New Electoral law boosts Women participation: An Indigenous woman sets a milestone

‘Women in Sri Lanka endeavour towards playing a significant role in political decision-making; the local government elections in February opened a road of opportunity’

‘The year 2018 is witnessing the resignation of State leaders; starting from Jacob Zuma of South Africa, to Pedro Pablo Kuczynski of Peru, five presidents and prime ministers have been forced to resign from their positions due to different reasons. And this did not leave out the pearl of the Indian Ocean – Sri Lanka’

The political parties which earned immense gains during the recent Local Government Election which was a significant one due to many reasons, together with the President and his party, called for the resignation of the Prime Minster, falsely claiming that he has lost its mandate to govern.

But it is under this Prime Minister’s governance that a new Act was legislated by the Parliament of Sri Lanka that allowed a mandatory 25% quota for women to represent the local government.

In 2016, an amendment was made to the local electoral law in Sri Lanka [Local Authorities Elections (Amendment) Act No 22 of 2012], which retains a 25% of seats to women in local election. This is an increase from the previous quota of 1.8%. The election held during February this year became the election in which this law became first applied. 17,000 women contested in this election, making this the highest number of female candidates ever recorded.

Sri Lanka was the first country in the world to have a woman as Prime Minster and head of state, who also was elected thrice to hold the post. Sri Lanka had also a female president and politicians during the past years. But, the women in Sri Lanka had been silent in terms of political views, and have withdrawn themselves from participating in election. Their representation in general was seen stagnated as low as 2% in the local government authorities, 4% in provincial and 5.8% representing the parliament. And these low percentages included women from a particular society, or those hailing from political family backgrounds. Most women felt unwelcome into this arena, and considered the involvement into politics as a taboo on themselves.

In the local election that was held in 2011, the number of women who won office was less than 100, even though the majority of the population in Sri Lanka are women. 2018 opened to 17,000 women out of the 56,000 candidates contesting in the election for a total number of 8000 seats in the local government.

At the age of 60, a prominent activist, a former diplomat and a politician by the name of Rosy Senanayake, became the first female mayor of Sri Lanka, taking over the position of mayor to the country’s economic capital, Colombo. In one of her speeches, she stated, that her hope is that the new law will make it easier for more women from different backgrounds, ethnicity and religion to enter politics.

This year women have come forward to represent their own communities, and to stand up for women. Women are always disproportionately burdened with challenges and issues that affect a community or country. In every negative situation it is the women who suffer most, as they are forced to carry the cares of their families too. The country’s prolonged civil conflict, political imbalances, religious disturbances, natural disasters also impacted on women negatively. Yet, women are not found at the decision making table; women are not represented in the decisions that involve both women and children; women are considered to be silent listeners, and their voices being unheard.

I have lived for more than 8 years in a welfare camp as an internally displaced person; being someone from the north, traditions have always kept me away from social work and activism. I had never thought I would get the courage to contest for local office. But I did. I did because I wanted to expose the problems women in this side of the country are facing, and I want to seek for justice” mentioned a proud Mehala who hails from a city in the northern province of Sri Lanka.

Another woman who referred to herself as Lilanthi was born into a poverty stricken family. Today she leads a small business in her village in the Uva province of Sri Lanka. “I had to go through so much of harassment because I am a woman; I was treated differently when I began my own business. Many including my family despise me for contesting for the local election. I participated because I wanted to address the issues women face in economic activities. If women hold responsibility in local office, they would ensure that the different needs of the local communities are met. This time we even have a woman contestant from the Veddas.”

Pic: Daily Mirror.lk

The Veddas or the Aadhivasis as they are called are the aboriginals of Sri Lanka. They are the forest-dwellers and cave-dwellers, who live predominately in the Uva, Eastern and North Central provinces of the country.

Sri Lanka is today home to over 350 indigenous Vedda families. The Veddas lead a separate life, and struggle hard to preserve their identity, their traditions and cultures. They hunt and extract bees honey for their living. But with the large amounts of deforestation, these people are losing their main sources of income. Today they are finding alternative ways to earn an income through agricultural and labour activities.

Though influenced by the rising dominant cultures of Sri Lanka, the Vedda communities remain determined to continue their life adhering to their primitives. Due to the past civil war, some of these indigenous communities have been relocated from their native jungles to live with the other rural communities. This has created new challenges and threats to their populace.

