Fishers, Farmers, Craftspeople—Women: Gender in Post-Conflict Economic Reconstruction

Fishers, Farmers, Craftspeople—Women: Gender in Post-Conflict Economic Reconstruction

“Api anaarakshithay” repeat the widows created by 30 years of protracted war in northern Sri Lanka. The phrase translates to ‘we lack security,’ and such security can result from expanding women’s post-conflict economic inclusion. In the post-conflict setting, populations face new challenges that are created not only by the persistence of violence, but also by limited access to resurging economies. For women, such challenges compound with changing demographics and the ensuing societal restructuring. Women enter into new roles in restructured economies, offering key opportunities to establish stable post-conflict livelihoods, yet obstacles to women’s economic access too often linger unaddressed. Without addressing such structural impediments to gender equity, any progress made towards gender parity remains acutely vulnerable to backsliding if conflict reignites. Conflicts in both Sri Lanka and the Kashmir Glacier originated in the 1980s, and women’s roles in the economies of both nations transformed throughout the nearly three decades of both conflicts’ duration. Each case demonstrates a disparate component of the challenges that women face during regions’ economic reconstruction. In Sri Lanka, discriminatory systemic structures and sexual violence create obstacles to women’s economic independence. In Jammu and Kashmir, reliance on craftsmen for training and middlemen to sell their products impede women’s success as craftspeople. Analyzing both distinct contexts provides insight into the new roles that women take on in post-conflict economies. Both case studies illustrate that the full economic empowerment of women requires resolving underlying power disparities in structures that predate conflicts. Given the duress that extended conflicts inflict on nations’ female populations, it is crucial to expand women’s economic access in order to insulate their self-sufficiency against the shock of further conflict. Women in the post conflict setting can neither be essentialized as ‘helpless victims’ nor can they be assumed to be ‘fine on their own.’ National governments and international humanitarian aid organizations must consider women’s changing roles in post-conflict economies in order to most effectively support the conflict-affected populations.

Sri Lanka

The civil war in Sri Lanka lasted from 1983 until 2009, with insurgent actors endeavoring to create an autonomous Tamil state in Sri Lanka’s north: the length of the war adds emphasis on national unity in the post-conflict setting. Despite this emphasis, such call for national unity cannot be allowed to serve as grounds to prevent the discussion of gender inequity and social change. Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority population and the Tamil and Muslim minority groups in the nation’s north all exhibit historical gender inequity, yet conflict between the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan government permanently altered the role women play in northern Sri Lanka’s economy.

The significant number of majority-male casualties in northern Sri Lanka acted as a catalyst for more women to transition into the role of primary income generators in order to support their households. The Sri Lankan government reports that the total number of war widows in the nation is greater than 80,000, with many husbands still missing but not yet confirmed dead. Scholars in The International Journal of Human Rights explain that “war widows, female heads of households, female ex-combatants, employed women and girls are especially at risk due to their often impoverished contexts, their lack of education as a result of the war and their lack of opportunities in post-war economic reconstruction and development plans.” These war widows assume traditionally male roles in the nation’s economy to support their families, now working in the fishing and agricultural sectors at higher rates than in the prewar economy. Indeed, as elucidated by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, “another shift of women’s traditional to strategic roles occurred when women moved out of the domestic sphere and took on male roles in the absence of male family members; women consequently acquired more self-confidence and greater mobility and decision making powers within the family.” Such a transition in economic roles contributed to a 44 percent increase in hours worked by women in the service sector following Sri Lanka’s civil war. Troublingly, women’s transition into new sectors of the economy corresponds with 60 percent of women experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace in Sri Lanka, according to one survey in Colombo. Furthermore, upwards of 90% of women attested that they experienced sexual harassment in public spaces. This misogyny carries over to the conduct of regional government officials, who abuse their positions of power to ask women for sexual favors in exchange for services. While sexual violence may not be a direct result of the war, the predominance of men in positions of power and women’s need for self sufficiency during economic reconstruction creates conditions that inimically threaten to perpetuate such sexual violence. The combined antagonistic impacts of sexual violence and discriminatory land inheritance laws demonstrate the need for policies that address structural impediments to women’s success as they enter new roles in the post-conflict economy becomes clear.

In order to account for Sri Lankan women’s greater labor force participation, social and institutional impediments to their success must be confronted. The economic success that Sri Lanka enjoyed following the conflict’s close should not be seen as an overt success story, because structural gender inequalities remain. Women in Sri Lanka earn less than half of what men do, on average. While pay disparities are not a new challenge, the need for adequate compensation for women serving as their families’ primary income generators in the post-conflict setting is critical because “women who play multiple roles within households and society (such as cooking and carers of children and elderly) endure an opportunity cost for working outside the home for a wage,” according to Sri Lankan scholar Muttukrishna Sarvananthan. Women face additional challenges when working in the agricultural sector, resulting from inequitable inheritance laws. In Sri Lanka’s northern Jaffna province, women can control property in name only under the traditional Thesawalamai laws. In order to invest, receive loans, or sell their property, women need the written consent of a spouse – a spouse who the conflict possibly robbed them of. Additionally, when litigating disputes surrounding such property in court, women are treated as minors. Further difficulties are created due to the lack of equal economic growth across different sectors, for while Sri Lanka’s economic growth soared following the end of the civil war, 70 percent of this growth is in non-tradable sectors such as infrastructure construction. This unequal growth negatively impacts the livelihoods of women working in the agriculture and fishing sectors. Moreover, a large part of such construction is due to the heightened militarization of Sri Lanka’s north, and the expansion of the military presence often involves the military appropriating land that might have otherwise been farmed. The deep correlation between the military presence and sexual violence creates further impediments to women’s post-conflict livelihoods.

