Photo courtesy of Maatram

Women played a significant part in the growth and stability of the plantation economy throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Women were brought along with men by the British from India under colonial bondage through indenture, an organized slavery system. Under British rule the plantation economy grew, driving up demand for labor. However, since slavery had already been abolished, the colonial masters resorted to instituting indenture agreements.

This brought an opportunity for women to free themselves from oppression and prosecution in India, which was experiencing widespread poverty, for a better life in Sri Lanka. But instead, what they underwent was the horror and despair of harsh conditions made worse by the fact of their gender.

Women had to deal with systemic violence and abuse, tough and demanding working conditions, cultural and societal prejudices and numerous other forms of exploitation such as low wages, limited access to medical requirements and a lack of government administrative information. Many who arrived in Sri Lanka became stateless as the government did not accept them as citizens until much later, in 1986, when Indian Tamils were granted citizenship through the Grant of Citizenship to Stateless Persons Act (No. 5 of 1986). It took even longer for women to obtain citizenship through the registration process while male headed households were able to obtain citizenship easily. A 2003 UNHCR report states that there were still an estimated 300,000 stateless people of Indian origin in Sri Lanka. Proper research has not been conducted on how many stateless women still exist on the plantation.

“Women and girls have been disproportionally affected by contemporary forms of slavery in Sri Lanka. This demonstrates persisting, significant levels of gender inequality, patriarchal attitudes and intersecting forms of discrimination,” said UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences, Tomoya Obokata, in his final report on Sri Lanka. Mr. Obokata visited the country in November and December 2021.

His report found that contemporary forms of slavery have an ethnic dimension. “In particular, Malaiyaha Tamils – who were brought from India to work in the plantation sector over 200 years ago under British colonial rule – continue to face multiple forms of discrimination on the basis of their descent, making them vulnerable to labour exploitation,” Mr. Obokata said. “Women generally have to work twice as long as men to earn the same salary, due to the low wages for plucking tea leaves.”

As the country transitioned into a modern society with more freedom for women, estate women were still stuck in deplorable conditions, subject to serious crimes such as rape and other forms of violence. Being poor and uneducated, they are exploited by recruitment agencies who send them to cities as migrant workers or domestic helpers, where they are employed because they work hard and do not complain about long hours and little pay; this is the same approach that the British had when they brought indentured labor from India.

“The Special Rapporteur learnt that domestic workers who are Malaiyaha Tamils tend to work longer hours, are paid less and are known for not reporting their employers. Many are in-house domestic workers, and as a result, they are at risk of facing higher levels of exploitation and discrimination as well as physical, verbal and sexual harassment and abuse,” the report said.

While many women and girls face some form of gender-based violence, marginalized Indian origin Tamil women and girls face added tragedy in the lack of legal recognition of their identity as Malayaha Tamil Pengal (Plantation Tamil Women), losing their culture and dignity.

For two centuries women have been controlled by men due to an authoritarian plantation structure that prevented them from being leaders and instead used them to support patriarchal trends. In his book Indentured and Post-Indentured Experiences of Women in the Indian Diaspora, A. Pande, writes, “Nevertheless, since for a long time gender, as a category of analysis, remained absent in the Indenture narratives, women’s voices and experience were completely undermined.”

While witnessing the exploitation of women, what have political representatives done to elevate the status of women in the estate sector? Women are still considered powerless. Representation in political leadership is nonexistent since the political party that represents the community does not have even one woman representative who can highlight the particular issues they face. Unlike women in the North who pursued their education, estate women have little access to continued education nor are they encouraged to study. Even if they wished to, the lack of finances would not permit it.

“As regards the plantation sector, the literacy rate is 66 per cent, in comparison with the urban literacy rate of 92 per cent. The gap has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Mr. Obokata said.

Women who migrated under the indenture system in the colonial era were also sent to Fiji, Guyana, Malaysia and South Africa. Several countries commemorate the arrival of workers from the Indian subcontinent as indentured labor with annual memorial days designated to honor them, which create an opportunity for women’s movements to raise awareness about their particular issues. Commemorations highlight shared history, communicate core values and have the potential to reduce conflicts in societies, while celebrating and mourning together strengthens connections in the estate community.

Dominated by male leadership, the government and community lack the will to improve conditions for women, who have been excluded from a leadership role in their society and in the work place. At home they have to face abusive husbands who are under the influence of alcohol. Agents send them as maids to cities or as migrants workers. They are not allowed to make decisions about their own lives but have to rely on men who are raised with patriarchal attitudes.

The 30 year war has led civil society organizations and non-governmental organizations to empower women in war-affected areas while neglecting upcountry women. However, recently international charity organizations have started focusing on sustainable livelihoods and poverty-eliminating measures for the estate sector; the question is whether these projects give a sustainable solution for women and enable them to demand equality and respect in male-dominated occupations.

Civil society groups are crucial in implementing the women’s movements within the community. Women’s groups can share their knowledge of women’s rights and advocate to support leadership and other skills. Women’s involvement in the decision making process increases participation in political activity and leads to fulfilling their long term demands.

In his report, the Special Rapporteur made the following suggestions to improve the lives of minority communities:

“Strengthen efforts to eliminate ethnic- and caste-based discrimination more effectively, including by ensuring access to quality education, land, and decent work. Temporary positive measures should be employed in order to rectify the discrimination and inequalities that these segments of society have been suffering.

“Ensure the effective participation of minority communities and members of suppressed castes in all decision-making affecting their lives, at the local and the national level.

“Appoint more leaders from minority backgrounds in local and national authorities.”