Helping women cross the Diyawanna Lake

With the aim of improving female participation in governance, Yeheliya Foundation’s “Diyawanna Tharanaya” launched an open dialogue to identify the barriers women face when entering Parliament and engage in parliamentary politics.

Yeheliya Foundation Founding Director Attorney-At-Law Naushalya Rajapaksha

Bringing the project to a landmark moment, the outcome document of Diyawanna Tharanaya is to be launched on the 13 March 2021 at the Jasmine Hall of the Bandaranaike Memorial International Convention Hall (BMICH) premises from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.

The open dialogue of Diyawanna Tharanaya coincided with the 2020 general election season and kick-started its first phase on 25 January. Now, the outcome document of a project that has been over a year in the making would be launched a few days after International Women’s Day on 8 March 2021.

Though the lack of female participation in politics is seen as a problem across the board, this project specifically focuses on women and Parliament, hence the name “Diyawanna Tharanaya” (crossing the Diyawanna Lake).

Even though the Yeheliya Foundation was aware of the problems faced by women when entering politics, they wanted to know what the actual problems were from people who had faced such experiences, Yeheliya Foundation Founding Director Attorney-At-Law Naushalya Rajapaksha told The Morning.

“During a phase one discussion, a girl stood up and said ‘I am fat, I don’t think I can enter politics in Sri Lanka’. I think indirectly she was raising a huge issue – the physical attributes that are considered and the physical expectations that exist for women when they want to enter politics,” Rajapaksha said, reflecting on an experience of the project.

According to the Yeheliya Foundation, the global ranking of female representation in parliaments shows that Sri Lanka ranks 182 out of 193 countries. Female representation at the Eight Parliament of Sri Lanka in 1977 was slightly over 5%. In the 2020 parliamentary election, the five largest political parties in Sri Lanka collectively nominated only 59 women, which is less than 6% from their total of 1,082 candidates.

“Up to date, not a single woman in Parliament has been accused of bribery or corruption. And we have seen that women who have undertaken whatever the big or small responsibility, they have always delivered,” Rajapakha pointed out.

The foundation said that there is a gender gap that exists in the political sphere and that it is detrimental to women, as it does not encourage women to come forward and also makes it harder for the few women in Parliament to successfully engage with the issues that women in Sri Lanka face.

As suggestions for solutions to the existing gender gap in representative politics, the Yeheliya Foundation stated that a change of mindset was needed to encourage women to come forward as well as for society to see a female candidate as just another candidate and to treat her with the same respect and support given to a male candidate. It was also noted that if females supported female candidates, the percentage of female representatives in Parliament would surge.

It was also suggested that a transparent criteria or points system should be in place so that women who are educated, qualified, and have knowledge and experience in the relevant field will have ample opportunity to be granted nominations. It also stated that religion and law need not go hand in hand and that the public must be made aware of this, adding that religious leaders, other politicians, and the electorate should stop interfering in the progressive approaches female or male representatives take for the betterment of the country’s female population.

The Yeheliya Foundation’s vision for 2025 calls for the amendment of party constitutions to introduce female quotas and a uniform selection criteria to be drafted by the Election Commission of Sri Lanka as well as for a one-third female representation in national list seats. It also calls for a national campaign to encourage voters to cast a preferential vote for a female candidate.

In light of the role played by the media in electioneering, the foundation also called for the Election Commission to formulate an election media guideline and for it to make it mandatory for every electronic media institution to allocate opportunity for female candidates to actively engage in issues of national importance and not limited to issues faced by women.

Passing the Election Campaign Finance Bill with immediate effect, formulating a training and awareness programme for those who have received nominations from each political party in a particular electorate on political science, international relations, human rights, policy making, etc. and developing Infrastructure such as breastfeeding rooms, daycare areas to create an enabling environment for female candidates to continue their work while being the primary caregiver to their children are also in Yeheliya Foundation’s vision for 2025.

The study upon which the outcome document is based took place as a series of discussions conducted with various stakeholders. The three stages of the dialogue engaged with civic right activists, civil society organisations, and women in governance, respectively. The research was conducted by a group of five women headed by Nimansa Thalduwa.

Members of the Yeheliya Foundation

“We invited people from the Youth Parliament, Tharunodaya, and other civil organisations, as well as students from universities and university unions in the first phase,” Rajapaksha said.

Following this, the People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL), the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV), representatives from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the Secretary General of the National Youth Congress of India shared their input with Diyawanna Tharanaya in the second phase. The third phase of the dialogue spoke to female parliamentarians and hopefuls such as State Minister Dr. Sudarshini Fernandopulle, MP Thalatha Atukorale, MP Rohini Wijeratne Kavirathna, MP Dr. Harini Amarasuriya, and Attorney-at-Law Nirupa Serasinghe about the obstacles they faced when entering Parliament.

The outcome document of Diyawanna Tharanaya consolidates the findings and viable recommendations gathered through the interactions with resource persons who contributed to the dialogue. Apart from this, the document also consists of an informative analysis of female participation at the 2020 general election, a study of female representation in the electoral politics of selected countries worldwide, and Yeheliya Foundation’s own input on the subject matter.

“This is the first time an organisation has taken the errand of actually putting this down on paper. So many organisations talk about it,” Rajapaksha said, elaborating on the importance of such a document existing in policy advocacy.

“The stakeholders we are trying to advocate these changes to senior citizens in the country holding high ranks of public office. With them, merely talking about the problems wouldn’t do. This is why the outcome document comes into place,” Rajapaksha added.

The project aims to take the outcome document to key players in governance and urge them to make necessary decisions and changes to the existing systems in order to address the systemic problems faced by women when entering and engaging in parliamentary politics. The Yeheliya Foundation intends to pressurise and lobby political parties and government departments to further female representation in politics in a way that it proportionally reflects the country’s female population.

Since its registration in 2018, the Yeheliya Foundation has worked with the aim of creating a safe space for young girls and women from different walks of life and has worked towards creating an equal platform for their female counterparts. Hence, the primary focus of Yeheliya’s policy advocacy is on identifying and bridging legal and policy gaps within the Sri Lankan legal, economic, social, and political systems that are identified to be inherently discriminatory towards women.

Rajapaksha said that the launch event next weekend is fully funded by the members of the Yeheliya Foundation. “We didn’t want to abide by donors and their conditions. We wanted this to be a very powerful document that we intend to advocate.”

Members of the Women’s Caucus in Parliament, representatives from the Elections Commission of Sri Lanka, civil society organisations, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and individuals from the private and public sectors have been invited to join the event.