Female Forward International
Leading the Nation through inclusion, equality and educational reforms
Nilshani de Silva envisages a Sri Lanka where women, children and those with special needs will have equal opportunities in life, and be treated with dignity and respect. Under her leadership, respect for all beings will be taught to children at a very young age, as they, as the future generations of the country, would then learn, very early in life the importance of living in peace and harmony with all.
De Silva will draw from her own experience, she says, when, as the first student with special needs to be admitted to Bishops College, Colombo, her classmates, who had not been asked to help her, would nevertheless be at the school gate to welcome and assist her. She was placed in a regular class, with children who had no special needs. Her classmates were drawn from all communities, Sinhala, Tamil, Burgher and Muslim. When children, says De Silva, work together and understand each other from their young days, they learn to remain friends and respect each other.
De Silva is a motivational speaker and a crafts teacher at her Alma Mater. She was one amongst ten women selected from diverse fields to share their vision for the country if ever they became the President. The event, jointly organised to celebrate International Women’s Day, by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, Sri Lanka and the cross-party youth group NextGenSL, was held at the Shangri-La Hotel, Colombo on March 8th.
Along with Nilshani de Silva,( Sri Lanka Association for Child Development award winner of Reaching for the Stars) were Ameena Hussain, an author and publisher, Samadani Kiriwandeniya, the former chairperson of Sanasa International, Sara Kabir, writer, researcher and author, Dr Santhushya Fernando, Public Health Specialist and Deputy Director, Sri Jayawardenapura Hospital, Indeewari Amuwatte, Head of English news at Derana (who was unable to attend), Sriyani Kulawansa, former Olympic Athlete, Prof. Janitha Liyanage, the Vice-Chancellor Gampaha Wickramarachchi University of Indigenous Medicine, Kasturi Chellaraja Wilson, Group CEO of Hemas Holdings PLC, and Varuni Amunugama-Fernando, Director at Derana and Joint Managing Director, Triad.
The women were invited to share their vision for the country, in a ten-minute presentation, if they ever have the opportunity of leading the country.
De Silva went on to say that as the President, she would overhaul the education system to ensure that all children, irrespective of their abilities would have equal access to learning so that even persons with special needs will have the opportunity of becoming productive citizens and enjoy respect and dignity. She would also bring changes to the judiciary. Reminding invitees to the event of the young man with special needs who had been abused by a staff member where he worked, she pointed out, how that young boy was denied justice, simply because he was unable to articulate his traumatic experience to the court. People with special needs experience similar setbacks when they go to the police to make a complaint, de Silva said, adding that it is no different for women and children.
In a country she leads, she will also ensure village women have the same chance as those in urban areas for employment, offer finances and reskilling training for those who lose their jobs to restart life, work with the private sector to train those with special needs and prepare them for the job market and set up a support system that would care for such individuals when their parents are no more.
Scene-stealer Santhushya Fernando
Indeed, almost all of the women who spoke that evening expressed similar sentiments. Dr Santhushya Fernando perhaps stole the night with her impassioned and heartfelt presentation. She would, she said, start with a constitution that is secular, unlike the current one, which she points out is based on archaic Roman-Dutch laws, which even the Netherlands, Italy and the UK have abandoned. She will draw from Sri Lanka’s ‘Shishtacharaya’ of compassion and non-violence, where a constitution would protect all religions, and all from religion.
All beings will be respected, says Fernando, where less government would really mean more government, bring back our migrant works who provide the lifeblood to our country, over repatriating friends and the privileged and where the best of science, irrespective of ethnicity and religion will be drawn upon to uplift the country.
Under Fernando’s leadership, education would be modernised and de-brutalised. She would, she said, ensure that our young girls would not have to miss school owing to the lack of affordable sanitary napkins or the facilities to manage menstrual issues with dignity. If such actions would earn her the moniker of ‘Padwoman’, she declared she would wear that badge like the way Susanthika wears her Olympic medal!
Deploring the fact that after 15 years, the Ministry for Women and Children has been abolished and downgraded, in a country she leads, there would be, she said punitive and restorative justice. If any in the audience had shared ‘suitcase jokes’ (referring to the discovery of a woman’s headless body in a travelling bag recently), she said ‘you are part of the problem.’ In this country where laws and documents are not in gender-neutral language, women and gay people have no rights.
Despite everything, Fernando points out that politics is the best weapon against despotism, and in a country she leads, there will be forgiveness, irrespective of who committed a crime first. That, she said is necessary if we are to make peace in our lifetime.
Former Olympic Athlete Sriyani Kulawansa spoke of a country that would ensure that those whose goal is to reach their pinnacle in sports would still be assisted with their studies.
Policies would be formulated in keeping with the values and the country, but would not change with every administration. Governments must take the blame that its citizens remain in poverty, but the people too must play their part in being united, withstanding divisions that negatively impacts unity. A country she leads would not be focussed on simply beautifying the place with tarred roads and electrification, but will be infused with a change of attitude to develop the country; to take Sri Lanka to the place everyone wants it to be.
