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Women in Power

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The Revolutionary Lives and Careers of Siva, Doreen, Vivi and Sirima

By Kusum Wijetilleke

(kusumw@gmail.com) & Rienzie Wijetilleke (rienzietwij@gmail.com)

Women in Sri Lanka make up 52% of the population and 56% of registered voters, but a mere 5% of legislators. The Sri Lankan female voter, whilst having significant strength in numbers, has been unable to translate said the bers should make women’s issues front and centre for politicking but the reality is quite the opposite. The tax rate on sanitary napkin imports was just over 100% in 2018, until a reduction to 52%. There was controversy over the recent halving of maternity leave from 84 days to 42 days for trainee development officers in the public sector. Throughout the country we find reports of domestic abuse being ignored by authorities, of street harassment with the countrywide tradition of ‘cat-calling’ being “accepted” as part of a culture. Our politics indicate a level of flippancy with regards to women’s issues in general, with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs no longer worthy of a place in the Cabinet.

There were eight women elected to parliament at the 2020 General Elections, out of a total of 75 female candidates from the major political parties, making them a distinct minority in Sri Lanka’s 225-seat chamber. Around the world and in Sri Lanka, the debate around female representation in politics has been raging in social sciences for some time, with a variety of explanations proposed. Most pertinent might be the principle of “you cannot be what you cannot see”, asserted by Feminist Author Marie C. Wilson, President of the Ms Foundation for Women, established by Gloria Steinem. Ms Steinem remarked, “We’ll never solve the feminization of power until we solve the masculinity of wealth”. This is especially true for women that long to enter the very expensive business of politics. Another given and accepted reason is that the conservative and traditional family arrangements restrict most women’s career choices.

In Sri Lanka, the argument from traditional family restrictions on career choices certainly rings true, but with a few very notable and accomplished exceptions. In her most famous work; ‘Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World’ (1986), Sri Lanka’s definitive feminist academic and activist Kumari Jayawardena stated the importance of a political account on women’s struggles in the East as necessary for the women of these countries who may be “unaware of the role in liberation struggles of their ancestors and great-grandmothers”. She further discusses the limitations of women achieving liberation through education and entering the workforce, proposing that true liberation is only achieved through political as well as social and economic equality.

A cursory glance at Sri Lanka’s early history as a nation State shows that women did indeed hold some very important keys to power. These women were, as you might expect, from the upper classes and many with substantial financial clout and some did also have the full support of their families in political endeavours while others succeeded in spite of familial and cultural restrictions.

When Sri Lankans envision women in politics, we invariably fall back on the two most recent matriarchs, both from the same aristocratic family. ‘Sirima’ and ‘CBK’ certainly blazed their own trails in the world of politics. Whereas their political dynasty seems to have ended with CBK’s final term, the mixed fortunes of ‘Mrs. B’ and the times during which she ‘ruled’ are nonetheless fascinating. To begin with, Ms. Sirimavo Bandaranaike becoming the world’s first female Prime Minister may no longer be appreciated in the way that it should. When she was elected in 1960, six years ahead of Indira Gandhi, the London Evening News stated “… there will be need for a new word. Presumably, we shall have to call her a states-woman… This is the suffragette’s dream come true.”

If you define democracy as a system where all citizens of the state have an equally weighted right to vote, then Sri Lanka is the oldest democracy in Asia. Class, sex and ethnicity were all used to restrict the vote throughout history. Until 1918 in the UK, only property owning men over the age of 21 were allowed the vote. The 1965 Civil Rights act definitively lifted restrictions on Black Americans voting in many Southern States. Indigenous peoples in Canada achieved the right to vote in 1960 and those in Australia had to wait until 1967. Japanese women achieved suffrage in 1947 and Pakistani women in 1956. Yet Sri Lanka achieved universal suffrage in 1931 which is quite significant considering India only achieved the same parity in 1950. Thus the introduction of Universal Suffrage was by no means a simple evolution.

Sri Lankans will recall “Sirima” and her time in power with a shrug of dissatisfaction given the failures of her socialist economic policies. Following her husband’s assassination and her elevation as the leader of the SLFP and its candidate for PM, she would often cry during campaign speeches, which earned her a nick name; ‘the weeping widow’. Members of Parliament would speak disparagingly of her efforts to govern with references to the “kitchen cabinet”. Yet due to her strong intellectual and ideological positions, she eventually earned a sort of begrudging respect from the many men in that kitchen cabinet. Her time in power was characterized by food shortages, bread lines and rationing, but Ms. Bandaranaike is also remembered for her ruthless dismantling of the JVP insurrection in the early 70s, leading to a remark by a prominent politician that she was “the only man in her cabinet”.

