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Women leaders, women’s voices: the need for substantive representation

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“Women with no voice need to be given a voice by female leaders”. With only 5% of female representatives in Parliament, it is not surprising that the persistent suffering and atrocities faced by Sri Lankan women remain unresolved”

 

There’s never been a better time to push for young women leaders in Sri Lanka like the present as we stand at the crossroads of re-thinking who must assume leadership positions in the country. Women have never been offered the same pedestal as men in being elected or appointed to decision-making positions. This has only increased the plight and frustration of women from vulnerable communities whose demands and needs have gone unanswered for far too long. 


To encourage young women to take up positions of leadership, the Centre for Equality and Justice (CEJ), a women’s organization based in Colombo, gathered female undergraduates from several state universities and connected them with women from marginalized communities across the country to help them understand the distinctive problems these women face and highlight the importance of advocating for policy and system changes in light of this. 


A student  from the South Eastern University (SEU), who held discussions with over 20 women from conflict affected areas in Batticaloa shared that female heads of households struggle to access basic necessities such as clean water and electricity for their families. “They are frustrated by bureaucratic red-tape and discrimination levelled against single mothers by State officials such as Grama Niladhari Officers. They are often required to write successive letters in Sinhala language requesting access to basic services although they are only literate in Tamil.” she said. 


The student from SEU shared that these women are psychologically affected by the loss of fathers, husbands and sons to war and she is deeply saddened that they are still struggling to earn a living and lead a normal life.
A student from the University of Jaffna (UoJ) also spoke to war-affected women in the Northern Province. She underscored the dire economic circumstances of these women which have barely improved since the end of the civil war. She recalled an incident of a woman who was refused Samurdhi benefits because of maladministration in rationing resources. “There are no formal avenues for these women to file complaints, so they continue their lives without any reparation” she explained.  


A student from the University of Peradeniya (UoP) is a promising leader who addressed issues faced by women of the estate working community in the hill-country and in Ratnapura. She shared that the main concern of these women is the inequality in wages compared to their male counterparts. She stated that local authorities and political leaders, though confronted, do not take proper regard of any complaints. 


The student from UoP shared that the substandard living conditions in “line-rooms” have been the living situation of estate workers since the British colonial period. Women in particular face sexual and reproductive health problems in being unable to maintain proper menstrual hygiene and freely engage in sexual relations. “Popular politicians make promises to build houses and increase wages close to elections, but they disappear after getting elected” she said. “A young estate worker in Ratnapura was very much willing to run for local authority elections and represent the concerns of her community, but she is held back by the social stigma of women entering politics”. 
This student stated that as a law undergraduate, she learns about human rights, human dignity, and gender equality, but the ground reality is a far cry from theory. 


A graduate from the University of Colombo (UoC) who completed her major in Peace and Conflict Resolution recalled what was shared by conflict-affected women in Anuradhapura, saying that their lives are far from being restored to normalcy. “Women who seek services from public officials are subjected to sexual harassment and sexual bribery, and such incidents go unreported with perpetrators walking free. Women are caught up in microfinance schemes mercilessly operated by financial institutions to burden them. They are often without any stable livelihood and struggle to provide an education for their children.” she said.
This student stated that some women grieve the loss of their brothers and husbands to the war and have not received any reparations to date. 


As the student from UoP puts it “women with no voice need to be given a voice by female leaders”. With only 5% of female representatives in Parliament, it is not surprising that the persistent suffering and atrocities faced by Sri Lankan women remain unresolved. It is even more clear why women in marginalized communities like estate workers and conflict-affected women remain voiceless and powerless to bring any positive change to their socio-economic circumstances. 


The students quoted in this article are few of the many female undergraduates of state universities trained by CEJ on democratic concepts, governance, and politics. Their capacities have been developed through the programme in a way that they can both empathize with the women of vulnerable communities and also voice their concerns with decision-making bodies. They have put together a lobby document with other beneficiaries of CEJ’s programme which highlights issues identified during their discussions and proposes actionable recommendations. Among them are providing livelihood assistance, conducting training sessions on self-employment and providing suitable reparations to war-affected women.  


The Constitution of Sri Lanka enables Affirmative Action for the advancement of women. Therefore legally speaking, there is nothing preventing laws, policies, and regulations from being brought in to increase female participation in politics. Although the 2016 Amendment to the Local Authorities Elections Act was hailed as a major step forward in increasing female representation in politics, the ground realities show that even if more women may have entered Pradeshiya Sabhas and Municipal Councils, there hasn’t been any meaningful gender-sensitive changes in governance structures that could address injustices faced by women. Strengthening female leaders and female representation in governance therefore remains a pressing agenda that must be enabled by the Government and encouraged by the society as a whole. 

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