She is the first female Mayor of Colombo and the first international winner of the coveted Mrs. World title in 1984. She was crowned Miss Asia Pacific in 1981 and she won the Miss Sri Lanka title in 1980. She is an advocate for gender equality, and was appointed as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Population Fund in 1998. She was appointed as the Sri Lankan High Commissioner to Malaysia in 2002. In 2009, she pledged her life to serve the people of Sri Lanka and consequently was elected to the Western Provincial Council, where she served as the Leader of the Opposition until being elected as a Member of Parliament in 2010. She served as the State Minister for Child Affairs in 2015, and shortly after was appointed as the Deputy Head of the Prime Minister’s Office. An alumna of Embilipitiya Maha Vidyalaya and Ferguson High School, Rathnapura, she is the Chief Organiser for the Colombo West Electorate for the United National Party. She married acclaimed Entrepreneur Athula Senanayake in 1982, and in 1984, she welcomed her son Kanishka, in 1988 her daughter Thisakya, and in 1990 her daughter Radhya. In 2020, she became a grandmother, a title she claims is the most valued in her life.
She is an advocate for Women’s and Children’s Rights in Sri Lanka. She has campaigned actively against domestic violence and violence against women. She is a strong voice for the voiceless, and has dedicated her entire life to empower and uplift under-privileged children, youth and women in Sri Lanka. She shattered the political glass-ceiling and became the first female Mayor of Colombo. She has been working tirelessly to keep the city safe during these unprecedented times; she has been working closely with the World Bank to gather data, identify high risk areas, and apply evidence-based solutions to enhance safety within the city of Colombo.
She is undoubtedly the most beautiful woman in Sri Lanka, and she is kind, generous, courageous, dependable and diplomatic. Beauty Queen, Actress, Wife, Mother, Activist, Politician and Grandmother; Bernadine Rose Senanayake (Rosy Senanayake).
What are the most important attributes of successful leaders today? Be people-centric; be kind, compassionate and empathetic, this will allow you to make a positive impact on the lives of the individuals you lead. Ensure you have a clear vision and define and communicate it. Be resilient, a good leader must have the grit to face all challenges and hurdles with confidence, and also be willing to make difficult choices and tough decisions, if you know it will be for the greater good. Be courageous, be bold and unafraid; challenge the norm, take calculated risks and learn from your mistakes. Also, be humble and apologize if you make a mistake, and be a good communicator. A good leader must be able to articulate their ideas and win over people, and should also be able to motivate and inspire people. Lead by example.
How did you move forward when everyone kept telling you that your suggestions or ideas won't work? With regards to politics, if the Party makes a decision, we have to respect the majority decision and move forward, however that is only after exhausting all other options of coercion, negotiation and multiple discussions and debates. With regards to work, however, if a decision has been made after careful consideration and consultation, and a plan and strategy has been devised, then its imperative that you proceed with it disregarding the detractors. I usually only make a decision once I have consulted all the relevant individuals, and once that decision has been made, I will ensure plans are implemented accordingly.
How did you reach your level of success, given the country’s gender gap, especially among leadership? It wasn’t easy, and it still isn’t easy. You constantly feel that you need to be better, and be on the ball 24/7 in comparison to your male counterparts. In politics, competition is fierce, due to the sheer lack of female representation. I only had a handful of female allies and it was frustrating to say the least. Issues that affect women are often sidelined and not prioritized as a result. However, during my bid for Mayor, I was able to connect with the voters directly. I was able to have my voice heard and share my vision with the people on a one-on-one basis, and this not only ensured my victory, but has enabled me to successfully roll out my strategies and plans. I continue to work directly with the people.
Do you ever think – “Am I crazy?" Yes, quite often I wonder if all the personal sacrifices are worth it. The uncertainty of it all and the enormous time commitment and being under surveillance 24/7 makes me wonder am I crazy to still be doing all this. But then I see how my work impacts people and their lives and it motivates me to keep doing what I do.
How do you differentiate yourself? As a Politician, I don’t play Party politics. Once elected, I opt to working with everyone. Even today, as the Mayor of Colombo, I work closely with the Central Government, and the different Ministries. For me it’s imperative that I work for the people and not waste time playing Party politics. Even in the Council, I work with all the members irrespective of their Party. When dispersing funds for projects, I evaluate the project based on the impact it will have on the city and her people, and I always make it a point to disperse funds equally and fairly. I consciously practice being fair and balanced, for I am aware I am the Mayor of Colombo and her people, not the Mayor of a political Party.