Wilson bemoans politicisation of the Civil Service
Kasturi Chellaraja Wilson, meanwhile, said that following the 1972 constitution appointments of ministry secretaries were politicised. Politics must be separated from the civil service, where politicians will formulate policies and leave the professionals to implement those. Education, she said needs an overhaul where skills and the right attitude is included in the syllabus. “We hire for attitude and train for skill.’
In a system geared to using politicians to get things done, citizens should learn to think and act differently. She envisions a country that cannot be divided by race or religion and that, she says could be achieved when teachers and parents are taught to do it right; embrace diversity and inclusion and refrain from compartmentalising people according to their ethnic, religious or gender identities.
Professor Janitha Liyanage meanwhile, will direct her energy on changing the education system, where students will be exposed to skills and extra-curricular activities instead of learning by rote where examinations play a big part. In such a situation, both teachers and parents will need to change their way of thinking. Teamwork and leadership, she said come through extra-curricular activities. Unfortunately in today’s systems, even university students have to be spoon-fed and are constrained by a ‘batch topper’ mentality.
Echoing the thoughts of speakers before her, Liyanage too emphasised that education policies should not change with each new regime.
Writer and Publisher Ameena Hussain bemoaned her belief when younger, that 2021 would have changed for the better for women, yet, today, it is ‘more repressive, less liberal and conservative.’ Where organised religion and patriarchy take pride of place, women are relegated to a backseat. In an intensely traditional Sri Lanka, the appointment of the first woman Deputy Inspector General of Police is being contested by 32 male Senior Superintendents of Police, who, instead of suing to have the regulations amended, seek to block her promotion merely because the rules do not include the word ‘woman.’
In a country she leads, the citizenry could look forward to schools that are not segregated on language, religious or ethnic lines. Holland, where its 17 million people speak Dutch, teaches English, German and French as foreign languages so her people are able to compete with the region and elsewhere in the world. Consider that with Sri Lanka, where amongst the 22 million population, many cannot speak English the link language or even the second national language.
Schools will teach comparative religion so students will learn and understand the core values of not only their own faith but that of others. Hers would be a country where there will be zero tolerance of discriminatory practices, abuse and sexual harassment of women and the LGBTQ community. The Arts, which makes up the soul of a country, will have a bigger financial allocation than the defence budget.
The policies she would introduce she said, would make it ‘more difficult to have a government of malice.’
Samadani Kiriwandeniya will reforest the central hills
Kiriwandeniya will lead a country, where social, environmental and economic policies will take centre stage. In Kiriwandeniya’s Sri Lanka, birth certificates will not denote one nationality, though she acknowledges such a move would be controversial.
It will be an inclusive nation where public servant would be bilingual and also know English, and if religion must be taught in schools, it must include the values of multi-religions.
The existing forest cover will be increased, and the lost environment recovered. The central hills will be reforested she said
On the economic front more than making money and profits, she will include social data also as part of wealth.
People will be seen as humans with potential, and not as Muslim, Hindus, Catholics or women, she says.
Presenting her case in poetic form, Sarah Kabir said; ‘I wouldn’t make my decisions based on a second term, I wouldn’t centralise, but my power I would devolve.
My committees would not be just for optics, or friends,
They would represent all, And to make this country better, a hand they would lend.’
Kabir addressed many fronts and ills the nation faces, adding that the division of ‘class’ has remained a problem for a long time and that she would provide equal opportunity for all, for that would ensure the success of a nation. She would not provide a platform for racists and misogynists but would facilitate a sense of belonging where all would celebrate Independence Day with pride, irrespective of the language chosen to sing it. Her leadership would create a space for all Sri Lankans citizens, where truth over pseudo-nationalism and empathy over apathy would be the hallmarks.
In contrast to the sentiments of inclusivity expressed by all the other women, Varuni Amunugama- Fernando began her presentation singing hosannas to the current regime, making one wonder whether this was an event of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna. When she did get to sharing her vision for a country she would lead, Amunugama- Fernando said she would make teaching English compulsory and get the services of religious leaders in temples and parishes to identify those who are genuinely in need of “Samurdhi handouts.” It is politicised now, she says. Everyone else will be expected to work and change their mindset of expecting everything to be free.
‘Misinformation, said Amunugama- Fernando, is killing the future generation’, therefore, she would have a ‘war room’, where she would first control social media. Acknowledging that censorship would be unpopular, she would nevertheless, through the war room, gather, assimilate and control the flow of information. Amunugama- Fernando will lead by example, through honesty and integrity, so future generations could do the same. And to that end, she said, she would ensure that positive news about the country is imparted daily. It would then create a positive Sri Lanka, a country citizens would be proud of.
The event also showcased Ashcharya Peiris Jayakody, Aneetha Warusavithana, Yamuna Ranjini, Dharshi Keerthisena and Princy Mangalika, all of who have either overcome or are paving the way for women to challenge the barriers life throws their way and succeed.