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Women's voices from
the underground

How women are taking to, and talking, politics in post-war Sri Lanka. An interview with Rosy Senanayake.

Colombo, February 2012

Rosy Senanayake in Sri Lanka politics leads the way for women

Rosy Senanayake, a former Sri Lankan beauty queen, has forged a new career in politics.

THERE are many facets to Rosy Senanayake. This former Sri Lankan beauty queen is a successful politician – as leader of the Opposition in the Western Provincial Council and as the chief organiser for the United National Party’s (UNP) Colombo West Electorate. She is also a feisty activist and the host of a popular daytime television programme that focuses on women's issues in Sri Lanka. In a candid interview with Ashima Kaul, Senanayake talks about women’s representation in the political process in Sri Lanka, the success of the underground Club 1325 and the challenges that South Asian sisters share.

Q: How difficult is it for women to contest elections in Sri Lanka?

A: In the existing proportional representation system in the country, where a candidate has to run for an entire district, it is not easy for a woman to win a seat. The system does not enable female candidates as the gun culture is very manifest. A lot of money is involved in elections and men use muscle power too. Women also find themselves easy targets for character assassination.

I firmly believe that while men may be able to win seats with money and muscle power, women can stand up to them with transparency, hard work and by building a relationship with the people

When I contested the election, I overcame these challenges by building a direct rapport with the people. My talk show and the work I have done with women and children on the ground helped me. I firmly believe that while men may be able to win seats with money and muscle power, women can stand up to them with transparency, hard work and by building a relationship with the people.

Q: Sri Lanka has some of the best gender indicators in South Asia. Why has this not had a positive impact on women’s political representation?

A: We have social and gender indicators that look great simply because we have a sound education system and the female literacy rate is almost 97 percent. Sri Lanka also has a good primary health care system and, therefore, infant and maternal mortality is low when compared with other regional countries. However, there are many grey areas we are not looking at. We need to urgently address reproductive health issues, the rise of violence against women, equal rights for women especially in the private and public sectors and their under representation in politics and decision-making positions.

When Sri Lankan women were fighting for franchise in the late 1920s, they were very strong and active. But at some point there was breakdown in that activism. When the conflict broke out, it became obvious that women needed to be in decision-making positions. When my party, the UNP, was in power, the first women’s bureau was formulated, the first women’s ministry came into being, the women’s charter was brought in, and the CEDAW Convention was ratified. Now we are talking about a quota system for women in politics.

Q: What affirmative actions have taken place for women’s political representation? Has Sri Lanka drafted a Reservation Bill?

A: For now, no Bill for women’s representation in Parliament has been drafted. It has only been talked about. We presented local election reforms to Parliament but this has not given much advantage to women. A 40 percent quota for women and youth was introduced, which in reality has meant nothing for women. The entire 40 percent can easily be filled up by the youth segment. And the general excuse given by male political leaders is that women are not interested in politics. However, this quota has been opposed and is now on hold.

Q: During post–war reconstruction, are efforts being made to include women’s voices and issues?

A: One of our biggest achievements has been the formation of Club 1325. It’s an unofficial women’s caucus that includes 35 to 40 women from all major political parties, including the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, Muslim, Tamil Nationalist and Left parties, as well as representatives from women’s organisations and civil society. We have been strongly advocating for UN Resolution 1325. In fact, last year during the general elections, we achieved success when we were able to quietly place some critical points — based on the problems, solutions, and situations that we discovered — in the election manifestoes of our respective parties. These included eradicating poverty, putting women in decision-making positions and gender mainstreaming. Everyone who was representing 1325 was able to take it to their party leaders. All this time the club has been working underground; our party leaders do not even know that we are part of a group that is working on a common agenda, a common goal. Our party ideologies may be different but when it comes to women and gender issues, our objectives are the same.

Q: How did Club 1325 come about and how does it manage to do all this work?

The members of Club 1325 have travelled together to various districts organising these stree melas. This has provided us with a deep insight into the situation of the average woman on the street

A: One of our leading women activists, Visaka Dharmadasa, initiated the concept and we all came together to form Club 1325. We have been working on various objectives silently. Recently, we collectively went to the north, the war-affected areas, as part of a series of “Stree Melas” [festive gatherings for women] that we have been organising at the district levels. It’s about celebrating the achievements of women while highlighting their concerns and issues.

Q: What is that you hope to achieve through the women’s caucus and Stree Melas?

A: The members of Club 1325 have travelled together to various districts organising these stree melas. This has provided us with a deep insight into the situation of the average woman on the street. Now that we are aware of what needs to be done, we will be influencing our party leadership to make changes and reforms. Incidentally, for women to come together across party lines gives me hope that a political solution acceptable to all can be worked out to ensure lasting peace in Sri Lanka. For that to happen, some constitutional changes and reforms will need to happen. Hopefully, we will be able to introduce the quota system to bring in more women at the national level as well.

Q: Where do you locate Sri Lankan women in the context of South Asia?

A: Even though all our gender indicators are high, we have not been strong and vocal about ushering in change. In places like Nepal, India or the Islamic countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Malaysia, where religion, custom and way of life militate against women coming to the forefront, that women have emerged strongly is a remarkable achievement. India has brought in quota at the local levels and that has enabled the women to showcase their talent, their capacities. This is where Sri Lanka has lost out.

Q: If women in the region come together, couldn’t they constitute a force to bring about a paradigm shift in the way security is perceived in the region?

A: Absolutely. I believe that women networking, working together, rethinking and re-strategising can bring about a paradigm shift with regard to security and territorial integrity in South Asia. Women are more sensitive. Even at home they make peace first. Women are committed, passionate, give love and can forgive. It is a proven fact that in countries, like the Nordic region, Canada and South America, where women are in prominent decision-making positions, there is more transparency and better governance.

Interview provided by the Women's Feature Service

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