Connect with us


Of lives and livelihoods



by Usvatte-aratchi

We seem to face a complicated set of problems in handling the epidemic Covid-19 in our country. The infection rate is well above 1. The number identified to have been infected during the last few days has been counting up to 2,000. That is alarmingly high. Consequent upon the rapid rise in infections, there are four tightening bottlenecks: there is an emerging scarcity of hospital beds; the number of acute-care-beds is well short of probable requirements; healthcare personnel are exhausted and short in supply; and the supply and distribution of clinical oxygen may dangerously fall well short of the number of patients distributed over the island that need such care. That is when the capacity of the system will be tested and the current death rate of those being infected will rise rapidly from the present 0.65 per hundred of the infected. The conversion of existing hospitals to accommodate corona patients and the construction of field hospitals may solve the first problem. It is well to remember that the conversion of existing hospitals to accommodate corona patients will be at the expense of beds for non-corona-virus patients.

The scarcity of acute care beds can be very dangerous and there is no alternative to emergency purchase of equipment, when other countries themselves may find it difficult to release such equipment. As with hospital beds, the diversion of health care personnel to treat corona patients will be at cost to other patients. Eventually, when other morbidities are counted, departures from the normal will tell its own tale. Health care personnel from physicians to those that disinfect premises have worked with tremendous dedication and high efficiency. The availability of such persons may be the most strictly binding constraint to saving lives. We have been re-assured that the two factories that produce clinical oxygen have capacity to increase production fast enough to avoid shortages. Distribution to hospitals, as their locations spread wide, may pose problems. All these exigencies arose because we failed to stem the tide of invading infections. We have had ample time to prevent the emergence of these exigencies. Incompetence and complacency among policy makers seem to have conspired to put the population at severe risks and to their unfortunate consequences. Our government did well in early 2020 to lockdown the country, close boundaries and keep the invasion at bay. That may have engendered a sense of undue complacency.

The corona-19 infection is far more widespread than the Spanish flu that ravaged most parts of the world 1919-1920. Although the numbers are not beyond dispute, the best judgement is that some 3.5 percent of those infected died in that epidemic. That wider spread of the epidemic in 2020-21 is explained by the increased mobility of people and goods now compared to that which prevailed 100 years ago. With advances in medical care, the fast discovery of effective vaccines and more effective organization, we should do much better this time round. With nearly 18 months from the beginning of the epidemic in China, there was a wealth of experience that we, in this country, could have learned from. The first experience in fighting the epidemic was in Wuhan, a city of about 11 million people in Hubei Province with some 60 million people.

The Chinese authorities locked down the city completely for more than six weeks. The lockdown was strict with no political ignoramuses countermanding the restrictions imposed by the officials, supported, of course, by CCP. Gates to some apartment buildings were barred from outside with strips of steel. When the epidemic appeared further east, the same prescription was administered. China was the first to be infected and the first to see its back, the latter a truly remarkable achievement with the crowded eastern seaboard. These methods may not be replicable in other societies but variants were applied in other parts of the world. Vietnam closed its long border with China very early. It closed its airs pace for flights from southern China. It locked down the country effectively. The government spoke to the people frequently. Vietnam has had for some decades a commendable public health system (see its infant mortality and maternal mortality figures for the 1980s). New Zealand and Australia stand out as success stories. New Zealand closed its air space to those outside and imposed a lockdown inside the country. Australia down communities, even large cities like Melbourne, as the threat of widespread infection appeared. Australia had gone so far as to keep out their own citizens, when they wished to return from a dangerously infected land.

There is both thought about the policy and determination in its execution. Now neither New Zealand nor Australia runs the risk of runaway infection. Among other countries, some expected the epidemic to run out if steam when it had infected a large enough number in the population (herd immunity). Among those were Sweden, US with Donald Trump as president, and Brazil with seemingly idiosyncratic Jair Bolsonaro as president. Sweden soon realized the implausibility of its expectation and they still suffer very high infection rates. US had to await the arrival of Joseph Biden as president, who took the advice of scientists and physicians, to galvanise a program of vigorous vaccination and has now 200 million persons fully or partially vaccinated. Britain, after a period of strict lockdown has used its excellent NHS to vaccinate about 67% of its population. The outstanding success is that small country Israel, which is so free of the virus now, that they shake hands casually.

