By Kamanthi Wickramasinghe
Rosy Senanayake, State Minister of Children’s Affairs has been an active woman politician for many years. Contesting from the United National Party from the Colombo District for the upcoming general elections, Rosy has a clear action plan to work on for the next few years. Being an active women’s rights activist, she believes that women can conquer the world if they are allowed to work in their capacity. In a candid interview with the Dailymirror , Rosy spoke about various issues from women’s rights to child labour and what the ‘Five Point Plan’ has to offer to them. Following are the excerpts:
Q : How are the election campaigns progressing?
It’s tough because the Colombo District list is very strong and I am happy that we have put in such a strong list. So we have to work double hard, and I am actually working to get more people in Parliament. Most importantly I want the party to win. It is not an easy election and I am putting in a 2000% to make the UNP win 13 seats from the Colombo District because it is of paramount importance to me.
Q : How tough is it this time and your journey so far?
If you look at the Colombo District list, I am one of the most senior members. I have been with the party for more than 28 years, and within the 21 years I have been in the Opposition, I have worked tirelessly briefing women’s issues. I have taken the voice of the woman to the streets and in fact I encountered tear gas, rubber pellets and even the Police have abused us. There was a gang that beat us up and just a couple of years ago, I had to run for my life when a petrol bomb was thrown in to the vehicle at the time when we were protesting to bring democracy and were fighting for General Sarath Fonseka’s freedom which happened in Borella. I have faced every wroth of the opposition because I was a very strong voice of the UNP, and a very strong voice for women’s rights and women’s issues and every other issue at large. From education or to basic human rights, I have always been there for the people.
Q : One major source of income for the economy is foreign employment. But the existing conditions are not human-friendly. What thoughts do you have on this issue?
Foreign employment is a choice and a freedom. But whether we should open better avenues for them, give them a choice and protect them is entirely the responsibility of the State. We need to have our bilateral agreement strong when it comes to labour. The receiving country and the source country should have a strong bilateral agreement and we should not be just suckers to send people out there just because we want the dollar. We need to respect and protect every citizen of this country. If you take the Philippines, the Phillippines’ labour Act is of paramount importance to the Presidential election because how much you add to it would determine who would win.
If you look at the Colombo District list, I am one of the most senior members. I have been with the party for more than 28 years, and within the 21 years I have been in the Opposition, I have worked tirelessly briefing women’s issues
So we should be more responsible and we need to give women the freedom of what they want to do because that is a basic right of a woman. When women are going overseas for low paid labour-oriented domestic aide jobs, then there’s a huge problem in the nation because they go due to poverty and we need to eradicate poverty. We can create an environment in the country because we speak of a high literacy rate. If we take the higher education institutes such as the faculty of law, the Medical College, 70% of the students are females, but then why are we engaged in low-paid labour oriented jobs? Take the main income to the nation, the migrant female workers, the apparel industry or tea; just think if we have reached to a point where we have given an opportunity for the women to engage in employment areas to the capacity they can.
We need to create a global market, we need to be a strong global player and we need to move towards the knowledge economy because I believe that we are a nation of very intelligent and smart people. We haven’t created an opportunity for them during the last 21 years to exploit the capacity that they have within them. We haven’t been right by them especially, by the women. I strongly believe that we should look at other avenues and strengthen their economy locally. We need to create local job opportunities for them. They don’t have to run for Rs. 20,000 salary to work as housemaids and come back in caskets and with nails and pins inserted to their body or even without limbs. This is a very sad state of affairs and we are in the 21st century, and the whole world is working towards a knowledge economy. So we should create a good opportunity for women and men equally.
Q : How effective is the manifesto?
I think the UNP manifesto is a workable one and it is a manifesto that one could trust because we have always delivered beyond people’s expectations when we come in to power. So I believe that within the next one and half years, we will have a better environment for women and provide them with better employment opportunities locally and also clear them and guard them in every avenue whether it’s nursing, hairdressing, IT or hospitality. If we create an environment for the people to be in this nation and get them to help in our development projects, then there would be no need for them to go and serve as domestic aides in the Middle East.
