“By the time I received nominations to contest in the 2018 local government elections, I had already gained significant amount of experience in canvassing for other local government members of my party. I also studied political science in school. My father was a local party organizer for SLFP [Sri Lanka Freedom Party} and so were a lot of his ancestors. I followed them by helping to build upcoming SLFP politicians in my area in Anuradhapura.
After I finished Advanced Levels exam, I was aspiring to become an independent journalist. But before I knew it, I was in the thick of political activism, organizing election meetings and mobilizing people in Anuradhapura town area. When I was invited by the Mayor of Anuradhapura City Municipal Council to contest in local government elections from SLPP [Sri Lanka Podu Jana Party], more experienced and elderly party members openly showed their reluctance to back me up. But earlier on, just before the nominations were granted, I managed to gather over 150 community members for a meeting within short notice. All those who were concerned about my lack of experience changed their mind after that. I also worked very hard to change the attitudes of older male party members in my party towards emerging women leaders.
I am 28 years old and I have a nine-year-old daughter. My daughter was raised by my mother during election campaigning in 2018. Until the day I received nominations, I didn’t share my wish to contest with my father because he didn’t think it was a place for a young woman like myself. But my two brothers managed to convince him afterwards. My brothers and my husband helped finance my election campaign. I was a leader of the youth parliament and I did a lot of extra- curricular activities in school. Therefore, I absolutely had no problem with speaking in front of a large crowd. I contested from Nuwara Weva Ward for the Municipal Council. The local community already knew me from my previous political campaigning activities for others and also because I was running a pre-school. I was respected by my community members. I also faced no particular challenge or difficulty in the run up to the election. I won my Ward and got more votes than all the experienced male candidates.
Because I studied political science, I knew a little about functions and services of the local government system. I wasn’t afraid to speak in the first sitting of the newly elected Municipal Council members. My first speech was appreciated by all.
We have three Committees under the oversight of our Municipal Council. The Children, Mothers and Pre-School Children’s Childhood Development Committee is one of them. In 2018, I was appointed to lead this committee by the Mayor because of my long-standing commitment to women and children’s well-being. Another elderly female councilor from our own party wanted to head this committee and she showed some hostility towards me for sometime. We have seven women councilors altogether, four from SLPP and three from United National Party who have come through the new quota system. We are generally very helpful towards each other.
Another important achievement I would like to mention is successfully obtaining necessary financial allocations for rehabilitation of the main access road in my village. This road was not repaired for 20 years because we didn’t have a councilor from our village to get it done. Together with the access road, a proper drainer system was also constructed and new street lamps were installed at my request. I also got allocations to set up toilet facilities for vendors in the local market and a further 22 poor families were given toilet facilities.
I gained confidence and knowledge to request for better services for the people I represent thanks to all the training I have attended. The Sri Lanka Institute of Local Governance [SLILG] provided some key knowledge improvement trainings for us. There were other training providers, including agencies of the United Nations Office in Colombo and One Text Initiative. From these trainings, I was able to gain a better understanding about the Local Government Act, by-laws, roles and responsibilities of councilors and my communication skills also improved.
It was challenging to not receive any assistance from senior councilors at the start since we lacked appropriate knowledge relating to the services and functions of the Municipal Council. But thanks to all the trainings we were attending, I managed to represent the needs of all groups and communities in Council sessions and proposed solutions and means to address them. If we had been prepared with some knowledge provision assistance before we entered the local government system, I would not have been afraid to represent the needs of the people I represented right from the start.
The newly elected women councilors have been able to reduce wastage. The women councilor informed their respective constituencies about their rights and entitlements pertinent to the Municipal Council and how to get their needs addressed by this mechanism. Earlier, our community members were disillusioned with the Council and politicians who had been elected to represent them election after election. In male dominated councils both, a majority of male councilors tend to use derogatory language on others, including women, but women councilors generally support each other to face up to such abuse by male councilors. We have also lessened corrupt practices inside the Council and in our service delivery efforts. The women councilors have been able to increase transparency and accountability in the Municipal Council system because our service delivery activities adhere to rules and regulations. And as a result, the men also felt compelled to follow us.
The women leaders will need a quota system to enter all levels of government in this country. Even I wouldn’t have been able to come into the system without the 25% quota system. We will have to introduce affirmative action to the Constitution together with changes to the Electoral System to make sure that women are treated equally in politics and government. Changes to the Constitution is a long-term solution, but in the interim, a quota system will have to be made available for us to get more representation in Provincial Councils and in Parliament. In order to achieve this, the first step would be to communicate our intentions and aspirations to the President and other leaders with clear demands. We should evolve into one big pressure group. Women face a lot of issues because of their gender identity and in politics their situation is worse. The male politicians’ negative attitudes help to perpetuate our society’s treatment of women as second-class citizens. The women politicians are treated as a laughing stock in social media comments and posts. We are subject to verbal abuse as well. They want to silence us.
There is no equality between male and female councilors in local government. Officials work according to circulars. But women councilors are able to think about an issue from a humane angle. We have to strike a balance between what circulars permit us to do and the lived realities of our constituencies. We do witness preferential treatment being given to the male councilors’ proposals and ideas. But we don’t give up. We point out to them, even the experienced male councilors, that we are equal to them.
During a meeting at the Election Violence Monitoring Office, I brought to the attention of its leader all the challenges that women councilors face. I told them that I don’t have the necessary finances to contest in the next Provincial Council elections if I am given nominations. But I have worked hard and have the backing of my people. I will be able to overcome material challenges if I am given an opportunity to contest. But I want to contest next time because by then we will have addressed a lot of issues facing women and children at the community level, raising awareness about existing socio-economic conditions and challenges vulnerable groups.”
(THIS WAS PREPARED AS PART OF FEMALE COUNCILLOR’S CAPACITY DEVELOPMENT PROJECT OF ONE TEXT – WITH THE PERMISSION OF THE COUNCILLOR TO PUBLISH THE DOCUMENT)