She Leads! Empowering Women Leaders in Sri Lanka

A 25 percent quota for local women lawmakers ushers in a change to the face of local government

Sri Lankans check out a display of election instructions, part of an awareness campaign that came ahead of 2018 elections that saw record numbers of women elected to local offices. / IFES

In early 2018, Sri Lanka — an island nation off India’s southern tip — watched in anticipation as the results of the first local government elections since an historic mandate was approved the year before requiring 25 percent of locally-elected government officials be women.

The result: a changed political landscape with nearly 2,000 women elected to local council seats, taking an impressive 23 percent of local elected seats compared to the less than 2 percent of seats they held just a few years ago.

This progress is helping to bolster women’s empowerment. Getting to this point, however, was not easy. Reform came only after years of lobbying by women’s organizations for a quota of women candidates.

For a long time, women in public office accounted for only 6 percent of elected officials in the national parliament and 2 percent at the local level. These low figures came in spite of Sri Lanka’s seven decades of democracy, its attainment of universal suffrage in 1931, the swearing-in of the world’s first woman prime minister, and roughly equal participation by both men and women in elections. Even today, socio-cultural, economic and psychological barriers continue to prevent Sri Lankan women from actively participating in politics.

USAID supported International Foundation for Electoral Systems and Development Alternatives Inc. to work with Sri Lanka’s Women Parliamentarians Caucus to train approximately 2,400 local women leaders to take advantage of the new quota system, focusing on motivation, leadership and campaign skills.

Awareness campaigns before the election included reaching out to local women and conducting mock polling. / IFES

Rakeeba Ansar, a 38-year-old mother of three from new Kattankudy 1 was inspired to enter politics to create a more positive space for future generations of women to compete in elections. Drawing on the skills she learned from USAID-supported training programs in February 2018, Rakeeba won a seat in her local council, in eastern Sri Lanka.

“I used to be a very shy person and talking to a lot of people or to strangers always made me nervous,” Rakeeba said. “The training sessions helped me to build my confidence and made me a more forward person.”

Rakeeba is now focused on promoting quality education — especially for young women — and improving waste management in her community. She is also using her strengthened networking skills to get involved with diverse community-based organizations, including a disaster management group and two women’s networks.

As an elected leader, she aspires to govern effectively and, she says, “to bring about a change in women’s attitudes and show that we can be independent political leaders.”

Selvi Manokar, who worked to address women’s needs in her community for years, ran for office to reach a wider network of women and promote government initiatives that respond to women’s priorities.

Selvi Manokar, a newly elected leader in Sri Lanka, plans to make women’s issues a priority. / IFES

She said that new skills — like how to use social media platforms, how to network and how to effectively deliver public messages — strengthened her campaign strategy and improved her capacity as an elected leader.

“I am now the head of my party’s women’s wing and I am using the communication and networking skills that I learned from the training to address people’s issues,” says the 45-year-old mother of two.

Additionally, as a newly elected leader in Kalladi in eastern Sri Lanka, Selvi continues to draw on the connections made with alumnae from the training programs, many of whom represent different political parties. “Recently, we have worked together to find jobs for unemployed young women and provide solutions to address economic challenges for widows in the community,” she said.

As a local government representative, Selvi continues to work to improve the social and economic status of women in her community, crossing religious and ethnic divides, and encouraging others to eventually run for a seat in the provincial council.

USAID worked with Sri Lanka’s Women Parliamentarians Caucus to train approximately 2,400 local women, focusing on motivation, leadership and campaign skills. / IFES

The Right Candidate

Rakeeba, Selvi and the other new elected women show that they can rise above the barriers of traditional male leadership, domestic tasks and caregiving, lack of financial resources, political violence, gender-based discrimination or even challenges faced within political parties.

“Most women vote for whomever their husbands vote for,” said one of the other participants in the USAID training. “I told them that they have a right to decide the right candidate for them. They should select women candidates who will do well by them and their children.”

In addition to candidate trainings, USAID and partners also trained the media to cover women in politics fairly, including when negative public perceptions of women leaders arise. USAID also helped educate the public about the quota system and backed nationwide advocacy campaigns to address electoral violence against women.

After their electoral successes, many women say their journeys do not stop here. They see themselves in an even higher office. And that is a benefit to the entire nation, as gender-inclusive societies tend to have stronger economic outcomes and lower rates of violence.

About the Author

Passanna Gunasekera is a Program and Outreach Specialist for USAID’s mission in Sri Lanka. The International Foundation for Electoral Systems also contributed to this article.

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