Aaranya Rajasingam, Executive Director – Programme at Viluthu Centre for Human Resource Development, spoke at “Generation to Generation for Our Sri Lanka” dialogue organised by UNFPA Sri Lanka on 16 December 2015 in Colombo. The event was meant to highlight the shifting population dimensions within Sri Lanka’s society.
Women aren’t supporting women electoral candidates
Her focus was on how women configure in Sri Lanka’s shifting population dimension. She cautioned that continued disempowerment of women would hinder and block development and progress of Sri Lanka in the crucial 21 years ahead.
In order to empower women and ensure their rights, more women need to be involved in policy making and have leadership roles. Aaranya spoke about how women are currently kept out of politics, especially in the areas affected by the war.
“Regarding political participation, I work to promote women in Parliament, in politics, and in local government elections. What we see is that there is very strong resistance among (both) men and women to accept women as leaders, even though women are highly involved in political participation”.
She pointed out that the United National Party (UNP) as a party has a very strong women’s wing, but they hardly promote their women members as political candidates at elections.
She added that it isn’t only the fault of the political parties but also sentiments of the general public. Surprisingly, this includes women.
“We are confronted by this strong resistance in allowing women to come into politics because they feel she doesn’t deserve that place” she explains speaking about her experiences when interviewing people about women in politics. “The reasons given are usually, a woman has taken 2 or 3 years off to have a child, she didn’t participate in these events, she couldn’t come, so why should we promote her as a candidate?”
Should seats be reserved for women in politics?
While Aaranya advocated reserving places for women in politics to ensure they are brought in, [GDC_row]
Professor Mohan Munasinghe was a bit wary of the idea. He said it’s a double-edged sword. “I think it’s not as black and white. On the question of Parliamentary elections, how many women stood for elections? So clearly there is a question of bringing women forward?”
He added: “This election I asked my wife, where are the women in our constituency? Are they qualified? So there is a question of enabling, which has to proceed or go in parallel to reservation.
The issue of reservation is something I’ve noticed professionally, in my career, where a certain number of positions are reserved for women or you hire a woman because we need a woman to bring gender balance.
[/GDC_row] It’s a double-edged sword. Because if you have an unsuited person, and that person fails, then all the chauvinists say ‘look at this a woman failed’. And then we just move backwards. So we have to be very careful about reservation”.
Naushalya Rajapaksa, lawyer and the official youth delegate from Sri Lanka to the United Nations General Assembly, shared Professor Munasinghe’s views. Adding to the discussion she said, “Very few women are voted for during elections, and surprisingly, most of the time it is men who vote for these women. Not women. So when speaking about women’s participation in parliament should we make sure that we just reserve a seat for a woman because she is a woman or because she actually deserves it? I do not believe that a seat should be reserved for a woman because is a woman. We need to enable and empower women to come to that position”.
Women in the North and East have it worse
For women in the war affected regions, it’s a whole different story. According to Aaranya, reserving seats for them in politics may be of little or no use at this stage.
She stated it is harder for women in these regions to enter politics and they may actually have more immediate issues they need to resolve before they can even entertain the thought of entering politics.
“We talk of ourselves as a middle-income country but we seem to forget that we just fought a war. And we fought it for 30 years. The disparity between the north and south is huge. I work in the north and east and it’s very difficult just to say, lets change attitudes to a society that is highly militarized” she said.
She brought to attention the economic embargo that was imposed on Jaffna for several years, and added that these have resulted in opportunities and even lifestyles being very different in various regions of the country. “I work closely with women heads of households and what we see is that they have only one meal a day – in Muttur, Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu, and only manioc in Mannar. And these women are told, encouraged even, by people like us to get involved in economic production”.
“Many of the women head of households are women between the ages of 40 to 60 years. What are we asking of women—both young and old? What is the security we are willing to provide them? And there’s the disparity between the socio-economic and political conditions you are faced with depending on the region you are situated in this country. Those biases we have to acknowledge and challenge them” she added.
She highlighted that much groundwork needs to be done before we can begin to speak about women in the war affected areas entering politics.