The information below from Johns Hopkins (copied from The Economist) shows you success in vaccination in several countries up to May 6, 2021 . The small population of Bhutan (Bho tan, land’s end), up in the tail end of Himalayas, as well as atolls Maldives have wisely vaccinated their populations. Maldives is especially instructive to us because of the importance of tourism in its economy. In contrast, the massive population of India has been reeling under the weight of the irresistible spread of the infection. The attitude of the government with a population not alive to the true nature of the infection has left that population helpless against the onslaught. Even the rich states of Gujerat and Maharashtra have been hotbeds of infection.

The unregulated celebration of Kumbh mela where millions of devotees assemble in the small town Hardwar for several days provided the ideal fertile ground where SARS–Cov-2 thrived. The enthusiasm of both Trinamool and BJP to win the election in Bengal caused the gathering of large crowds in various parts of that densely populated state. The spread of the infection in Bengal is yet to be seen. These lackadaisical attitudes of the BJP government have made India one of the most severely infected countries in the world.

We have to take account of inadequate public health in the country, despite the first rate AIIMS hospitals in cities. India has some of the largest vaccine producing facilities in Maharashtra. Yet, there has been no plan for vigorous vaccination of the population, formidable as that task will be. In Sri Lanka no more than 5% of the population has been vaccinated to date.

(see the image)

Sri Lanka has had excellent public health services for decades. The elimination of childhood diseases and infectious disease bear witness to their excellence. Derivative evidence is the low infant mortality rate, the low maternal mortality rate and the consequent high average expectation of life at birth.


The public health services have been constructed with the commitment of wise and farseeing government leaders who provided the physical facilities and the dedication and commitment of physicians and support staff, on wages unattractive in most countries. In this compact land, communications are very good by most standards, now vastly improved with highspeed motorways. To an impartial observer there are long standing reasons why the covid epidemic should not take hold here. But alas, it has.

It has because the government opened airports and new mutations of SARS-CoV-2 marched in the company of visa holders. The new mutations evidently transfer themselves from one person to another, faster than the ones that prevailed locally. The government decided that in the race between lives and livelihoods that livelihoods are what mattered more than lives. The argument, which runs as follows, is not without merit. Covid-2019 kills. But so does the scarcity of livelihoods. It is more important to maintain livelihoods than prevent infections. Therefore, do not lockdown the country but lockdown localities selectively; the selection depending on the incidence of infections in the locality. By the time a locality is locked down, it has high infection; the community has been wounded and then it is locked down to lick its wounds, so to say. In the meanwhile, people from other parts of the country had been infected by people who now ae sequestrated. The three districts in the western province, for several days now, have contributed more than half the high number of infections in the country. Selective lock down of localities have not abated the rate of infection either in those districts or elsewhere. More intensive interaction among people in these districts contributes to the growth of infections. Consequently, it is more sensible to strictly lock down the country, as Wuhan and Hubei were locked down for nearly two months. More intense infection and high number of deaths compel people to lock themselves down. The evidence is in the cancellation of passenger trains by CGR and buses idling in depots for lack of passengers. In Colombo itself, roads are almost empty. There is no evidence anywhere that the denial of livelihoods consequent upon such lock down killed any large numbers. Nor is there evidence yet, that they contributed to stunting and wasting in children. Government must spend to maintain minimum standards of living during the lockdown. Yes, doing so will reduce the value of the rupee both internally and externally but that is the way that the population at large rather than those in low income groups alone bear the burden of the policies. That is also the way that the rampant ravage of the infection can be brought under control.

