Kumari Pathirage

“Soon after I was elected in 2018 to the Kaduwela Municipal Council I realised that male councilors hadn’t even read the Local Government Act. By then, the newly elected women councilors were already citing the Local Government Act in council sessions, as and when we saw fit, thanks to numerous trainings we had already attended. Right from the beginning, we would also stand against corrupt practices. Our fluency in the Act motivated male councilors to read it, too, and also to refer to it in the Council’s debate and discussion sessions. It has been three years since a large number of women came into the decision-making platforms of local government and we see a marked difference in the quality of services we deliver. And people confirm this when they come to meet us. A lot of community members come to meet women councilors because they have faith in our capacity and willingness to respond to their needs and issues.

Some male councilors feel threatened by our efficiency in responding to people’s problems and needs. I am in the Building Committee of the Kaduwela Municipal Council. I am the only woman on this committee. My ideas and views are listened to by male councilors sitting on this committee. I don’t feel restrained. Whenever I encounter hostile behaviour from a male councilor due to their insecurity, I tell them that we need to work in solidarity with each other and not to disrespect my skills and knowledge. My name gets mentioned in public meetings because the people that I have helped would cite those service delivery instances to get their other needs and issues addressed by different councilors. These encounters are not always received well by male councilors who feel politically threatened by our performances.

I was born and raised in Kaduwela, Colombo. I have a Bachelor of Arts degree from Sri Jayawardenapura University. I also have a Business Management certificate diploma from the Open University and I am currently doing a Diploma in Political Science from Colombo University. I am married and we have a 22-year-old daughter. During my schooling years, I was involved in extracurricular activities.

I was exposed to party politics and election canvassing from my childhood because my father went canvassing for Sri Lanka Freedom Party [SLFP] politicians during election times. I had membership in all key local welfare societies. For the first time, I went door-to-door canvassing in 1994 for Kingsley Wickramaratne, who was appointed as trade minister after the SLFP won that election. Since then, I helped SLFP politicians during election time. This experience and exposure gave me confidence to run my own campaign later on. But although I helped others to run their campaigns and I enjoyed grassroot party politics, I never wanted to become a politician myself. I was happy to give some of my time to help others in their campaign work and then when that election is over, I would go back to my day job as Assistant Manager at Sathosa Lanka.

The Secretary General of SLFP invited me to contest in the 2018 local government election. I first refused and he made another request through the chief Buddhist monk in our temple where I serve as a Dhamma School teacher. I also received another invitation from Sri Lanka Podu Jana Party [SLPP]. And the chief monk also encouraged me by pointing out that the country needed young women like myself in decision making positions to serve the poor and vulnerable in our area. I subsequently decided to contest. But other women from my own party said I was inexperienced and sometimes I was humiliated for my lack of experience. But I got on election stage and addressed big crowds without any fear or hesitation. When I was drawing big crowds to our rallies, they then realized my true capabilities and potential.

When I accepted the nomination to contest, my understanding was that the Municipal council is a place to pass plans, construct or repair local community infrastructure and install street lamps. But after my entry into the Kaduwela Municipal council, I realized it is a place with potential to offer lifetime services to constituents from birth to death. The Municipal Council is the closest decision-making level to the public.

We have 11 women in our Council. I am grateful for all the trainings we got from the Sri Lanka Institute of Local Governance [SLILG] and other non-government organizations like One Text Initiative. Without knowledge, women councilors cannot play an effective role. The knowledge and skill improvement trainings groomed us to perform our role in local government effectively. Some women councilors don’t appear to be interested in their personal growth. Some of them don’t even join trainings that we are offered free from SLILG and others. And they also don’t realize the role they could potentially be playing in Municipal Council. I wanted to organize a special program on the International Women’s Day to bring awareness to the specific issues and needs of women in our council area. However, some women themselves didn’t consider it as a good idea. But I always try to involve other women councilors and inform them when I get to know about trainings and other programs.

On daily basis, I have women from my area coming to see me with their special issues. Not all of their problems can be solved through the Municipal Council service delivery mechanism. Therefore, sometimes I help them through the Kumari Pathirage Foundation, my own foundation that I have registered under the Assistant Government’s Office. My foundation offers self-employment skill development opportunities, organize medical clinics, and other small scale community assistance activities. I use my own funding for these activities together with the help of my friends. After I started to proactively address problems and issues faced by constituent members, the opposition party members also became inspired to pay more attention to the people’s needs.

We have to demand a quota for women contestants in the Provincial Council election, too. A large number of us drafted a letter to the President expressing out wish to receive equal representation in the forthcoming Provincial Council election. The same letter to be shared with party leaders and other key decision makers.

I do harbour a desire to contest but I am inclined to think that our party leaders would favour their friends and male candidates. Obtaining nominations itself will be the biggest challenge that women leaders will face in the lead up to the Provincial Council election. Apart from overcoming the political patriarchy inside own political party, the women candidates will also find it hard to contest alongside men at the Provincial Council level where we have to campaign in a large area. We cannot fool people by offering them material things. We have to bring to people’s attention the services we have offered to ease their burdens and also what we could do to uplift their lives through provincial level service delivery. People living in my council area have asked me to contest in the Provincial Council election and some have already suggested that I contest in the next general election for parliament. The monk in our temple also requested from me to contest in parliament election saying that women work with integrity and that encourages men to change their attitudes toward their role as a member in local government decision making.”  

This was prepared as part of the Female Councillor’s Capacity Development Project of One Text – with the permission of the councillor to publish the document.

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