In an interview with Daily FT, she outlined her plans for Colombo and also spoke on a wide range of topics including the Government’s key achievements, education, women’s rights, women in politics and abortion. Senanayake also addressed the allegations against her son in relation to the bond investigation.
Following are excerpts:
* Focus on smart, safe, economically viable, and corruption-free city
* To push for innovation and bring in new thinking to digitalise the city
By Marianne David
Q: You are running for Mayor of Colombo and the elections will be held soon. Could you tell us your plans for Colombo?
A: Yes, I am getting ready for the elections and right now we are finalising the list of nominations. Things have changed for the first time in terms of women’s political representation and we are looking at women having a mandatory representation of 25% in line with the amendment. The elections will be held hopefully in January.
My plans are for a smart, safe, economically viable, and corruption-free city, one in which people will benefit, that is environmentally friendly, and where the people will see dividends. The CMC is the largest and oldest municipality not only in Sri Lanka but also in the Asian region. Colombo is the financial hub, with approximately 650,000 people, and comprises six wards and five electorates.
We need a clean city and the CMC is doing a great job in the collection and disposing of garbage at the moment but there is a lot more to be done. We need to establish permanent and sustainable solutions that can address the garbage issue such as permanent dumping sites and implementing projects for instance waste to energy, hazardous waste, recycling and addressing clinical waste issues, etc. We must educate the people on garbage segregation and make them responsible partners with the CMC to keep the city clean.
The Prime Minister appointed a committee to look into issues of the CMC such as garbage, dengue, etc. and I am one of the members of that committee. I have been working very closely with the CMC for about five months. We are looking at and working on many projects, especially Public-Private Partnerships, with regard to making the Colombo Municipal limits a model city.
The sewage systems we have are archaic and it is time for us to look at some major revamping. Fifty years ago, the population of the CMC city limits was much less than it is today; with the demands of the increase of population and infrastructure development, the system is now congested and not functioning effectively, hence we are looking at World Bank and Asian Development Bank funded projects with regard to the sewage system and waste water.
In the case of dengue, the CMC did a good job with cleaning and fogging of drains and canals, school backyards, and public areas and also educating the general public in order to eradicate the dengue mosquito and larvae; I personally worked with the committed medical teams and Environmental Police on the ground.
I will place heavy emphasis on medical facilities such as clinics, especially for the underserved settlements. Day-cares, early childhood education and pre-schools will be top priority. I will look at PPPs for vocational training for school dropouts, and an opportunity to learn English for every child in these areas. Our focus is to keep children off the streets, which is in line with the Prime Minister’s vision, where education is compulsory from Grade 1-13, and we will support this system.
As for roads, there is an approximately 300 km road network which has to be maintained and reconstructed. There are some projects in progress with the World Bank and Asian Development Bank but there is more work to be done. Flooding is an issue to be addressed and waste water disposal projects will be looked at seriously.
The municipality has many playgrounds and parks; these need to be improved to include activities for kids. We need to maintain the grounds, add gyms, sports clubs, and recreation facilities, which would help in keeping the youth off the streets and improve their living standards.
Among priority areas will be sanitation, clean drinking water, and toilet facilities, especially for the underserved settlements. These are areas we can immediately work on since the CMC has quite a lot of underserved settlements which also need proper housing facilities. The CMC has the land and the capacity to do it. We will be looking at new council homes for these people who are living in harsh conditions. President Premadasa built a lot of council homes for the people.
I’ve always felt that the people within Colombo City limits have had a raw deal in the recent past and it is time for us to improve the living standards, especially of the underserved settlements. We can, together with the Housing Ministry and the Megapolis Ministry, carry out joint projects to achieve this.
It is also important to have income generating programs and training programs, especially for women, with an emphasis on empowering them in practically every possible aspect, including reproductive health. A lot of women in Colombo City find it hard to make ends meet; we want to give them solid income generating programs.
The landscape of Colombo is changing and will change in the future, especially with projects such as Colombo Port City bringing in an influx of tourists and becoming a busy hub. In order to cater to the future demands, we have plenty of space and areas that we have already identified to turn into restaurant strips, tourist strips and for the residents to have leisure activities such as hawker streets. We have so far identified eight places for PPPs in this regard, including Marine Drive, where we can have light entertainment for people and families. Lighting up the city and giving the city a new face would also be top priority.
Colombo can be an attractive city where tourists will enjoy and experience like in Kuala Lumpur – Malaysia or Singapore, a commercially-viable city with fabulous shopping and entertainment. There is a lot to do in relation to public conveyance; for instance transport is something we can really improve on within the city.
I would say managerial dysfunction has been a drawback and we need to redraw them and learn to think outside the box in this digital era. We have to be very innovative and bring in new thinking to digitalise the city. We can do better than where we are and be ahead of the entire region. We just haven’t been innovative enough to move forward. When the whole world has evolved into a knowledge economy, we still depend on our innocent women to go to the Middle East and bring that number one dollar, which saddens me. Every leader of our country goes to other countries, don’t they see how those countries have evolved and where we are?
