Lihini Fernando

“An Educated Voice on Behalf of a Village,” was the motto of my 2018 election campaign. My husband helped to me to run it. I just had twenty days to communicate all the important messages to the people in Moratuwa Municipal Council area after I was nominated to contest. I was totally new to the party and I contested against very experienced politicians. I decided to run a poster- and billboard-free campaign. I used social media and house-to-house canvasing as the main tools to engage with my constituent members. I came short of 43 votes but my party, UNP [United National Party] gave me a place from the List.

No one else from my family had served as a professional politician before. When I was in school, I wanted to become a politician. But that interest died down as I became preoccupied with higher education. I have a BA in Economics and Management from University of London. I also have an LLB [Bachelor of Laws] and attorney-at-law degrees. I worked in the private sector while studying for these degrees and after. I was inspired to become a politician by Eran Wickramanayake, the UNP’s organizer for Moratuwa. When I first met him in 2015, I expressed my displeasure at how the internal-politics of the UNP was undermining it from within despite being a main political party in the country’s post-independent history. Then Mr. Wickramanayake pointed out that little change can be achieved by being critical of it from outside and suggested I should try to change it by getting inside. Nearly three years after, in 2018, the UNP invited me to put my name down on the List for the Municipal Council election, but I opted to contest.

I already had a fairly good knowledge about the local government system but all the trainings I underwent since I became a councilor helped enhance my knowledge about the entire system. I have my own views about the weaknesses in Sri Lanka’s local government system: The Municipal Council, for example, can be managed by just the Mayor without councilors. The Mayor, with assistance from their big staff, should be able to manger all MC level services as there aren’t many duties for them to perform. And officials and decision making spheres in the local administration such as Divisional Secretariat and its officials should cater to the needs and problems of people living in the respective Division. As things stand, service delivery platforms of local government is very partisan and councilors from the opposition are not given requested allocations by the governing leadership. This is a perennial problem irrespective of which party is in control.

I have to beg for allocations from the national minister for any service I want to provide for my Ward’s citizens. Since we are part of the opposition, the Mayor doesn’t respond to our proposals. Among women councilors, solidarity for each other’s efforts has been lacking. We have a Women’s Society in our Ward which meets once a month. Irrespective of which party they voted for, local women attend those meetings. I try to address their needs and issues through this society. It is very challenging. For example, it has taken many months of fund raising from national and other private sources to organize vocational training assistance for women. I also assist them with legal counsel in domestic violence related cases. Apart from helping women, I help the elderly by organizing medical camps. I got allocations to build a rock bund to prevent coastal erosion in my Ward.

My default operation mode is diplomacy. I am a lawyer and I know how to get things done without engaging in boisterous arguments with other councilors and officials. Except at the beginning, I haven’t faced hostile attitudes from other councilors and officials working in our Council. They do take some of my ideas on board, like in the case of agreeing to form a committee to resolve Covid-19 related issues encumbering our communities. I haven’t experienced any harassment as a woman. I also don’t stoop to their level. I try to maintain very professional relations with them.

We got training assistance from SLILG [Sri Lanka Institute of Local Governance]. As much as the opportunity to increase my knowledge in local governance, I value the space created by those training programs to meet with other women councilors.

By increasing women’s representation in local government decision making, we have managed to sensitize everyone outside the system about challenges and issues we contend inside the Council. Because women councilors talk about issues very openly. And the male councilors are aware that we keep tabs on their service-related decisions and practices. There is less space for corruption as a result of our constant scrutiny and questioning. We read audited reports. We have to have women sitting in those mayoral positions, too. We have to change the existing patriarchal system from inside.

Women have to be knowledgeable of how to connect the issues our constituents face to the relevant policies. This is still lacking among women councilors. Filling this gap, we can be better prepared to face corruption and other institutionalized problems we experience in the Council.

I am an active member of Samagi Jana Balwwegaya [SJB] party. I take media space to bring attention to national level issues such as the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, burial of Muslim Covid- 19 victims against their religious beliefs, and any other injustices that need to create a national level discourse around. I am also advocating for better campaign financing regulations to make election campaigns more transparent and corruption-free.

I was offered to run for parliament election in the last elections. But I didn’t want to run for the sake of it. I want to make sure it is a good campaign and I win at the end. If I am asked to run in the next Provincial Council election, I will look at my situation from all sides, if I am able to self-finance my campaign, how will it affect my role as a mother to a five-year old son, and how will my family be affected by my decision. It makes a lot of sense for me to contest but my nomination will boil down to party politics and internal dynamics.

I am trying to work on a cross-party initiative with other women councilors to demand for a 25% quota for women in Provincial Council elections. We want to hand over a declaration to the President with our demands.”


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