Somalatha is a rural woman who lives in a border village in the Western Province of Sri Lanka. She is a 54-year old rubber factory worker. “Rubber prices have declined. Masters say the factory is not making profits. They want to stop the workers and I will have to retire next year.”
The retirement age in Sri Lanka is 55 years; although many individuals above 55 years of age work in private firms, depending on their employment contract, continue to work.
Retirement age in the public sector is 60 years. In Sri Lanka considers the population older than 60 years, as the elderly, although 15-64 years is considered the working age.
Life expectancy of a Sri Lankan woman, like Somalatha, at birth is 78 years and 6 months. Life expectancy of males is 72 years (2011-2013, Census and Statistics Department of Sri Lanka).
Men vs women
A number of reasons have been outlined as causes for the comparatively wide gap in life expectancy of men and women in the island. Alcoholism and smoking is very high among men. Also, men face more accidents and they are subject to violence more than their female counterparts.
Somalatha’s husband engaged in all these vile acts and died at 50 over a decade ago.
“He was run over by a motor car while he was recklessly crossing the road, drunk. The doctor who did the autopsy had told a relative, that his lungs and liver had been spoilt. He might have anyway died a little later, even if he had survived the accident.”
She was left behind with three small kids in a half-built house with no savings.
“He drank everyday. There were occasions he beat me and the children. But he was a mason who earned money and fed the family. When he died, we were forlorn.”
She started work in the factory for a very low salary. If her aged mother did not come to take care of her children, she would not have had a chance even to go to work. Somalatha faced the challenges of life courageously. She took care of her old mother during her last days before she died at 85.
Sri Lankans have close knit extended families and they are culturally bound to look after the elderly.
Somalatha brought up the little ones with utmost care. The elder son is now 28 years old. He is a soldier. The 26-year-old second daughter has graduated from the Arts stream and awaits a job. She is engaged and will marry soon after she gets a job.
“Youngest is my worry. He has failed the examinations and is not keen on learning a craft and wants easy money. Now he wants me to buy a three-wheeler for him with my EPF.”
Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF) and Employees’ Trust Fund (ETF) are the two major retirement plans of the private sector employees of Sri Lanka. Somalatha was a casual worker of the factory for two years and was not a member of the EPF and ETF before she was made permanent. She worked only for ten years and her EPF and ETF are not very big. That is the only savings she has for her future.
“I want to renovate the house. But this boy wants me to give him the EPF money. I don’t know what to do,” Somalatha sighed.
Although her husband was a mason, he could not save money to build a proper house. Later, Somalatha got the windows and doors fixed, and had the walls plastered with money she borrowed from the factory. The loan is still being paid in installments.
She has not still thought of what she will do after retirement.
“I will either go to pluck tea leaves for a daily wage or to work in a cleaning service. But those jobs are risky and ill paid. Once, a woman died of snake bite while working in the tea plantation. A cleaning service worker, a friend of mine, caught Hepatitis B when a needle of a disposable syringe pricked her body when she was carrying a waste bag of the hospital for which she worked. She was sacked from the job without compensation.”
She has no option. She is not skilled for self-employment. There are some training programmes conducted by the government and non-governmental organizations on handicrafts. But they face difficulties in finding raw materials and marketing their products. It is very difficult for elderly women like Somalatha to obtain a bank loan.
The future is uncertain for Somalatha. She will be 60 in six more years. The over-60 elderly population was 9.2 per cent of the total population in 2001. It grew to 12.5 per cent by 2011 and will increase to 16.7 per cent by 2021 when Somalatha reaches her 60s.
Women comprise the majority of the aged population of Sri Lanka. There were 289,000 more women than men in the aged population of the over 60-year- olds in 2012 (Department of Census and Statistics, 2014). Women exceed the number of men in the total population.
One of the major problems faced by the aged of Sri Lanka is becoming victims of poverty when they reach an age when they are no longer fit to work. Financial insecurity among elderly persons leads them to poverty, nutritional deficiencies and illness and housing problems, the list is long.
Sri Lanka has more than 20 pension schemes, says Nisha Arunatilake, Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies. But only a few including the public service pension scheme provides income to keep a person above the poverty line. The contributory pension schemes for the farmers, fishermen and self-employed persons generate a very low pension income because of the currency depreciation.
As professor of demography at the Colombo University Indralal de Silva pointed out at the National Pensioners Day symposium on 8 October, 2015, that 82 per cent of Sri Lankans do not get pensions.
According to the Census on Population and Housing, 2012, there are 848,978 aged persons with functional difficulties. They are 33.3 per cent of the aged population compared to the 8.7 per cent of the total population aged 5 years and above. They are more vulnerable to the risks of ageing.
Life expectancy for women, at birth, is several years more, than for men. Also, wives are often several years younger than the husbands due to cultural reasons. As a result of these factors, widows are higher in number among the aged population. Only 6.5 per cent men above 60 are widowers, while widowhood among women over 60 is above 32 per cent. Half of the women over 80 years of age are widows. Widowhood among the elderly population tends to cause loneliness and related mental issues.
Our protagonist Somalatha has already been a widow for ten years. The culture of her community does not encourage her to remarry.
“I will work as long as I have strength. If my children do not take care of me after that, I will go to an elders’ home,” Somalatha said with a deep sigh.
About 37.1 per cent of Sri Lanka’s elderly population live in such alternate living arrangements other than living with spouse, family, and children or alone, as a World Bank study revealed in 2008. With less young people to look after more elderly people, Sri Lanka will definitely need policy and infrastructure development to care for its fast ageing population.