The 1962 coup d’état attempted by high ranking military and police leaders is less recalled and worth revisiting. The aborted plan to detain Ms. Bandaranaike and her senior officials at the Army Headquarters was the result of a power struggle many decades in the making. Sri Lanka’s pre-independence elites were highly westernized, even Anglophilic, right wing and Christian and many had close ties to the UNP. The sudden and dramatic power shift post-independence, led to a political establishment that was staunchly Sinhala-Buddhist, left wing and ‘rural’, that is to say; non-westernized. Sri Lankans today are acutely aware of past ethnic divisions, but may not fully appreciate the class and religious divisions that were dominant during the colonial era.

The inevitable shift and consequent fissure, betrayed the nation’s ethno-religious divisions. The main protagonists of the attempted coup were all from the upper classes; property owning, well-educated and with right-wing ideologies. The coup was aborted at the last minute after an informant revealed the plans to the PM. All 24 individuals charged with the conspiracy were Christian: 12 Sinhalese, six Tamils and six Burghers. The coup was also an attempt to arrest the country’s economic decline that began with Ms. Bandaranaike’s nationalization of key industries including banking, foreign trade, insurance, transport and petroleum. Her policies further exacerbated the import-export imbalance and the country was $2 billion in debt, but the mantra she repeated defiantly through-out was “produce or perish”.

Whilst the faults of “Sirima” are widely accepted, her foreign policy and internationalism, which in many ways saved the Sri Lankan project, deserves more attention. With only two weeks’ worth of rice in stock, she negotiated an emergency shipment of 40,000 tons from China. These being the beginnings of the cold war, international diplomacy was fraught and required careful navigation, especially for a Socialist Republic having just achieved independence. Sri Lanka grew in stature internationally as a founder nation of the Non-Aligned Movement under the guidance of Ms. Bandaranaike and she made countless overtures for peace between the major Western Powers and the Soviet Union. In 1963, following several state visits to “western” nations, understanding the need to balance both sides, she became the first Sri Lankan Prime Minister to visit the Soviet Union and returned with an agreement for large quantities of discounted petroleum from the Soviets. The nationalization of the oil industry and the resulting distress to British and American corporate interests led to the US cutting aid to Sri Lanka. Egyptian President Abdel Nasser sent oil tankers to Sri Lanka and in 1975 Ms. Bandaranaike negotiated a supply arrangement for 250,000 tons of oil on a deferred payment scheme after direct negotiations with the then Vice President of Iraq, Saddam Hussein.

 



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Pernicious, ubiquitous strikes

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Railway strike

Local news on most TV channels is almost wholly about on-going strikes and preparations plus controversy on the to-be-held presidential election come October.

Political news is centered on this election. Chief protagonist, the present Prez, has said the election will be held at the correct time this year. UNP side-kicks and a maverick have countered this by saying it need not be held since at the present juncture it is best to postpone change by two years. The present incumbent has a further one year to serve according to the Constitution said the bright spark, who filed an application in the Supreme Court was roundly dismissed by it, with an implied but unsaid upbraiding for wasting the time of the Apex Court.

People surmised filing a case was with the approval of the Prez or his Secretariat if not actual promotion, but RW dismissed that suspicion; “I firmly believe that the President’s term is five years, and I support the Election Commission’s steps to hold the Presidential Election in 2024.”  So there! Three cheers! The Prez is on the side of the people who want an election. It is correct constitutionally too.

Political platforms are raucous with praise of their chosen candidates, with photographs of VIPs who have recently changed loyalties in the forefront, some giving shocks to viewers. They seem to have turned 180 degrees or even 360, now championing a candidate they tore into with sharp barbs of ridicule and criticism. To serve themselves to continue in the most lucrative job in the island, they will turn cartwheels and leapfrog from one party to another. Such are most visible in the meetings held to promote Ranil W, as our next president.

