We want more women leaders | Sunday Observer

We want more women leaders

Pic: Tilak Perera
Pic: Tilak Perera

The Australian Ambassador for Women and Girls, Dr.Sharman Stone says Sri Lanka is in an impressive trajectory on protecting women’s rights, and the 25% quota for women representation in different tiers of government is a real game changer that will elevate Sri Lanka into a role model.

A former politician who is a long standing and an active advocate on gender equality issues in Australia and worldwide, Dr. Stone was here to inspect the progress of Australian Government funded projects and learn about how to improve their work to help marginalised women in the country.

She visited a number of Eastern Province projects to help marginalized women and girls including returned Middle East workers, orphaned girls and war widows.

The excerpts of the interview with Australian Ambassador for Women and Girls, Dr. Sharman Stone

Q: What is the purpose of your recent visit to Sri Lanka?

A: In my role I go to places where Australia’s overseas development assistance is put to good use, to meet with our partners, civil society and UN colleagues, particularly government. To see how the Australian Aid program is working out and what needs to be improved.

Australia does not pretend it has all the answers to all the global problems. We want to learn how we can have a more equitable society for all and ensure that the next generation of girls will be freer and reach their full potential, but more importantly, how women could be more represented as leaders in parliaments, businesses and elsewhere. Our view is shared by the Sri Lankan government. It has legislation in place and is a signatory to the relevant UN Convention.

We believe, when women participate fully in the workforce and use their education, the country is more sustainable, the GDP grows and it is also the right thing to create a stable peaceful society.

Q: You chose to visit the Eastern Province, any particular reason?

A: I had only a day. Travelling up North is going to take long. The other reason is Australia has ongoing programs in the Eastern Province, we held five separate meetings with the people helping the women programs under Aussie assistance.

Australia is funding OXFAM to help women to upscale and make their spinning, weaving, toy making business, more profitable. This particular program was very impressive, women feeling their lives were better,especially because their husbands were sharing household responsibilities and not resentful that women are not at home.

Q: Do you think Sri Lanka’s parameters for protections for women and girls are strong, what can be improved?

A: Sri Lanka has real challenges which are unique because it has come out of a protracted conflict. It has a lot of women headed households. A lot of the infrastructure was destroyed, and mine fields still posing a threat.

But there is real drive that women should be educated. Maternal healthcare especially, free healthcare offered by the government is an important thing. The country offers free access to education for both girls and boys.

Sri Lanka has to identify that there are still areas of poverty and places where women can’t get work, difficulties of climate change - drought adding to poverty. The government is aware of gender based violence. Every country has gender based violence, Australia has it.

It should not be regarded as a private family matter, it is a community issue and also the need to expedite court cases. Sri Lankan government understands these challenges. It is a case of getting there. No country has overcome these issues entirely.

The issues of migrated women returning and finding work are also being addressed. I visited a place called Selyn in the East, where they employ returning migrant women. This is a local initiative. Right now there are millions of people in the Pacific who migrate for work, and face many issues when they come home.

Sri Lanka also has one of the best programs for trying to forewarn women about the dangers when travelling on off-shore employment. These are impressive measures. There are many countries in the region that are not travelling in the same trajectory as your country.

Q: Do you think the government has taken enough measures towards debt relief -especially of the war widows who are struggling to make a living?

A: Indebtedness is a major problem for all men and women.

I understand this government has a moratorium on repayments of some debts, because it is aware of loan sharks, and of the unfair practice. We are very conscious in Australia about lenders being ethical, there are sanctions on those who take short cuts. Debt can lead women to migrate, it can lead to suicides.I know the Sri Lankan government is trying to deal with this issue.

Q: You met with the wife of the Prime Minister, who is also a champion of women’s rights, could we know what transpired at these discussions?

A: I have met her before, in Canberra. For a person who had spent so much time academically, and a champion of women’s rights herself, she is a treasure for Sri Lanka. We talked about issues of women who had just been elected to local councils, a tier of government, how it is so difficult to be a pioneer, what can be done to make sure they are supported in the earlier days.

We talked about migrating women, the need to inform them before they depart and support them when they return.We had excellent discussions with Prof.Wickremesinghe and she and I are very like minded in issues that matter and I look forward to my next meeting with her.

Q: Female representation in Sri Lanka’s Parliament is shockingly low, compared to other countries in the region. How can you encourage more women to take to politics, what is your personal experience?

