Hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankan women work abroad as housemaids, mainly in the Middle East. Their remittances are a cornerstone of their country’s economy, and a desperately needed source of income for their families. But their absence is keenly felt.
In a sitting room in a wealthy neighborhood of Amman, the Jordanian capital, three Sri Lankan maids – Mala, Manike, and Coomari – sit on plump couches, sipping sweet Arabic tea. Madame Shama is serving, for a change – and translating from the housemaids’ acquired Arabic. The women are here to explain why they’ve traveled thousands of miles to work for a hundred dollars a month. In a word: family.
“I love them so much and I was so desperate to make anything possible for them to live better and eat better and learn better,” says Coomari. “And I thought, it’s only two years. Maybe it will be worth it.”
By almost any measure, the housemaids’ salaries are tiny – some as little as 30 cents an hour, plus room and board, for 14-hour days of cooking and cleaning. Yet these women have been able to save for new homes in their villages. Their income now makes up the largest share of Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange. And as services that used to be taken for granted now keep their families alive, the women see themselves differently.
But there is so much that a desert kingdom cannot provide: carnations and bougainvilleas beneath a canopy of jackfruit trees; coconut oil burning from the shrine of the Buddha; the smell of curry and fresh fish. The sound of the ocean. And the touch of their children, who they will not see for years at a time.
“What hurts me a lot is that my daughter thinks my mother is her mother,” says Coomari. “When they tell her, ‘No, your mother is in Jordan,’ she says, ‘No, this is my mother.’ She doesn’t even know me.”
With so many mothers providing security from thousands of miles away, Sri Lankan society is undergoing a powerful shift – especially in the villages.“I’m trying to do what mother was doing,” says T. Ajit, the father of three boys, and husband of a housemaid working in the Middle East. As he spoke, from a small house in a village two hours from the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, his sons looked on silently, bouncing a tennis ball on the cement floor.
The adjustments have challenged traditional gender roles about breadwinning and childrearing, and have given rise to countless – and often exaggerated – stories of abuse, both to the Sri Lankan women in Arab societies and among their children at home.
“All the social ills that assail the households, they put it down to the migration of the women,” says Myrtle Perera of the Marga Institute, a think-tank in Colombo. “The violence of youth, the alcoholism of men, promiscuity, teenage pregnancy – everything is put down to women going to the Middle East, migrating for employment.”
Yet there is no disputing that in relative terms, the migration has brought real wealth to the villages. “We found that the majority of the women who migrated and came back, over sixty percent of their households had benefited remarkably – education, housing, living standards,” says Perera.
At the same time, it is much easier to find people who reflect a deeply troubled sense that this global migration is tearing at the fabric of Sri Lankan society. One thing everyone agrees on: Good or bad, this mass migration of poor rural women – a product of an integrated global economy coupled with Middle Eastern oil wealth – is changing Sri Lankan society.
– Sandy Tolan