“They tell me you’ve been listening to women’s problems.”

By Vindi

November 25th marked the International Day against Violence against Women and the interlinked 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence Campaign highlights the need for creating awareness on gender-based violence.  More on the Women and Media Collective’s Sri Lankan campaign can be found here: http://srilanka16days.wordpress.com/

Here’s my contribution. Mostly because a few years ago when I was researching labour relations on a tea plantation in Bogawantalawa, the women workers thought I was there to ‘listen to women’s problems’. The incident that ensues remained confined within the pages of an undergraduate dissertation, but 2 years later, I feel like I owe it to She who shall remain unnamed, to make sure that others hear her story and act against violence against women.

The following is a loosely adapted section from an unpublished Social Anthropology dissertation entitled ‘An Alternative View of Plantation Patriarchy: A Study of Labour Relations among Indian-Origin Tamil Workers on a Sri Lankan Tea Plantation’

“They tell me you’ve been listening to women’s problems.”

“Are you the one listening to the women’s problems?” She is small, and crooked from the weight of the fraying fertilizer sack full of leaves she has grown accustomed to carrying each day. I am startled, unsure as to how I should respond. I have spent a couple of weeks engaged in Malar’s welfare visits, familiarising myself with the winding paths and sunburnt faces. I have not met her before.

“They tell me you’ve been listening to women’s problems.” She repeats anxiously. I nod. “Don’t write down my name. Don’t tell anyone.”

Now, I am intrigued but am unsure as to what she thinks my role is. “When he drinks he changes. He breaks my head, my arms and legs. When he leaves, he is fine but when he comes back… I have taken on all the responsibilities of the man of the house. My four children work as domestic helpers in Colombo. You must do something to stop the sale of alcohol in the lines.”

I am bewildered. She plucks at the hedge we are standing against, crushing the leaves between her green-stained fingers. A nervous memory that rests only in her hands after the hours spent plucking kolanda (tea leaf).

“Will you tell them about how the women here suffer? Please do not write my name. Women suffer in the field and the house. We do not even have the freedom to eat. There are other women selling alcohol in the lines, they do not see our pain. If they do not sell alcohol in the lines, our men will not drink. They will not go into Tientsin to buy alcohol because they are afraid of the police. Can you bring the police?”

Uncertain as to what to say, I tell her that I am only researching gendered labour.

She asks me what the point is if I am not going to do anything about the women’s problems. “When I tell people my troubles, they carry tales to my husband so I get beaten. Why can’t you do something? Today is advance day and the money lender will collect my salary because when my husband takes a loan it is I who end up paying.” As other women begin to filter in, she leaves abruptly not wanting to be seen speaking to me.

Incidents related to alcoholism and interlinked domestic violence, are frequent. While some gruesome episodes involved young women being molested by drunken husbands, others were horrific instances of forced incestuous rape. Known through the euphemism thanni podarda (drinking water), alcohol is a menacing agent in the relationship between sexes.

Women anticipate that the management will enforce an alcohol ban, as alcoholism adds an ominous layer to the gender inequity manifesting as a prop for domestic violence. It also plays a mediatory role in men’s social engagements.

Selladorai, an older labourer tells me “It’s like refusing a meal. If you invite me to have a meal with you, and I refuse, it looks ugly on you and me both. So we will eat together. It is the same when it comes to drinking together.”

Male and female alcoholism in Sri Lanka’s plantations, hand in hand with the brewing of illegal liquor has become a grave problem that goes terribly unnoticed. This post isn’t by any measure an outcry against the vices of alcoholism, but to highlight that its ominous role in fuelling domestic violence must not be underplayed, particularly in the case of abuse and violence against women in the private sphere of the home.

I suppose the gravest predicament is not the lack of awareness or the evils of alcohol abuse, but the resonating silence and implicit acceptance that it is in the nature of men or worse, part and parcel of being a woman.

Say something. Do something, today.

Vindi is a Colombo girl. Twenty something. St. Andrean social anthropologist. Cantab international development. Reader. Thinker. Film buff. Television junkie. Writer. Impulsive wanderer. Compulsive doodler. Foodie.  You can find her blog here, and the original post here.

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