Women’s Participation in Politics in Sri Lanka

From Conflict to Peace-Building
| by Dr. Tania Bulbul

( December 12, Nobodhara – Dhaka, Sri Lanka Guardian) It was around 8.00 pm; torrential rain welcomed me at the pearl of the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka. I was prepared to travel to the east from Colombo that night. I was eagerly waiting for the person who would accompany me in this trip. At last she joined me near the bus stoppage for a two days journey to Batticaloa, the capital of the eastern province. After a brief social introduction we were lost in our dreams, or she was not sleeping; I don’t remember. We arrived at the hotel in Kallady village at 4.40 am, where a room was booked for us. I was too tired to ask about the plan, came to know that we would not start before 10.00 am, and that was sufficient for that moment.
Eventually I came to know that the lady accompanying me as an interpreter was a politician. She contested in the last parliamentary election as an independent candidate from Batticaloa, her home town. I also came to know that I would meet five-six women politicians or activists in this trip. I decided to focus on unfolding the facts behind the involvement of women in politics in such a beautiful island with a history of protracted conflict among the ethnic groups in this brief field trip.
With a long history of colonial culture like other South Asian countries, Ceylon gained freedom in 1948. In 1972 Ceylon became Sri Lanka; had also been a center of the Buddhist religion and culture from ancient times and was one of the few remaining territories of Buddhism in South Asia. The Sinhalese community forms the majority of the population. Tamils, who are concentrated in the north and east of the island, form the largest ethnic minority. Other communities include Moors (Muslims), Burghers (Eurasians), Kaffirs (former African slaves), Malays and the aboriginal Veda people (aborigine).1
From 1983 to 2009, there was an on-and-off civil war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE), a militant organization who fought to create an independent state named Tamil Elam in the North and East of the island. On 19 May 2009, however, the President of Sri Lanka officially claimed an end to the insurgency and the defeat of the LTTE, following the death of Velupillai Prabhakaran and LTTE’s other senior leadership.2
According to the 2001 census, the total population of Batticaloa was 486,447. Among them 6,345 were Sinhalese, 362,431 Ceylonese Tamil, 727 Estate Tamil, 114,111 Moor, 2,696 Burgher and 21 Malay.3
In order to capture the majority perception, I interviewed women leaders from both Tamil and Muslim community. In total we interviewed six women in Batticaloa and one in Colombo. Among them one was a war victim, four of them were women leaders and two were activist and intellectual. During the in-depth interview, I focused on following queries.
1. How did women come into politics?
2. Why women’s participation in the politics is important?
3. Was there any significant incidence of conflict in Batticaloa?
Interview 1
A Muslim women leader would like to participate independently in the next provincial election. She had 3 children. First two of them were twins of 15 years old. The next one was a 12 year boy.
She married an Indian guy from Kannya Kuamary and referred him as “Made in India”; first introduced to him over phone while she had been working in Soudi Arabia as a house maker of a Saudi elite family. She worked there for 10 years. She came back to Batticaloa in 1991. 
She came to politics because she thought “a change is needed and it’s just the matter of time”. She could finish her O’level only and stopped there as it was costly. She wanted to ensure education, particularly higher education, for women. She also addressed that the employment opportunity for women was very low. If a good number of women could be Member of Parliament, then they could speak for the women and their rights. If women were economically solvent then they would be able to buy their stuffs according to their need. 
Even in her Saudi period, she had gone through different levels of struggle. Once she was falsely convicted for stealing. Then she was sent back to Sri Lanka. She again managed to go there and got same job in another household. She spoke in favor of women’s education and gathered like-mined women to share their thoughts in Saudi Arabia.
She also informed us that there were four female candidates for the upcoming provincial election. Among them two were Tamil and two were Muslim. She also shared that once she met a Muslim minister (male) who discouraged women’s participation in politics. According to him women should concentrate solely on housework. She thought if there was sufficient job opportunity for women locally, then they need not go abroad and life might be easier. She also expressed her fear of regrouping and reorganization of LTTE and the war.