To me the biggest resource we have in this country is our human resource and adding value to that, investing in human capital, will take us to heights we ourselves may not be able to comprehend. I strongly believe that the Prime Minister is doing just that right now because he is concentrating on education and the economy, which will enable the next generation to take on challenges. We can support the Prime Minister’s policies through the CMC.
I will win. The UNP will win the council. My team will comprise of young professionals, professionals, women, and people who have been with the party. I want a very strong, capable eminent group in the council that can come up with and endorse ideas that are innovative, that will support the economy in line with the Prime Minister’s economic policies.
Q: Could you tell us what key issues you have been working on as the Deputy Chief of Staff at the Prime Minister’s Office?
A: Key areas are troubleshooting, gender issues, and children. I also manage events and functions.
In terms of troubleshooting, constituents from all over the country come with their needs and grievances – ranging from political to gender issues – and want to see the Prime Minister but that’s not always possible or necessary so I act as a buffer and resolve their problems by directing them to the right people and places.
Q: What would you list as the major accomplishments of this Government since it came into power?
A: There are many achievements. We repealed the 18th Amendment, brought in the 19th Amendment – this alone is a winner for me, no government has worked so speedily to bring in a new amendment – and the Right to Information Act, taking affirmative action to bring in 25% of women into the Council and we are working on the much-needed new constitution, etc.
Beyond policy, these are some of the things the Government has done. In the first five weeks, I as the State Minister of Child Affairs was able to launch a program for every pregnant mother to have a Rs. 20,000 nutrition package till and after four months of delivery. Also in the 100-day Government, I as the State Minister of Child Affairs was able to get $ 50 million for early childhood education.
Early childhood education is of paramount importance. The first five years of a child is the most crucial for a human being and 75% of brain development takes place during this time. Sadly, only 74% of our children have the opportunity of receiving early childhood education. I believe that early childhood education has to be part of the free education system. What is stopping us from having a classroom in every school for early childhood education?
We launched a medical insurance policy for children to mark World Children’s Day, which is a great achievement. The benefits give parents relief. The Prime Minister is currently working on improving crèches and day-cares centre so that the women’s participation in the workforce would increase.
We need to have a national policy on children and the President has a special Presidential Task Force on Children, of which I am a member.
I am happy to say that I was able to bring in a subject called ‘Think Equal,’ which is social and emotional value-based education, much-needed in today’s society. This is a subject that will cut across caste, creed, religion, gender, practically every discriminatory platform, and it teaches empathy and gender equality. This is something I will concentrate on in the council as well.
The CMC will be focusing more on childcare, and will operate more day-cares and preschools apart from those it already runs. We will also be upgrading the community welfare centres.
Q: There are allegations against your son Kanishka Senanayake in relation to the bond issue. What is your stance on this?
A: I was surprised and shocked. My participation in COPE proceedings ended on 26 June 2015 when I ceased to be a Member of Parliament. This allegation is from a third-party conversation on 12 August 2016, by which time I had long ceased to be an MP.
I immediately wrote to the Speaker of Parliament categorically denying any wrongdoing either on my part or that of my son and I also wrote to the Prime Minister and I said I want an investigation because I want my name cleared.
In the 100-day COPE, there was no report. D.E.W. Gunasekara tried to rush and bring a report but Sujeewa Senasinghe, Eran Wickramaratne and everyone who was on that committee, including the TNA members, said the investigation had not been completed so there can’t be a report.
It was so unfair that my son’s name was linked. I have already written to the Speaker in this regard.
Q: You have always been a vocal supporter of women’s rights. What key areas do you think still need change or support for women to be more empowered?
A: Security, livelihood, discriminatory laws against women and female-headed households are key areas. Even today, women go to the Middle East for a pittance. I don’t think as a Government we have negotiated well enough with regard to safety and salary. Empowering women economically in a sustainable and viable manner – that’s something the Prime Minister has been reiterating in the last couple of days. He says he will improve standards and bring in more economic avenues for women, thus they won’t have to go and struggle in the Middle East and can enjoy a better life with their families here and be economically functional and sustained.
Security is one of the major issues due to violence against women in this country and also nutrition for women. We don’t realise how many pregnant mothers are malnourished in the far-flung villages. When we came into power, this is why I brought in the Rs. 20,000 package for every pregnant mother and that is still being carried on.
There are other social areas as well. We have a huge female-headed household rate. One in every third household is headed by a woman. Single parenting is an issue. We need to have more social welfare. When it comes to loan schemes and housing projects, we need to give them an edge and have concessional programs.
Today even if a woman wants to start a small business, she can’t go to a bank given the things that they ask for, such as collateral. We need to see how we can help women start businesses, by perhaps giving them special provision to not need collateral, giving them special loans with minimum interest rates and so on. I believe that is an area we need to concentrate on, especially in relation to women in the north and east and in the deep south, who are suffering.
