Sri Lankan women embrace leadership

Participants of the Women’s Leadership Development Project showcasing a banner, which depicts ‘unity.’
Women leaders at a political training workshop in Ampara, Sri Lanka. (Photo: UNDP)

K. Lalith Kulanayake recently became the first woman to serve in her local government.

Kulanayake lives in a region of Sri Lanka where female political participation is among the lowest in the country. Yet, she is determined to serve her community, particularly the women, who are often under-represented in local decision-making bodies.

Highlights of the Project

  • A UNDP-supported Women’s Leadership Training Programme has empowered 30 women in Sri Lanka to take on local leadership roles.
  • 23 of the 30 women have taken up leadership positions in their villages, and several went on to run in the recent local government elections.
  • Less than five percent of Sri Lanka's Members of Parliament are women.

In Sri Lanka, fewer than five percent of the Members of Parliament are women, and female representation is even lower at the provincial and local levels.

Kulanayake - who was elected to the Lahugala Pradeshiya Sabha in the Lahugala Division, District of Ampara - attributes much of her success to the Women’s Leadership Development Project (WLDP) implemented by the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Bureau of Crisis Prevention and Recovery.

The project provided Kulanayake with training to hone her political skills and knowledge, and linked her with a network of visionary women who gave her the support needed to become a better, more confident leader.

WLDP was set up in 2009 with a budget of $250,000 for a 15-month period. It addresses the socio-cultural barriers faced by women in Ampara District by empowering them to take on leadership roles.

Lalith is just one of 30 women leaders benefitting from this project.

At a cost of approximately $8,300 per beneficiary, the project supports the women through a year-long intensive training programme. Participants then receive funding to carry out their own small-scale, community-based initiatives.

Another key feature of the project is monthly community-networking sessions, which give the women a chance to meet local service providers, including police, development and welfare officers, and water-board representatives.

At a recent session in the capital city of Colombo, participants discussed the benefits of their training, shared their experiences taking on more active roles in governance and policy-making, and explained how they overcame family and cultural barriers by inviting their family members to participate in the sessions, too.

They also described how the training they received has shown them the potential for joint action and helped them to work better as group despite their diverse ethnic, social and economic backgrounds.

The session even allowed the women to converse with representatives from government ministries and other bodies, who highlighted opportunities for women in various district-level government sectors.

As a result of the project's sessions and training modules, the female beneficiaries of WLDP have found the strength and courage to take on the baton of leadership.

Rajini Dhanaraja applied to the project hoping to learn how she can help women affected by violence, and through attending two of the programme's sessions, was able to refer a woman in her village to a free legal aid center. She also mobilised 25 others to visit local police stations to advocate for increased attention to women’s security.

At just 21 years of age, Rajini has been a catalyst for women’s empowerment in her village and is now serving as president of the Tharagai Women’s Society.

Says one project beneficiary: “By participating, we have gained confidence – we are able to go anywhere and speak to anyone without fear.”