The Use of Language to Disempower: A Longitudinal Study of Women in Sri Lanka

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Presented at the Language as a Social Justice Issue Conference. Held on the 26th November, 2014 at Edith Cowan University, Joondalup Campus, Perth, Western Australia.


The rise of economic liberalism in Sri Lanka after 1992 has generated a continuous and powerful debate about women in the workforce. Local politicians, media and powerful societal forces have used discourse to attempt to subnordinate these women. Gender issues were used as a platform to engage in unrelated political agendas and criticise Exporting Processing Zones (EPZ), female workers and female sexuality. The use of language and misleading discourse played a pivotal role regarding the discussion against the movement of women into the Sri Lankan economy, as women are viewed as an important pillar of a highly moral and religious patriarchal society not concerned with gender equality. Our longitudinal research in Sri Lanka sampled more than 3000 women over 14 years. The paper uses data from two research projects in Sri Lanka from 2002-2011 (Study 1) and from 2013-2014 (Study 2). The studies analysed their lived experiences vis-a-vis empowerment and dis-empowerment as well as the negative discourse they faced on a daily basis as part of their lives as EPZs workers (Study 1) and after returning to their villages (Study 2). We have identified serious significant negative discourse that stand out as examples of attempts to use language as a form of power against the women we studied. Regarding the use of language to display power, our interviews with Sri Lankan workers show that young women are commonly described as Juki girls, a term used with a negative connotation of submission and low status. Moreover, EPZs are often referred to as whore zones due to the stigma created by society and pushed by a political agenda in national discourse, such as: “Our innocent girls are sewing underwear for white women” (Lynch, 2002, p. 82). The two studies employed a mixed methods design to identify measurable outcomes of women’s former employment and exploring subjective external influences on the overall well being of Sri Lankan women. The questions in both studies were designed to assess their experiences of power (or powerlessness) and subordination. The results of Study 1 show that nearly all of the women surveyed (95.3%) reported feeling empowered as a result of their work in EPZs. The respondents also indicated empowerment across their home as well as in society. However, 15% reported public humiliation. Concurrently, Study 2 results demonstrated few negative experiences as a result of their work in formal manufacturing. However, 10% (7.2%) experienced humiliation in public, their community or society whilst working in the manufacturing industry, and 12% reported experiencing negative societal attitudes upon first returning home from their work in EPZs. In conclusion, these women experienced little overt/blatant forms of harassment and a large number reported empowerment as a result of their work life, despite strong negative discourse by the local media and politicians. Despite this, we concluded that the largest single source of dis-empowerment was from societal forces that used language to subordinate a large and relatively new social movement in the nation, that is young women who work in EPZs.

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