Within the 100-day programme, I think no government has delivered what we have delivered in 100 days. By putting law in place, abolishing the 18A which gave one person an enormous volume of power to move on forever, I think we have had a good head-start. We were able to bring in 10 Independent Commissions and the Constitutional Council where here also we wanted only 3 people from Parliament and the rest we wanted to devolve power and make it more independent. I strongly believe that we are working on a new Constitution which will enable us to do better. When we look at the Five-Point-Plan, within 60 days the ‘rata panaganvamu - aluthen patangamu’ programme.
After 21 years, MR had 6 years after the war with a 2/3rds majority but he did absolutely nothing to better the lives of women, education, children or health which is why President Maithripala Sirisena left because he wanted to bring the Drug Bill. Also when we talk about violence against women in the last 2-3 years, according to a study done by Al Jazeera on ‘why Sri Lanka has a high rate of reported cases on sexual violence against women and children’ it is found that between 2012 and 2014 these cases have increased drastically.
The reason given as to why it has been increasing is that because the State failed to criminalize the criminals. So this tells the story. Nothing was done for the last 10 years. There was a huge amount of borrowing for very high interest rates and that burden was put upon innocent people of this nation. That is why the woman had to go to the Middle East. In addition to cut down the cost of essential items such as gas, we were able to give a Rs. 20,000 package for pregnant mothers. This was a blessing because I was concerned about malnutrition and the issue of low-birth weight rate which arose in the last couple of years and we need to make sure that we eradicate this and look in to the nutritional factors.
MR too promised his ‘pregnant mothers nutritional pack’ but he didn’t deliver. It took me only 6 weeks to sit with nutritionists, gynaecologists, paediatricians, UNICEF, WHO and the Ministry of Health to draw the concept with this Advisory Board to look in to all pregnant mothers. I know the capacity a woman has and I never have ‘can’t’ in my vocabulary. I had a tedious discussion with the World Bank and we have been awarded a sum of US $ 50 million to develop early childhood education. So this is a winner for me as well and we already have the programme and proposal planned out. The first 5 years is the most formative in anybody’s life and you need to have a good security, nutrition and early childhood education during this period.
The curriculum should be quite scientific and with psychological aspects involved and every pre-school teacher will go through a training programme and every teacher will be provided with the equipment. 30% of children are not in pre-school due to poverty and I’ll make sure that every child has a pre-school education to take on the challenges of the nation and the world.
Q : Women have many issues and even when travelling on the streets or in a bus, they are quite insecure. Do you have any plans with regard to stopping this issue?
I have spoken to the Ministry of Transport and the Minister has drawn up an action plan to protect women. There are 3 things that have come up with regard to the security of women. One is the anti-rape initiative where we have set-up an anti-rape division in the police and it’s also in the manifesto. Also we have set-up a National Commission for Women, where after we come in to power we will implement the women’s rights Bill by the National Commission for Women. The Commission will comprise of 11 Commissioners in different sectors and this Commission will be working with the respective ministries.
We have decided to fully equip the buses not only with CCTV surveillance cameras but there will also be a special bus service for women in each area. We are looking at a very comprehensive programme to protect women. Almost 80% of women face harassment when they are out in public and safety is a major issue. There will also be a special Courts and an Attorney General’s Department in every District to expedite the cases that are pending and cases when they are filed, to take immediate action on the perpetrators and to ensure that they are be punished. In the manifesto we have also included a Women’s Affairs Authority to look into their livelihood. Also we are looking into a special division in the Police that will address sexual harassment, preferably headed by women Police Officers and this unit will be specially trained and report to the DIG to curb the crimes that women or children are subjected to.
When we talk about crime against children, 80% of them are cases where the child knows the perpetrators, 60% are close relatives, and therefore, we need to strengthen the laws and punish the perpetrators. It is of paramount importance to me because when some one knows that they can’t get away by touching a woman or a child they will think twice before they lay their hands on them. We also have looked into women who have got into debt which is a very sad situation again and some of them have even gone to the extent of taking their lives. Under every section in our manifesto, you will find that there are provisions for women to improve their livelihoods and live in dignity.