The respite gained by the lockdown must be used to vaccinate some 65%-70% of the population. The development of vaccines to prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2 is a triumph of modern science, medical technology and the strength of pharmaceutical companies and other organisations. Governments which foresaw the use of vaccinations in controlling the infection contracted with providers to supply them with vaccinations. Some either did not foresee that need, could not find the resources to contract with suppliers or were pre-occupied with other concerns. We fall into the second category and pay a price, in both in lives and in livelihoods for our failure to procure vaccines. We have seen the effectiveness of vaccination in checking the spread of the infection in US, Britain and Israel and other countries. We have also seen the failure of US with Donald Trump, Brazil with Bolsonaro and India with Modi to vaccinate their people resulting large scale infection and the loss of lives. When the number of deaths rises to 7 million from the present 3.5 million, the world will have lost 1 per 1,000 of its population; a tremendous cost. Our government needs to sit back and re-consider its own policies. Silly heroic stands of ‘ I do not change my mind’ will do us all in.

From that point of view, the debate on the epidemic in Parliament on April 6, was a grave disappointment. Neither the Opposition nor the government gained any stature in the course of the debate. The Opposition did not present an analysis of the problems facing the country and propose alternative policies to solve them and their own preferred choice. The government did not articulate its policies and seek justification for them. A minister of government, who is also a professor of medicine, and who wound up the debate for the government, at the end of a combative response, issued a report card with a load of F’s to the Opposition. That debate in Parliament, as is usual, generated ‘a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours’. The public of this country deserve better.

Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Implementing 13A: Some thoughts



The 13A requires the Government to establish a National Land Commission, which would be responsible for the formulation of a national policy, concerning the use of State land. This Commission will include representatives of all Provincial Councils. The Commission will have a Technical Secretariat, representing all the relevant disciplines required to evaluate the physical as well as the socio-economic factors that are relevant to natural resources management. National policy, on land, use will be based on technical aspects, but not political or communal aspects.

by Dr Jayampathy Wickramaratne, President’s Counsel

The 13th Amendment to the Constitution (13A), which introduced devolution of power to the periphery, is again in the news, this time on the need to fully implement it. President Ranil Wickremesinghe first raised the issue in Parliament, asking the various parties whether they are for 13 Plus, meaning improving on 13A. SJB’s Lakshman Kiriella, an avowed supporter of devolution, while saying that his party is for it, asked the President whether Mahinda Rajapaksa’s SLPP, which provides the President with the Parliamentary majority he needs for his legislative agenda, was supportive. Pressed by the President and Kiriella for a response, Rajapaksa, who had promised India to improve on 13A, rose reluctantly and said ‘13 Plus’.

President Wickremesinghe’s attempt to get a consensus on a constitutional settlement of the national question did not get off the ground. The SLPP is unlikely to abandon its Sinhala-nationalist platform. Opposition parties were sceptical. Realising the impossibility of a far-reaching amendment, the President has changed his strategy to one of fully implementing 13A, without changes, or with minor changes, that could muster SLPP support.

Several Opposition parties, that attended the previous meetings of the All-Party Conference (APC), stayed away from the meeting, held on January 27. While the SJB said that the APC was a mere ‘talk show,’ its ally among the Hill Country Tamils, the TPA, said that the President had not considered the issues facing them. The SJB’s Muslim allies did participate. MP Harini Amarasuriya clarified that while the NPP supported the 13A, in principle, it did not consider the President’s statement, on fully implementing the13A, credible.

The main areas in which the 13A has not been implemented are law and order (Police powers) and land. To add to this, successive governments have, over the last 35 years, taken back several subjects, and functions, that legitimately belong to the Provincial Councils (PCs) – agrarian services being one of them. The high point of central intrusion was the Divineguma Act of 2013, under which several functions of PCs, related to rural development, were taken over, using the two-thirds majority that the Government possessed.

Constitutional and legislative changes

The President spoke of the need to establish the National Land Commission, a requirement of the 13A, but which successive governments had not done. He also said that a decision on whether to continue with Provincial Police Commissions, or to bring the Provincial Police, under the National Police Commission, had to be taken. The latter would be a centralising feature—a 13 Minus—that will be to the disappointment of pro-devolution forces.

