Professor Amali Phillips

Notes from the field: Women on the move

Dr. Philips conducts research on the status and gender experiences of Tamil women workers on Sri Lanka's tea plantations. This research grew out of her participation in the Plantation Communities Project funded by the Canadian International Development Agency. In February 2018 she returned to Sri Lanka to conduct additional research.

Here she shares some of what she learned.

Indra is a 51 year-old woman I met during a recent visit to Sri Lanka as part of my research about Tamil women on tea plantations. Her story interested me because her work history epitomizes the spatial and occupational mobilities of Tamil women on plantations.

Indra, who like many women has little understanding of what we do as anthropologists, was intrigued by my interest in her story. Stories such as Indra's must be told not simply because of their academic value. Telling women's stories helps put a 'human' face' on the hopes, fears and experiences that are reflected in these stories.

Her story demonstrates how Tamil women navigate the challenges of work and family life in a globalized economy and different opportunities for women. I present below, a few excerpts from my interviews with her.

Like other women of her generation, Indra began work as a tea picker on the plantations, at the young age of 14 (child labour is currently illegal in Sri Lanka). She continued this work after marriage at the age of 24, and moved to her husband's natal plantation. When she was 34, she took early retirement and left the estate to work as a domestic worker for two years before moving first to Lebanon two years later and then to Saudi Arabia.

She spent a total of seven years in the Middle East before returning to Sri Lanka in 2009. As in the case of most migrant women, she left the care of her three daughters to her husband and in-laws who worked on the plantations. At the age of 43, she returned to Sri Lanka to take up her current position as a domestic worker in a Sri Lankan household.

Women constitute over 50% of all overseas labour migrants from Sri Lanka and most of them have worked in Middle Eastern countries as nannies and maids. Almost 80% of the overseas migrants from the tea plantations are women. Overseas work has become a preferred occupation for many married and middle-aged Tamil women. Cultural norms around sexual contagion and modesty and national policy concerns relating to family disruptions discourage single women or women with children younger than the age of five from taking up overseas work.

Remittances from international migration contribute significantly to the country's foreign exchange earnings and surpass earnings from textiles and tea, sectors that also employ high numbers of women.

Why do women undertake the journey across the seas? How has globalization shaped women's movement between work sectors and across transnational spaces?

I asked Indra the first question. "Life was difficult on the plantations," she replied. Her husband's meagre earnings as a labourer, based on the number of days offered to workers under the current liberalized economy, was hardly sufficient for a family of five - the couple and their three daughters - to survive, she said. Besides, "I wanted a better life for my three daughters outside of plantation labour.

Tiruchelvi, age 26, has gone through teacher training and has been given a placement in a school. Kalaichelvi (age 24) works as a seamstress in Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital city. Eighteen-year old Sanjeevani is following Montessori training and is the only daughter who still lives with her father on their natal plantation.

Tamil women make enormous sacrifices and suffer emotional hardships when leaving their young children behind to take up domestic work abroad or in Sri Lanka. Indra was bold enough to leave the care of her children to her husband when undertaking work oversees. Is this indicative of a change in gender roles? My research suggests otherwise. However, Indra's agency is evident in her efforts to ensure that her daughters have more opportunities than she had.

Her work has given her economic independence. It was her earnings from overseas and local domestic work that supported her daughters' education.

I asked Indra about her experience working oversees. Work was "hard" she replied. She earned only an equivalent of Sri Lankan Rs. 13,000 a month (C$110) in Saudi Arabia working for a family of 12 members. Yet it was more than what she would have earned on the plantations. Besides, the families she worked for "were good people," which is not the experience of many migrant women.

I asked her what she did with her earnings from her overseas work. "I added an extra room to the line room" (plantation housing), made jewelry for the girls (a valued and only possession of women) and celebrated their puberty rites," she noted proudly. She had spent a total of Rs. 485,000 (C$4,000) on the puberty ceremonies of her daughters.

Why do poor families spend their hard-earned money on such rituals? These rituals emphasize women's motherhood role while downplaying their economic roles. Puberty celebrations among the plantation Tamils are celebrations in anticipation of the motherhood role and is more important for women than female birth rites. "Was it important to celebrate these rights so expensively?" I asked her. "They are a necessity (thevai)," she replied, "for fulfilling reciprocal obligations." I recalled the words of Veeran, another one of my consultants whom I met during a previous research trip. Veeran noted that spending money on such rituals was necessary to "show strength," meaning economic capability, even though many families get into debt to pay for such celebrations.

I learned that there is a downside to economic liberalization and new work opportunities under globalization. Sanjeevani eloped with a boy from outside the plantations. Indra was concerned about her future. Increasing opportunities for cross-sex interactions and "love marriages" (in Sri Lankan parlance) follow on from young girls' venturing out of the plantation enclaves to seek new work or educational opportunities.

Parents experience "moral panic' over cross-sex interactions, and elopement, fearing out of wedlock pregnancy and the stigma of immodesty. Popular media is increasingly raising such moral concerns around women's work and movements outside the familiar security of small communities. Would her youngest daughter discontinue her education, I asked Indra. "I hope not," she answered. Only time will tell.