The use of language to disempower: Two related studies of women in Sri Lanka

Document Type

Journal Article


Sage Publications, Inc.

Place of Publication



School of Arts and Humanities




Originally published as: Hancock, P., & Georgiou, J. (2017). The Use of Language to Disempower: Two Related Studies of Women in Sri Lanka. Journal of Developing Societies, 33(1), 27-50. Available here.


The rise of economic liberalism in Sri Lanka in the latter half of the twentieth century has generated a continuous, powerful, and controversial debate about women in the workforce. Local politicians and powerful societal forces have used discourse to display power in the media and wider society. Gender issues were used as a platform to engage in unrelated political agendas and criticize export processing zones (EPZs), female workers, and female sexuality. Our research in Sri Lanka sampled more than 4,000 women over 14 years. The article uses data from two research studies from 2008–2011 (Study 1) and from 2013–2014 (Study 2) in Sri Lanka. The studies are interrelated. Each analyse the levels of empowerment and disempowerment experienced by women, due specifically to the negative discourse they faced on a daily basis – both as part of their life as EPZ workers (study 1) and after returning to their villages (Study 2). Serious pieces of negative discourse stand out as examples of misleading speech and attempt to subjugate women through power. Our interviews with Sri Lankan EPZ workers show that young women are described as Juki girls, a pejorative term used with a negative connotation. Moreover, EPZs are often referred to as whore zones or love zones due to the stigma created by society and pushed by a political agenda in national political discourse, such as: “Our innocent girls are sewing underwear for white women” (Lynch, 2002, p. 82). The questions in both studies were designed to assess the respondents’ experiences of power (or powerlessness) and empowerment. Study 1 shows that nearly all of the women surveyed (95.3 percent) reported feeling empowered as a result of their work in EPZs. The respondents also indicated empowerment across their home as well. However, societal level disempowerment was significant, much of it emanating in the public arena and in societal and political resistance to EPZ workers. Concurrently, results of Study 2 demonstrated lower but significant negative experiences as a result of work in formal manufacturing. Less than 10 percent (7.2 percent) experienced humiliation in public, their community or society while working in the manufacturing industry, and only 12 percent reported experiencing negative societal attitudes upon first returning home from their work in EPZs.




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