From 1983 at several occasions she tried to build peace during war. She thought that there existed a rigid relationship between groups involved in politics and politicians were not willing to solve the problem with sincerity.
She also professed that in politics there should not be any place for a dynasty.
Interview 2
A Tamil woman leader had been in politics for 16 years. She had three children and all of them were boys. Her eldest son was 8 years old. She participated in the last parliamentary election as an independent candidate. Though she failed, she thought women’s participation is important. There was no woman in local government body and she wanted to set an example. 
She mentioned that there were 1,662 widows in three divisions and their sufferings had no end, only because of less education. She stated, “For the development of women, women’s participation in the parliament is the only way out”. According to her, “development is development of skill, both politically and economically.” She had been working in an NGO for 16 years. As per her observations “women from well-to-do families do not get permission to work outside”.
She got involved in politics because of the war that created a big number of widows and she observed their sufferings. Though she was not elected, she saw more women were interested in politics. She has been searching for eligible women in politics. So far she got 16 women and she has been training them and sharing her experience to build them as politician. Recently she joined a group called TMVP (Tamil Makhali Vududalie Paligal), a Tamil political group. She said, “We used to live together, watched movie together; but now Tamils want to be separated as they are not equally treated due to emergency law”.
She mentioned, “Grease devils are now the talk of the town”. These devils were anonymous, used to frighten and scratched on women’s body at night. She thought that the grease devils were putting some chemicals during scratching the women so that the chemicals will modify their genetic pattern and the next generation would be genetically muted. She uttered, “It is some kind of conspiracy to destroy them”. Physicians referred the victims as psychiatric patient. Thus most of the cases remain unnoticed and untreated, because avoiding themselves has become a part of psychic patient and ultimately the wound is infected. When I wanted to visit a victim, she denied going there because of CID/ military; they might track us or might cause further harm to the victim.
According to her statement, grease devils were an artificial crisis made by the government. She said, “Government thinks if they lift the emergency law, they may not control the Tamils. They have withdrawn the emergency due to foreign country and UN pressure but not by their own choice”.
Interview 3
A Muslim woman leader was only 28 years old. She finished her A’level. She worked with election monitoring committee. She became interested in politics because she was a victim of politicization of the entire sector as not getting the job being non-partisan. She wanted to set an example that only eligible and the right person with skill would get the priority and the job.
She was involved in social service in the field of advocacy, particularly for women. She said, “Men cannot address women’s issues”. She came to politics due to her husband’s inspiration. Her husband is a computer instructor.
She mentioned a recent incident of two Muslim school girls. They went to a cyber café for internet browsing after school hours. The villagers raised false accusation against them of watching pornography and eventually girls were house-arrested.
Interview 4
A Tamil woman was 53 years old. Twenty three years back her husband was killed in the war. She is a war victim in terms of being a widow. She had been facing enormous struggle with her only daughter. Her daughter was then a kid. Now she got married and had a child of 8 years. She used to live by growing vegetables in her own land of half acre. She narrated how her husband had disappeared or killed. In 1987, some unknown people came to the house and picked him in the name of some investigation and he never came back. Unfortunately she lost her right hand in a terrible bus accident ten years back. She got a plastic prosthetic, but could not maintain it as it was uncomfortable.
She stated that a woman with a son might survive with little struggle in comparison to her situation as she faced a great deal of challenges. She sighed, “I could not support my daughter for higher education. Moreover jobless women are socially discriminated. Even after tsunami I was the last person to get aid”.
Interview 5
A Muslim women leader had been involved in politics since 1987. She was a member of women council and elected in the last provincial election. She contested from Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC).
She stated, “Separate Muslim leadership is required because of cultural difference among different ethnic groups”. She also mentioned that in SLMC there was Tamil and Singhalese in other provinces, but not in the Eastern province. She said, “Being a politician I faced a wide range of challenges while walking on this thorny path. The members of the opponent party once burnt down my van. But I was accepted by the people with their open hearts because of my twenty years background in social works”.
