Marriage is the most auspicious rite of passage in the life of a Tamil woman worker in Sri Lanka’s tea plantations. It supposedly confers on her the power to bring wealth, prosperity and health to her family, and to enhance the well-being of her husband. In reality, however, married women on the plantations experience self-denial, sacrifice and subordination in impoverished male-ruled households, even as they suffer exploitation and gender discrimination as workers in the capitalist system of plantation production. Patriarchy and the plantations, or kinship culture and capitalist agriculture, complement each other in subordinating women as wives and workers. In this article, I explore the connections between gender-based inequality and culture, focusing on women’s experiences of marriage and work. I then reflect on the possible directions for development programmes undertaken in the plantations. The material for this article is drawn from field research conducted in six Sri Lankan tea estates between December 1999 and July 2000.
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