Colombo Telegraph

Women: Careers In Local Government

By S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

Prof. S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

When my mother asked me to marry my wife, I had not seen her; not even a photo of hers. She was then B.Sc., M.Sc. I said to myself, “She is obviously serious about things. She will help bring up good children.” We both said yes. We met first on a Sunday and were married by Wednesday. We have both done well. My wife did her doctorate under Nobel Laureate George Olah. But she moderated her career between being a professor, mother of 5, and wife.

My own mother earned her B.Sc. London in double mathematics, and logic and methodology with first class honours through private study. My father married her merely on my grandfather’s letter to him. She too balanced career and home. I tell you: go for happiness and not naked ambition. This applies to men too.

You can be many things if you are properly prepared. A necessity is that you speak comfortably in the English language. Mahinda Deshapriya, the Chairman of the Election Commission, says that in 15 years Sri Lanka will be ruled by the international school crowd. This is already happening. Uduvil is well-positioned as a private school in the non-assisted category, to contribute to those who will rule us soon!

*Speech delivered on 15 Feb. 2017 at the A. Level Union Annual Luncheon at Uduvil Girls’ College; established in 1820 by American missionaries, and the first girls’ boarding school in Asia:

AL Union President, Ms. Arani Balasingam; Madam Principal, Patricia Jebaratnam; Guest of Honour, Ms. Shivani Vasanthasenan; Distinguished Teachers; Honoured Representatives from other schools; and dear Uduvil-Ladies – the leaders of tomorrow.

You will soon go out into the world. For many Jaffna girls, marriage to a professional is the highest aspiration. You are probably brought up on this limited vision instilled by Jaffna society. Indeed, Uduvil was founded to provide educated Christian brides to the men-converts. The school provided the dowry too.

I tell you, being happily well-married is something that all of us should aim for, men and women. However, marriage does not preclude a successful professional life. Our professional life can be balanced with our family life. That balance requires a good partner. I would go so far as to advise, do not fall in love. That is emotion. Marriage is approached with calculation. Once you marry well, love will surely follow.

When my mother asked me to marry my wife, I had not seen her; not even a photo of hers. She was then B.Sc., M.Sc. I said to myself, “She is obviously serious about things. She will help bring up good children.” We both said yes. We met first on a Sunday and were married by Wednesday. We have both done well. My wife did her doctorate under Nobel Laureate George Olah. But she moderated her career between being a professor, mother of 5, and wife.

My own mother earned her B.Sc. London in double mathematics, and logic and methodology with first class honours through private study. My father married her merely on my grandfather’s letter to him. She too balanced career and home. I tell you: go for happiness and not naked ambition. This applies to men too.

You can be many things if you are properly prepared. A necessity is that you speak comfortably in the English language. Mahinda Deshapriya, the Chairman of the Election Commission, says that in 15 years Sri Lanka will be ruled by the international school crowd. This is already happening. Uduvil is well-positioned as a private school in the non-assisted category, to contribute to those who will rule us soon!

My message today is about a new opportunity for women. I am not speaking about women as soldiers or as priests. I believe we are all, both men and women, equal as persons in the sight of God. We are not, however, equal in function; certainly not in weight lifting. We have distinct strengths.

I do not wish to argue the matter of women priests as I am sure that some Christians here are committed feminists. Hindus here, however, are not burdened by political correctness and thankfully I have heard no cry for women Iyers. After such a sumptuous lunch, it is best that I confine myself to that on which we may agree.

There are certain jobs where men are bested by women; and vice versa. You have unique strengths that men lack – better feelings for children and care for the aged, the problems regarding school, the need for clean pipe-borne water, the lot of war widows, garbage collection, etc. These are the concerns of government. Men however focus on politics because it fires up our adrenalin. We want power and are easily bought. Just look at Lankan politicians who make money and are still respected, and at NPC and oil in our wells. Women do make better politicians.

About 52% of us are women. Even more are in our universities. Yet, we have had only 13 MPs, just 5.78%, in our Parliament of 225. The worldwide average is 21.9%. It is now common wisdom that when quotas are used, women get in. Given such opportunity, women prove their mettle.

