Unravelling women’s stories of health: Female workers’ experiences of work, gender roles and empowerment relating to health in Katunyake export-processing zone, Sri Lanka
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The impact of globalization processes on women, such as the new economic division of labour and relocation of global production into Third World countries, is a frequently debated topic within the globalization and gender discourse. The opportunities for formal work for young women in export-processing industries and they have been able to earn an income and to contribute economically to the survival of their poor families are the main positive impacts of globalization. Further, they are able to experience economic and social independence and increased status within their families. Unfortunately, factory jobs do not only have the positive effect of enabling the women to enjoy the benefits. Research has also identified the negative socio-cultural and health impacts on women resulting from their employment in export-processing industrial work. This thesis explores Sri Lankan female workers’ experiences of health relating to the work they do at EPZ factories and their gender roles, sense of place, self-identities, capabilities and empowerment. The principle objective of this thesis is to provide an indepth view of female export-processing workers’ experiences of health in Sri Lanka by using feminist research methodology. Sri Lanka entered into the globalization process through its adoption of economic liberalization policies in 1977. The country’s exportprocessing industries provide employment for c.400,000 people, of whom 80% are women. Fieldwork was conducted in the country’s largest export-processing zone located in Katunayake during the periods of January to May in 2002 and June to August in 2004. The study is primarily carried out using a qualitative approach. In-depth interviews with 25 female workers were conducted and women’s life histories and personal narratives were gathered. Further, key informant interviews with representatives from different stakeholders were conducted to identify their views of female export-processing workers’ health status. Furthermore, participant and non-participant observations and a questionnaire survey were carried to supplement the information gained through interviews. The women identified Katunayake export-processing zone (KEPZ) area as an unhealthy place due to their experiences of health problems and various forms of harassment. Their narratives inform about five types of health problems, namely occupational health problems, mental health problems, reproductive related health problems, weight loss and malnutrition, and infectious diseases. The results of the research have made it possible to identify diversities among the female export-processing workers in terms of their experiences and perspectives of health, self-identities and coping strategies. There is also evidence that women who have fewer responsibilities with regard to their families in their home villages, increased status within the families, and who participate in organizational activities have a positive sense of places regarding home and the KEPZ area and also have positive self-identities. In particular, there is clear diversity between the women who participate and those who do not participate in nongovernmental organizational activities, in terms of their capabilities and empowerment relating to improving their health. Active participants’ choices and actions at different places demonstrate that they achieved individual, collective and organizational empowerment. Further, the women’s stories reveal that they have achieved several practical and strategic gender needs for promoting their health and well-being. Institutions at local and national levels also play significant roles in women’s empowerment and capability building. The results of the study identify that many institutional strategies constrain women’s empowerment and capabilities by not providing the necessary information, knowledge, instruments, and social support that the women need, and subsequently the women are unable to live to their full potential. The research concludes that female export-processing workers in Sri Lanka experience both positive and negative aspects of globalization. They have gained incomes for living independent lives while at the same time being helping their poor families. Some have even taken the initiative to secure their lives through improving their possibilities for self-employment. Meanwhile, they are exposed to various forms of health problems and harassment as a result of being EPZ workers. The successful stories of empowered women indicate that female EPZ workers have the ability to achieve better health status and to live successful lives as women with respect and dignity, but they need support from the socio-cultural, economic, legal, and political institutions in the Sri Lankan society to attain their goals.
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