Female politicos get chance to prove their worth

Source: Sunday Times

Sri Lankan women contesting the local elections in large numbers amid obstructions and challenges this year will take a step towards greater political empowerment, while also being seen to be tools of powerful political backers rather than those committed to serving the people.

Some civic groups believe candidates also have a responsibility to help improve the political culture in the country.

Women’s rights groups such as the Women and Media Collective, believe that the entry of more women will create less room for corruption.

“Until now there was only two percent female representation and that was about 92 women in a total of approximately 4,000-member local government system. The new electoral system not only increases the number of candidates to about 8,000 but boost female representation to about 2,200,” said co-founder Kumudini Samuel.

Community governance will give priority to grassroots issues, concerns such as garbage disposal, street lighting, maternal and child care centres, health and community clinics, employment of women and youth, improving of recreational spaces and parks, and community markets.

“We believe the culture of local politics and governance can be changed for the better. Women will be conscientious in dealing with local issues they are familiar with and women are also reputed to be less corrupt. A fresh complement of local councillors, both men and women will help to curb corruption at the level of local government,” Samuel said.

Political parties have placed their female candidates in wards where a powerful, often male, candidate is contesting from another political party and that can lead to distorted election results, Rajith Keerthi Tennakoon of the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections said.

“Female candidates must contest in at least 10 percent of the wards in a particular electorate and political parties often put their female candidates against very strong male candidates. In most cases women candidates are competing against former chairmen of a local council, or an extremely popular figure,” he said.

He said the situation will also strengthen the perception that women can’t successfully contest against male candidates.

Rohana Hettiarachchi from the People’s Action For Free and Fair Elections, said while they believe corruption will be reduced by half with the increase in female representation, this election raises doubts whether capable and strong women candidates are selected by seat organizers.

“Many female professionals and community leaders are watching the election,’’ he said, adding that future candidates at elections will make their decisions depending on the level of character assassination and harassment they witness. “The females appointed this time have a huge task in improving the political culture and raising the quality of local governments,’’ he said.

He said the NGO has received 14 complaints, most of them about harassment and attacks on offices.

Deputy Election Commissioner Mr M M Mohommed said that the Election Commission has received complaints from female and male candidates. However, character assassination via social media, abusive phone calls and use of abusive language against a candidate are main categories under which female candidates have filed complaints.

“We receive such complaints on a daily basis,’’ he said.

He said the police will issue warnings at first and if the abuse and harassment continues, then action will be filed in court.

Shreen Abdul Saroor, the founder member of Women’s Action Network, told the Sunday Times, that a woman candidate in Mullaitivu had been abducted and there had been many threatening telephone calls and harassment reported in the Vanni.

But, Ms Saroor said women do not complain for fear of being threatened or harassed. She also said many women candidates often say that the police do not take such matters seriously.

“Due to the culture of impunity, women find it difficult to differentiate normal violence from election specific gender-based violence. Because of this they fear opening up about the violence experienced by them during such times,’’ she said.

Ms Saroor said that the quota at the local authority level was a milestone for the women’s movement in Sri Lanka. About 1,900 women will administer their villages and towns, compared with less than 100 women politicians in local authorities in the past.

A former banker, Ms Bogini Sigera entered politics in 2015. She believes that politics is a rough ground to tread and yet a woman can be her own shield of protection against violence.

“There is discrimination and the insecurity of being judged. But the biggest obstacle for a woman candidate is to manage both her family and profession,’’ Ms Sigera said.

Nizam Kariapper, the secretary of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, said: “Women candidates have been keen to seek nominations and the party has been successful in fulfilling the quota by introducing enough female representatives.’’

Secretary of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, Sagara Kariyawasam, said women are highly respected and by encouraging women to engage in politics, a favourable trend is created.

Minister of Labour, Trade Union Relations and Sabaragamuwa Development, John Seneviratna, said women make up the majority in the country’s population as a result of which the UPFA endorses the view that women should engage in politics at every level.

“Invariably, all national problems affect women, therefore they must be given an opportunity to play a pivotal role in socio-economic matters,’’ he said.

Minister of Sustainable Development and Wildlife, Gamini Jayawickrama Perera, said that the United National Party has given women the power to take decisions in politics.

“At present, women are very powerful. They are engaged in the service sector and public administration. However, their engagement in politics is comparatively lower than in the other sectors,’’ he said.

All politics becomes local for some contestants
Dr Soma Ratnayake, an indigenous medicine practitioner from Siyambalanduwa Pradeshiya Sabha in Moneragala district, hopes to serve what she describes as the poorest Pradeshiya Sabha division in the country by contesting for the leftist People’s Liberation Front.

Dr Soma Ratnayake

She said present provincial councillors and Pradeshiya Sabha members enrich themselves rather than serving the public.

“We are still the poorest area because most of the funds received are misused and state resources wasted,” she said.

If elected, she plans to address issues faced by farmers and promote local medicine and herbs.

Pushpa Jayasekara, a served as a postmaster in Kegalle. When she retired four months ago, she was encouraged to enter politics to address issues in her area, Mahapallegama, Dedigama in Warakapola.

“For years, complaints have been ignored. There are families without drinking water, there are many unemployed women whose families are in poverty, there are issues with regard to line rooms,’’ she said, citing a few of the issues.

Ms Jayasekara said she had support from women and men who are confident that their problems will be addressed.

Photos and story by Moneragala Correspondent Sumanasiri Gunathilake