Gender equality: Can you ever really go home again?

Written by Margaret Capelazo, CARE Canada’s gender advisor

As Canadians, we often ask ourselves the question above when visiting a childhood hometown over the holidays. Women in northern Sri Lanka are asking themselves this as they rebuild their lives after 26 years of war.

Last September, I talked with some of these women to get ideas about how CARE can design its activities to best meet their needs. They told me:

“I used to manage a farm with 50 dairy cows, now I have a herd of six.”

“My herd was 60 cows, now my husband just bought our fourth.”

“When he was alive, my husband and I used to have a large herd. I had to sell most of my cows because I just can’t take care of so many by myself.”

The income from four or six cows won’t feed a family, so these women have given CARE a new challenge: design a project that promotes women as small dairy farmers.

There’s more to this challenge than the number of cows women manage. Dairy farming is a key income supplement for families in northern Sri Lanka, and in the recovering economy, there are plenty of opportunities to sell milk, butter, cheese or sweets to multinational companies, grocery stores or local shops.

But gender inequalities are getting in the way.

In northern Sri Lanka, the rules of society say that women are responsible for any chores or work close to the house. This includes raising and milking cattle, taking the milk to market or processing the milk into more valuable food.

Men are responsible for any work that happens outside of the house. This includes accessing loans, learning about new cattle-raising techniques, selling the dairy products that their wives make, or making decisions at the local coop.

This division of work leads to two inequalities. First, it means that 39 per cent more men than women earn a wage as part of the labour force. Second, it means that men are more likely to receive the income from both their and their wives’ labour.

In other words, everyone expects men to be businessmen and heads of households, but no one expects to find businesswomen or to clearly compensate women for the income generating work they do at home in the name of the family. These inequalities prevent women from recovering what they lost in the war and continuing to develop equally with men.

But because you can’t go home again, especially after a war, the women I talked to have an opportunity to change this situation and become leading entrepreneurs. As one said:

“If we can demonstrate that our business is sure to succeed and will turn a profit, we are sure that we can run it and take an equal place in decision making with our husbands.”

CARE has been working with women to start and grow businesses for over 15 years. It has built micro-credit savings and lending funds with over two million women in Africa, trained more than 10,000 at-risk adolescent girls in Burundi to run their own businesses, and helped women enter valuable business sectors traditionally dominated by men such as livestock and veterinary supply sales or international cashew marketing in Bangladesh and India.

My discussions with women in northern Sri Lanka give CARE clear ideas for building on these successes by training women in business management and planning, providing a space where women and men can talk to one another about household finances openly and transparently, linking women to appropriate loans, and providing women with the skills training and business networks that they need.

Most important, the key is to provide women and men both with a space to create the vision of what a northern Sri Lankan businesswoman looks like. Because even if you can’t go home again, you can build a new house in which women and men can live in equality.

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