What is your 'why?’ My first ‘why’ was when I lost my daughter, Soraya. I kept asking myself why was I made to go through the trauma of losing a child. No mother deserves to go through such heartbreak. My second ‘why’ was when I lost my husband, Athula. He was too young to leave us. For months afterwards, I kept asking myself why did he leave me alone and go.
Who do you look up to for inspiration or mentorship? I derive strength and inspiration from the Bible and the life of Jesus Christ. I have taught myself to be patient, to be kind, to understand people and to be forgiving, to be empathetic and to lead a simple, humble life, full of gratitude for the many blessings.
Your biggest regret? To constantly think there is more time, there would be another day. I kept delaying personal things, and instead kept focusing on my work and allowed politics to consume me. It only dawned upon me, the day I lost my husband. It was too late. There would never be another day for me to say yes to that holiday he had planned, to say yes to that stroll in the park he wanted to go on or to say yes to that family games night he wanted to organize. If only I could turn back time.
What has been the highlight of your career so far? Being elected and appointed as the first female Mayor of Colombo in the one hundred and fifty years of the Colombo Municipal Council is definitely a career highlight. Another, would be championing for equal gender representation in the council and ensuring that twenty-five percent of all Local Government Councilors were women, is certainly a victory worth mentioning. I have been advocating for gender equality in politics throughout my entire career. Women in Sri Lanka constitute 56% of all voters, yet women’s political representation in the Parliament remain abysmally low; 5.3% to be precise, twelve out of two-hundred and twenty-five legislators.
If you could go back and tell yourself one thing before beginning your career what would it be? There will be countless sacrifices to make along the way, be prepared. Also remember no matter what you do, you will be criticized every step of the way; remember it is all unwarranted criticism, hence be strong and keep moving forward.
What was the biggest rookie mistake you made when just starting out? Throwing myself straight in to the deep-end in politics without being fully geared or prepared. I didn’t hail from a political family, hence at the beginning it was a steep learning curve. My only passion was to serve people and to uplift their lives, I didn’t fully factor in what I would have to sacrifice. My passion drove me to dive straight into the deep-end.
Where do you see yourself ten years from now? Happily retired, spending time with my beautiful granddaughter and my family.
Share with us a secret no-one else knows. I married my husband, Athula, just after two weeks of knowing him. I was the reigning Miss Asia Pacific at the time, hence I had to ask the governing body for approval prior to marrying him. I had to keep our marriage under-wraps till I had relinquished by crown. We had a small, intimate, private wedding in London, and my Husband and I cooked dinner for our close circle of friends and immediate family.
How did you balance being a mother and professional? What have you sacrificed (both personally and professionally) at each stage of your career? Although, I was involved in politics for the last forty years, my direct involvement only commenced after my son Kanishka and my daughter Thisakya had enrolled in Universities in UK, and my youngest daughter Radhya had completed half of her schooling career. My husband helped me immensely, and he helped me maintain a balance. Days I would have to work till late, my husband ensured he was at home with our children. We shared responsibilities, as there was also a time, when he worked overseas, and I stayed in Sri Lanka with the children. We were a good team. We supported each other throughout our marriage. It was easy to balance work and family with his support.
What is the best and worst decision you've ever made? Ironically, stepping into politics is the best and worst decision!
What advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders? Support other women; remember we are all in this together, we are one sisterhood. Empower, encourage and uplift other women whenever possible. If one shatters a glass-ceiling, remember it will benefit us all!
What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership? Institutional mindsets and unconscious gender bias in both corporate and political spheres. Lack of respect and the lack of acceptance and acknowledgement of women’s capabilities, coupled with the constant need to undermine their intelligence and true potential, are all barriers for female advancement in the work place.
How did the Mrs. World title help you in your career? Success in politics is rooted in publicity, and the Mrs. World title gave me the recognition and publicity I needed. Furthermore, the global work I did during my tenure as Mrs. World, taught me how to be an Activist. It gave me access to information and ignited in me a deep passion to work towards empowering women and children.
How do you want to be remembered one day? 2 Timothy 4:7 - I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.