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Door Opens for Sri Lankan Women to Run for Office. But Will They Be Allowed In?

KOTTE, Sri Lanka — Madhu Hettiarachchi has no time right now for the brain surgery her doctors have recommended. She’s busy trying to take advantage of an unprecedented chance to get women elected in Sri Lanka.

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Door Opens for Sri Lankan Women to Run for Office. But Will They Be Allowed In?

KOTTE, Sri Lanka — Madhu Hettiarachchi has no time right now for the brain surgery her doctors have recommended. She’s busy trying to take advantage of an unprecedented chance to get women elected in Sri Lanka.

After more than a generation of struggle by women’s rights activists, Sri Lanka’s patriarchal political scheme has, reluctantly, opened up a bit to require that 25 percent of candidates in local elections be women. Their representation in this island nation, still reeling from a protracted civil war, remains at a miserable 2 percent of local government posts, though women make up more than 51 percent of registered voters.

When the country goes to the polls Saturday, a quarter of the 56,000 candidates will be women. In the process of running, many have faced abuse that includes sexual assault, intimidation and character assassination. Religious leaders have openly urged their congregations not to vote for women. But for Hettiarachchi and other political activists, there is no going back.

“We have fought for this for two or three decades,” Hettiarachchi said, her eyes gleaming with excitement. “It’s not an easy thing. But this is a turning point.”

Hettiarachchi, 49, runs a horticulture export business and volunteers at Mothers and Daughters of Lanka, a coalition of women’s organizations. But the work that has driven her to put off surgery for a dangerous leak of cerebrospinal fluid has been helping 11 candidates, mostly around the Kotte suburb of Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital.

Only half of them belong to her United National Party. The rest are all independent candidates, joined with Hettiarachchi in the cause of seeing more female leaders in a society where some developmental indicators have been improving but where opportunity for women has changed little.

The lead-up to the vote has confirmed some of Hettiarachchi’s concerns. The female candidates are confronting not only the society’s conservative beliefs, but also deeply entrenched structures of their own parties that often set them up for failure. And widespread abusive behavior against the new candidates has been chilling — though some activists have credited authorities with being more alert and responsive than usual, possibly preventing outright violence in some cases.

“Men in Sri Lanka have for too long dominated politics, and they are now, I think, experiencing delayed shock and denial,” said Chulani Kodikara, a researcher and doctoral candidate at the University of Edinburgh.

“I think the backlash is manifesting in many different ways — from parties not taking the quota too seriously, and therefore not giving sufficient nominations to women at the ward level, to some political leaders telling voters not to vote for women and some Muslim religious leaders trying to make a theological argument against women coming into politics,” Kodikara said.

She added, “I don’t think we know the full extent of the backlash and might have to wait till after the elections and some proper documentation.”

Ambika Satkunanathan, a commissioner at Sri Lanka’s independent human rights commission, said the introduction of the quota was already having an effect as more women have stepped up to run, their challenges fueling a national conversation. But even if they are elected, that alone will not be enough, she said.

“I think also important is after they come to office, after they are elected, how will they perform? Because the structures will remain, the culture will remain within the local council, within local municipalities and political parties,” Satkunanathan said. “So how are they going to challenge that? We may have elected women, yes that is great. But if they toe the party line, if they are controlled, what is the point?”

The local elections are also turning into a referendum of sorts on the performance of President Maithripala Sirisena, who took office in 2015 during the first transition of power since Sri Lanka’s civil war ended in 2009, after the deaths of about 100,000 people.

Sirisena broke with the governing party, and won on a campaign of rising above party politics, rooting out corruption in his predecessor’s clique, reining in the military and decentralizing power to address the grievances of minority groups.

Critics say he has since disappointed on all those fronts. Soon after taking office he also assumed the leadership of his old party, which is now divided between him and former President Mahindra Rajapaksa, who presided over the crushing of the Tamil Tiger insurgency and now is a prominent critic of the government.

Alan Keenan, Sri Lanka project director for the International Crisis Group, said how Sirisena’s wing of the party does in the local votes would determine whether he refocused on his promised reforms or embraced Rajapaksa again. That would be likely to undermine Sirisena’s reform agenda further. Much of the struggle for the women who are running in the weekend’s elections has been against their own internal party structures.

The last time Harshani Sandaruwani ran for the local council in Kotte, in 2011, she missed out by 24 votes. When she wanted to seek a seat again this year, with Hettiarachchi’s help, the local party organizer — an influential post that decides who will represent the party, and is almost always filled by men — would not allow her. The prime minister, who is also her party leader, intervened to let her run. But the party assigned her to a neighborhood where she doesn’t live. Since neither she nor her immediate family members are registered there, not even they can vote for her.

“It doesn’t matter what the parties think, what the parties feel about women contesting, the people have come to believe that more women must take to politics,” Sandaruwani said. “People feel that if there are more women in politics, corruption will be reduced.”

Sandaruwani, 37, has campaigned door to door, visiting each of the neighborhood’s 950 households three times to help develop her agenda. Her main slogan: “Women leading against corruption.”

While she is confident she will win her seat this time, she has her eyes on a bigger role: becoming the mayor of Kotte. Her party usually puts forward the council candidate who gets the highest winning margin.

But as she has become increasingly prominent, the incumbent mayor, Janaka Ranawaka, has gone on the offensive against her.

When Sandaruwani called him out for corruption and challenged him to a public debate, Ranawaka, 47, responded to her challenge by going to the men around her. First, he offered to debate a senior male member of Sandaruwani’s party. When she pointed out that she was the candidate, not her male colleague, he called her brother with a veiled threat, she said.

When Ranawaka was asked whether he threatened Sandaruwani, he denied it, saying he didn’t even know her except from a few campaign posters.

“I will go head to head against opponents who are at my level or status,” he said. “Why should I look for a fight with some random young girl I don’t know?”

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