Karadara kara strikes

Strikes of varied nature and kinds are rampant so much so that half the time news is telecast we see crowds marching or standing around with police facing them. These strikers are three quarter responsible for the chaos the country is in at this juncture when all should be contributing their might to pull the country out of the morass it was pushed into by its leaders. Cass has so many epithets to express her revulsion at these spectacles that are a shame to the country at large. Don’t those sick note presenters, continuously striking non academics, utterly disgraceful and unethical, nay immoral, teachers know the country is still in the economic doldrums and unless everyone pulls his/her weight we will remain down in the sludge of bankruptcy, notwithstanding IMF assistance and nations having shown leniency in our debt restricting process.

The trade unions demand monthly increases of Rs 25,000 and even more. Don’t they have an iota of sensibility in them to know this is no time for strikes whose demands cannot be met and the strikes making worse the parlous state of the country with lost man hours? Many a striker deliberately loses man hours of work when  supposedly working in their jobs: teachers sit chatting in staff rooms, tea breaks are more than an hour long; leave is taken at their whim and fancy, never mind completion of syllabuses or school exams; least of all consideration of the students in their hands.

Cass heard of students who had completed their university degrees not being able to get their certificates due to the prolonged strike of non-academic staff. Thus, employment and even accepting scholarships from overseas universities have been thwarted.

Train strikes came unannounced. Wednesday morning Cass received a call from weekly domestic help: “No trains running and so I cannot come.” She was expecting very urgent financial help. She wakes up on these days of work at 4.00 am; cooks for her family; walks a mile; boards the train and is in my flat at 7.30 am sharp. Now she is never sure whether she will have to turn back with no trains running. When health sector workers strike, and even doctors of the recent past have resorted to this deplorable ruse, it is a matter of life or death to some. A person called Mudalige was seen smilingly distributing leaflets while protest marching, the cause of which Cass could not catch nor fathom. He thinks himself a saviour; he is a destroyer.

A silver lining appeared. Cass watched on TV news Prez Ranil chairing a meeting with financial secretaries. They expressed their opinion strongly and clearly that salary increases were impossible to give and money printing was now taboo with the IMF overseeing matters financially. And the Prez concluded that it was not possible to give in to strikers. That gladdened the heart immensely. We hope he will be of the same opinion regarding MPs’ demand for tax free luxury limos and life-long insurance for them and theirs in addition to the pensions they now receive after just five years of warming comfortable chairs in the Chamber.

The Editor of The Island of Wednesday July 10, has in his style of sharp and spot-on comment, criticism, blame laying and solutions to be taken dealt with this common bane of Sri Lankan existence. (We don’t ‘live’ now, the word connoting security, justified happiness and fairness to all; rather do we merely exist). He writes under the title Strikes, demand and harsh reality and points out the fact that there are about 1.5 million public employees, working out to about one state worker for every 14 citizens. Preposterous! Only possible in SL, a land like no other where politicians and their chits are to be mostly blamed for this imbalance. Culling or weaning of public servants should be started. Then strikers will not go by instigators of strikes who plan to destabilize the country, but cling to their paying jobs.

How the Iron Lady broke the back of strikes

Cass recollected how newly appointed Conservative PM, Margaret Thatcher, manoeuvered to stop strikes of coal miners and earned the hypocoristic of ‘Iron Lady’.

Cass surfed the Internet to refresh her memory. In 1884 –85, UK coal miners’ strike was a major industrial action in an attempt to stop closure of pits that the government deemed uneconomic; the coal industry having been nationalised in 1947. Arthur Scargill was a name remembered as instigator and leader of strike action. Some minors worked and so, starting in Yorkshire and Midland, the back of the year long strike was shaken and the Conservative government went to work and allowed closure of most British collieries.  Margaret Thatcher was credited with breaking up the ‘most bitter industrial dispute in British history.’ The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) strategy was to cause a severe energy shortage that had won victory in the 1972 strike. Thatcher’s strategy was to build ample stocks of coal; to retain as many minors as possible; and to get the police to break up strikes, which were ruled illegal in September 1984; they ended a year later. Miners suffered but the country gained.

It was heartening to hear that the railway has been made an essential service. Station masters said they would go on striking. Drastic measures have to be adopted to stop such anti-national activities.

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Why human capital development is essential for Sri Lanka

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by S. D. Gamini Jayasooriya
Wayamba University
gaminij2025@gmail.com


The development of human capital is of immense importance for the economic development of Sri Lanka. Thus, investing in education and skills training raises the overall productivity and effectiveness of personnel, spurring innovation and economic growth. Analysing the current situation in Sri Lanka, human capital development can be seen to be of particular importance for creating a competitive economy.

