T.M. Wayanthi Sanjeewani

“I was born and raised in Colombo. I studied at St.Bridget’s Convent and Musaeus College. I grew up with four brothers, two elder and two younger. I married a businessman from Kalawana in 1996  and  moved to Kalawana. My father is also from Kalawana. I got involved in community assistance initiatives because of my father. My father always ensured that not a single person would go back without getting his help. After moving to Kalawana, I was influenced by my father’s benevolence. I took leadership in addressing people’s land issues, grievances, income related problems. That raised my awareness about the poor people’s socio-economic issues.

One of my brothers contested for Pradeshiya Sabha twice from the United National Party [UNP]. I was helping him in his campaign work. From a very young age, my father and I got excited about watching elections broadcast together. But when I wanted to get into politics later on, my father first did not approve of it. I also helped with canvassing for other male and female politicians from our party. And I made sure that they subsequently fulfilled their election promises by addressing some of the urgent issues faced by the communities in Kalawana. Between 2015 and 2018, I was able to get UNP politicians to address urgent issues and needs of low-income families, including housing assistance, access road repair and construction. When my brother faced life-threatening incidents due to political rivalry, I got involved in those situations to protect him. There were times that I had to go into hiding for my own safety. I sought the assistance of the Human Rights Commission and eventually those issues were resolved.

The UNP nominated me to contest in the 2018 Pradeshiya Sabha election. During election campaigning, my rivals used my brother’s issue to slander my character, alleging that I was carrying a T-56 gun in my vehicle whereas I was going for all campaigning work with my 11-year-old son. One opposition party male contestant barged into a Tamil pre-school festival which I was attending as the chief guest and he started to speak ill of me to the gathering. But the people booed him off. That was the worst abuse I experienced during the campaign. During campaigning, my younger brother, a cousin brother and community members helped me a lot but my husband did not help much because he felt our youngest son needed me at home. I used a Facebook page to bring attention to all types of issues facing the poor and marginalized in Kalawana and also to bring attention to my campaign. I had no fear of public speaking as I was already used to working with community groups from my youth. As a party, the UNP didn’t do well. I got the second highest preferential votes, a lot of votes from Tamils in tea plantations in the area because I had intervened to address their basic needs related issues.

Before I was elected, I had very little knowledge about how the Pradeshiya Sabha system functioned or the role and responsibilities of a councilor. But SLILG [Sri Lanka Institute of Local Governance provided us with a series of comprehensive trainings starting from the Constitution of Sri Lanka, the Local Government Act, by-laws governing the Pradeshiya Sabha system, services and so on. I also went for trainings conducted by OTI (One Text Initiative), Fredrick Neuman and a couple of other organizations. All trainings have been very helpful. What has equally been important to me is getting to know a large number of women councilors from other districts, including the North/East and getting to the specific issues they are dealing with in their local areas. We need more skills training and knowledge in legislation, political systems, etc.

I am in the Housing Committee of the Kalawana Pradeshiya Sabha. The Finance Committee is dominated by male councilors and the women councilors are not given a chance to sit on it. The poor communities in Kalawana are still facing a lot of difficulties that challenge their day-to-day existence. The biggest issue we face is lack of financial allocations and when you are in the opposition, it is doubly difficult for women councilors to get necessary financial allocations to address our constituents’ needs.

The inclusion of more women in the local government has resulted in reduced corruption in the Pradeshiya Sabha system. I haven’t taken any commission from my constituent members and like me, other women also don’t accept bribes or commission for the services we deliver. We speak and work against corruption. And the other biggest difference that the women councilors have made is being able to identify and address specific issues in households that male councilors fail to even learn about. We look at an issue from all sides, including how it affects women and children. But male councilors don’t even realize that issues affect different segments of a community in different and specific ways. People who come to seek my assistance represent different political parties and all are treated equally.

We experience male dominance inside the Pradeshiya Sabha system. I have been fortunate not to have experienced any kind of harassment because of my gender. But our suggestions are not given due consideration or value. Male councilors from the ruling party would dismiss our suggestions. Sometimes my ideas would be taken on board as if they were originally suggested by the Chairman or other male councilors. But I am more interested in using public money appropriately and fairly. Sometimes I get my friends to support poor families when they come to me with issues that I cannot resolve through the Pradeshiya Sabha system. The opposition male councilor from my Ward continues to subject me to verbal abuse during council sessions. I have filed a legal case in this regard. 

I would like to see this country catch up with the European standards of living. Right now, I am very disenchanted with the way things are governed. I have an aspiration to go forward in politics and contest in parliament elections one day. I am confident that I will receive nominations. We need more educated women in parliament. I also want to improve my knowledge as a politician while thinking about contesting in the upcoming Provincial Council election and also in a general election. I am currently following a diploma course in Public Relations and Political Science at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute.

I have no doubt that women will face major challenges in getting nominations for the PC elections without a quota for women. We should have a quota system for women contesting at all levels. I will advocate for it within my party. Party organizers and leaders favour male candidates over women. Women with appropriate qualifications should enter government in all three levels. My advice to those women entering politics is you need a party to contest in an election. But you don’t need a party to work for your constituency. Don’t be discouraged by the challenges you face. You face them and become stronger through that process. I faced a lot of humiliation and challenges in my political activism, but I became stronger in overcoming those difficult situations. My biggest gain in being involved in politics is my self-belief.”

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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