National level politics in Sri Lanka is in unusual turmoil. Yet, long-term positive changes are happening at the local level among women politicians. For many women in Sri Lanka’s local councils, politics is new. They have received much-needed support and new skills in trainings supported by Demo Finland.
The share of women in Sri Lanka’s local politics jumped from 2 per cent to almost a quarter in the 2018 election, where for the first time a 25 per cent quota for women was in place. The position of women in Sri Lankan politics is weak, with only 5.3 per cent of Members of Parliament being women. The rise of women to local councils in 2018 was therefore a significant opportunity to strengthen gender equality in politics.
However, the number of women alone is not enough to guarantee that women’s voices are heard in politics. In the 2018 election, a large number of women with no political experience became councillors, as they were recruited at the last minute in order for the parties to meet the mandatory quota. Many of these women lacked the skills and confidence needed in politics. At times they were also looked down on by male politicians as they had entered councils thanks to the quota. There has been a great need for training and peer support among women councillors.
New skills and confidence
Demo Finland has supported women’s political participation in Sri Lanka since 2019 with its partner organisation One-Text Initiative (OTI). To date, more than 360 women in seven provinces have been trained. The trainings have been organised in co-operation with the Sri Lanka Institute of Local Governance, the government institution with the mandate to train political leaders.
The trainings have focused, for example, on the legislation governing local councils and its application in practical decision-making, the role and responsibilities of councillors, negotiation skills and understanding the needs of the constituency. The trainings have been a combination of strengthening technical competence, increasing soft skills and peer support and included entire councils in certain districts instead of the practice of picking and choosing of individual trainees. The intension here was to improve communication across political party lines. The project covered Tamil, Sinhala and Muslim councils.
During my initial days in politics, I did not have adequate knowledge on laws and the procedures that were adopted within councils. Therefore, the trainings which we received provided us with the necessary awareness and knowledge on such aspects. We were provided with awareness on aspects such as fund allocations, budget proposals, and how to take the services provided by the councils to the people through the proper channels.Mohammad Ismail Fathima Rihanna
The women who took part in the trainings have felt that, at the beginning of their term, they did not have enough knowledge and skills to be able to act in the best interests of the constituency. Also, male politicians have not always been supportive towards active women. Trainings have given women the tools to face difficult situations in decision-making, solve problems and take up more space. They have gained more confidence in using their voice in councils as they have a better understanding of legislation. The tests taken at the beginning and end of the trainings also reflect the increased competences of the participants, as the results have improved by more than 35 percentage points on average.
We did not have knowledge pertaining to media, technology and laws pertaining to local government when we stepped into politics. However, we are in a much better position today because of the trainings.Thayalarajan Paulina Subothini
There was a need for capacity building already much earlier, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the trainings. On the other hand, women have now had time to gain experience of working in politics and the practical challenges they need to face, so in the trainings they have been able to share experiences and focus on exactly what has been difficult. The local councils’ term will continue until spring 2023, as the elections were postponed. OTI and Demo Finland are also planning to organise candidate trainings before the elections.
Their trainings helped me to express my views coherently in Municipal Council sessions and in other public gatherings. I am now aware about CEDAW [Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Violence Against Women] and other local and international frameworks that focus on women’s rights and entitlements. For instance, if a man harasses me, now I have the knowledge and confidence to file a complaint against him at the local police station.U.Sandamali
Thanks to the trainings, the vast majority of women who, due to their bad experiences and lack of self-confidence, had planned to leave politics after this term, have since decided to run in the next election. About 20 per cent of participants interviewed before trainings said that they did not plan to continue in politics. However, after the trainings, only one participant thought so.
Women are not given leadership roles by the male leaders in their political parties. Inside the council setting, we are expected to be loyal always to our party leaders and play a submissive role. I believe it is important for women councillors to support each other and act as a team when we see a good proposal or initiative being submitted by another woman councillor.Sujeewa Chandrasiri
Democratic decision-making needed in crisis
In the past six months. Sri Lanka has been hit by the worst economic crisis since its independence. This has resulted in a serious shortage of food and medicine, among other things, and the country’s medical union has declared a national health emergency as vital medicines threaten to run out in the country’s hospitals. In April, the entire Sri Lankan government, with the exception of the Prime Minister and President, resigned as a result of long-running protests criticising shortages or essential goods and power outages. In May, eventually also the Prime Minister resigned.
In addition to economic policy, there are a number of reasons behind the economic crisis, such as the loss of tourism caused by the pandemic and the decline in remittances from migrant workers. However, this kind of crisis cannot be resolved without democratic decision-making, good governance and addressing citizens’ concerns. For this reason, too, it is essential that politicians have both the knowledge and expertise as well as the ability to take necessary decisions forward. Women have long been ignored in Sri Lankan politics, but they have a desire to act in the best interests of the people and now have more and more opportunities to take forward the issues they see important. It is important to notice that the electorate is 56% women.
I will not leave room for corrupt practices. Our efficient responses to the service needs of the people also put male councillors in bad light. This is why male councillors see us as a problem. I can see they are already worried about the next election due to our performances and achievements.Thushanthi Gunarathne
In addition to training politicians, OTI has, with the support of Demo Finland, conducted a study of the political parties’ gender equality practices, followed by a seminar for the parties which also received local media attention. The study found that although there are a lot of women in the parties, they have difficulty advancing their political careers and often hit a glass ceiling. Co-operation with parties to promote gender equality continues. The project has also set up a network of local women politicians, currently working mostly via a Whatsapp group. There are 130 active women members in the group.
The project also promotes the representation of women as decision-makers in the media. To date, the project has mapped the visibility of women politicians in the media and strengthened the social media skills of women politicians. The aim is to break stereotypes about women politicians and to promote gender equality in politics.
The society’s level of accepting decisions made by women is still low. There are women who have curbed their activities because of this issue. Their skills and abilities must be brought out to the public.Ranjithraj Kulagowri
The rise of women to local councils was a beginning. Many women want to extend the gender quota to the national level as well, and some of them have plans to continue to pursue national politics. However, in addition to the numbers, it is important to ensure that women politicians have the necessary skills and strong networks to support them.
The citations in the article are excerpts from the stories of women politicians published on OTI’s website.
OTI has produced a video on the project’s workshops: