Conference Brings Together Sri Lankan Women to Encourage Political Participation

Political figures gathered in Kandy, Sri Lanka, May 25-27, 2007, to discuss how to increase women’s participation in Sri Lankan politics at a conference hosted by the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the Association of War Affected Women (AWAW).  The Women Defining Politics conference brought together women representing all levels of political involvement in Sri Lanka as well as prominent women leaders from throughout Asia to discuss challenges and identify ways to increase women’s political participation.   

Recognizing that Sri Lanka has many talented women serving their communities in elected positions, the majority of the conference sessions were led by women who currently or recently served as elected officials in Sri Lanka.  

Cynthia Bunton, Director of Asia programs at IRI and Visaka Dharmadasa, Chairperson of AWAW opened the conference on May 25 followed by a presentation by Gretchen Birkle, Director of IRI’s Women’s Democracy Network, on different ways women can be politically active.  On Saturday, May 26, the Minister of Women’s Affairs, Mrs. Sumeda G. Jayasena, presented a status report on the state of women in Sri Lanka.  

“Although the level of education and health of women in Sri Lanka remain high compared to other South Asian countries, women’s participation at decision-making levels is very low,” said Minister Jayasena.  “This is basically due to the attitudes of a father-dominated society which prescribes that men should dominate power at all times.”

At a luncheon on Saturday conference participants were provided a unique opportunity to directly question and talk with elected Members of Parliament.  Women parliamentarians attended the luncheon and took participants questions.  Another panel highlighted the campaign and governance experience of the four currently elected women Central Provincial Council members.  The former Mayoress of Kandy, Mrs. Chandra Ranaraja, led a training session on how to successfully campaign for political office.   

At a reception on Saturday evening, participants heard from Ambassadors representing the United States, Switzerland and the Canadian High Commission who offered remarks congratulating the women for their interest in politics.   

The Honourable Loretta Rosales, Member of the Philippines Parliament, provided the keynote speech Saturday night.  Representative Rosales discussed how the role of women can be enhanced throughout Asia.  The Representative has a record of using her power to promote responsive and people-sponsored legislation and has been a champion supporting people within Asia who struggle for basic freedoms.

The conference ended on Sunday, May 27, with sessions on nongovernmental organizations and advocacy led by Dr. Nimalka Fernando, Director, International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism; Lalith Abeysinghe, former Chairperson, Satyodaya; and Saroja Sivachandran, Coordinator, Jaffna Women’s Development Center; and women in the media in Sri Lanka led by Sharmini Boyle, Chief Editor, YA TV.  Swarna Sumunasekera, Chairwomen, Women’s Committee of Sri Lanka led a session on next steps to empower women in Central Province.

AWAW works to achieve peace through socio-economic development enlisting the active participation of war affected women.  The conference was made possible by funding from the National Endowment for Democracy.  

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