Priyadarshani Bulathsinhala

“After my Advanced Levels exam, in 1998, I joined the Sri Lanka Army. I was eighteen then and served for 15 years until I left in 2013. I was born into this country’s thirty-year war. My childhood and youth were shaped by experiences of war. I was born and raised in Kanthale in Trincomalee district. My education was disrupted by the then ongoing war. Sometimes we had to sleep in the jungle. I was often required to study at night in the dim light offered by an oil lamp. My family was very poor and we were also vulnerable to many consequences of war and violence living in a war zone. During the last phase of the war when I was serving in the Army, we had Tamil women delivering their babies in our hands. All three ethnic communities suffered because of the war. I can easily talk non-stop for a year about my experiences from those three decades.

After I left the Army, I started teaching in the village’s Dhamma school. I also got involved in community welfare activities. I got to know people in the area really well through these different engagements. They are very poor and wrestle with a lot of burdens and grievances. Some families just survive on one meal a day and some families are not able to support their children’s education.

I wanted to contest in the 2018 local government election from Sri Lanka Podu Jana [SLPP} party. Since our Pradeshiya Sabha was covering a small geographic area, I was not given an opportunity to contest but they put my name on the List. We agreed to assist all contestants in their campaigns. My husband accompanied me to meetings and he was very supportive of my decision to contest in the local government election. I addressed people at election gatherings and senior party leaders and members of parliament who came for those meetings witnessed my public speaking skills.

But after the election, male councilors showed a lot of reluctance to treat us equally. When a woman councilor rises to address the Council, they would try to wave us down. Whenever they tried to silence me, I referred to the Local Government Act and also to Sri Lanka’s Constitution which makes it unlawful to discriminate someone because of their sex. They would then allow us to talk and after few months, their resistance died down.

I was fortunate to receive a one-year training conducted by a local NGO in Batticaloa for women leaders. By the time I came to the Pradeshiya Sabha, I already knew about the Local Government Act, the role and duties of a councilor, by-laws, committees, etc. They also trained us in the use of social media for campaigning, advocacy on women’s rights, women’s issues and so on. That was extremely valuable for me to gain knowledge and strengthen my skills. All contestants should be given pre-election trainings so that they will be ready to perform the councilor’s  role from day one. After I became a councilor, I also attended SLILG’s [Sri Lanka Institute of Local Governance] training provided for newly elected women councilors.

The knowledge I gained from that and similar other trainings empowered me to proactively represent my communities’ needs in Pradeshiya Sabha sessions. And also my confidence and courage increased by many folds. I wasn’t afraid to ask questions about new proposals. I would question a councilor if I perceive of any financial mishandling and manipulation of rules for personal gain. 

I have been able to assist some fisher families in Kanthale by getting allocations to provide them fishing gear. Hunger is the top most issue in our Pradeshiya Sabha area. I have requested support from the Governor to provide mobile vending stalls for self-employed women to sell their products on the Kanthale bund. I meet women and other community members in their homes, listen to them and try to help them in whatever the way I am able to. The Kanthale Divisional Secretariat Division [DSD] is the most densely populated DSD in Trincomalee district. I also organized dry ration distribution for poor women during the initial Covid-lockdown period.

We have five women councilors in our Pradeshiya Sabha and I speak on behalf of other women councilors when I feel male councilors try to undermine them in anyway. I also share details about trainings.

I am in the Finance Committee and I don’t tolerate any injustice against a group or community during decision making taking place in this committee. For many months, the Finance Committee didn’t give a place for a female councilor. I also proposed a separate committee for women and children. It was dismissed once but I presented another proposal and then the Chairman agreed to it.  

Women should be offered a quota in Provincial Council and Parliament elections, too. The women councilors from across Sri Lanka are advocating for a quota. We also have 13 governors within the Provincial Council system and I am advocating that at least three of those positions should be made available to women.

As things stand, opportunities given for women in decision making in this country are much less compared to men. The women make up half the country’s population and they are on the frontlines of the major foreign income streams that hold our economy together. Even in the informal sector, women play a vital role. But these contributions by women are not recognized. It is time for male leaders to take our contributions seriously. Leaders of all political parties have to be engaged with in our efforts to increase women’s representation in government decision making structures. They should calibrate appointment of statutory officers both in local and national levels according to male and female population percentages. This is one way to remove discrimination against women leaders reaching the top levels of decision making.

I am grateful for all the organizations that are already rallying behind us to collectivize our efforts for increased representation of women in PC and Parliament levels.

I am hoping to contest in the provincial council election. But I am not sure if I’d be given an opportunity if that decision is going to rest on the party leadership. I also don’t have the financial means to support a big election campaign. These are the two main issues that will likely hinder my progress in moving forward. But if a decision is going to be made on the merit of services rendered by myself for the people living in the Kanthale Pradeshiya Sabha, then I am confident that I’d get a chance to contest. I have all Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim communities rooting for me from Kanthale and nearby areas.”