“I had heard about the new women quota but had little knowledge on how local government operates and the opportunities for public involvement”, says Ms. Jeeva Nishanthini, a 26-year-old local Tamil resident from the Nuwara Eliya district, Central Province of Sri Lanka.
Between October 2016 and March 2017, Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD), in partnership with the Federation of Sri Lanka Local Government Association (FSLGA) organised five workshops targeted at potential cross-party women candidates.
Local government elections are due in 2017; the last elections were in 2011 and held without a compulsory quota for women candidates. The introduction of the quota by the Cabinet in 2016 is widely supported by political parties who welcome the requirement to nominate a minimum of 25% women candidates to compete in provincial council elections.
As a result of the WFD workshops , prospective candidates such as Jeeva have a better understanding of how the 25% quota , along with practical knowledge of local government, could help Sri Lankan women become more active in political life.
“My political interest started when I was a 20-year-old” Jeeva explained, “I had tried once to contest the local election even though I didn’t have sufficient knowledge of local government”. Sri Lanka’s system prior to the introduction of the quota could not guarantee support for women candidates from party structures or from traditional patriarchal communities. “Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough support of my family or party leaders” Jeeva said, “I was helpless and disappointed very much”.
The workshops supported capacity building amongst marginalised groups, particularly women and different ethnic backgrounds in regional and rural Sri Lanka who were offered the opportunity to develop their political knowledge and skills. As part of the training, participants were encouraged to develop a joint action plan focusing on policies relevant to women in the local area.
Participants were also encouraged to form a cross-party network of women candidates to continue supporting one another until and beyond the provincial elections. WFD provided a venue for Sri Lankan civil society and individuals to engage with political representatives who also attended.
“I am thankful to the coordinators who have helped me and my other colleagues” Jeeva says . Efforts by Jeeva and other pioneering women candidates in the upcoming local elections will help make women’s voices heard in Sri Lankan’s politics and invite more and younger women engage in the public domain. For effective democracy to root, women must gain representation and become actively involved in the decisions affecting their own communities.
WFD and the FSLGA are hopeful that this initiative can contribute toward greater gender equality by empowering more Sri Lankan women to get involved in politics. Once a bigger pool of female candidates is established at local level, opportunities increase for women, and more women become inspired to compete in the 2020 general election.