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U.Sandamali

Date : 2022-Jan-10
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“I didn’t want to be a politician. My mother left my father because he was heavily involved in grassroots politics as UNP’s [United National Party] organizer for Colombo North. But since my brother and I were raised by our father, it was inevitable that I went along with him for party meetings and other activities from a very young age. In my youth, I started to help my father with political mobilization activities.

I could only study up to Advanced Levels because my father’s business ran into problems.He was running a snack bar at the Sugathadasa Stadium and with a new government in power, they wanted him to shut his business. But later it was sorted out and, in 2008, I took over the business when my father died after a short illness.

By then, I was already helping the Muzzamil Foundation to establish and coordinate activities of 50 women’s societies across Colombo city. During elections, we were able to organize and mobilize party supporters and voters through these women’s societies. Because I was helping poor women and children, some people thought I was going to run for Municipal elections in 2012. But my aim was to carry forward the work that my father did. In 2014, there was an internal party issue and I left the Foundation completely. The breakaway faction from the UNP created numerous issues to get my snack bar shut. I also received death threats. The court case that was filed on trumped up charges against my business went on for four years but I won it. These experiences made me a stronger person.

I assisted the current Mayor of Colombo when she was organizing party activities through Lak Wanitha Women’s collective to rally women voters of the party together. The Lak Wanitha office was located at the then Prime Minister’s office at Temple Tree. These activities exposed me to the party leadership and they wanted me to run for local government elections in 2018. I first refused the opportunity but with some persuasion, decided to run for Bloemendhal Ward.

I didn’t accept anyone’s money to finance my campaign. I had taken a housing loan and used that money for campaign activities. The party provided vehicles for all contestants, and I used one as well. But I encountered challenges and some harassment from other candidates. Some even sent police to try and shut my business alleging that my shop was built on state land and I didn’t adhere to construction rules and regulations. But I proved them wrong. I had Tamil and Muslim community members supporting my campaign. I think some of the other contestants felt insecure about my ability to work with all three communities.

As a social welfare and political activist, I had gained a decent understanding about the local government system. But I still needed to attend trainings once I became a councilor to improve my knowledge in my role as a local government service provider. Within weeks, I enrolled myself for a diploma course in policy analysis at SLILG [Sri Lanka Institute of Local Governance].

We have eight women in the Colombo Municipal council, including the Mayor at decision making level. The women councilors faced a lot of intimidation and patriarchal attitudes in the first few months. The men did not allow us to speak in sessions. This was also the time a split took place in our party. So my own party male councilors showed a lot of hostility to myself. Someone even tried to physically attack me.  But as a grassroots political organizer, I had years of experience in dealing with chauvinistic and sexist men, so I knew how to overcome such abuse and harassment.

I responded to such attacks by providing efficient services to my citizens. In the first year, I helped repair access roads with 6MN allocations. And in the second year, I received 8MN for access roads rehabilitation. This year, I have 7MN for toilet construction in schools and temples. In the meantime, I also worked hard to relocate the families affected by the Bloemendhal garbage mound. This year, I will also help relocation another group of families living close to the rail tracks.

The different trainings I participated helped me to develop my public speaking abilities. Among the organizations that provided much-needed knowledge and capacity improvement training for women councilors are, One Text and SAPRI. Their trainings helped me to express my views coherently in Municipal Council sessions and in other public gatherings. I am now aware about CEDAW [Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Violence Against Women] and other local and international frameworks that focus on women’s rights and entitlements. For instance, if a man harasses me, now I have the knowledge and confidence to file a complaint against him at the local police station.

 I share my learnings with other women councilors. We should support each other irrespective of our party backgrounds. I wish I had been given access to some of these trainings before I became a councilor. I could have done things I did for women and other groups better.

We have a Women and Children’s Committee which was set up by the Mayor herself but it hasn’t been able to do much due to lack of financial support. I did try to organize assistance activities for the elderly and women through this committee. But nothing got off ground due to the inaccessibility of necessary finances. We have a responsibility toward women in our constituency. They have specific issues that only women councilor is told about and the male councilors are not aware of those specific issues. There are lots of social issues that we should be able to address at Municipal Council level. Most of our councilors pay almost all their attention and energy to address physical community infrastructure needs. But that covers only one aspect of people’s lives and that itself will not resolve other urgent issues they face.

There is still a lot of corruption and misappropriation of public resources within the Municipal Council. The women councilors themselves sometimes abuse their privileged position for personal gain. The women councilors should support each other and we also should strive to draw in the support from male councilors in overcoming budgetary allocation related issues.

I don’t have financial means and nor do I have influence with the leadership of my party to contest in the next Provincial Council election. However, I will contest if I am nominated. But without a quota system for women, I doubt that a fair percentage of women will be allowed to contest by the male leadership of their political parties. I don’t have big political ambitions and I will do my best in whatever role I play to improve the lives of women. The women’s representation in government decision-making should increase not just to end corruption, but also to address critical and specific needs of the female population in this country.”

This was prepared as part of the Female Councillor's Capacity Development Project of One Text - with the permission of the councillor to publish the document.

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