Levels of Human Capital Development

Human capital development in Sri Lanka can be categorised into three main levels: school-leaving level, higher education, and tertiary levels.

School Level: The primary and secondary level of education are indispensable at the basic level. Promoting quality education for children creates a pool of educated human capital in society. Special attention should be paid to raising the level of education, revising curricula, and integrating the use of new technologies in education processes.

Higher Education: In particular, specific skills and knowledge are cultivated at universities and colleges. Improving funding, research and industry linkages in higher education institutions help to produce ready-made graduates to suit the global market demand.

Tertiary Level: Vocational training and technical education are crucial in preparation of people for the job market with relevant skills. Thus, increasing and enhancing vocational training centers would provide solutions for skill deficiencies in different sectors, making the population fit for the actual needs of the economy.

Sri Lankan Labor Market Overview 2023

The Sri Lankan labor market in 2023 has strengths and weaknesses as discussed below. Currently, unemployment trends are still elevated, especially within the youth bracket, while skills supply does not match the skills demand in the market. There is a lack of qualified workers in a number of fields including the IT, healthcare, and manufacturing industries.

A major part of the population is engaged in the informal economy and most of them may be in the low wage employment. This state of affairs requires proper human capital development policies and the enhancement of skill and formalization of the labor market.

Importance of a Skilled Workforce in Economic Development

Skilled workforce is one of the prerequisites for developing the economy of a particular country. Employment of specialized personnel leads to increased output, creativity, and effectiveness in many sectors. They can respond better to innovations in technology and fluctuations in the market thus promoting more economic growth and competition.

Human capital is also an element that enriches the stream of foreign investment. They are likely to be established in places where human capital is readily available to them in terms of skills. This can lead to the generation of employment, technology distribution and enhancement of the economy on a whole.

Recommendations

To enhance human capital development in Sri Lanka, several strategies should be implemented:

1. Improve Educational Infrastructure: Make sure that there is infrastructure development in schools, adequate provision for the needy student, and teachers are in a position to teach.

2. Strengthen Higher Education: Encourage partnerships between universities and industries to ensure the delivered curricula align with the market needs. Contribute towards the improvement of research and development.

3. Expand Vocational Training: Increase the number of vocational training centers and adjust the offered programs to suit the current employment market. Promote the actualization of vocational education as a worthwhile career.

4. Promote Lifelong Learning: Encourage continued learning through offered adult education and online classes.

5. Government and Private Sector Collaboration: Encourage government and private sector to work together and identify the areas that require skills and come up with relevant training needs.

Conclusion

That is why human capital investment must become a priority in Sri Lanka. Investing in education and skills training of the people at all levels will enable the development of a competent and versatile human resource pool. This will help spur economic development, encourage foreign direct investment, and build a stronger and more competitive economy. It is for this reason that the management of human capital should be done strategically to foster the future growth and stability of Sri Lanka.

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Sixty-five years after entry to university of Ceylon, Peradeniya

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University of Peradeniya

by HM NISSANKA WARAKAULLE

It was sixty five years ago, and that is very long time ago, on 29 June 1959 that a batch of 378 students from all parts of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) entered the portals of the most beautiful university at that time, the University of Ceylon, situated in the salubrious surroundings in Peradeniya, just four miles from the historic city of Kandy, after having successfully passed the then University Entrance examination conducted by the university itself, to read for our varied degrees in Arts, Oriental Languages, Law, etc.

The atmosphere was filled with excitement and sometimes with dismal and gloomy feelings, varied feelings produced from a sense of uncertainty and new-found freedom. The drive through the campus from the Galaha Road junction through the picturesque setting, well maintained lawns and well-laid out flower beds (Sir Ivor Jennings and Mr. Shirley De Alwis together had done the selection of the trees and shrubs very meticulously to bring out the blending of colours), the imposing architectural marvels of Jayathilaka and Arunachalam Halls, the Arts Theatre, the Senate building, and Hilda Obeysekera Hall and the tree sheltered kissing bend and up the winding road to Marcus Fernando Hall( Mr. Shirley De Alwis had planned out the general scheme, landscaping which was his favourite and all other details), brought thoughts to one’s mind which were mixed with perplexity, bewilderment and abandonment. One was entering a make-believe land, very artificial but, at the same time, very fascinating.

