N-E women vow to make their mark at LG polls | Daily News

N-E women vow to make their mark at LG polls


It is the only all green house on the narrow lane. Embellished with green flags and her posters, it is her lane. Kulanthai Vadivel Jeyachandrika (42) or more familiarly known as ‘Meena Akka’ is running for the Arayampathy Pradeshiya Sabha under the United National Party (UNP) ticket. But she is not alone. She brings along with her, her mother, aunt, neighbour and friend who are also running alongside with her.

They have decided to make full use of the 25 percent quota awarded to women at the Local Government (LG) elections.

Her father, Kulanthai Vadivel (78), a retired worker at the old Valachchenai paper mill is proud of his daughter’s achievements.

“She is educated and has done a lot of social service to the people in this area. She has much support. She will surely win,” he said. Meena is the first in his family to enter politics; now she has done so with his wife and sister-in-law in tow.

Not all however are happy with more women entering politics. Female candidates especially in the North and East have been facing severe backlash as a result. The Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) has recorded over 34 complaints regarding violence against women with People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) recording 36 complaints. The Elections Commission and Police have opened up special hotlines to report incidents against women. Despite these drawbacks, the women on the ground show that they are determined to go ahead.

“This is just the start. We will go to Provincial Council next and then to Parliament,” said Sellathurai Leelavathi (58), Meena’s aunt, sitting at their home cum campaign office in Arayampathy.

“They want women to be in a corner, preferably in the kitchen. They cannot stand the fact that she is coming out and contesting. Their line of thinking is that we should always ask for help, not come out to help others,” she added. They expected to win three seats out of 10 in the Pradeshiya Sabha and believed that they would win at least two.

Getting personal

It is around 4.00 pm by the time all the women convene at the office. They have to work according to a strict schedule. Becoming contestants has not freed them of their domestic chores unlike their male counterparts,

Haniffa Raqeeba's candidate card

“By 2.00 pm we finish the housework and then we go out canvassing. We return by 7.00 pm to make dinner and look after the household chores once again. My husband is fine as long as his food is prepared,” said Nagamani Selvathurai (38), Meena’s friend.

“We have always multitasked, so we will handle it all,” added Sellathurai.

The biggest challenge these women face however comes at the hands of their opponents who have chosen to character assassinate them and launch personal attacks on social media and election platforms.

Meena lost all three of her children in the 2004 tsunami. Ever since that she has been actively engaged in social work and until recently worked in the government to improve small and medium industries for women. She along with her fellow contestants was among the 1,000 women trained and encouraged by the NGO Viluthu Centre for Human Resource Development to contest at elections.

“I have had various Facebook pages and accounts uploading false images of me and writing filth about my character. They even said unkind things about my children’s deaths,” said Meena.

She has lodged a complaint with the Police as well as the Election Commission but they are both yet to take action or provide her with security.

“The police asked me to install security cameras. I can barely afford to run a campaign, how can I afford that?” she asked.

Her house too was recently attacked and many area residents have been asked not to give any of the women a lift in their vehicles. As a result many have had to walk several kilometres a day, canvassing from house to house.

“I had 30 volunteers when I started out. Now I only have the women contesting with me,” said Meena.

Selvathurai, she said, just built a house for her eldest daughter and was thus always fearful that it would be broken down.

Such tactics have had many women scared to contest, even if the party was prepared to give them a nomination. Thus only two of the women (Meena and Selvathurai) are contesting for their wards, the rest have opted to come through the second list, said Meena.

This risk had prompted her mother to contest with her. “I saw that my daughter was being very brave. So I thought, I am her mother, I should be even more brave. We can look after each other if there is a problem,” said Meena’s mother, Sellathurau Padmavathi (63).

Not all in her family are supportive of the decision though. Meena’s three brothers have opposed her contesting as their names too have been dragged into posts insulting her.

rooting out corruption

On the political platform and in the minds of the people, rooting out corruption has become the main expectation and promise. Thus having women who have worked on the ground coming into politics is being seen as a breath of fresh air.

Loganna Koneswari (33), Meena’s neighbour, quipped that the majority of people were supportive of them. When canvassing, the public had welcomed them positively.

All the more that Kanpathipillai Noble Mariyasedan (55) and his friends have come out to support the women’s team. They were all supporters of the TNA, but this year, they have decided to support the UNP. “You cannot gain anything by fighting with the government all the time. We have to learn from the Muslim politicians, they have developed their villages by working with every consecutive government while our people were left behind. We have to now learn to work with them.”

He believed that women would make better leaders because they would think twice before wanting to wage war. “A woman always thinks of the consequences, whilst a man will dive right into a rash decision,” he said.

This is apparent when the women are asked what they would deliver to the people if elected; Sellaturai said she would build the people toilets as that is the most urgent need. Koneswari added that they would have to look into issues of livelihood and jobs and Meena was of the view that she would run a ‘clean’ office, free of corruption and serve the people truly - “I have thus far followed all the rules and I just want an opportunity to serve the people,” she said.

Just as this election has become significant to all the major parties in this country, it has become even more important for these women. “We have to win. It is then that we will set a precedent for all other women in the village to follow suit,” said Sellathurai.

Separated by a wall

The aspirations of the women in Arayampathy are no different to those who live 4.3km away in Kattankudy. This the first time women in the area are openly contesting for a seat at the Kattankudy Urban Council (UC). The only woman ever to occupy a seat at the Urban Council was a sister of a famous politician in the area but many remark that it was to do more with her familial connections than electoral achievements.

Kattankudy is unique in the country for being one of the only towns with almost 99 percent of the population being Muslim.