During the civil war, the use of sexual violence by both sides was prevalent, and the legacy of such violence persists in the post-conflict economy. The LTTE forcefully abducted women and girls previously both to use as human shields and for forced marriage, in addition to conscripting women as suicide bombers and combatants. The Sri Lankan military also used rape as a tactic to intimidate and procure information from the civilian populations in the north. Today, the growth of the Sri Lankan security sector continues, while its tendency towards sexual violence remains unresolved. Reports indicate that soldiers and police officers in some camps for displaced persons demand sexual favors in exchange for food and housing. Even outside of these camps, the military plays a large role in local economies, and that role in the economy prevents women from reporting sexual violence for fear that they will lose access to governmental support. Close to military bases, women report higher instances of sexual violence, and may experience societal exclusion due to the stigma attached to contact with the military, even when such contact was forced. In order to empower women to successfully manage their transition to the new role of breadwinners for families in the post-conflict setting, the government and international organizations must work to combat sexual violence and to promote growth in the economic sectors that women are primarily employed in.

Jammu and Kashmir

Conflict over control of Jammu and Kashmir exhibits both deep roots and sundry participants due to entrenched disputes surrounding territorial control. While China and India fought briefly over a portion of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, the brunt of the conflict manifested between Pakistan and India over control of the state in 1989. In the years following, intermittently flares of violence turned the region into a flashpoint, and spurred the creation of irregular military forces such as the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF). The persistence of conflict damaged the success of sectors that rely on tourism, such as the craft industry that many women are transitioning in order to generate income in the post-conflict economy.

The discord that conflict over control of Jammu and Kashmir caused in the local economy forced many women in the region to assume new roles. Akin to the situation of women in post-conflict Sri Lanka, the region now has more women than men, with numerous war widows and ‘half widows,’ whose husbands’ whereabouts remain unknown. Such demographic changes coincide with changes in traditional roles in the economy, with one researcher’s fieldwork indicating that “the conflict has caused a shift in the gender ratio in terms of employment. Women have joined the crafts work force to generate income to support their families.” After losing their husbands in conflict, many women must now assume the role of the primary breadwinner in order to support their families. Given the historical strength of the craft industry in Jammu and Kashmir, many women joined the profession following conflict-induced demographic changes. The craft industry was traditionally dominated by men, with craftsmen also primarily driving the development of new techniques in the industry. This lack of historical experience in the craft leads women to follow established techniques, creating an obstacle for women hoping to launch their own businesses. Women entering the craft industry are prone to joining pre-existing enterprises in order to learn techniques from craftsmen already in the industry, due to the lower barrier to entry required to enter the industry in such a capacity. As more women transition into the Kashmiri crafts industry, further structural impediments to their success become evident.

Chart created by  Neelam Raina .

Chart created by Neelam Raina.

Barriers to women’s success in the post-conflict craft sector include reliance on middlemen, attitudes towards women in the workplace, and the lasting impact of the conflict on the economy. The decentralized nature of the population in Jammu and Kashmir creates difficulties for craftspeople looking to sell their wares, resulting in many craftspeople entirely relying on middlemen to sell the products they craft. These middlemen pay for craftspeople’s pieces in advance, which provides income for craftspeople in the short term, but prevents them from accumulating a catalog in the long term. Craftspeople’s lack of a catalog forces them to rely on the word of middlemen to attest to the quality of their work. Furthermore, reliance on middlemen to sell their goods robs craftspeople of control over their financial futures, placing the sustainability of their livelihood at the mercy of fluctuations in the demand for their products. Middlemen reap the majority of the profits from the work of craftspeople, for because they are removed from the market, craftspeople do not have a good measure of the true value of their work. This disparity in power is exemplified by the chart above. Beyond this, Kashmiri women must also overcome the stigmatization of their employment. Kashmiri women who work to support themselves often feel shame in doing so, and combined with the prevalent lack of education and skills training among women, this contributes to women’s frustration and psychological struggles. Craftswomen also experience stigmatization from other people, who use women’s employment as grounds to question their morality and piety. This attitude translates to limited access to important information about opportunities for economic funding and support, due to an exclusionary tendency amongst majority male regional bureaucrats. This exclusion further extends to union involvement, which results in the benefits of such union action sometimes failing to extend to women. The conflict in Jammu and Kashmir greatly diminished the tourist trade in Jammu, and thus, “notwithstanding the fact that Kashmiri arts and crafts have enjoyed worldwide fame and name, their production suffered to a large extent …” according to economists in the International NGO Journal. To successfully ensure women’s livelihoods in the post-conflict setting, they must be equitably integrated into local industries, and regional and international actors must take action to spur the growth of such industries.


Women’s entrance into new roles in post-conflict economies heralds an opportunity to permanently, economically empower nations’ female populations. To achieve this goal, national and international actors supporting post-conflict economic development must proactively account for obstacles to women’s economic access and focus their support on the sectors of the economy that women transition into. Economic growth does not always extend to women, given that the specific industries they join may not grow at the same rate as nation’s broader economies. Moreover, antiquated laws and social dynamics hinder women’s ability to act independently, even when serving as their families’ sole breadwinners. Sexual violence in the workplace and by government officials must be eradicated. Women must be recognized as equal participants in the industries they join. While gendered power disparities in legal systems and industry practices may predate conflicts, resolving them is crucial to enabling women to fully participate in the post-conflict economy. Finally, gender-responsive development support requires a sector-by-sector analysis of women’s new workforce participation in order to rectify existing inequalities so that future conflict cannot erode the achievement of women in post-conflict economies.

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