Tharshani, now 45, had already been struggling to make ends meet since her husband died 15 years ago due to the conflict. But since the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns that started last year, her income from poultry farming has dropped, and her eldest daughter, who they relied on for household expenses, has found no daily-wage work.
“During the lockdown we had to take loans from our neighbours,” said Tharshani (not her real name). “We were struggling to find money for food, and my son had to go to school every day without breakfast. I was afraid he might not be able to continue his education,” said the mother of three.
Tharshani’s story is by no means unusual in Sri Lanka, where over a quarter of households (25.8% percent, or 1.4 million) are headed by women. More than half of those are run by widows – more than one in 10 of all the country’s households. Many of those lost their husbands in the civil conflict that ravaged the country from 1983 to 2009.
“Women are losing their livelihoods faster” than men in the pandemic, explained Ramaaya Salgado, Country Focal Point at UN Women in Sri Lanka. “This is because they are exposed to hard-hit economic sectors, have less access to social protections and are more likely to be burdened with unpaid care and domestic work. Female heads of households in particular carry a double burden in caring for their dependents and being the sole breadwinner of the family,” she said.
“Long-term investment in social protection is needed to ensure female heads of households are resilient in the face of crisis situations. Hence, women’s economic empowerment must be at the heart of COVID-19 response and recovery.”
Recovering from the COVID-19 crisis must include urgent policy action to introduce economic support packages for vulnerable women, according to the UN Women publication ‘Gender Equality in the Wake of COVID-19’.
Further, the publication highlights that eliminating inequality in the labour market is more urgent than ever. This includes addressing issues related to occupational segregation, gender pay gaps and inadequate access to affordable childcare. Data on socioeconomic effects as well as improved and up-to-date gender-responsive data collection systems are also vital to understanding the pandemic’s impact on different groups of women.
Last year, with support from the Government of Australia (DFAT), UN Women in Sri Lanka together with local NGO Viluthu have supported more than 1,300 female-headed households through the delivery of emergency relief packs including dry rations to meet their daily needs.
“With enough supplies for the next few months, I am now able to save up to cover the costs of my son’s education”, says Tharshani who was also among those that received the emergency relief packs.
2020 marked the 25th anniversary of the landmark Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which set out how to remove the systemic barriers that hold women back from equal participation in all areas of life. To ensure economic empowerment of female heads of households like Tharshani, COVID-19 is a reminder that urgent action is needed to invest in the future of women and girls in Sri Lanka, and around the world.