There were two significant things in respect of our batch of 1959. Ours was the last all- English medium batch to enter the university. The second important thing is our batch was the first batch where all the students were admitted directly without a viva voce, as up to the previous batch the students were selected both directly and some after facing a viva voce.

Though sixty-five years have gone by, we have not forgotten the best experience we had during the three or four years we spent in the beautiful campus. It is sad that many of our batch mates are not with us now having left us and moved into another world and not being with us to reminisce the glorious time we spent as residential undergraduates.

To all those who entered the Peradeniya campus before us and to our batch, that university will remain in our minds as the one and only university in then Ceylon as the University of Ceylon, which had been established by the Ordinance No. 20 of 1942 and situated in Colombo. It was in the early nineteen fifties that the campus of the University of Ceylon was established in Peradeniya.

The single university continued until 1959. It was only in 1959 that two other universities were created, namely the Vidyodaya University (now known as the University of Sri Jayewardenepura) and the Vidyalankara University (now known as the University of Kelaniya) which were established by the Vidyodaya University and Vidyalankara University Act No. 45 of 1958.These two universities were created by upgrading the two famous Pirivenas (Vidyodaya and Vidyalanakara) that were functioning at that time.

That period we spent at Peradeniya was one of the most unforgettable periods of our lives. The friendships that we cultivated while in Peradeniya remain and will not be erased from our minds.

It would be of interest to those who followed us much later to read for their degrees how the undergraduates were selected in our time. We sat the University Entrance examination conducted by the University of Ceylon in four centres, namely, Colombo, Kandy, Jaffna and Galle with the Department of Examinations having nothing to do with it. Thank God! However, if any candidate wanted to obtain the Higher School Certificate (HSC) such candidate had to sit the extra paper at the same examination and if successful received the HSC certificate from the Department of Education.

The results of the examination were not sent either to the schools or the candidates’ homes. The results were published in the daily newspapers. As such, the results of our batch were published in the The Ceylon Daily News of Wednesday March 11, 1959. Thereafter, after a lapse of a certain period of time, the successful candidates received letters from the university informing of the date of commencement of sessions of the academic year, the Hall of residence allotted and the date to report at the allotted Hall.

There was also a document indicating what we had to take, such as a raincoat and cape, etc. and the things that should not be done in which there was one item which stated that ceiling walking was prohibited. This was a little puzzling to us, but we understood what it meant later when we were on the campus. All undergraduates who were privileged to be in Peradeniya at the commencement of the campus and may be about four batches after ours had the best of time in a university in Sri Lanka.

During that time all undergraduates resided in the halls of residence throughout their undergraduate carrier, even if a person’s residence was abutting the campus premises. All those who entered from schools in and around Kandy could have easily travelled from home. But the university rules and regulations did not permit us to do so. Anyway, when reminiscing, we think that it was good that all had to be resident within the campus as we would never have got that experience otherwise.

On the occasion of the EFC Ludowyke Centenary at Peradeniya in 2006, Prof. Yasmin Gooneratne, a distinguished alumnus stated thus:

“Of the terms most frequently heard in connection with the life that we experienced there, one is “A Golden Age”’ another is “Arcadia”. 2It was a magical time” says one classmate.” It was idyllic” says another. Our companions-some of them husbands, wives, or children who did not share the Peradeniya experience, and who now have to hear us talk about it ad infinitum, look skeptical. They don’t believe us.”

“Peradeniya? Three years in Paradise” a classmate said once. “And at the end of it, they even gave us a degree”

“It was as if all the intellectual brilliance in our country had been concentrated in one spot. If the university had been a stage, we students would have been witnesses to the performances of a stellar cast”

During our time in Peradeniya the halls of residence for males were Arunachalam, Jayathilaka, Marrs, Ramanathan and Marcus Fernando. The female undergraduates had as their halls, James Peiris, Sangamitta and Hilda Obeysekera (with Mrs. Cooke, Dr. (Mrs.) Ram Aluvihare and Miss Mathiaparanam as the respective Wardens). During our final year in 1961-62(third year in the case of those who had opted to do a special degree course), a new hall was opened, which had been named after D.R. Wijewardena close to the Kandy-Colombo railway line. With this building being opened, there was a change in respect of occupants of some halls. Ramanathan was converted into a women’s hall and James Peris was made a hall for male undergraduates. The newly opened Wijewardena Hall became a men’s hall. With this change, the male undergraduates who were in Ramanathan Hall were transferred to James Peiris and Wijewardena Halls. (To be continued)

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