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Champika Harshini Silva

Date : 2021-Nov-21
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“As a child and young woman, I was required to live within the boundaries that my father set for me. Then after I got married, my husband took over that role from my father and I couldn’t decide for myself as an individual with full freedom. It was only after I became an active politician that I was able to finally enjoy as an independent woman.

I did my Advanced Levels studies in Commerce and then followed a Diploma in Management. After my husband went for employment overseas, I did Chartered Accountancy Second Intermediate. But my husband didn’t want me to find a suitable job since we also have two girls, aged eight and seven. My life was still limited to motherhood and community service activities that I started in my youth. My parents were running a business in town. After leaving school, I started to go there regularly. Before long, I was elected to serve as secretary in the town’s traders’ association. The business community in Ragama town, which is also my birth place, got to know me well. I also joined the village’s women’s society and they appointed me as its president. We organized a lot of assistance activities to help poor women. These two community service roles exposed me to complex challenges and issues facing poor communities and families.

My father was a grassroots organizer for Sri Lanka Freedom Party [SLFP]. We didn’t like his involvement in party politics because of aggressive nature and violence associated with party politics in Sri Lanka. We couldn’t do anything beyond just arguing with him to express our objection. After the quota system for women was introduced, the former party organizer for the seat, SLFP MP [Member of Parliament] Felix Perera, communicated an invitation to me, through my father, to represent the party in the 2018 election. I first told my father that I would think about it. Subsequently, I said yes and I had about six weeks to run a campaign for the 2018 Pradeshiya Sabha election.

I was a new face in the local political field. The competition was stiff since SLPP [Sri Lanka Podu Jana Party] was dominating electoral politics locally and nationally. I didn’t win in my Ward, Dambewa, but got a place in the Ja Ela Pradeshiya Sabha for being among the losing contestants with the highest percentage of votes. When I was contesting, some people accused us of being parachute contestants, but the same people would later praise me for all the work I have done in the past two years. It was a challenging experience to run an election campaign with little money. But my father and husband both helped me a lot. My husband is Tamil and some people tried to highlight that as a negative point in my character. Even after I became a councilor, my husband has been encouraging me and motivating me whenever I feel dejected by the weight of my role as a councilor.

I believe there is a difference in attitude between male and female councilors towards our role. The women councilors focus on how to address their constituent members’ grievances and needs. But male councilors are more interested in finding out what’s in it for them, most of the time.

As a new councilor, I had very little understanding about the Local Government Act or the responsibilities of councilors. But, I was able to take a certificate course (2019/2020) aimed at empowerment of women in politics conducted by Peradeniya University. I attended small workshops and gradually increased my knowledge. And currently I am also following an eighteen-month diploma in local governance at SLILG. I have gained a good understanding about the Local Government Act, the Constitution of Sri Lanka, other local government related laws, rules and regulations. The training conducted by One Text Initiative assisted me to improve my public speaking skills and my ability to use new media and technologies for communication. All these different trainings have allowed me to grow as a councilor and delivery effective services to the citizens in my Ward.

I set up a women’s society in my Ward and assisted women to establish income generation in poultry farming and goat raising with the allocations I received from Provincial Council members of SLFP. A few poor families were helped to build houses, too. At local government level, a councilor’s success is often measured by their ability to get a road repaired or constructed; then you have come of age in politics at this level. So even when there is a real need for rehabilitation of a road, as an opposition councilor, you are not going to get your proposal approved. In spite of allocations received for development initiatives in Ja-Ela electorate through the Gamperaliya {rural development} initiative, denial of any allocations for my Ward due to the then ongoing political situation put me in a difficult spot. Later, I was able to acquire allocations from the SLFP Provincial Council Chief Minister for two road rehabilitation initiatives. One of the biggest impediments slowing down our service delivery efforts is partisan attitudes of the chairman and other councilors of the governing party. Irrespective of the close connection between SLFP and SLPP, they see us, SLFP councilors, as part of the opposition. But since the 2020 general election, we have seen an improvement in this respect.  

I serve as president of the SLFP women’s taskforce in Ja-Ela. We have set up women’s societies in 35 Wards in our Pradeshiya Sabha area. These women’s societies are an appropriate platform to assist grassroots women through Pradeshiya Sabha and Municipal Council services to overcome various challenges and issues they face and also by referring them to relevant local administration officials. Unemployment is one of the specific issues affecting a large number of women in the Ja-Ela Pradeshiya Sabha.  I try to assist women to set up income generation initiatives based on their skills. I connect them with Vidatha women’s self-employment unit at the Divisional Secretariat [DS] Office for skill development assistance. The Vidatha unit assists rural women with know-how to set up businesses of their choice. I have been able to obtain allocations from the budget of the former Provincial Council Chief Minister to provide self-employment focused short courses for women. I am currently looking at finding them markets in our town area for their products and produce.

I use diplomacy in my interactions with other councilors. One of my main aims is to help SLFP to remain strong and active in our area in appreciation of the opportunity they gave me to become a councilor.

After getting into the local decision-making mechanism through the quota system, we have been able to inspire other women leaders to become politically active. We have to support them, too. We need a quota system. The male councilors don’t approve our proposals and don’t give us space to dispatch our duties freely. We have to empower ourselves through training.

The women councilors follow systems and regulations. Some experienced women councilors don’t perform their duties efficiently. But young women who came as debutants into the Pradeshiya Sabha work hard. We question male councilors’ proposals and decisions to make sure that they follow rules and regulations. People at community level have begun to observe this difference in the service provision responses between male and female councilors. Community members appreciate my efforts to keep corrupt practices and mishandling of public resources at bay. I perceive that my community members are more keen now to see women in local government decision making roles.

We have to strengthen grassroots women leaders by making knowledge and capacity improvement trainings available to them. We have to create a platform where we can groom women leaders to become full time politicians. We also have to change people’s attitudes towards women leaders. Some of my community leaders still tell me I should stay home and look after my two girls. We have to give leadership training for women like the one I got right at the beginning. This is the best way to empower women leaders who will take up our positions as a second layer. There is a lot of solidarity among women councilors in my Pradeshiya Sabha. But they show a reluctance to speak up in sessions which I connect with lack of confidence.

Within our party, we have requested for a 25% quota for women in the Provincial Council elections, too. But we should elevate hard working women who have been serving their communities for many years, not mothers, wives and daughters of politicians without any experience. I still don’t have enough experience to contest in the Provincial level. I shouldn’t contest for the sake of it. I want to win on the merit of my past performances. But I do have a dream to one day be in Parliament. I am not in a hurry to achieve that dream.”

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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