She came from a political family. Her brother was elected in the parliamentary election from SLMC too. She said, “Now he has been corrupted and he joined the parliamentary alliance to get a ministerial post”.
In 1990, 130 Muslims were killed by LTTE inside a mosque, which led her to step into to politics. She formed an NGO, North East Coordination Development Organization (NECDO), based in Kallady. She said, “We provide loan to needy Muslim women with nominal service charge instead of interest. But for the first four months they do not have to pay any service charge and the recovery rate is more than 
95%”. 
Interview 6
She was a lecturer of Tamil literature in the Arts faculty of the Eastern University of Sri Lanka. She had been associated with Suriya Development group in Batticaloa as an advisor since 1994. This organization focused on mobilization, counseling and empowerment of women through livelihood enhancement and women’s contribution in the economy. 
She mentioned, “The main problem is land rights. Women inherit land from their parents in both Tamil and Muslim societies. But the government rule is that the lands are registered in the name of the head of the household. In Srilanka 60% cases the household heads are men and thus the women become landless overnight”. She also said, “Women should come to the mainstream politics to establish their rights”.
Interview 7
She was a women rights activist. She was a member of the Democratic People’s Movement in Sri Lanka, which is a coalition of people’s movements, NGOs and trade unions initiating action and dialogue for alternative development paradigms. She was President of the International Movement against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR) and the Women’s Forum for Peace in Sri Lanka. IMADR was always actively involved in anti-war and peace movement in Sri Lanka. She contested for parliamentary election twice as a candidate from the left front, in 2000 and 2001.
She observed that the understanding of politics was different between NGO and political parties. With a distinct objective she started women’s political academy in Sri Lanka to achieve social recognition by the means of politics. She said, “We have around 60,000 widows in North East and around 55,000 widows in the South. Without addressing the issue of livelihoods of women, development is not possible”. According to her perspective women’s participation in politics should be in a democratic fashion. She said, “It is not the question of power, it is a must”.
Discussion
War and natural disasters created an extra burden for widows in the society. In most cases, their sufferings played a triggering role for them to join politics. However, the first women Prime Minister in the world, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, came to politics after her husband’s death. In March 1995, at a press conference during the United Nations Social Development Summit in Copenhagen, President Kumaratunga said, “Though we have a woman President and a woman Prime Minister, and six other woman ministers in a Cabinet of 24; women educate themselves as much as men and job opportunities for women are not less than that of men, it had not solved the problems women face in Sri Lanka. There’s a new problem – violence against women”.4 We heard about ‘grease devils’, a newer form of violence against women, in order to push back the military into the land by the government. Dr. Deepika Udagama, the director of the Centre for the Study of Human Rights at Colombo University said, “Many in South Asia think that women in Sri Lanka are better off than their counterparts in other countries of South Asia. Education level, women holding management positions, women in other professions and even in normal social norms, Sri Lankan women enjoy better position than in Pakistan, Bangladesh or India. But in the recent past there has been a tremendous upsurge in acts of violence against women”.4
Conclusion
With nightmare of grease devils, vicious cycle of false acquisition and losing properties in recent time made women vulnerable in this beautiful Island. Violation of human rights through war and violence against women are possibly the factors that played major role in the involvement of women in politics even in rural Sri Lanka. The problem is interlinked like string hopper. While the government has declared peace in the island, people doubt in the motive of the government. Women’s participation and empowerment through their livelihood improvement may bring peace in the island. Resolution of conflict between the ethnic communities should be addressed simultaneously.
References
1. Encyclopedia Britannica: Veda”. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 21 August 2011.
2. “Sri Lanka leader hails ‘victory’. BBC News. 2009-05-19. Retrieved 2010-06-02.
3. Brief analysis of population and housing Characteristics. http://www.statistics.gov.lk/PopHouSat/PDF/p7%20population%20and%20Housing%20Text-11-12-06.pdf.
4. Kalong Seneviratne, “The plight of Sri Lankan women”, http://www.twnside.org.sg/title/plight-cn.htm

( The writer can be reached at dr.taniabulbul@gmail.com )

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Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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