At the time of the 13A, there was no National Police Commission. Appointments, transfers, etc., of Police personnel, were handled by the Public Service Commission, with the Cabinet of Ministers having the power to overturn decisions of the PSC. To set up the National Police Commission and Provincial Police Commissions, provided for by the 13A, the Police Commission Act No. 1 of 1990 was passed but has not been brought into force by successive Presidents. Under the 13A, a Provincial Police Commission would consist of the Deputy Inspector General of Police, a person nominated by the Public Service Commission, in consultation with the President, and a nominee of the Chief Minister. Since the 13A, a National Police Commission was set up by the 17th and 19th Amendments, and the President now appoints its members on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council. The writer submits that these changes must be reflected in the Provincial Police Commissions, as well. The sub-committee on Law and Order, of the Constitutional Assembly of the previous Parliament, recommended that the Chairman, and the members of the Provincial Police Commissions, should be recommended by the Constitutional Council, having considered nominations, jointly provided by the Chief Minister and the Leader of the Opposition of the respective Provincial Council. The writer submits that a better option would be for a Provincial Police Commission to be appointed by the Governor, on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council, which should be required to call for nominations from the general public and also consult the Chief Minister and the Leader of the Opposition of the Province concerned. Any such change would require a constitutional amendment.

The 13A requires the Government to establish a National Land Commission, which would be responsible for the formulation of a national policy, concerning the use of State land. This Commission will include representatives of all Provincial Councils. The Commission will have a Technical Secretariat, representing all the relevant disciplines required to evaluate the physical as well as the socio-economic factors that are relevant to natural resources management. National policy, on land, use will be based on technical aspects, but not political or communal aspects. The Commission will lay down general norms, regarding the use of land, having regard to soil, climate, rainfall, soil erosion, forest cover, environmental factors, economic viability, etc. In the exercise of the powers devolved on them, Provincial Councils shall have due regard to national policy, formulated by the National Land Commission. The Constitution does not set out the composition, etc., of the National Land Commission. The establishment of the Commission would have to be ordinary legislation.

Broad consensus needed

President Wickremesinghe, with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and Premier Dinesh Gunawardena, sitting beside him, told the APC that the Cabinet of Ministers had approved the full implementation of the 13A. If as President Wickremesinghe confidently says, he has the support of the Cabinet of Ministers and, thus, of the SLPP, the full implementation of 13A would be certainly possible. But it is important that the President reaches out to the Opposition parties, as well. The SJB is for devolution as a solution to the national issue. Sajith Premadasa’s Presidential election manifesto pledged maximum devolution, within an undivided and indivisible Sri Lanka. Premadasa won areas dominated by Tamils, Muslims and Hill Country Tamils, with percentages second only to those secured by President Kumaratunga, in 1994. SJB’s Muslim and Hill Country allies support devolution, but the President needs to talk to parties representing those communities, about issues pertaining to them, too.

The new ‘Helicopter’ alliance seems unable to take a unified stand on the 13A. Dullas and Dilan Perera were at the forefront of CBK’s campaign for devolution, and Professor G.L. Pieris was the architect of her devolution proposals. Tissa Vitarana did an admirable job of getting a consensus on the national issue, through the APRC process. The Left parties in the Utttara Sabhagaya are strong supporters of devolution, while their nationalist allies are against it. Former President Sirisena spoke in support of implementing the 13A at the APC. The JVP/NPP is unlikely to oppose moves to implement the 13A.

It must not be assumed that the President’s declared intention to implement the 13A could be put into practice easily. Sinhala nationalists, in the Uttara Sabhagaya, have already declared war against fully implementing the 13A, and not all SLPP elements would be enthusiastic about supporting the proposed changes. They are sure to be joined by Sinhala extremists outside Parliament. Anti-13A forces would attempt to use discontent among the masses suffering due to the economic mess the country is in. In these circumstances, the Government needs to convince the people, and the Opposition, of the genuineness of the exercise and the chances of its success. Lest the extremists raise the ‘separatist’ bogey, President Wickremesinghe and the Government must meet such arguments, taking the bull by its horns, and also explain to the people that power-sharing, through devolution, is a must, not only to solve the ethnic issue but also for the development of the periphery. Given its composition, the present Government cannot do so on its own. It must reach out and build a broad consensus on the issue.

