“I come from a very politically active family. My paternal grandfather served a term as deputy minister of cultural affairs. My father also contested parliament election in 1972 independently. After that he served two terms in the Pradeshiya Sabha before his death. My grandfather was first a member of Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and later he joined Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Every year on 11 July, following my grandfather death in 1971, a commemoration ceremony is organized by Somaweera Chandrasiri Foundation, which is named after my grandfather. I was elected to be its president after my father’s death.
The people in our area got to know me and my social welfare activism through my involvement in our Foundation’s work. And I became very familiar with the problems and grievances that constrained their day-to-day lives. In 2011, the senior most members in Mahajana Peramuna Party (People’s Front) wanted me to contest in the Pradeshiya Sabha election to continue the legacy of our lineage. But a dominant male politician from another party which was part of the Sri Lanka Freedom Alliance coalition did not want me to contest. So I wasn’t able to contest that year. But in 2014, I was nominated to contest as a LSSP candidate in Provincial Council elections, as part of SLFP’s coalition. I didn’t win that year. Once again, in 2018, I was nominated to contest for the Kesbewa Municipal Council after women were given a 25% quota in local government elections. By then, I had already canvassed for Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) members in past elections and the voters knew my capabilities.
I could run my election campaign on the strong foundation I had built as a community service activist, therefore, I had no fear of public speaking or canvassing given all my past experiences in election campaigning for others. During campaigning, I didn’t face any major challenge from opposition male candidates. But one male candidate sent his supporters to remove my hoardings and lodged a complaint with the Election Commissioner stating that my campaign office was too big. And subsequently I had to make some small adjustments to my office. I had a very clear idea about how I wanted to run my campaign and be an example to male contestants. I didn’t want to buy my voters, offer alcohol or make other offerings to draw them to my rallies. We should be able to attract voters based on our skills and capacities. The Election Commission Office gave newly nominated female contestants training on how to run an election campaign, budgeting and rules and regulations associated with election campaigning. This training was helpful. I didn’t win because the voting trend was to show solidarity to the party of the most popular leader. I was given a place from the List.
After I became a councilor, I realized that Municipal Council [MC] is the place that provides a large range of services to people from their birth to death. My earlier understanding of service delivery functions of a MC and a councilor’s role and duties were all very limited. The trainings I was offered by Sri Lanka Institute of Local Governance [SLILG) and other organizations made a huge contribution to increase my knowledge in the entire local government system. All trainings helped us to become empowered leaders.
During the first few sessions, we were looked down upon as “pin manthrees” [ free entrants] and I responded to those male councilors very professionally. As councilors sitting in the opposition, our proposals are not given due respect and consideration and when you are a female councilor from an opposition party, it becomes doubly challenging to get a proposal considered let alone approved. But I managed to get two of my proposals approved. The first one was to get the Kesbewa Municipal Council recognized as a main city council because it covers a large geographic area. Since we had provided all information and related facts, it got approved by the Council. And we have sent it to the ministry for final approval. Then I also proposed to have a women and children’s committee as both these groups needed our assistance and special attention. They approved it but as a sub-committee of the Community Affairs Committee.
We have eight women councilors in the Kesbewa MC. Lack of training in female councilors, shown through their responses to various service delivery functions in the Council, points to the need for supporting them with training and knowledge. Only three women councilors supported my proposal to have a separate committee for women and children; and that gives an indication about their understanding of the role they could play in the Council. So I believe pre-election training should be mandatory for women leaders to prepare themselves for the role they undertake in local government decision making platforms. That training cannot be limited to election campaigning, capacity improvement has to give them a good overall knowledge about the local government system and how they can provide efficient and effective services to their constituencies.
We have to demand a quota system for all levels of government. Our parties don’t like any quota system for women. They don’t treat us equally or respectfully. 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 councilors to support each other and act as a team when we see a good proposal or initiative being submitted by another woman councilor. Women don’t get to share their views independently in accordance with their conscience and judgement. This has to change in order to create space for women to have equal chances in the Council’s decision-making platform.
I often speak against lack of transparency by the Tender Approval committee in their approval process. But most other women councilors don’t raise their voice against lack of transparency by male councilors or their misuse of public money. I suspect their party leaders have given them strict instructions not to do so. I feel we will have to introduce new rules and regulations to reduce corrupt practices taking place in the local government system.
I have been able to get some funding allocations from the Provincial Council minister to provide self-employment assistance for women. A group of women were given sewing machines from that allocation. And children were provided with schooling material. I also use our Foundation’s funding to assist with income generation needs of poor women and to distribute text books among children from low-income families.
I am a mother of two sons, aged 16 and 14. I work as a Marketing Executive on full-time basis. I spent a lot of money for my election campaign. And I also have very little experience in government and as a politician. So I am not sure about running for the next Provincial Council election. And without a quota system, my chance of getting nominated to contest is very slim. And this situation is further complicated because of the split in the SLFP. I think at least women who are contesting Provincial Council and Parliament elections for the first time should be given a quota. After that maybe we can contest on the merits of our performance in service delivery. So new rules have to be introduced at these two levels to get more women into government decision-making.
The increased representation of women in local government has led to a big change in our service delivery. The women are more attuned to their communities’ needs and problems, especially those of women, youth and children. The male councilors have historically supported only their party supporters. But the women councilors are able to look beyond their party affiliations in providing services to everyone in their respective Ward.”
(THIS IS A PRODUCT OF ONE TEXT INITIATIATIVE & OTI IS RSPONSIBLE FOR THIS SHORTER & EDITED VERSION OF THE TEXT)