The Women’s Leadership Development Project (WLDP)
Despite relative gains against MDG indicators on gender parity in education and wage employment, Sri Lanka still performs poorly on women’s political participation, with women’s representation in national parliament standing at 5.6% which is among the lowest in South Asia and in the Provincial Councils (PCs) and Local Authorities (LAs) at under 3%.
The absence of legalised quotas for female representatives, a relatively violent electioneering and political culture, and a lack of access to resources, skills and networks, often inhibit women from being part of public and civic decision-making structures at the national and local levels. Women from the country’s formerly conflict-affected districts face additional challenges, having to bear additional economic and social burdens especially if they have lost male family members, and living in areas where decision-making structures are themselves just being resuscitated following the end of the war.
While many organizations have sought to increase women’s participation in decision-making, much of this work has not reached fruition, as interventions have been too brief or thinly-spread, or they have not succeeded in changing the attitudes of men, or they have been unable to build women’s alliances that cut-across other identity-markers - all of these are critical for sustaining and multiplying the impact of any effort on gender empowerment.
Against this background, UNDP Sri Lanka launched the ‘Women’s Leadership Development Project’ (WLDP) between 2010-2011, as a pilot aimed at creating a pool of women with the confidence, courage and capacities to put their once conflict-affected district back on the road to development. WLDP worked with 30 women from the formerly conflict-affected district of Ampara - which incidentally also has the lowest female participation in local governance structures - providing them with capacity-development, with exposure and networking opportunities, and with seed-funds to initiate community development activities.
3.Innovativeness and Partnership-building
WLDP began its work only following a district-specific gender needs and capacities assessment, so that the intervention could be designed to respond to the specific environment, instead of to more generalized perceptions of gender needs in the country.
The 07 training modules were informed by this needs assessment, and covered life skills, communication and advocacy, rights, gender roles and responsibilities and more business oriented trainings focusing on networking and resource mobilization strategies. The women leaders met on a monthly basis to receive these trainings, and as they learned about each other’s ethnic, social and economic backgrounds, they also formed strong ties that cut across these differences. The women undertook ‘homework’ to field-test their learning. For example, each of them convened and ran a meeting in her village, where villagers joined force with relevant government officials to draw a solution to a specific problem in the village, such as the lack of safe drinking water or a shortage of qualified teachers. WLDP placed high emphasis on developing networking skills to equip each of the women with the contacts they needed to access resources beyond UNDP’s work with them. As such the women participated in exposure visits to local government bodies, the national parliament etc, networked with women’s organizations, national government ministries, UN agencies and donors
The women leaders designed and implemented their own community projects focusing on a particular problem or gap in their localities. These were drafted, submitted and presented to an independent panel for approval, following which the women leaders became signatories to grant agreements with UNDP. For example, concerned about the impact of alcoholism in her village, and using her newly developed advocacy and networking skills, Ms. Mallika Jayamini, one of the women leaders partnered with the Alcohol and Drug Information Centre (ADIC), put-up posters, distributed leaflets and ran mobile street dramas on the negative impacts of alcoholism in her village. “They don’t want to hear what I am telling them. But I’ll keep on telling them” she says. Keen to share her knowledge and skills with a larger group in her area, another woman leader formed a women’s society in Akkaraipattu, and working with the Government’s Women Development Officer for the area, with whom she built links with during the project, she is now running WLDP’s modules for a new pool of women and working with them to design a new wave of community development initiatives.
As part of WLDP’s sustainability strategy, the women were integrated into decision-making mechanisms of the district through formalized agreements between UNDP and the decentralized and devolved streams of government.
In early 2011, Ms. K. Lalith Kulanayake, one of the women leaders, empowered by the training and exposure received through her participation in the WLDP, decided to run for local government, and having successfully contested local elections became the first female representative to serve in her area. Furthermore all 30 women have successfully completed their community development projects, and reported significant transformational results. For example, Ms. A.M. Mahira’s project lifted the lid on the taboo subject of child abuse, and her awareness-raising efforts have seen a drastic reduction in the number of incidents reported over the past six months in her locality. She says, “I come from a conservative Muslim family and someone in my family used to accompany me whenever I went out even for UNDP events. I’m now able to do things alone as a result of the WLDP. Now I feel a real change in myself and my family. I’m happy.” Similarly another women leader formed a women’s collective of organic home-gardeners in the village of Indrasarapura, paving the way for this group to now grow, harvest and exchange fruits and vegetables to meet their combined needs. The women have been formally integrated into the development activities of the district under both the decentralized and devolved arms of local government. This result is particularly significant for its policy impact, in that following the participation of these women leaders in the statutory committees of local governance bodies, four of the Pradeshiya Sabhas have agreed to reform the statutory committees so as to ensure mandatory representation of civil society representatives, including women before April 2012 and to revise their annual budgets to allocate funds for women’s development activities this year. Ampara’s District Secretary encapsulated the sentiments of the district’s government officials when he says of the project, “Women play a key role and contribute a lot for well-being of the society. The project implemented by UNDP creates new opportunities for women to be more responsible and to change their society.”
As noted, men’s attitudes are often a barrier to female empowerment and indeed many selected candidates were initially sceptical that their families would support their participation in the programme, especially for those components involving overnight stays. WLDP addressed this issue head on by conducting a family orientation programme which allowed the family members to express their concerns. The session was successful in finding solutions to make all sides feel more comfortable, and gradually as family members have also had the chance to engage in further elements of the programme, men that initially appeared rigid and controlling in their views were more engaged and supportive.
(The above story received first prize under the 'Gender' category at the 2012 RBAP Awards for Excellence)