Sri Lanka

Foreign Employment Disintegrates Indigenous Families and Culture in Sri Lanka

The beheading of a Sri Lankan domestic worker in Saudi Arabia in 2013 has generated concerns of the safety of women working abroad.

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Foreign Employment Disintegrates Indigenous Families and Culture in Sri Lanka

Kiribangiya Heenbandalage, a Vedda father, prefers to keep the Vedda lifestyle but recognizes that others are free to opt for modernity.

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Part 4 in a Series

Fading Culture: Sri Lanka’s Indigenous People Adapt to a Modern World

DAMBANA, SRI LANKA – Sudubanda Bandiralalage, 38, says his wife worked in Saudi Arabia for two years. But when she returned, she abandoned him, their two children and their Vedda community, an indigenous group in Sri Lanka.

Bandiralalage, a farmer, had not been able to earn enough money to support his family, so his wife went to work abroad, he says.

“I have a small plot of land,” he says. “I grow vegetables, and the money that I earned was not enough. It was a struggle to feed my two children with that money.”

His wife was able to provide more financial support to the family by working abroad, he says. This allowed him to build a better house for their family in the Vedda community in Dambana, a village in the landlocked Uva province in southeastern Sri Lanka.

“I sent my wife to Saudi Arabia to work in a house as a cleaner,” he says. “She sent money, and I have built my small house and got a TV and other furniture.”

But when his wife returned from Saudi Arabia, she rejected the Vedda traditions, Bandiralalage says. Influenced by the lifestyle abroad, she tried to persuade him to discard his traditional Vedda clothing for more modern attire.

“She gave me a denim trouser and a T-shirt to wear,” he says. “But I feel odd to wear them, as all my life I am wearing a sarong. I refused, and she started hating me.”

They began to have frequent disagreements, he says.

“Instead of the innocent village woman, she emerged as a devil who frequently quarreled with me,” he says. “One day, she stepped out of the house, leaving us. She never returned, and I came to know she is now living with a man in a town.”

Because the Veddas lost their traditional livelihoods, young members now seek employment outside their community to support their families. Women now must work outside the home, with some seeking employment abroad. Although this provides extra income to households, Vedda men say it can be dangerous for women to work abroad. Their exposure to foreign and modern societies also strains families and threatens the indigenous group’s culture.

Almost half of the nearly 263,000 Sri Lankans who left the country for foreign employment in 2011 were women, according to the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment’s 2011 report. Of these women, 85 percent found work as housemaids.

Traditionally, Vedda men hunted or grew crops in the forest, and women stayed at home to look after the children, cook and take care of the domestic chores, says Vanniyaletto Uruwarige, 65, the Vedda chief. But now, many Veddas seek employment outside their community.

Because the Sri Lankan government has created more national parks during the past 60 years, the Veddas can no longer hunt or grow crops on this land, Uruwarige says. The hunting and farming restrictions have encouraged the younger generation to embrace employment outside the Vedda community.

“This resulted in most of the youth seeking greener pastures,” Uruwarige says.

He laments the departure from traditional ways but recognizes that new employment opportunities for community members are necessary for economic survival.

“I can’t blame them, as they need to survive to look after their families,” Uruwarige says.

Forced from their self-sufficient lifestyle with the restrictions on their traditional livelihoods, the Veddas needed to start earning money. All family members, including women, began to work to escape poverty, says Geethani Amaratunga, head of the sociology department at the University of Kelaniya in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s commercial capital.

“Traditionally, Vedda women don’t come out of the house, and they are shy-natured souls,” she says. “But there is a vast change in Vedda women now. They do jobs on par with Vedda men to earn money.”

Some Vedda women now work as domestic aides in the Middle East, Uruwarige says.

The benefit of this foreign work is that they earn more money for their families so they can build cement houses and own modern appliances, such as TVs, Uruwarige says.

But women also face dangers when working abroad, he says.

“I am very worried about women going abroad,” he says. “They work as domestic helpers and are subjected to various harassment.”

Migrant domestic workers routinely face exploitative working conditions abroad, including long working hours, lack of breaks or days off, poor living accommodations and movement restrictions, according to a 2010 Human Rights Watch report titled “Slow Reform.”

In January 2013, the Saudi Arabian government beheaded Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan domestic worker accused of killing a baby under her care, according to Amnesty International.

In addition to the dangers women face when working abroad, their time away causes their families to fall apart when they return, Uruwarige says.

“They earn some money, but when they return, the family is shattered,” he says. “Children go astray, and husband become alcoholics.”

Exposure to foreign and modern society also turns women away from Vedda culture, which also dissolves families.

“The saddest factor is the change we see from the Vedda women who return from abroad,” Uruwarige says. “They reject their husbands, saying they are not fashionable.”

Kiribangiya Heenbandalage, a Vedda father of three children, says he thinks Vedda people should not abandon their culture. At the same time, he recognizes that the Vedda community cannot impose laws to stop the adoption of a more modern lifestyle.

“I think it’s individual choice to change if they want,” he says.

It is a struggle to live as a pure Vedda, says Heenbanda Bandiyalage, 75.

“If things change at this rate, no one could stop the Vedda from migrating to other parts of the country for survival,” he says. “And soon, Veddas will only be exhibits.”

Interviews were conducted in Vedda and Sinhala.

Editor’s Note: Although local custom in the Vedda community is to list last names first and first names second, Global Press Institute follows The Associated Press Stylebook on this matter.