Continue Reading


Aiyo, Sirisena



By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

Former president Sirisena has declared that he is poor and therefore has to go begging to pay compensation awarded by the Supreme Court to the victims of the Easter Sunday massacre! He was unwilling to stand in the dock when he appeared as an accused in a subsequent case and had to be ordered to do so by the Magistrate.

Just imagine an ex-president going around begging from the populace that was made destitute by the actions of the government he headed and the government that followed, which he was part of! To make matters even worse he gives totally ludicrous and unbelievable explanations. Let me add a few of my thoughts to many opinions expressed so far, including those in the editorial “Sirisena’s plea” (The Island, 24 January) wherein the editor quite rightly names those responsible for making this totally undeserved person the President, and suggests that they should help him pay, if at all.

The two important issues that need consideration are whether Sirisena is guilty of neglecting his duties as president in not defending the country from terrorism and who is responsible for paying the compensation awarded by the Supreme court.

I pose the first question because in numerous press conferences, Sirisena has stated that the Supreme Court awarded compensation because he was indirectly responsible for the actions of security chiefs he appointed, implying that there is no direct responsibility! One wonders whether Sirisena is unable to understand the judgement, which categorically states that there were lapses such as the malfunctioning security council for which he was directly responsible. In fact, what surprised me was the reflected annoyance or frustrations of the honourable justices by their use of terms like “what takes the cake” in referring to some of these terrible lapses! Though Sirisena does not come from an academic background, having been a cabinet minister and the general secretary of a major political party for years, surely, he should be able to grasp the contents of a judgement.

Obviously, Sirisena cannot challenge the judgement as it was delivered by the highest court in the land and he cannot criticise the judgement as it would amount to contempt of court. Therefore, it is pretty obvious that he is using a diversionary tactic hoping to fool us. Perhaps, he is unaware of the famous adage: “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

Sirisena seems to have developed total amnesia about the commission he appointed to inquire into the Easter Sunday massacre! From parts of the report released, it was pretty obvious that the blame lay, in addition to the security establishment, on him as well as the prime minister of the day, who as the present president must be having bad dreams of the day when he no longer has presidential immunity!

In fact, one of the reasons for the downfall of President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was his reluctance to take action on that report. Perhaps, he did so at the behest of his younger brother who was obsessed with the two thirds majority.

Sirisena seems to disregard facts and is on a shameless mission to deceive the public again by stating that he has no means to pay compensation. He claims that his only income is from a mango plantation and that he does not own even a motorcycle. But have we ever seen him riding a bicycle or travelling by bus?

Although he has not provided any proof, Sirisena claims that he was in a hospital in Singapore for an urgent medical condition at the time of the attack. Why did he go to Singapore instead of seeking treatment at home? Afterall, he was the Minister of Health before contesting the presidency! How did the urgency resolve for him to return the following day? How did this poor mango grower have the money to go to Singapore for treatment? Did the public coffers cough up the money for allegedly a shopping trip he did for his son’s wedding?

In spite of the Presidential Commission he himself appointed finding him guilty and the highest court of the land directing him to pay compensation to victims, Sirisena has failed the nation by refusing to show any remorse or take his share of responsibility. Instead, he is attempting to make a political drama out of it. What about his brother Dudley, who roared like a lion threatening to teach a lesson to anybody who tried to punish his elder brother in any way? Why is he hiding like a lizard not offering to foot the bill? Has Sirisena no shame in allowing one of his supporters to beg under the Bo tree in Pettah? A decent politician would have opted to go to jail rather than beg but decency is, perhaps, something totally alien to Sirisena!

