In contemporary times, women around the world have stepped forward to take on roles that were previously thought to be unconventional. Leadership roles in fields such as tech, marketing, politics and STEM to name a few, were previously almost exclusively reserved for men, because women were expected to be dedicated housewives and caregivers and were perceived as incapable of fulfilling any roles that required them to step across the public-private divide.
We have seen significant change in recent times, thanks to the tireless efforts of many who came before us to claim rights to these spaces. They have fought to see this paradigm shift that encourages and empowers women to step away from that quintessential cultural image. Unfortunately, this is not entirely an image of the past. We still find women all over the world ‘pushing’ boundaries in certain fields because women’s participation in public life isn’t an accepted norm but rather, a partially allowed standard.
For Sri Lankan women, the world of politics is a space that perhaps puts up the greatest resistance to their participation. Though this country gloats about having the world’s first woman Prime Minister and a quota system for local government, that in theory should encourage more women to step into the arena, we just don’t have enough women in politics. This is especially true for national level politics, as women make up just 5 per cent of total representation in Parliament.
Considering that university students are a great starting point in establishing a pool of capable and intellectual women interested in these leadership roles (even though education isn’t a requirement to enter politics in Sri Lanka), the Centre for Equality and Justice (CEJ) talked to female university students to understand their perspective. Selected female participants of an online training course titled, ‘Democratic Governance and Rule of Law,’ conducted by CEJ a few months ago were approached and asked to share their experiences and challenges in positions of leadership within the university systems.
Challenges and experiences
Though the number of female students in universities is significantly higher than male students, it’s not the image reflected in terms of university unions and leadership across the country. “It’s really lacking, especially in Jaffna. In our setup here, girls are confined to writing, typing – those kind of tasks, but it’s very important that girls get involved because they are capable of providing a whole new perspective which is very important when you are functioning [in any system],” remarked a student from the University of Jaffna (UoJ).
“I think it is important to be part of university systems because the majority of the students are female, so they need representation in the union for their issues,” a former union member of South Eastern University of Sri Lanka (SEU) added.
For a student from UoJ, the participation of female students in unions is extremely crucial but she said she felt that the gender norms and cultural restrictions to an extent, play a role in limiting women from taking up positions in unions. For instance, currently in the medical faculty union, only three of the 13 members are girls, and as a default, boys take on the decision-making roles. “They [boys[ don’t inform us sometimes about meetings. Certain meetings they say, ‘only the boys are enough’. They don’t mean it in a wrong way but they tell us ‘you don’t have to come’. That’s how they say it because for them it is normal.” She explained.
Even though girls are a part of the union and respected as members, the cultural fabric is so intricately woven that men and leadership are synonymous. While there are many male students who support them in taking up these roles and female students aren’t actively stopped from being in unions, they aren’t treated as equals.
The student from UoJ further noted the cultural conditioning where even in university Systems, “The general belief is that women can’t handle certain things. And they cannot argue with the Dean or anyone if they have something to say. They cannot speak up for the students. They have to be compliant, and obedient.” Furthermore, the fact that girls need to be accompanied to travel at night is seen as a problem and they don’t consider working around it.
Additionally, she says, while there are seniors who support female students to come forward whilst also leaving room for open conversation about any questions they might have, there are some female students who discourage other girls from taking part because they believe girls shouldn’t be taking those seats for whatever reason.
As for the student from SEU, her challenge was overcoming a sense of discomfort that was more to do with herself rather than a response from male students. “When I was a union member, there were only two females including myself who came through elections. When it came to union meetings, I found it hard to coordinate with the other girl due to her lecture timings and so I had to attend these meetings with a room full of boys, alone. That was a bit hard sometimes for me as a Muslim girl,” she noted. Despite this, she encourages other girls too, to get involved in such activities and unions for it is important.
The student from UoJ actively plays a role in encouraging her juniors and educating them on gender disparity, leadership and other such issues. She strives to ensure that more female students understand the importance of being part of the same conversation at the same table as the male students in the university.
Takeaway from the training
A significant aim of the online training course by CEJ was to arm participants with legal knowledge and the basics of democracy. With a successful conclusion, the participants accredit the sessions for piquing their interest in the legalities of our various systems and the disparities which occur within them.
“Even though I’m not interested in participating in university unions I found the course very informative. I learnt a lot about the law and the basics of democracy,” a student from University of Colombo (UoC) stated.
Sharing the same sentiment was a student from University of Peradeniya (UoP) who was very grateful for programmes such as these done by CEJ. “It was useful because the concepts and politics that we studied, was something I wanted to learn about, especially in the Sri Lankan context,” she added. She further explained that although keen on joining a union, she could not do so because of her studies. But if time permitted she was sure she would have been involved in a union.
The student from UoJ stated that after a few of her friends attended the course they were able to make minor changes, such as abolishing the university system where the Batch Representative was always a male while his assistant was always a female. Now they have two Batch Representatives; male and female. This shift, she said, has also seen an increase in girls who want to engage in roles of leadership.
It is clear that university systems lack females in decision-making positions. Perhaps it is due to the deeply ingrained ideologies that women shouldn’t look to lead, or maybe it isn’t, but one thing is certain – female students indicate that cultural barriers stand in the way of them even developing an interest in politics and public life because it hasn’t been modelled to them as much as it has been for male students. However, by encouraging them to partake in courses that help them understand their agency, we can see how greatly it changes the way in which they see the world.