Foreign employment is a choice and a freedom. But whether we should open better avenues for them, give them a choice and protect them is entirely the responsibility of the State
Q : Sometimes women in Parliament also face sexist remarks. How do you look at this situation?
I have fought it out. I don’t take these lightly and as a matter of being an example to others, I always fight for my rights. In future, the National Commission on Women will be there for women to go and lodge their complaints no matter what it is there will be a service for women.
Q : Issues such as child labour are quite prevalent in our country. What measures have you taken to eradicate this growing problem that deprives them of their childhood and future?
We have signed up with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) together with Department of Census and Statistics to get proper data on child sex workers and child labour. It is compulsory for children to have their education until their A/Ls and they do not fail their O/Ls anymore. You need to only pass your O/Ls to enter a conventional higher education institute, but after Grade 13, you will be able to go in the direction of vocational training or anything that you are interested. So we will make sure that children are in school and we will also be working on a mechanism to eradicate child labour. All these issues boil down to poverty. People have no means to spend on their needs.
Poverty is what drives children or women to any kind of labour. Our primary objective is to develop human lives and we have an emphasis in order to develop the country and the economy because we are looking at a knowledge-based economy. The country has to invest in human capital and that is the greatest investment we could have. At this point we have introduced a 6% to the GDP. The GDP will be on education and I think there will be a greater proportion put in to science, technology and when you add everything up it will 10% of the GDP. This is the way forward and one way in eradicating poverty. The PM has promised one million jobs and already we have got in investors to come down and set-up their companies. Google was here last week to make SL a country with WiFi facilities and make it an IT hub. English is the link language and we have taken measures to teach English to children.
I believe that at this point many investors have come in and are waiting for the UNP to win a strong majority government for them to come and work without any hiccups, without having to pay 1/3rds of their investments to somebody because in the past 10 years, and the last 6 years, many people were interested to come and invest. But I think they ran out of the country faster than they came in simply because this country was not an investor-friendly country. From 1994 till 2015, this country has been thriving on the migrant women workers’ money and the apparel industry. We haven’t done a single new project to enable or generate funds to give dividends to the people.
Q : The MR regime is accused of having rapists and drug lords in their list. How can you guarantee that the UNP will not have people of such calibre?
A Panduwasnuwara Pradeshiya Sabha member had been convicted of 12 years of hard labour for sexually harassing a child. We are a party that has gone beyond what we promise. For example if we talk about women, the Women’s Bureau was set up by J.R Jayawardena, the Women’s Charter was brought in by R. Premadasa, the domestic violence Bill was brought in 2004 by the UNP, and now we are going to establish the National Commission on Women to enact women’s rights. Look at this :
The Daily Mirror was shown a video of the ex-President where he says that he protected criminals in his regime. “I was aware of all their criminal activities. In fact I accept the fact that I did many mistakes.”
I think the UNP manifesto is a workable one and it is a manifesto that one could trust because we have always delivered beyond people’s expectations when we come in to power
Q : What do you think about celebrities coming in to politics?
This is a democratic country and we respect democracy after the 19A. Anybody has a right to speak, talk and contest in an election if they are within the frame of the law. Anybody has a right to contest but the public should be aware of whom they are casting their vote for. I strongly believe that our list is very credible and we have always brought in many hard-working candidates who can serve the public.
Some celebrities have proven to be worthy enough to be in politics. When I talk about celebrities, I think the best example I can give is Ronald Reagan who was an actor who also became a vibrant President in the US. We also see many stars in India who are involved in politics. Give them a chance and if they are worthy enough to be in that field then they should be allowed to proceed.
Q : What was this news going round that you requested for bacon and honey for breakfast in Parliament?
That was a big lie that was going round. Some Ministers requested for pork and we laughed and joked about it and for breakfast I said that a teaspoon of bee’s honey is healthy. But I don’t eat pork nor chicken, and therefore, I couldn’t have been the person who would have requested for it.
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