By Meera Srinivasan
What links an Akshay Kumar film, a presidential hopeful and a now-popular hashtag in Sri Lanka? A promise to end period poverty.
“I will wear the #padman label proudly,” Sajith Premadasa tweeted earlier this week, as he took on detractors who ridiculed him as “Pad Man” — referring to the 2018 Bollywood film on the subject — for promising free sanitary products to women who cannot afford them.
In a series of tweets, the ruling United National Party’s (UNP) candidate said over half of Sri Lanka’s adolescent girls missed school when on their period. While the current government has reduced the tax levied on sanitary products, thousands of women still suffer stigma and put themselves at risk every month, he added. And soon, #Padman became a hashtag that many voters, particularly women, began using.
Not just Mr. Premadasa, all key candidates contesting Sri Lanka’s November 16 presidential election are focusing on women’s issues that many see as a welcome shift. Especially since they have begun talking specifics.
The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna’s (SLPP) Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in his manifesto, promised to expand childcare facilities to help the women’s labour force, enhance nutrition aid for them, provide support for aspiring entrepreneurs and relief from debt to those trapped in microfinance loans.
In his manifesto, Mr. Premadasa highlighted the need to focus on women’s safety and promised speedy sentencing in cases of rape and sexual harassment, including a pledge to “clarify” its definition to include different forms of harassment and abuse. He has vowed to criminalise marital rape and to work towards a 25% representation of women in provincial councils and Parliament.
The leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)’s candidate Anura Kumara Dissanayake went a step further and released a “women’s manifesto”. “Progressive and leftist women have a long history of leading many social and political struggles in Sri Lanka. Feminism is not just another political perspective but a critical and vital framework through which we can better understand the crisis within society as a whole,” said the manifesto, which addresses issues ranging from representation to income disparity and women’s reproductive rights. Mr. Dissanayake is also one of the first leaders in the country to make a case for queer rights and equality on an election platform.
Activist groups working in the area have given a set of recommendations to all candidates that specifically look at the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual (LGBTQIA+) people. “It is a major landmark for the queer community to see a presidential candidate speak of their rights that too on an election platform. It comes after sustained activism and advocacy, and is significant,” according to Subha Wijesiriwardena,of the Colombo-based Women and Media Collective.
Much of the mobilisation of the community, she said, was in good measure provoked by derogatory, homophobic references made by some politicians and their ideological allies.
“It pushed us not only to respond and organise ourselves, but also to think about what language and framing we use when we articulate demands and assert our rights,” Ms. Wijesiriwardena notes. “It is interesting to see that we are being taken seriously, and there is a recognition that the queer community is a constituency.”
While welcoming the focus on the rights of women and other marginal groups in popular political discourse, Shreen Abdul Saroor, of the Women’s Action Network, remains sceptical. “Speaking about women’s issues ahead of polls is not new to us. It happened before the 2015 polls too, but much of that remains on paper.” At the same time, it is important to acknowledge the difference, she adds.
“One promise that was delivered by this government was the 25% quota in local bodies. And more importantly, after those 10 dark years of the Rajapaksa rule, this government gave women space to engage with those in power.”
Over the last four years, women have been the “noisiest”, be it in agitations on land rights, enforced disappearances, higher wages in the tea estate sector, reform of Muslim personal law, abortion rights and mounting household debt due to microfinance loans. “The manifestos we see today are not surprising. They are a reflection of the many struggles led by women over the years, and especially in the last few years,” Ms. Saroor adds.