Putting Women in their Place! (VOF 1)
She is not your typical idea of a feminist, at least she certainly wasn’t mine. Quiet and thoughtful, fiery and explosive; a loving mom whose thoughts are always with her kids and a driven woman who was spearheading change in many areas and issues; one of the most prominent negotiators and advocates for women’s rights in the country whose other passion is cooking; insightful and incisive in her arguments, yet able to negotiate, to communicate without injury. I was both fascinated and intrigued by Dr. Sepali Kottegoda when I first met her a few months ago. I had long abandoned the term “feminist” as it embodied such negative connotations. But Sepali seemed label-less, with so many facets, at times seemingly contradictory, that there’s no one label you can stick on her.
Sepali is one who has always questioned the status quo. From her childhood, she questioned inequality – for example, why did her brother not have to do the household chores as she did? In her research she questioned why women were not included in every sphere of society, why women did not earn as much as men, why they could not be an equal partner in marriage. Twenty Five years ago, Sepali and two friends established the Women and Media Collective (WMC) to work for women’s inclusion and wider representation in media, politics and the workplace.
Sri Lanka is often touted as a model in South Asia in women’s advancement. Women earned the right to vote along with men in 1931, enjoy very high literacy rates, and are a major part of the workforce. And they are also active and faithful voters, turning out in high numbers for every election. But 61 years after gaining independence, women occupy less than 6% in parliament, the highest elected legislature in the country (the current percentage of 5.7% women is only marginally higher than the 4% women in the first parliament in 1948). Sepali and her colleagues at WMC have been working in many spheres and among diverse groups of politicians and grassroots activities, to raise questions on these dismal numbers and to encourage more women entering politics.
Among their strategies to increase women’s representation in legislature, they have joined other women’s groups in advocating a quota for women at all levels of government, advocating for greater inclusion of women among the mainstream political parties, and encouraging individual women and women’s groups who are interested in entering politics. They have also focussed on strengthening women’s capacity in local government by familiarising them with the local government legislation, rights, duties and responsibilities.
Sri Lanka elected the first woman Prime Minister in the world when Sirimavo Bandaranaike was elected in 1960. Her daughter, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge, was elected as President in 1994 and for a second term in 1999. There have been other women from prominent political families who have engaged in politics, but often as a result of being propelled into the political limelight due to the death of their husband, father or brother.
“The whole of South Asia has this problem,” says Sepali. “I think on a positive note, we’ve had intelligent women in positions of power. But the negative factor is that the system shuts out women who can’t claim these kinds of credentials, and I think that is the more significant thing. In the long run, we have to break out of that mentality of kinship power and look at women at their own merit.”
Politics in Sri Lanka is rife with violence, corruption and a deeply ingrained patriarchal structure within political parties. These factors, combined with extreme sexist attitudes of many current politicians and political leaders, have deterred many women from even considering entry into politics. Some women who do step up and challenge this status quo, do so at a heavy price. A group of women candidates who contested in the North Western Provincial Council election in 1999 faced acts of extreme violence – at a time when a woman was head of state! The women candidates, as well as women who supported them, were violently assaulted, hit with iron bars, had acid thrown on them, were stripped of their clothes in public and even threatened with rape.
Sepali believes that for women to gain prominence as a political candidate, she needs much profiling in media. “I’ve actively supported the profiling of women in the media. We don’t have TV talk shows that invite women to participate. We want to make sure that women are profiled, to be there to speak on any of the issues, whether it’s the economy or other policy issues – not just women’s issues or children’s issues. It may seem an obvious point, but if the public is not aware of these candidates, then they will not vote for women. We want the public to be aware that these are capable women who should be voted for.”
The advocacy for a 25%-30% quota in the legislature continues, as many women’s groups strongly believe this is the only way to ensure women have an opportunity to enter politics. Other South Asian countries such as India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan have a quota for women, especially in local government bodies. While the present government’s election manifesto and policy document has proposed the introduction of a 25% quota for women at elections, little has been done to address the issue.
“Parliamentary reform will open more doors,” says Sepali who continues to meet with political parties and women’s groups, constantly reminding them of the need to include women in politics. While simply having more women in parliament will not ensure good governance or more progressive policies on women’s issues, Sepali and her colleagues at WMC believe that more women in elected government will bring in change. “Women will bring a different perspective, and a larger group of women can have a greater impact in terms of the issues they can support. The stronger their voices and better their impact, they will come together on issues that they are silent on today, that they’re hesitant to speak on today”.
There is some light at the end of this dark tunnel. The work with women’s groups at grassroot level over the years has resulted in younger women taking a greater interest in politics, in women actively engaging government institutions and elected bodies for their rights, and a few more women stepping forward into active politics. In the recently concluded Western Provincial Council elections earlier this year, a woman candidate was elected the Opposition leader for the first time, having polled the highest number of votes in the Opposition party.
“We need to highlight these small steps forward,” says Sepali. “We need to convince the population that yes we can vote women in and things can happen, things can change.”
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 31 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most forgotten corners of the world. Meet Us.