Why do you think it is still so difficult to engage women in politics?
The majority of the women in Parliament have come into power through their husbands or fathers. They have basically come to represent a male colleague who in most cases have passed away prematurely. This is mainly due to the patriarchal society that exists in our country. So even after entering politics, women have a limited role as they are confined to playing the stereotypical woman’s role.
The situation is aggravated by the Electoral system itself. So even when giving out nominations, women are sidelined because political parties think that a man would be a better choice because they have more muscle power and money that would assist them in the campaigning process that is required under the current electoral system. Therefore, women do not have an opportunity to enter politics as there is no system through which a woman can enter the political arena.
None of the governments in Sri Lanka have done anything in the form of affirmative action to get more women into Parliament. Of course, with the amendment made to the Local Government Act, female representatives were given a 25% quota. So right now, as a positive result of this quota system, around 23% of the representatives at local governments are women including young women too.
Should young women be involved in policy-making? Why is it important?
The majority of our population is women, around 51% of this country’s population is women. Women have the capacity and more inclination to highlight important social issues that are currently being neglected such as Gender-based-Violence, harassment in public places, harassment in the workplace etc. In a democracy, you cannot ignore problems faced by half of the population and take decisions. Women should be equally represented. Therefore, women should play a major role in decision making including the young women in this country.
The general negative narrative and perception of politics in society discourage many young women from entering politics. How do we rectify this? How do we change this negative societal perception?
It should be done collectively by both male and female colleagues. We have to get the support of the male colleagues and work dedicatedly to change the public’s perception of politics and politicians. We have to introduce more transparent systems; we have to abide by the rule of law and ensure that laws apply equally irrespective of whether you are a politician or not. We have to lead by example. Until and unless we change the public perception of politics, educated young men and women will not get involved in this field which will be detrimental to the country. At the decision-making level, we should have properly educated, intelligent, well-behaved, practical lawmakers who respect the rule of law.
How do we move away from this ‘cost’ of violence that women have to bear to enter politics? There should be no such cost for women to enter the political arena. Is this one of the reasons youth women feel intimidated?
We have to bring strict laws and we have to make sure that the law is enforced properly within a short time. In our present judicial system, the enforcement of judicial decisions takes a long time. If people can practically see the consequences of violating the law, behaving badly in society, ill-treating other candidates, then there would be more deference to the law. So, I think stricter punishments and effective enforcement of such laws will help us move away from the cost of violence.
Do you think mentorship programs that lends well to intergenerational partnerships would be a possible solution to engaging young women in politics?
Yes, I do believe that. Female role models would encourage more female political participation. Such role models can mentor the young women to take leadership positions. We as female politicians should also ensure that we create an enabling environment whereby the women who want to take politics as a career have an opportunity to do so. We have been successful in doing that at the local government level.
The female parliamentarians have been successful in submitting a document to the Select Committee on electoral reforms proposing to retain the minimum 25% quota for female representatives at local governments and to ensure adequate representation at the provincial as well as national level by maintaining a gender balance of 30-70 per cent. We also suggested a mixed system which would be more favourable towards women rather than the current proportional representative system which favours mostly the affluent.
I strongly believe that until there is a level playing field for men and women, we need to have a quota for female representatives as a temporary measure, so that women who are appointed consequently can work and prove themselves to society that they are also capable in decision-making. This will change societal prejudices against women’s ability to be involved in decision-making. Subsequently, they also can contest and win.
So, it is your belief that such laws will give a platform for women enabling them to show results by performing at the decision-making level?
Of course, I do think that. The reason why I say that is because women who have been in the political arena have been re-elected several times. So, women when given the opportunity can prove that they are successful in decision making. I also believe that we should not get confined into the societal perception of successful politicians. These perceptions, like you should have a lot of money, you need to be very well connected, you should support people who do illicit activities to get ahead in your political career, those also have to change. Recently, I was listening to some male representatives in the local governments and they were very appreciative of the work done by their female colleagues. They said that their female colleagues were less corrupt, more committed, and that they do innovative things that their male colleagues do not even think of. So, they were very appreciative. This again supports the fact that more women in the political field means that there is less corruption and less violence.
In your opinion is Gender-based-violence a deterrent for youth to enter the workforce?
