Are we doing enough to increase political participation of women and youth in Sri Lanka?

Mar 19, 2019 (LBO) – The political participation of women and youth is an important subject that came to the fore during the previous election.

According to data from National Human Development Report for Sri Lanka (NHDR) although 71.5 percent of youth in Sri Lanka exercise their right to vote, only a small fraction is directly engaged in politics through activism within political parties and trade unions. This is the same with regard to women too.

Whether the current minute representation of youth and women in national politics is a true representation of the thoughts and needs of the wider society is a subject worthy of discussion.

LBO spoke to newly elected Colombo Municipal Councillor Milinda Rajapaksha for more details…

  1. What is the role of women and youth in the current political environment in Sri Lanka?

Women and youth are the main drivers of long-term change, inclusion, and sustainable development. They occupy key roles in social structures that are capable of creating such change, such as families, schools, and community networks. Women in particular, in their roles as mothers, teachers, nurses, community leaders, have a wide sphere of influence in creating change.

Across the world, more and more youth and women coming into mainstream politics. In recent years, there have been a significant number of state leaders who are under the age of 40, such as the Chancellor of Austria, who is the youngest serving state leader at age 32, and others in countries like Ireland, New Zealand, Bhutan, Qatar, and Costa Rica. We recently saw that the 116th US Congress has 127 women in service, including the first Muslim women, the first Native American women, and the youngest woman elected to Congress at only 29 years of age.

What this shows is that there is a real need for the representation of women and youth in politics – unfortunately we don’t see enough of it happening here in Sri Lanka. There have been efforts to create more engagement in this regard – we have seen the introduction of the quota system for both youth, at one time, and more recently for women. While the quota system is important and definitely is a step in the right direction, it’s not enough to rely on such regulations to create increased participation. There is a great responsibility upon the current political leaders to encourage the participation of young people and women within their parties and empower them to engage with the larger conversations throughout the political community.

  1. How does the youth participation in politics in Sri Lanka compare to our regional counterparts? What can we do to improve the situation?

Across the region and the world, we are seeing that youth are choosing to participate in development, innovation, and addressing social issues through startups, community networks, civil society organisations, without getting involved in mainstream political structures. Studies show that governments are among the lowest ranked institutions in terms of public trust.

Aside from this, we need to also increase the participation of youth in a public political discourse. Young people don’t need to be elected as public officials to be involved in politics – they have the capacity to engage, debate within their communities, use their platforms to create awareness about the needs of their peers, and hold elected officials accountable for their actions.

It is important to show young people that it is possible to discuss and debate political ideology without name calling and mudslinging. It’s important to provide positive examples where people engage with people who have different views, but do so in a meaningful and constructive way. This diversity of perspectives is what enables the country to grow in a positive manner so we need to encourage them to speak out, agree, disagree, and learn from the experience.

We do see that there is an increase in young people engaging in this conversation as social media has given them a convenient platform to participate. While this is very encouraging, we still have to put more effort into moving the conversations from social media and getting more women and young people to voice their opinions and sit at the tables where decisions are made and policies are created.

3. Can you comment on the civic responsibility of Sri Lankans – about the youth in particular?

Civic responsibility means that we as individuals or groups take responsibility in addressing issues of public concern and developing the quality of life of people in our communities. This can be done through political or non-political means. I think there is a significant amount of youth activism and accountability towards civic issues in Sri Lanka. Every day we here of examples of young people coming together, creating organizations, peer groups, and movements that work for positive change. The question is why do the youth choose to engage largely outside the structures of mainstream politics. Is it because they don’t believe in or relate to the values of the political structures? Or do they feel that the political mechanisms are outdated and don’t allow for them to create fast and innovative solutions to the challenges they face?

Whatever the reason, it’s important that we find an answer to this as a country. If youth are disengaged or disillusioned or feel let down by their state and political leaders, it can lead to tensions and civil unrest, which we have seen in Sri Lanka as well as many examples across the world.

As a country, we need to find ways for the youth to participate in politics and their civic responsibilities in a meaningful way, so that we use the energy and creativity of youth and harness them to create the solutions they themselves need for the future. The danger is that if they don’t take the responsibility, they will be left without a sense of ownership of their own futures. Without that level of accountability and involvement, these structures are bound to fail if we don’t nurture the next generation of leaders.

4. On a different note, let’s talk about your book

When entering the world of politics, I realised that one of the most important aspects of a strong political journey is the ability to express your political ideology simply and clearly to all your various stakeholders. Whether someone is a follower, a supporter, or even an opponent, a just political system begins with a well-informed public.

Without having a clearly articulated political ideology and an electorate who had access to the information required to make informed decisions, a country could not progress as a democracy. Misinformation and lack of clarity in politics were often the main causes of people losing faith in a political system.

Some time ago I started to put down my thoughts about politics, the economy, current affairs, film, literature, art and share them on social media, and I realized very quickly that these articles got a lot of positive (and negative!) feedback and created some very thought-provoking discussions. It was then that I decided to use my writing as a tool to engage and capture the consciousness of my readers.

At its heart, this book, අයිතිකාරයෝ භාර නොගත් ලියුම් සීයක් (One Hundred Misplaced Letters), is about my lifelong passion for politics. But it also goes beyond, because it gives me the chance to my political ideology as well as my perspectives with a wider audience, in the hope of engaging them in meaningful conversation about many of the things I consider significant in the world.

I’m very grateful to many of the people who have supported me along this journey, but mostly to my readers, because they have been my best supporters as well as my sharpest critics; but without them, none of this would have been possible.