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Unmarried women’s ways of facing single motherhood in Sri Lanka – a qualitative interview study

Malin Jordal1*, Kumudu Wijewardena2 and Pia Olsson1

Author Affiliations

1 IMCH/International Maternal and Child Health, Department of Women’s and Children’s Health, Uppsala University Hospital, Uppsala, SE, 751 85, Sweden

2 Department of Community Medicine, Sri Jayawardenepura University, Nugegoda, Sri Lanka

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BMC Women's Health 2013, 13:5  doi:10.1186/1472-6874-13-5

Published: 6 February 2013



In Sri Lanka, motherhood within marriage is highly valued. Sex out of wedlock is socially unacceptable and can create serious public health problems such as illegal abortions, suicide and infanticide, and single motherhood as a result of premarital sex is considered shameful. The way unmarried women facing single motherhood reflect on and make use of their agency in their social environments characterised by limited social and financial support has consequences for the health and well-being of both themselves and their children. The aim of this study was to explore and describe how unmarried women facing single motherhood in Sri Lanka handle their situation.


This qualitative study comprised semi-structured interviews with 28 unmarried pregnant women or single mothers. The data were analysed by qualitative content analysis and the results related to the conceptual framework of social navigation.


The women facing single motherhood expressed awareness of having trespassed norms of sexuality through self-blame, victimhood and obedience, and by considering or attempting suicide. They demonstrated willingness to take responsibility for becoming pregnant before marriage by giving the child up for adoption, bringing up the child themselves, claiming a father for their child, refraining from marriage in the future, permanently leave their home environment, and taking up employment. Throughout the interviews, the women expressed fear of shame, and striving for familial and societal acceptance and financial survival.


A social environment highly condemning of unmarried motherhood hindered these women from making strategic choices on how to handle their situation. However, to achieve acceptance and survival, the women tactically navigated norms of femininity, strong family dependence, a limited work market, and different sources of support. Limited access to resources restricted the women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights, including their ability to make acceptable and healthy choices for themselves and their children.

Single motherhood; Unmarried mothers; Qualitative interviews; Social navigation; Sri Lanka