrigation systems, pipelines, wells, clean water and sanitation.
The women are in a destitute state. 80% of them do not have permanent housing. The Indian Government has given subsidies of LKR 550,000 to construct a house, but the women require an additional LKR 250,000 to LKR 500,000 to complete the construction. So, they’ve taken loans from banks with high interest rates and are now in debt to the banks. High debt rate is a new social problem that has plagued some of the villages in the north, especially in Vavuniya and Kilinochchi.
To make matters worse, the women do not have sustainable income to provide for themselves, their children, and sometimes their aged parents. They work as labourers in farms earning LKR 600 a day, or as factory workers earning LKR 8,000 to LKR10,000 a month.
As there are no day care centres, their children are left in the care of their aged parents, neighbours or relatives. Some women leave their families and the country to seek employment as maids in the Gulf Region. This has led to another social problem – the children who live with caretakers who often have children of their own, and who also live in poverty, end up abandoned or neglected.
This “new” problem has led to psychological issues in the children, a phenomena we’ve seen in some of the children we sponsor through our “Sponsor A Child” programme. We believe that this social ill can only be eradicated if women are given the priceless opportunity to be mothers to their children. We believe that the solution should be for women headed households to be given the opportunity to start their own businesses and are developed to become entrepreneurs with sustainable income.
The problem of not having a well
Most women-headed households have a plot of land, ranging from 1/4 acre to 5 acres, which they can use for agricultural farming, a skill most of them have at a basic level. However, the greatest challenge facing these women is a steady source of water for agricultural activities.
7 out of 10 women do not own a well and depend on collected rainwater, water from a commercial well or a neighbour’s well to irrigate their farms. The dry season, which lasts about 5 months every year, dries up their crops and severely impacts their income. Many of the women are unable to recover from the losses of the dry season due to the discontinued supply of water, and so abandon their land until the rain starts again.
2 out of 10 women have “dug wells”, that is wells they have dug on their own without a concrete structure. When it rains heavily, mud caves into the well, covering it up. The well has to be dug again.
What they need is a proper concrete well. The wells in Omanthai, Vavuniya are dug to 18 to 30 feet, whilst the wells in Santhapuram in Kilinochchi have to be dug to as deep as 80 to 100 feet before the water table can be reached. A tube well may be more appropriate for the deeper wells, but the wells have to be assessed accordingly based on its location and the water table.
1 out 10 women who have concrete wells and they are managing their vegetable farms and paddy fields reasonably well. However, there is a need for a contract farmer or wholesaler to buy their crops on a regular and consistent basis.
In our last visit to Sri Lanka in June 2016, we spoke to Cargills Ceylon and Lanka Organics who are willing to train these women on farming techniques to help them produce high quality crops. On top of that, these organisations have also offered to buy the women’s produce.
80% of these women also lack a water pump or motor, and pipes to connect to the water pump or motor to irrigate their fields.
The lack of clean water is also a priority as most of them take their drinking water from tube wells, which serves almost 100 women in a village. They gather at the tube well twice a day, once in the morning, and once in the evening, and carry clean water in pots to their homes. Some of the homes have received a water filter from TECH Outreach Malaysia, and use the filters to sieve out impurities.
We propose that an agricultural well will be able to meet the needs of clean drinking water and irrigation for their farms, if a water pump and pipes can be supplied to connect the well to the farms. They can use this same well to draw water for cooking, washing and bathing.
The Impact Study conducted by TECH Outreach also showed that the existing LKR 35,000 (RM 1,000) that is given to the women as loans is grossly insufficient to sustain an agricultural business as it does cover the cost of an agricultural well, fertilisers, water pump, connecting pipes and transportation of produce to the nearby market. A more realistic amount for a long term sustainable business would be LKR 200,000 (RM 5,714), inclusive of seeds that are disease resistant and are high yield strains. An operation expense of 20% of LKR 200,000, which is LKR 40,000 (RM 1142.85) is further required to facilitate the project work of the local Sri Lankan NGO and for TECH Outreach to mobilise and monitor the project. Hence, a total amount of LKR 240,000 (RM 6,857) is required for each woman headed household.
A further RM36,00 is required for 5 field trips by the project team to facilitate our efforts in building strategic partnerships with the following organisations:
- International NGOs such as FAO, UNDP, CARE, OXFAM and JEN
- Government departments and ministries such as the Chief Minister’s Provincial Government, where a Chief Minister’s Fund for Women Headed Households is soon to be released
- Contract buyers such as Cargills Ceylon and Lanka Organics
The identification of potential partners has already begun in July 2016.