Sirisena, who really should set an example to others who were ordered to pay compensation, does not seem even to follow their behaviour of silent acceptance. He should remember that we have not forgotten what was stated by the ex-IGP that Sirisena offered him a diplomatic posting provided he accepted responsibility. He must be regretting the refusal! Those who should go round begging are government servants who have no means to pay compensation, not the mango grower whose brother is one of the richest “Hal Mudalalis”!

Mr Sirisena! You have no sense of shame and you have done everything possible to deflect blame. What I fail to comprehend is why the SLFP does not get rid of you. Perhaps, it has a death-wish and so do the ex-Pohottuwa chaps who decided ‘helicopter’! It clearly shows that ours is the land of politicians with no sense of shame!

Continue Reading


Harassment of women in politics on the rise



by Rathindra Kuruwita

Election monitors and activists express concern that digital harassment of female politicians will increase when the local council elections campaign gets into full swing in the coming weeks.According to the preliminary results of a survey conducted by the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE), more than 70 percent of female local councillors and grassroots political activists have faced digital harassment.

CaFFE Executive Director Manas Makeen said the majority of those who were subjected to digital harassment (around 80 percent) had not lodged complaints with the law enforcement authorities or with the political party leadership because they felt it was an exercise in futility.

“Even if these women politicians go to the police or their party leadership, there is no solution. They have to find solutions themselves. The introduction of the quota for women candidates at the local council level has upset some politicians and they have resorted to the digital sphere to undermine their female opponents,” he said.

Makeen said the survey had also revealed that about 55 percent of women politicians and activists had faced physical harassment during their political careers. However, digital harassment was the most common form of harassment now. He said almost 90 percent of those who were harassed online believed politicians in the same party were behind the attack.

Nilka Perera (not her real name) is a member of a local council in Puttalam.

The 33-year-old politician said the harassment had begun with the announcement of the 25-percent-female-candidate quota ahead of the last local council elections, in 2018.

“Some religious leaders gave sermons on why people should not vote for women and their video clips are all over social media,” she said, noting that such misconceptions were not limited to one religion or community. “People were initially sceptical about women in politics and male politicians were quick to latch on to it. While there is misogyny in society, most attacks on female politicians are organised campaigns,” she said.

SJB MP Rohini Kavirathne said the Women Parliamentarian’s Caucus was well aware of systematic digital harassment of female politicians. She said that all female politicians including her had been victims of online harassment and that the Caucus had been active in assisting women in need.

“We have always been willing to help women, on an individual basis. We have also contributed and worked with election monitors, the Elections Department, and other relevant parties to empower women and stop the harassment. While the harassment continues, I am glad to see that women are becoming stronger and are proactively countering propaganda against them,” she said.

The CaFFE survey also found that although the majority of participants received some kind of training from a government or a civil society organisation in countering digital harassment, most of the female politicians over the age of 55 were unable to answer what they would do if they faced digital harassment.

The People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) Executive Director Rohana Hettiarachchi said he, too, had noted a spike in digital harassment of female politicians during the campaign for the 2018 local council elections after the 25 percent female candidate quota was given legal effect. At least 25 percent of the names on the nomination lists, submitted by parties or independent groups should be female candidates.

“Targeted harassment of female politicians, especially those who engage in grassroots-level politics, continues to be a serious problem,” he said, expressing fears that the problem would only aggravate with the election season approaching without any proactive countermeasures from political parties.

There was also a lot of character assassination through social media, and such campaigns were ongoing, Hettiarachchi said.

Pointing out that Sri Lanka did not have a mechanism to take swift action against election malpractice, he said this was a major lacuna that should be addressed, especially given the harassment female candidates faced in the digital sphere.

“Our law enforcement mechanisms are slow. During an election period, immediate action should be taken against election law violators,” he said. “What’s the point in taking action against a campaign of digital harassment a few months after the elections are over?”

Police spokesman Nihal Thalduwa said the Sri Lanka Police Computer Crime Investigation Division had been established to help victims of computer crimes including digital harassment.