The town mainly comes to life at night and on Friday (2) night, the stage was set for a political meeting by the National Front for Good Governance Party (NFGG) - a party which has done well in Kattankudy. An open space at the centre of the town was filled with chairs and a projector to beam the speaker to all corners. And on the side, a white wall separates the large crowd of men from a group of almost 30 women, all dressed in black and some in niqab. For some of these women, it was the first time they had come out to witness a political meeting.

Only men speak on stage to the men. The NFGG has one woman contesting and four on the second list for the total of 10 wards in the UC. None of the women speak on stage. “It is against our culture. We cannot have a woman address a mixed gathering on a stage,” said one woman.

Sitting in the NFGG office the next day, Head of the NFGG Women’s Wing, Aneesa Firdous (46) however believes that a lot has changed since women started speaking of politics in Kattankudy.

In 2006, she together with a group of other women started a campaign to increase awareness on voting and politics among women,

“At the time, many were saying that politics is not a place for women, and women should not deal with it. It was also the norm for the man, the breadwinner to decide on whom his whole family would vote for or the women would not vote at all.

“We asked that women decide for themselves and come out and vote. We also stopped women being used to cast illegal votes,”, she said.

In 2006, when NFGG contested for the Kattankudy UC, they won 3,000 seats and sent one member to the council, thanks to the increase in the female vote.

The NFGG was the first Muslim party in the East to have a separate women’s wing, explained Firdous further.

Despite these achievements and the 25 percent quota, it has been difficult for Muslim women candidates in the area to campaign for office,

“The first thing they do when a woman is contesting is attack her character. She needs to get permission from her husband as well as her children to contest, so it is very difficult to find women to contest,” said Firdous.

She together with her team, like the women in Arayampathy, have faced several personal attacks on political platforms and social media with many posts attacking her for common things like having her daughter attend a university batch party.

The women however have persevered regardless of the personal attacks. The women, though they only address female pocket meetings and canvass door to door in Kattankudy, have had no problems in addressing mixed, larger political platforms in other areas.

“These very same women speak on stages in Puttalam. I feel very comfortable contesting in other areas. We don’t have to worry about what the backlash is going to be,” said Firdous.

Their sole female candidate contesting a ward, Riffiah, is contesting an area badly affected by the tsunami and war. Most of them are female-headed households which the party feels Riffiah can appeal more to.

This time, even the moulavis are in support. “Many have come into the election and see the importance of the female vote and have started supporting us,” said Firdous.

“This culture will slowly wear away. We have women in almost every field now. Earlier the women were not seen on the streets, now we see them. Last year if we had women coming for a political meeting, we would have faced severe backlash and there would be sermons made against us in the mosque. But now it is not there. It is changing,” she said.

Next time, women might even speak on stage, she added.

Hanifa Raqeeba (35) is one the second list for Ward 1 in Kattankudy. Having worked in the an NGO called Islamic Women’s Research Association (IWRA) and dealt with many social problems, she sees this as an excellent opportunity to serve the people.

Her dream is to build a temporary shelter or safe home for battered women, a much needed requirement in the area. She also plans to work on solving the water problem in the area due to water connections being very expensive, “It costs Rs.30,000 to get a connection,” she said. The women are determined to continue their campaign all the way to Parliament.

In the meantime, they have had to be pragmatic in dealing with local issues like women candidates not being allowed to put their faces on their candidate cards. “If we are going to bring about change in Kattankudy, we have to do it the Kattankudy way,” said Firdous.

Men and some women do not like female faces being displayed in public. “People, even now will protest if we put our candidate’s face on the card. We don’t like it and neither does the party, but if we don’t follow, it will affect the party’s votes at the election,” Firdous explained.

When asked if women in the UC would change the social fabric of Kattankudy, she said, “Change will come, but only when we send the women who work there.”

“Speak next time”

Sri Lanka in general is a patriarchal society and perhaps the greater number of attacks on female candidates in the North and East are derived from stricter social norms attributed to women in Tamil and Muslim societies. Some of these are direct - in the form of physical and verbal attacks, whilst others are more subtle - entrenched in the system.

In Valachchenai, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) is having a pocket meeting with the attendance of its leader, R. Sampanthan. Only one woman speaks on stage - she is not contesting.

Shalini’s father, an old party stalwart, is counted among the thousands of missing persons yet to be accounted for. She works up the crowd with an emotional speech for party and Tamil nationalism. The crowd cheers her on. She is just 19.

The female candidates for the TNA however sit on the side, below the stage.

“They say there is not much time for the women to speak. The leader is to arrive soon,” said a female candidate.” The last half hour however has been filled with incongruent speeches by male candidates. “They have promised to give us time to speak at the next meeting,” she added. None of the female candidates have addressed any of the TNA meetings thus far.

In the Arasady Ward for the Batticaloa Municipal Council however, Sivam Packiyanathan is getting ready for the polls.

“We have not had much interest shown by the women to contest. The men came asking for nominations, but we had to go look for the women and convince them. By the next election, we should have a better response,” he said.

Arasady being the only ward in Batticaloa where all the four main religions in the country reside is a complex place, but he is certain that as this election is more about the ‘local man’ rather than the party, he has a chance of winning.

His ambitions when elected are different to that of the women. He speaks of improving tourism, improving building approval procedures, stopping sea planes in the lagoon, solving the garbage and sewerage crisis, improving pedestrian walkways and finding ways in which the Batticaloa Municipal Council would earn more revenue.

When asked of the attacks he has faced, he said, “There were some posts which said I was corrupt and not genuine and all that. Lies spread by the opposition. I don’t take them seriously.”

It has been a good and fair campaign, he added. 

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