Even though there is no systemic discrimination, there is also no planned integration of the indigenous into the development programmes. Similar to any other minority community, the indigenous people of Sri Lanka too, are kept aside from the rest of the activities of the country, and their existence mostly forgotten. They face problems concerning education, health, electricity and other maintenance activities in the villages they dwell in.  As they live mostly isolated, their concerns and difficulties do not reach the national level government, and their voices go unheard. Mass development projects, deforestation, and sometimes even large scale tourism affects the lives of the indigenous. Women from these communities often face high risks due to relocation and when confronting local travelers and foreign visitors into their areas.

Until 2011, there were none who represented the indigenous Veddas in the parliament of Sri Lanka. It was in 2011 that a young man from one particular Vedda community contested in the local government elections as an independent candidate, winning a seat in the Dehiattakandiya Pradeshiya Sabha – the local government [Dehiattakandiya is a division in Ampara, in the eastern province].

But the 2016 amendment by the parliament to the electoral law has opened an avenue for not only women from the urban and rural Sri Lanka, but also to women from the ‘Aadhivasi’ communities. For the first time in Sri Lankan history, an Aadhivaasi woman has broken traditions to step out to contest before the local election.

Shiromala, a mother of three made a landmark in Sri Lankan political history, as the first woman to stand up for the forgotten communities ‘the Veddas’. This woman, who has completed education up to the G.C.E. Ordinary Level, proudly represented the indigenous communities of Sri Lanka today, at the age of thirty-seven, with 1369 votes.

I am proud to be here to represent the Aadhivaasis of this country. We have always been ignored. Even our problems have been ignored for many decades. The members of our communities go through a lot of health issues, and we don’t get to be educated, even like the other rural people. I know I cannot settle all issues, but someone has to try. Someday I will try to contest for the provincial election too. My people will want me to do that”, stated Shiromala turning towards her family and villagers who were surrounding her with smiles on their faces.

Speaking to another indigenous woman who refused to reveal her name, “Shiromala is one of us; she will help us to preserve our culture which is being threatened for long; this is an opportunity for us to be recognized in this country again; many do not even know we exist; we are proud of her.

Women comprise 49.7% of the world population, yet hold only 22% of public offices. In governance, Gender parity is not just representation, but rather it is about women being present at decision making tables, have equality in power, equal opportunities and access to resources. It is vital for women to hold leadership positions in government, for economic growth and development of a country.

Though women have made remarkable progressions in safeguarding their human rights, enhancing access to education, and mitigating discrimination, during the past two decades, the participation of women in politics ha

s not seen improvement. Data shows that the representation of women in national parliaments in the world is 23.6%; and 19.4% women are in Asian national parliaments. Although 63 countries have had female head of states till now, only one-third has been holding power for more than four years.

Sri Lanka is a country that has the highest level of literacy [99%] in South Asia. Females’ representation in the university education is 62% [2014/2015 statistics], with 68.5% graduating. Besides, women in the public administration service of Sri Lanka are 59.9%. Nevertheless, the number of women in the Sri Lankan national parliament is only 13, at a percentage of 5.8, with provincial level 4 and local government 2.

Women always think that politics is not a woman’s business and a difficult task for them. Women have to make efforts to move forward and be able to talk openly with men and women about their concerns and their views” stated Lavaniya, another contestant from Jaffna, who did not make it to the local government.

Participation of women in decision-making processes would contribute to peace and sustainable development. It is essential that women’s voices be taken into account and their participation be enhanced, as it is not possible to have democracy in a country, if the needs, requirements, interests and views of the equal population are not considered.

However being elected to governance is not only using the power that is associated with it. Many politicians today use the power vested on them for their own interests, and for self-beneficial purposes. This does not sustain democracy.

As women and children confront more problems and inequality in a country, it is crucial that their issues be considered, and their voices heard. Being elected into a political body or having close influence of a political member gains social and political power. It is not essential to see the high number of representation of women in political bodies, but importantly to what extent they engage in law and policy making, and in implementation. When women come to politics, they receive power. But women should have a clear difference in entertaining the political power, and they should remember that they themselves are the final victims of socio – economic – politics of their male counterparts, in any given context.

It is the responsibility of the women political representatives to use this power at the right time for the right purpose in the right way, to empower other women in the societies, and bring change in the lives of all deprived communities.

Recently this year, the wife of a provincial council political member was seen with a pistol in hand, severely assaulting a bus driver in public. Camera images capture the provincial councilor’s wife kicking and stamping the driver with her feet, and raising  the gun at him, only because the bus driver had not given way to the SUV in which      they had been traveling. It is essential to undersand that the driver is an employee of a private bus company, and the SUV was a benefit received by politicians from the government, bought with the public taxes, which includes the bus driver’s as well.”

“The measure of a man is what he does with power” – Plato

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