Sri Lanka: Empowering women and vulnerable communities to strengthen democracy and good governance

Sri Lanka has a favourable gender ratio of over 51%. However the participation of women in the elected democracy is low. Women are found in decision-making positions in all sectors, but their presence remains aroundĀ  5%. Many sections of the country's population, including women, rural populations, marginalized and vulnerable groups do not participate in the election process or are left out, often due to violence and unfair practices.

To promote democratic rights among women and vulnerable sections of society, the Saviya Development Foundation (SDF), an NGO, initiated a civil society empowerment project in the Southern Province of Sri Lanka in early 2010. Implemented in the districts of Galle, Matara and Hambantota, the broad objective of the initiative was to promote inclusive democracy in the Southern Province, to strengthen governance by reducing electoral malpractices and corruption, and to reduce human rights violations against women and other vulnerable sections of society. The project was funded by the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF) and executed by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Over a two year period (2010 - 11), the project undertook a number of awareness generation and capacity building activities reaching out to Community Based Organisations (CBOs), women self help groups (SHGs), Government functionaries, private sector representatives and media practitioners. 124 personnel from 60 CBOs were identified and trained to become leaders who could promote democracy and good governance in their communities. Awareness camps were held to provide voter education to citizens in both urban and rural areas. Multi stakeholder meetings brought together electorates, elected leaders, officers from government and private sectors and civil society on a common platform to discuss democracy and good governance. Nearly 250 women's SHGs were created to build a cadre of politically aware persons in the community who were encouraged to exercise their political rights and address cases of gender based violence in their area. Special trainings on gender equality were held for officials from the government and private sector.

Around 40 Information Education Communication (IEC) materials including leaflets, manuals, handbooks, posters and videosĀ  were prepared in the local language in an easy to understand manner, covering topics such as the Sri Lankan Constitution, human rights, gender and labour laws. 47 information centres were set up in the rural councils of Galle, Matara and Hambantota in collaboration with the Government, where the IEC material was made available to citizens. The Government supported the initiative by establishing the centres in government libraries and appointing special librarians.

A final project evaluation revealed that participants have become more aware about different aspects of democracy and good governance. Women learnt about the importance of voting and started showing interest in political processes. The selection of candidates during elections started being done through informed choice. Violence during elections came down, leading to more women casting votes. Training government functionaries about democracy, good governance, human rights and gender empowerment helped in sensitizing them and enlisting their participation in the initiative. The information centres have helped to take information to rural communities.

Women became better informed about their democratic rights, including the need for them to enter politics and contest elections. Many of them were trained as peer educators at grass root level awareness camps, where they learnt about different laws relevant to them. As a result, several women broke their silence and spoke about domestic violence and sought avenues for recourse. The publications at the information centres such as a 'Gender and Democracy Manual' help the women in accessing further knowledge on gender based violence.

Within a short time span, the project was able to reach out to a large number of key stakeholders sensitizing them on gender justice, voter education, democracy and good governance. CBOs now feel the need for reaching out to more women and building networks with other CBOs in the area to mobilize and motivate more women for political participation. Government officials have expressed interest in learning more about democracy and gender-related issues, so that they can apply it as part of their official duties. They also see the need to set up information centres in remote areas, so that more people can access information. There is a felt need for strengthening and sustaining the initiative by organising follow up trainings, since the concepts of democracy and gender empowerment are still new for the people and by reaching out to citizens in more rural areas.

It is hoped that the modest successes made by the project are built upon, so that many more citizens are empowered to become aware of their democratic rights and responsibilities, thereby taking the benefits of the initiative to more people at large.