In Rwanda with under 12 million people, 800,000 were killed in their 1994 genocide. That calamity, that enormity, left behind a population with 70% women. When they imposed a 30% parliamentary quota, 64% women got elected, the highest anywhere. We may be sure that these women are already growing into their shoes like newly freed slaves did in the US.

In Bangladesh, as of 2013, the Prime Minister, the Speaker, the Leader of the Opposition and the Foreign Minister were all women. India has realized massive gains for women through quotas – over one million now in local government.

Sri Lanka is far behind. So in Jan. 2016 we legislated a 25% quota for women in Local Government. This will empower you.

However, women do not readily stand for elections. Is it because you are more worried about the shame of losing? You cannot run effective campaigns? Or have no access to family finances? Or because women will not vote for women? Or is it that political parties know all this and will not nominate losers?

Sri Lanka’s National Human Development Report 2014 gives reasons. First, discrimination. Although 74% believe that women should be in politics, they also believe that politics is “not the right place” for women. Secondly, stereotypes of women. A woman elected to parliament is rarely considered for ministerial portfolios except perhaps women’s and children’s affairs. Thirdly, the media characterize women candidates badly. The EU Election Observation Mission noted the low coverage given to women. Lastly, female candidates are constantly ostracized and humiliated. Social media comments on them are sexist, making degrading comments on their sexuality and personal life.

A good example is Rosy Senanayake, a beauty queen. A cerebral, elected MP, she posed a serious question in Parliament to Rajapakse’s Transport Minister Kumar Welgama. Welgama answered, to paraphrase, “I am so mesmerised by your looks that I cannot answer your questions in parliament. … I am choked by your beauty and will describe my feelings for you outside the chamber.” S. Thomas’ had taught him English without the manners to go with it.

That is the level of our parliament. Men silence women, and then say, “See? They are incapable.” It does not mean that to be taken seriously, women must act masculine or rowdy. You should stand firm in your own way. Your strength is in being who you are – the gentler sex whose sensitivity we badly need in politics.

The obstacles that women aspiring to serve face, are immense. A party official told me that they had to nominate 10 and expected to win 7 seats. Therefore, they picked 7 leaders whom the party felt it had to have in parliament. Now, the danger was that the other three might be popular enough to fare better than these chosen 7. So they nominated people they perceived as sure losers, including a woman of oppressed caste!

However, if you dare to challenge the bastion of high caste men that parliament is, if you can laugh off stereotypes, if you trudge on despite obstacles, there is now hope. That hope is through the 25% quota.

This is how it will work. If there are 400 seats, the party has to nominate a further 100 women. Unlike now, these have to be strong women who can campaign and get votes for the 400. If the party gets 300 elected seats, 25% of that, that is 75, from the top of the list of the 100 women nominees will become representatives. There will be no humiliation, no shame, of losing because no one votes for those on the list of 100. I think that is the genius of the new system. We may have more than 25% elected women representatives since there will be women among the 400 too. You will learn to govern. Just get into the top of the lists of the larger parties; you can be sure of a career in politics.

Good women can make a difference. There are effective training workshops for potential candidates conducted by Washington-based International Federation of Electoral Systems, IFES, in collaboration with our Election Commission. You are taught how to campaign, make speeches, stay on time, look people in the eye, use a mike, appear for TV etc.

Their Jaffna workshop was ably organized by IFES Operations Officer Sarah Bibler, using as resource persons Diana Carlin (Professor of Communications from the US), Shreen Saroor (women’s rights activist, Mannar) and Nalini Ratnaraja (with candidate-experience in the East). The participants were women from the Northern Province nominated by political parties and women’s groups as potentially part of the 25% quota. I am rushing to IFES’s Trinco workshop today. Other districts will follow.

I dare you to dare. Tell good women to ask parties of their choice for nomination. Perhaps your mother, your teacher, or you yourself. Then campaign for that party. And we will have a long overdue revolution in politics. Ladies of Uduvil, this is the time. This is your time.

Please rise and raise your glasses in toast to the future of all of you, for happy families with unbounded professional opportunities. To the Uduvil AL Union!

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