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Sowing seeds of change

It takes thick skin and hard work to succeed as a woman farmer in Sri Lanka. From cultivating her backyard to breaking norms, Raasarathinam Arulrahini shares her journey.

Feature | Sri Lanka | 02 February 2022

PUDIYAVELLAR SINAKULAM, Sri Lanka (ILO news) - The credits of a black and white Tamil movie start rolling in. It’s 3 a.m. in the village of Pudiyavellar Sinakulam, in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. Raasarathinam Arulrahini, 59, switches off the television and prepares for her daily chores.

Many would consider movies before sunrise a rather unusual start to the day. But that has been the story of Arulrahini’s life – nothing but the unusual, ever since she was a child.

Arulrahini starts her day with one her favourite activities; watching a movie, before she heads off to her farm © ILO

Rooted in hard work

“I was farming at 12, growing vegetables and selling them at the local market, to support my parents who were severely ill,” says Arulrahini, recalling the hardship of her early days.

Little changed even after she got married. Arulrahini continued to grow vegetables in a small home garden.

“I got married at 26, we were living in extreme poverty, my husband was earning only Rs.16 a day (approximately 8 cents),” she says. “Due to a lack of water for cultivation, we were forced to dig a well using just simple tools like a pick and a shovel. With no electricity, we had to draw water from the well using a bucket and a rope. I used to dry and grind chilies from the garden, and supply chili powder, as well as homemade food items to nearby shops.”

For small-holder farmers in Sri Lanka’s northern region life is replete with challenges, even more so if you are a woman. Those like Arulrahini are an exception. While many women are engaged in farming, they mainly play a supporting role, on farms owned by male members of the family. In such cases, their job is limited to physical labor, and rarely extends to decision making. Gender bias also constrains access to agricultural technology, knowledge, financial services, land ownership, and support services.

Being among the few women farmers at that time, life was tough for Arulrahini. There was intense social pressure to give up her farming activities, yet she stood her ground, moving beyond the home garden to a half-acre plot close to home. With this expansion, the work increased, but the income, not as much.

Arulrahini was struggling to meet the family’s basic needs. Yet, she persisted, and then in 2012 a turning point.

Arulrahini has been engaged in farming for over 4 decades and grown through her own hard work, in the northern province of Sri Lanka independent women farmer owners like Arulrahini are an exception © ILO

Tendrils of support

Arulrahini and a few other women from the village received an interest free loan of Rs.35, 000 from an individual donor. And in 2017, some of them banded together to form the Malarumboomi Women’s Agriculture Development Cooperative.

“I bought about 500 kilos of onion seeds from the loan, sold the harvest and used the money to expand my farm gradually. Malarumboomi provided me with a second loan to cover the expense to dig another well, so I could engage in farming all-year round without relying only on the rains,” she says.

The bigger farm, and support from both the family and the Coop helped make a huge difference, her income grew significantly.

“Today my children are married. I have educated them, helped them build their own houses, they are settled. We have steady income, our own paddy, groundnut, as well as vegetable cultivation, and only a few payments left on the lease on our tractor,” says Arulrahini. “Even now, I am in the field from morning until noon, adding manure, planting seeds, and attending to other tasks. Whatever I earn now is for my grandchildren. The journey has been difficult, especially being a woman farmer and managing my own farm, but I am happy and content,” she adds.

High levels of poverty are common for many families engaged in agriculture, in the post-conflict Northern Province. Cooperatives such as Malarumboomi play a vital role in not only helping members access much needed finance but also other support services.

It’s president Nagulan Vijayaluxmi stresses the importance of the Coop: “We started with 35 members and now are 114 strong. At the onset, there was a lot of pushback from men who did not see the need for an all-women Coop but we were adamant. As a women’s Coop we can discuss issues faced by women famers, work towards solutions, support each other, and have a platform to voice our concerns.”

Women-led Coops like Malarumboomi are vital in empowering women farmers overcome numerous hurdles and are much needed support structures © ILO
In 2019, having identified Malarumboomi’s potential to be a model of success, the ILO began assisting the entity through the Local Empowerment through Economic Development and Reconciliation (LEED+) project.

LEED+ worked in collaboration with the Department of Cooperative Development to strengthen the cooperative system. It provides training and advice on how to improve processes such as bookkeeping, conducting regular meetings, formulating development plans, and adhering to cooperative by-laws.

LEED+ has not only strengthened Malarumboomi’s transparency and governance, but it has also ensured its continuity and sustainability. In addition, the project has helped over 65% of the Malarumboomi members, training them on a range of topics such as crop diversification, best-practices to increase yields, and boost quality. It also provides them with high-quality seeds.

Standing her ground

Arulrahini takes pride in being a farmer and role model for women farmers in the area. She is often approached for guidance.

“When I started farming neither my neighbours nor relatives felt positively about it. They used to advise me to stay home, to attend to my husband and children, some even commented that it was unbecoming for a woman to constantly work with soil, and toil in the sun. Others suggested that I argue with my husband and refuse to work on the farm. I never paid them any heed. Also, my husband was very supportive of my choices.”

While providing any support that is needed, Arulrahini’s husband does not interfere with the decisions of the farm and trusts her experience and expertise to make the right call © ILO
“I might not have impressed all the people around me, but I am the role model for my daughters; they are also doing farming. Even several women in my village have taken up farming after witnessing my success. Whenever my brothers’ visit, they look at my hands and remark that it’s time I rest my hardened hands. I laugh it off. Farming is my passion, it is the lifeline that kept us afloat. Until my last breath, I want to be a farmer.”

Farming is my passion, it’s the lifeline that kept us afloat. Until my last breath, I want to be a farmer © ILO
Supported by the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and the Government of Norway, the LEED+ project is part of the ILO’s Global Jobs for Peace and Resilience programme. At its very core, LEED+ is a quintessential ILO effort, given its ultimate aim of creating decent, inclusive and sustainable jobs, and ensuring the empowerment of conflict-affected communities in the process.

For further information, please contact

Kaushalya Kathireson
Communications Officer - LEED+ Project
International Labour Organization