“I don’t have numbers on the top of my head, but I don’t think we get a lot of complaints from grassroots-level female politicians about digital harassment,” the Senior Superintendent of Police said.

He said this was probably because the women politicians feared they would antagonise their party leaders if they complained to the police.

“However, since you brought this issue up, the police must work closely with other stakeholders as the elections approach,” he said.

The urban-rural divide

When the then government introduced a quota for women in late 2017, weeks before the nominations for local council elections were called, most political parties had not been ready, said Kalana Weerasinghe, Chief Operating Officer at the Federation of Sri Lankan Local Government Authorities (FSLGA). He said several political parties nominated friends and family members to fill the 25 percent female-candidate quota.

“Women were often made candidates in wards that male party leaders thought they would lose. However, now we have more than 2,000 female local councillors out of some 8,000, and they can be divided into three categories.

“First, there are seasoned female politicians who have been in politics for decades and some of them are even more popular than their parties’ electoral organisers. They could easily win parliamentary elections, too, if they were given an opportunity. Then there are friends and family members of political party officials, and they have no interest in politics although they are now elected people’s representatives. The third group comprises newcomers who are passionate about what they are doing.

“So, when it comes to digital harassment, the first group is capable of handling any personal attacks. The second group probably will drop out but those in the third group have learnt to adapt and fight back though they were at first depressed by digital media harassment,” Weerasinghe said.

He said the fightback was especially visible in the urban areas where women politicians were more educated and apt in digital technologies than their rural counterparts. These women realise the power of digital media, and how it can benefit their careers. “Being in politics also makes them tougher,” he said.

With the mainstream media giving little or no space for women local council politicians, social media was the main tool they could use to build up a larger support base and tell the voters about what they did and what they believed in, Weerasinghe said.

“A person who is facing harassment can lock his or her profile pic, but a politician can’t do so. No country has been able to reduce online harassment to zero. So, it is also about empowering women and building support structures. We have to make female politicians resilient and there is a lot that the government, political parties and civil society groups can do,” he said.

Role of civil society and govt.

While some female politicians in urban areas are coming to terms with the digital landscape, there are other women and activists who are not yet tech savvy to promote themselves or deal with increasing levels of online harassment.

Makeen said that although most women politicians were on Facebook, quite a few did not know how to use the platform to promote their political careers. If they faced online harassment, they would lock their profiles or stop using social media, he said.

“Early this year, we did a study on online harassment faced by women politicians. We found that they knew about the platforms and online harassment, but they did not know how to use social media to boost their career or how to proactively deal with cyberbullies,” he said.

Makeen said they had also held a series of consultations with national-level female politicians and found out they had also been victims of concerted digital harassment.

“A young former MP once told us that at the beginning of her career, she had been devastated by cyberbullying. This is the case of someone coming from a political family and had gone through trauma. She said it was so bad that she had even contemplated quitting politics. With the backing of her family, she had learnt to ignore the bullies and connect with those who supported her although she is one of the most memed female politicians today,” he said.

Women fighting back

Manjula Gajanayake, Executive Director of the Institute of Democratic Reforms and Electoral Studies (IRES), said several young and educated female politicians including those at the grassroots level had learnt how to navigate the digital sphere.

While digital harassment continued to be a serious problem, there were signs of female local councillors building the necessary support structures to overcome it, he said.

“Initially, a lot of local women councillors were devastated by digital media harassment. I was told that some families were on the verge of breaking up. However, in the past few years, we have seen a counterattack. Female local councillors who are serious about their work have behaved with great integrity and now they are getting social recognition. Their family members, who were initially hesitant or upset about them being in politics, have now warmed up,” he said.

Describing the trend as a positive change, Gajanayake called on the government and political parties to step up efforts to end digital harassment of women candidates.

He said that often targeted digital harassment was carried out by political actors and sometimes by those in the same party.

“If the political parties are stricter and take complaints by their women candidates more seriously, we would see a sharp drop in instances of targeted digital harassment,” he said.

* This story is produced under the ANFREL Asian Media Fellowship on Election Reporting.

Continue Reading