The gendered burden of care in Sri Lanka’s polycrisis

Published on 18 March 2024

Iromi Perera

Director, Colombo Urban Lab

For women in working-class poor settlements in Colombo, since Covid-19, it seems that crises have kept on coming with no respite. At the height of Sri Lanka’s economic crisis in 2022 when food inflation reached 90% the shocks were far from over. Electricity tariff rates were revised and increased by 75%, followed by an increase of 65% on top of that hike in early 2023.

The economic and health indicators for Sri Lanka are currently at unprecedented and alarming rates. Decades of investment in health and education have been undone. There is no meaningful attempt by the Government of Sri Lanka to address the ability for families to be cared for, and for their basic needs to be met.

From our research (as part of the FRESH and LOGIC collaborations with IDS), we can see that many in the middle classes – who have also felt the economic crisis – have seemingly found it hard to understand just how increasing debt and the daily struggle to eat, to work, to send children to school, to attend to health needs, has impacted the urban working classes, and  how it has fallen hardest on the shoulders of women.

Women handle much of the day-to-day care not just of their households but also of the physical infrastructures – such as the work they do towards maintenance and repair of the grid, or of their food environment and so much more.

In Colombo we’ve seen that urban infrastructures of care – specific aspects of the urban environment that support or impede a care giver’s work – have been either absent or inadequate to support carers, leading them to work harder or experience significant loss along the way to fulfil their care work.

How do we care for the carer? How do our cities adapt and build our infrastructures to enable caring to happen in a meaningful way, without overburdening the carer?

Cooking through crisis

One way to understand the impact of Sri Lanka’s crisis on urban working-class poor people is to look at the household eating habits. When we look at what people are eating, it is not enough to look at prices of food or food inflation but we need to also look at competing expenses, grid infrastructure connections such as energy, water and electricity and affordability, taxes such as value added taxes and so on. By looking at the intersection of these variables and policies, rather than in isolation we can understand the food plate and the gendered burden of crises.

While Colombo was food insecure even before Covid-19 due to high non food expenses like utilities and transport, working class families were still able to eat three meals a day and maintain a diverse food plate. Through Covid-19 lockdown and the ongoing economic crisis families have significantly changed their food plate – eating fewer vegetables, proteins, and fruits daily, cutting down on quantities and even number of meals. In households with children, parents (especially mothers) are more likely to sacrifice their own nutrition for their children.

Through 2021 – 2023 we saw households stacking energy in a way they had never had to before – using more than one cooking fuel at one time and switching between energies to cook, when previously they all used only gas cylinders as cooking fuel. Women were navigating spatial limitations as well as the availability and affordability of cooking energy such as gas, kerosene, electric, wood fire and even homemade solutions using material such as coconut shells. Stacking in this way requires planning and time, and has a different impact on what is cooked as women would then prioritise food that cooked faster, could be eaten by itself or a fewer number of dishes.

When the electricity tariffs were increased, it further curtailed the ability to stack by removing time-saving electrical appliances like rice cookers (which were by then being used to cook curries as well) for the fear of increased bills.

Households even disconnected refrigerators and washing machines – further adding to the time poverty of women who then had to adjust for this by waking up earlier, or adjusting what they were cooking in order to gain some time. Cuts in social protection over the years have resulted in no school meal programmes in most Colombo schools. Children are required to come to school with a nutritious meal. This has placed an additional burden on mothers to provide this meal, with children not being sent to school on the days when a meal cannot be prepared.

Local policymakers and advisors claim that low-income communities do not know or care about nutrition and that they favour quick and easy meals.  Our primary qualitative research shows that families have a good understanding of nutritious diets but have very pressing decisions to make on a day-to-day basis where they juggle not only food costs but also time, cost of cooking fuels, ability to afford electricity and water, education expenses, transport, health, debt and many other things.

Accounting for a constellation of shocks

While the health and nutrition indicators in Sri Lanka today gives some sense of the dire crisis in households, less is understood about the impact that these constellation of policies, lack of social protection and economic adjustments – including IMF reforms – happening simultaneously, recurring, overlapping, continuously – have had on women and their ability to fulfil their care work.

It is also vital to go beyond looking at the impact on time and health of carers, but also look at the right to leisure and to have access to spaces that allow some respite from the day, and that does not require being a parent to access these spaces (for example, accessing public space through playgrounds).

The built environment and its infrastructures and design can add to the burden of care work or enable socialising. It needs to be considered as seriously as nutrition or health when thinking about urban infrastructures of care. When policymaking or the discourse on care is holistic, we can better see what is needed for people to be able to access support that would enable them to look after their families and communities, and more importantly, themselves.

What we’ve seen in Colombo is that our infrastructures, policies and even the responses to the crisis are hugely inadequate to support families in time of need. To address pressing issues across health and development indicators, it is vital to look at the different ways in which households, particularly caregivers, are impacted in order to work towards a just recovery from crisis.

The primary qualitative research this article draws from was conducted by researchers at Colombo Urban Lab – Anisha Gooneratne, Meghal Perera, Channaka Jayasinghe and Nimaya Dahanayake. You can find out more on the “Coping Through Crisis” microsite.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.

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