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Shiromi Cooray

Date : 2021-Nov-29
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“From the age of eight, I helped my father in his community welfare activities. I am from Moratuwa and I used to take extra lunch packets to school to share with classmates from poor families. Unfortunately, my education was disrupted after my father fell ill and I took over my father’s business. I could only study up to Ordinary Levels. I am married and we have a 17-year-old daughter.

Ten years ago, after my father’s death, I founded Moratumulla Courageous Women’s Society to assist poor and vulnerable women. I wanted to continue in my father’s footsteps. While assisting women through this society, I was appointed as coordinator of women’s affairs in the Sri Lanka Women’s Task Force which was set up under the Ministry of Women and Children’s Affairs. There were nearly 100 grassroots women’s organizations registered with this Task Force. We organized legal aid programs, medical camps, skill development workshops and numerous other assistance activities focusing women. Meanwhile, I did a Beauty Culture certificate course and I trained other women free of charge. About 500 of the trained women are now running their own beauty parlours and sewing businesses after taking my classes.

One day I attended a lecture given by the prominent lawyer and political activist, Jeewani Kariyawasam. After listening to Jeewani, I was inspired to engage in electoral politics. In 2016, I started helping Eran Wickramanayake, the UNP Moratuwa seat organizer. Mr.Wickramanayake guided me like my own father and encouraged my involvement in grassroots political mobilization and organization. By then, I had already done my Advanced Levels and also had a diploma in Economics and Business Management. Currently, I am following a certificate diploma in political science at the SLILG [ Sri Lanka Institute of Local Governance].

I received nomination from the UNP to contest in the 2018 local government election. I was subjected to a lot of verbal abuse and character denigration by one of my own party members. He even interrupted our women’s society meetings. But later he joined SLPP [Sri Lanka Podu Jana Party] and then I had all the freedom and space I wanted to help women and do my political campaigning activities. At one time, his harassment was overwhelming so I even lodged a complaint at the Election Commissioner’s office.

Before I contested the election, I already had a very good overall knowledge about the Local Government Act and local government service delivery mechanisms. I attended some training supported by the Association of War Affected Women. I also attended election campaign training given by SLILG [Sri Lanka Institute of Local Governance]. These different trainings strengthened me by giving all the knowledge I needed to play an effective role in the Municipal Council. I would even say those trainings helped me 200% to progress as an upcoming politician.

After I became a Councilor, the male councilors tried to silence me and even some women tried to discourage me from speaking against male councilors. I wasn’t afraid to point out corruption in our Municipal Council. In one incident, I kept on putting pressure on a case of misuse of public funds.

I was able to help with road and drainage repair and rehabilitation, construction of a sports ground for youth and children’s parks, and provide rehabilitation assistance to religious places with the money I received from Eran Wickramanayake’s allocations. During the initial Covid 19-lockdown months, I helped to organize relief distribution for low-income families. I am afraid I haven’t been able to do much toward socio-economic welfare of my communities due to lack of financial allocations. But I do try to find private funding sources to support children’s education and also to assist women.

We have to do more to help social welfare and human development at Municipal Council Level. The lack of interest in this respect was evident in the response I received to a proposal to establish a separate committee for women and children. The first time when I brought the proposal, the Chairman scrunched up the document and threw it in the bin. I didn’t give up. I cited CEDAW [Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Violence Against Women] the second time I brought it and still it wasn’t taken up. I brought it up again during a Sports Committee meeting. The councilors’ limited understanding about their role make them believe that our role should be confined to improvement of physical community infrastructure, material development and not human development.

Since this government came to power, we haven’t been able to distribute nutrition packages to pregnant women. I feel there is a lack of interest from the government itself to address the specific needs and issues of women. They are preoccupied with physical infrastructure development. We haven’t been sent any allocations to address human development and well-being of our communities. And whatever the allocations we get are also distributed along party lines, so the governing party councilors get most of it.

A significant part of my time is expended to dealing with patriarchal attitudes of men within our council. The men don’t allow us to do our work. They want to dominate everything. When we express our views, they show a lot of insecurity. This is a serious problem that needs to be addressed. I think this situation can be addressed by providing training for male councilors, too.

The quota system has opened up a possibility to gain better awareness about the lived realities and special needs and concerns of women. Men just sit at the top level making all the important decisions. The women councilors get to know issues and challenges facing women at the grassroots. And the MC is the closest government structure to the people and we should be able to address some of those urgent issues through this structure. Unfortunately, we currently don’t even have a ministry dedicated to women’s affairs and women and children’s affairs come under the purview of another ministry headed by a man. That’s the level of interest we have to swim against. I feel helpless in this situation.   

Women who are engaged in politics have to have an aim. We have to be strong and we should arm ourselves with knowledge. The knowledge is our best weapon against those who cast derogatory remarks at us and look down upon women politicians as weak and ineffective.

I am hoping to contest in the upcoming Provincial Council election. I like to contest for parliament one day. I have twenty years of social service experience. I have a lot of faith in Samagi Jana Balawegaya [SJB] party leadership, it is very progressive. I will contest from SJB. We are positive that women will be given adequate representation. But we should all insist on a quota for women contestants. Maybe even demand 50% to reflect our strength as a demographic group.”

 

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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