A: I met six of the women parliamentarians, I have met them before in Melbourne. You are right the numbers are very low, but in the entire Pacific region we are about 7%. In the Northern Hemisphere it is about 13%.

It is hard for women to break through in what has been a male stronghold for generations. Sri Lanka should be applauded for setting aside the 25 % quota for women representation. It is a difficult but a superb step. It is a real game changer.

I met some of the local women councilors yesterday. Each one of them were unique and impressive, in their capacity and commitment, really wanting to make a difference and wanting to be a team player with the men who have been elected.

So I think Sri Lanka is again being something of a role model with the quotas. When we do have more female representation, 30 % – 50% or more, we know the resources are allocated differently, and that ensures more colligate, participatory government.

Women are more familiar with issues of family, equity and natural resources. Therefore, problems are evaluated differently when you have both women and men sitting around the table.

Australia is in the same boat we don’t have enough women in parliament. The local, state and central parliaments have no quotas or affirmative action for female representation. Not as yet! We aspire for 50% - 50%, but there has been no concrete decisive action, like a quota or reserve seats. But in introducing a quota you must make sure the community understands what’s going on. Community preparation and communication is important to move forward.

Q: One of the off-putting factors for women to take to politics in Sri Lanka is the ‘polls campaign mafia’, getting exposed to malicious propaganda. How do you overcome the fear of bad publicity?

A: I have been a member of parliament for 20 years. I went through seven elections, they are extremely competitive elections in democracies, they are not for the gentle hearted. We got a saying in Australia, ‘if you can’t stand the heat in the kitchen stay out of the kitchen’.

But politics is the biggest game in town, to be a part of the policy making and decision making body. If you want to make a change in society, you must be there. You must understand the rules of political campaign and how parliament works , what you have to do to get elected. There need to be a long run up, years of preparation to get the people in the electorate to know you. You have to raise a lot of funds or get your party to raise funds for you, family support is vital.

And you must in your own mind understand why you are trying to do this, I haven’t heard many say I do it because I get to earn a big salary and I can see my photo in the paper. That is not why women run for parliament. Women don’t have egos like that, besides when you campaign there will be dirty tricks. That is the nature of democratic campaigning, the winner takes it all.

Dedication and commitment will take you to your destination. You will not most probably succeed the first time. One of Australia’s premiers contested the election seven times before he succeeded, and went on to become the Prime Minister. It’s not different to men and women, you need to focus on the outcome.

Q: In Sri Lanka many Muslim women continue to be regarded as second-class citizens, unequal to men in matters of marriage and family. Regarding your current visit to the Eastern Province where the population is mostly Muslims, how can the Sri Lankan Muslim women and girls make their voice heard? How have you tackled this issue in your country?

A: I don’t think the response to women and girls is specific to any particular religion. Different communities do different things for the ‘protection’ of girls and women.

In Sri Lanka, we talked about child marriage in a few of my discussions, the issue is related to poverty. When mothers have migrated the adolescent girls are married off quickly, sometimes for her ‘protection’.

There is no debate at all about the fact of the girls marrying before the age of 18. They are in danger of not completing their education, of having children too early before they are physically and emotionally prepared, of not understanding how to avoid abuse. Child marriage is not a good thing anywhere, it is something universally acknowledged.

In Australia, it is strictly against the law to marry off a girl below the legal age of 18, we have had some very well publicized cases. Anyone associated with child marriage will be prosecuted, it is a serious crime, it is important for countries to have a law about the minimum age for marriage.

In some of the regions marriage and birth registrations are not performed hence, addressing this issue is difficult. But this is not an issue for Sri Lanka.

Q: There is a lot of talk in Sri Lanka lately on the re-introduction of Capital Punishment. Do you think this will be a better preventive tool against rape and other brutal forms of violence against women, given there are very low convictions on such crime ?

A: In countries which have the capital punishment, they still have very high rates of rape and crimes against women. Australia had the capital punishment but it is no longer legal.

We believe taking a life is unlawful in any circumstance. In Sri Lanka this has not been exercised for many years I understand it is being debated at the moment because of the very real problem of drugs, it is something the government has to decide.

I used to work in the Office of Correction, this is something that we debated when a serial killer is caught. But there is no real correspondence between the crime rate and capital punishment. You can make sure the offenders will never have another chance by giving them life imprisonment but at the end of the day, no one has a right to take a life.