Our impact, their voices

Sri Lankan women making waves in local industry

With determination, detergent and the support of the ILO project promoting local empowerment through economic development in Sri Lanka, a group of women-headed households have gained social and economic power.

Feature | 05 November 2018
Ms Krishnakumar Jeyaranjini
Puthukudiyiruppu, Sri Lanka (ILO News) – Krishnakumar Jeyaranjini moved around constantly during the 26-year-long Sri Lankan conflict. She suffered the pain of displacement and separation from her loved ones. Then, in 2013 she lost her husband, and found herself responsible for supporting their three children.

The 49-year-old tried many jobs to make ends meet, including working in a pharmacy as a saleswoman, home gardening, farming and other small-scale enterprises. But the return did not cover her daily household expenses, the needs of her children and their education.

“After the conflict ended, we came back to our original home in 2012. We needed money to rebuild our lives, but nobody was willing to offer us credit,” said Ms Jeyaranjini.

Her problems drove Ms Jeyaranjini to form a group with 14 other women. They named it “Uthaysooriyan” (Morning Sun). The group collected a hundred Sri Lankan rupees from each member and, meeting monthly, used the fund to give financial assistance to whichever member needed it. This initial step led them to develop a co-operative which grew into the Puthukkudiyiruppu Women Entrepreneurs’ Cooperative Society (PTK Cooperative), the only female cooperative society in the north-eastern town.

Ms Jeyaranjini also joined skills training classes organised by the Sri Lankan Government’s Vidatha Resource Centre, where she learned how to make detergent powder. With a subsidy from the PTK Cooperative and help from local NGOs, she bought materials and a grinding machine and set up as a detergent producer. 

Ms Jeyaranjini is processing detergent powder at her home.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) working closely with the women’s group from the beginning, helped to expand its membership to 80 people and to link them with markets, buyers, and social enterprises. Under the ILO’s ‘Local Empowerment through Economic Development’ (LEED) project funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), Uthaysooriyan was eventually registered as a cooperative. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government of Norway saw value in growing the ILO approach, and funded the Employment Generation and Livelihoods through Reconciliation project. At present, the ILO is taking this work to greater heights under the EMPOWER  project funded by UN Peace Building Fund (UNPBF) in partnership with the World Food Programme (WFP) and the PTK Cooperative.  From being a beneficiary at first, today Ms Jeyaranjini is an active Community Mobiliser for PTK.

Women-headed households break the barriers and build peace

Sri Lanka’s internal conflict left thousands of families like Ms Jeyaranjini’s as women-headed households. They face numerous difficulties.

Ms Jeyaranjini recalled the apprehension and discomfort she experienced when explaining her business idea to her family and others.

“When I started there were hardly any women entrepreneurs as it was a male-dominated environment. I faced lot of criticism and lot of people tried to ensure that I failed,” said Ms Jeyaranjini. “Happily, things are changing now.”

Through determination and support from other women-headed households, Ms Jeyaranjini has expanded her small-scale business. She owns a small grinding mill. Her products now include detergent, homemade pickles, dried chilli powder and rice flour. Using her bicycle she sells her produce to surrounding communities.

These war-affected women are now engaged in income generating activities, cooperatives and businesses with partners beyond their own communities and ethnic groups and are therefore more likely to gain greater decision-making roles in their community and to be more involved in reconciliation and conflict risk mitigation

Ms Jeyaranjini cycles to deliver detergent powder.
Ms Jeyaranjini is also planning for the future. Her plans include finding more market opportunities and getting valid certification for her products.

“I am planning to turn the grinding mill into a large-scale business. And I wish to do the same for my detergent powder. I hope I will be able to access good markets,” said Ms Jeyaranjini.

“Often the words ‘woman’ and ‘detergent’ bring out gendered images of a woman washing clothes at home, not of a woman owning or running a successful detergent-producing enterprise,” said Simrin Singh, Director of the ILO Country Office for Sri Lanka. “It is stories of our work empowering women like Jeyaranjini, building block by block, that are the essential inspiration so many other women in this country could use to break the barriers to their empowerment.” 

Social and economic empowerment

Ms Jeyaranjini has also played roles in other women’s groups in her village, Kaively, outside Puthukudiyiruppu, where it created a social cohesion among women from different ethnic groups. She was the founder-President of the Puthukkudiyiruppu Women Cooperative Society and is a member of the Women’s Rural Development Society, the Self-Employment Women’s Society, and a number of other village-level women’s societies. She has undergone a number of leadership and gender-based trainings.

Alongside these commitments she still handles the responsibilities associated with being a single mother of three children. “I am a proud mother. My elder daughter is married and working in a private company, and the two boys are still schooling. My second son is very good at sports, with many gold medals in football and high jump. I want them to be achievers, and to be able to stand on their own feet.”

“I am really happy to see the Cooperative’s development, and really thankful to the ILO for their support. Both the trainings and financial assistance have helped me climb my own business ladder. When you come again, you will see a big factory owned by my detergent company,” she says.

For more information please contact:

Asitha Seneviratne    
Programme Assistant
ILO Country Office, Colombo