In February, DRI Sri Lanka and the Rural Women’s Front conducted a training programme for women politicians and activists in a bid to encourage and strengthen women’s political participation in local government.
By: Amanda Siddharta
For Nishanthi Pradeepika, the monthly municipal council meeting in the Galle District in southern Sri Lanka was an opportunity for her as a representative to push forward her agenda. That month, she had written a presentation to request a budget allocation to improve the women’s restroom facility in the public library, located in the Galle Municipal Council Building.
The 48-year-old woman prepared her presentation the night before and went through all the points she wanted to highlight. Nishanthi was sure that she could deliver her proposal and had the confidence to speak among her colleagues, who are mostly men.
“I know they will interrupt me when I speak,” she said, referring to her male peers. “I used to not be able to control the room when I was first elected in 2018, but now, I can handle them,” Nishanthi added with pride in her voice.
In February 2021, she participated in a three-day Training of Trainers (ToT) programme hosted by Democracy Reporting International (DRI) Sri Lanka in cooperation with its local partner Rural Women’s Front (RWF). From 13 to 15 February, Nishanthi and nine other women learnt more about electoral reforms in the country and how to pass this knowledge on to other elected officials.
Armed only with the passion to change her community, Nishanthi ran for the Galle Municipal election in 2018 and admitted she was elected because of the mandatory 25% quota for women in local government. A new regulation that was passed that year.
“But I didn’t know much about the electoral system, all I knew was I could make a change if I became a representative.”
She also did not know that being elected was only the beginning of an uphill battle. Nishanthi realised the Galle Municipal Council is still very male-dominated and her input as a woman is often overlooked. As an example, out of nearly 300 proposals that she has written for budget allocation, 95% were rejected by the council.
“I also pushed for a proposal to fix the drainage system in one area in Galle back in 2018, but it wasn’t approved. Not long after, a male representative submitted the same proposal and then it was approved,” she complained.
Hailing from a small town in Sri Lanka, Nishanthi completed her secondary education but did not pursue a university degree. She later worked at a shoe factory in Galle District as a supervisor until 2000, and then quit to raise her three children.
She started to become more politically active in 2015 when she joined a political party and often went to party meetings before becoming a municipal representative. Her motivation was to give a voice to the marginalised and protect human rights.
According to Jehan Jegatheesan, DRI Sri Lanka’s Programme Director, the training programme in Galle District is important to develop a pool of experts—particularly women—on electoral reforms to encourage more women to be active in politics.
“The perception of a woman’s role is still largely relegated to being a mother, wife, etc. When women try to move away from these roles, they are often criticised, attacked, and stigmatized,” said Jehan.
Jagath Liyana Arachchi, a programme trainer who is an activist and researcher on electoral reforms, said that by understanding the system and knowing its limitation, the participants can improve the quality of their work.
“This is particularly so when it comes to Sri Lanka's efforts to promote women's political participation through more meaningful engagement with women representatives,” he said.
The topics that were covered in the programme include both theoretical and practical aspects. Participants discussed things such as the country’s electoral process, campaign financing and the need for regulations, advanced voting system, effective session planning to conduct training, and presentation skills.
Jagath added that the participants also received a session on gender equality and talked about the socio-political context in Sri Lanka and the challenges that women in politics are facing.
“The patriarchal values of Sri Lanka promote the idea that women cannot take charge of affairs or cannot make important decisions. This narrative also prevents some women from believing they can make a difference in politics,” he explained.
Nevertheless, women are 52% of Sri Lanka’s population and they are a crucial part of the country’s labour force. Jagath said that comprehensive social development and economic gains would not be possible for Sri Lanka without ensuring equal roles for women in decision-making positions, including in local government.
Jehan added that DRI Sri Lanka is working to conduct more ToT programmes in various districts, with the intention of increasing local expertise around the country. “We are striving to change the perceptions of Sri Lankan society towards women in politics,” he said.
Nishanthi, who almost gave up her career as a politician because of pressure from her male counterparts, now realized how important it is to have a female representative in the government. “I didn’t want to run again. It was stressful not having your voice heard and being called names because I’m a woman. But the ToT programme has equipped me with the knowledge and skills to continue,” she said.
She now works with eight other women representatives in the Galle Municipal Council and passed her knowledge on to them. “We support each other to bring forward important issues in our district and fight for our proposals,” she said.