More women are subjected to gender-based-violence, rather than men. This is mostly because there is gender inequality in the socialization process itself in our country, stemming from the patriarchal society. Even parents bring up girls in a way that makes them less powerful to their male siblings. But, we see that young boys who are not behaving in accordance with the socially accepted idea of a man also face this issue. Ironically, when a man is subjected to violence, then society perceives that man as either less of a man or not strong enough. In such instances, people tend to humiliate victims by making comments like “oh, he is like a woman”. So there again, the idea that women are inferior to men is perpetuated. So, men also are subjected to GBV although it is more common among women. There are also other minorities such as the LGBTQI who are also subjected to GBV. Gender inequality and bias in the attitudes and the practices of people will have to be adjusted mainly through parenting, and the schooling and socialization process.
What can we do to rectify this as a country? Should there be more comprehensive laws governing the area?
Yes, more specific laws governing the area is required. However, we must also focus more on implementing the laws. Punishing the wrong-doers is one approach. Another approach is changing the mindset and attitudes of people. For that purpose also, laws can be useful. However, change in attitude must start from home. Parents, preschool and school teachers must teach young children to respect people for being human beings, without attaching gender roles to a human being. Such values should be introduced at an early stage. Presently, even by the school curriculum itself, the notion that men are superior to women is communicated to children. We need to rectify these issues. We were trying to introduce a gender component into the school curriculum. Unfortunately, we have not yet been successful. Children must respect one another regardless of gender connotations.
How do we ensure that differently abled people have better opportunities in society?
To start with, I think we should have a disability policy and an action plan. Prevention of disability could be one component. Then, identification of disability at an early stage could also be another component. This would allow us to assist parents with career guidance that would enable the child to lead a normal life. The policies should also focus on education as well. Children should be taught the importance of accepting and respecting other differently abled people. So, they should be taught the value of tolerance in schools. There should be inclusive learning and of course we will need to have special schools and special classes for some differently abled children depending on where they are on the spectrum.
We need to have a separate ministry dealing with this subject matter. That way we can ensure that we at least resolve the basic accessibility issues faced by many disabled people in our country. We have been neglecting this sector for a long time and that only causes more hindrances robbing these people of the opportunity to live normal lives in society.
Should a quota system be introduced to recruit differently abled youth to the public sector?
Yes, of course. I think right now there is a 3% quota system, if I’m not mistaken. But definitely there should be a well-planned out quota system. Even when it comes to political participation, maybe parties can allocate one seat in the National List to nominate a person from the disabled community which gives them an opportunity to highlight these issues and bring these issues to the forefront, thereby creating a social dialogue.
Should the private sector also be incentivized by the Government to recognize and facilitate the rights of differently abled people, especially when it comes to recruitment?
Yes, of course. Maybe in the way of awarding some sort of tax benefits. Not only for disabled people but also for breastfeeding women and women with very young children. They should be treated as an investment because the country supports children from birth to the first 8 years as the early childhood nurturing is really important, not just for the child but also for the future of our country. So, such incentivization would provide such women with very young children, the opportunity to provide quality care for their infants who are the future of our country.
How do you think online education affects the prospects of our youth? What kind of challenges can we expect?
There are positives as well as negatives. As for positives, online education allows children and young persons to receive the subject knowledge that is required for their education despite the hindrances caused by the global pandemic. It will also create new avenues and job opportunities for the youth as they become more and more skilled at using technology. However, on the other hand, children may not develop much needed social and life skills as they do not get to socialize or engage in extra-curricular activities. On top of that, certain children do not get the opportunity of joining classes at all due to data issues. So, this seems to be impacting the poor and the rich in different ways. Another aspect of this is the development of behavioural issues. The mental health of children could also deteriorate. So as a doctor, I would say that online education has more negatives than positives, unfortunately.
How do we address mental health issues arising from the pandemic?
Parents should definitely monitor and supervise their children very closely whenever they are interacting online with smart devices. We should be very mindful of online pitfalls as well. There are many exploitative and predatory websites that children might get manipulated into using. There should be an allocated time period for the usage of these devices and there should also be time allocated for recreational activities like reading novels, listening to songs, playing indoors so that even within the pandemic situation, some normalcy is present in our children’s lives. That would help our children cope with the pandemic in a more successful manner.