When it comes to women in public service, 62% of the Government sector is staffed by women – but how many are in decision making positions, how many are corporate chairpersons and on boards, how many are CEOs or even secretaries to ministries? This is where we need to see that women have a way forward.
Q: Sri Lanka is currently having a very vigorous debate on legalising limited abortion. Where do you stand on this issue?
A: Legalising abortion is not an answer. Permitting abortions under emergency grounds like in the case of rape is acceptable, but by legalising abortion we are going to face a huge problem in the future.
Why would a woman undergo an abortion? The Colombo University was commissioned to do a study on abortions when we had a huge number taking place each day and that study found that almost 95% of the abortions took place among married women. Why would a married woman have to face an unwanted pregnancy? Is it due to lack of knowledge and resources not being provided?
To me, abortion is not the answer. The answer is proper advocacy with regard to reproductive health rights. You need to teach them about reproductive health and that has to start from school itself. They need to be provided with all necessary services that are available today. I believe in those two more than legalising abortion. Abortion is also a health hazard.
Q: Sri Lanka has typically had low levels of women in politics and in Parliament. This Government has taken the progressive step of introducing a quota system for women. What is your perspective on this?
A: I have been fighting for this! One of the major things the Prime Minister did was bring in the bill to ensure 25% women in local government. That was an initial bill that he passed in the new Government. I am the most elated about this.
In my tenure as a MP in the last Parliament, when the Local Government Bill was being amended, I brought in a private member motion asking for 30% of women and it was thrown out. They didn’t even want me to table it. With much resistance I got the Prime Minister to support me and I tabled it in Parliament. When it came to the committee stages, it was rejected due to the chauvinistic attitude within the group. I was very saddened and at that time the Prime Minister promised me that when we come into power, it would be done and that’s the first thing he did. It became 25% but I am happy with it. Next we are looking at the provincial councils with the last amendment and 25% women has been added on.
In Parliament, I strongly believe that it is the PR system that is depriving women of their rightful access. The system is warped and I am a good example. I lost the elections last time. You need an enormous amount of money for an election. You need to face the gun and character assassination. A lot of women who want to enter politics are being discouraged just there. For me, affirmative action is the only way forward. I am happy that the Prime Minister has taken the steps to bring in affirmative action.
Enabling or giving a reservation of seats or a quota in Parliament just for two terms – I am not saying to make it permanent – will enable women to get in there and prove themselves afterwards.
Political parties find it very attractive to bring in people with a tailor-made, readymade voter base, people who can fight the gun culture and put in more money into elections. They get nominations and preference over women. This won’t change unless and until you change the political system to a First Past the Post and Proportional Representation mixed system and also have a quota of seats.
Q: One hurdle to more women in politics is the hierarchy of political parties. How do you think political parties need to change to empower their female members?
A: When we were changing the Party Constitution, I was a member of the Working Committee and we were all given the opportunity to bring in our ideas. Mine went totally on the basis of women and women alone.
In the decision-making bodies of every political party, there has to be at least 25% of women – in the nomination boards, political affairs committee and so on and in the working committees there should be a minimum of 30%. For me 25% is not enough, that should be the minimum but more would be even better.
Look at countries like Rwanda, these countries have more than 65% of women in parliament. We need to make it mandatory and use affirmative action with regard to the electoral systems in this country. The women’s movements have to be stronger and advocate for this.
Q: The Government has discussed improving numbers of women in the formal workforce, which is currently at about 34%, to foster growth and equal opportunity. But Sri Lanka’s track record is still poor on paternal leave and other assistance they provide for working mothers. How do you think Sri Lanka’s private sector can evolve to accommodate more women?
A: This is one of the reasons why the Prime Minister is working on the preschools and day-cares, which are very important to get women back into the workforce. Some of the private sector institutions are doing extremely well with empowering women within their communities.
For example, if you take MAS, it has a program called ‘Go Beyond’ for women and through that there have been women who have come from rural villages who didn’t speak the link language and have now become executives, gone overseas and worked in their overseas outlets and done brilliantly well.
A great example is T.M.S. Menika, who was just a machine operator who became a supervisor. Then they sent her to the New York office. Sometimes when the directors of the organisation travel, she would come in her car driving to JFK to pick them up, that’s how empowered she was. That can be done and the private sector can do better.
The Government needs to go into PPPs and insist on the private sector helping the Government with livelihood programs, banking, etc. The Prime Minister himself has taken an initiative to help female-headed households with special provision on loans and loan schemes. This could be done by private sector banks and corporations could do a lot through their CSR programs in terms of crèches and so on.
Q: As a professional who has extensive experience, what is your advice for other professional women?
A: Commitment, integrity, responsibility and dedication are very important. As women we need to set an example and be role models not only for society but also for our families and our children. Those things will give you the edge to be above everyone else.
Pix by Indraratne Balasuriya