Rural Women Activists Share Their Biggest Successes – and Battles Ahead


At the Commission on the Status of Women in New York, we speak with activists from Sri Lanka, India and the Philippines about the progress they’ve made on economic advancement for women in their communities – and the challenges that lie ahead.

Sepali Kottegoda is an academic, women’s rights activist and technical adviser on women’s economic rights and media at the Women and Media Collective in Sri Lanka.

Progress Made: It’s a complex issue – but the migration of women to Middle East countries or what we call West Asian countries. Women go into the international informal sector and most often they do not have the protection of even local laws, if there are any. Some countries don’t have local laws that protect domestic workers.

However, look at what happens when these women return – they bring money. They have been sending money home, they have built their houses, sent their children to better schools, nutrition has gone up. There has actually been this change in women’s roles in society as income earners. [Then, when] other women go, they are much more confident than they were 30 years ago. So it’s an obligation of the government to ensure their safety, but recognition has to be given that this has actually made a huge difference in women’s ability to make decisions for themselves and for their families on finances.

Progress Needed: Where we still have to make tangible progress is in challenging patriarchal norms.

I think what’s very important in unpaid care work is to distinguish the emotional bonds that there are and the gender norms that expect women to take on the work of unpaid care.

When I have started talking about unpaid care work in Sri Lanka, I’ve had usually one of two responses. One is, “Why do you want to question this? This is what [women] do because [they] love their families and you are coming in and you are trying to bring in something that is not there.”

This mostly comes from men, but women kind of squirm a little. They understand what I’m saying but for them it’s like breaking their emotional bonds. What I say is, “No one is questioning the emotional bonds. We all do it – I do it – but it is work.”

Why is it that we have to abide by some definition of work that keeps the work that women do completely out of the picture? Our population [in Sri Lanka] is close to 21 million, out of which 7 million are designated as being outside the labor force – that is, they are economically inactive. Out of that 7 million, 5 million are engaged in housework. We have these 5 million women who are not considered to be contributing to the economy of the country.

Many of the development agencies speak about getting women into the labor force, but they don’t talk about unpaid care work. Number one: Recognize unpaid care work. Define it. Following from there [can be] very clear employer policies that [would] recognize men’s role in care within the household. In countries like ours, if men say, for example, “My child is sick, I need to take leave,” the employer asks, “Why can’t your wife take leave?” There are men who want to take care of their children [but] it’s kind of understood that they are not required to do so or [others] will say, “Oh, this man is under his wife’s thumb.”