SOUTH ASIA: Female Politicians Detail Their Struggles

Monday, March 19, 2012
Southern Asia
Sri Lanka
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Peace Processes

Around the world, political power still comes with a price for women who seek it.

But some face tougher challenges than others. Take Sri Lankan politician Salma Hamza, for example. Twice, opposition members have lobbed fuel bombs at her vehicle.

On Monday, about 30 local women heard such stories from Hamza and two other international politicians in a meeting of the Women's Civic Forum at the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition. The three visitors — from Sri Lanka, India and Afghanistan — shared the troubles they met while participating in politics.

The U.S. Department of State's International Visitor Leadership Program, in conjunction with the Gulf Coast Citizen Diplomacy Council, sponsored the event. The visit is part of a professional exchange program in which U.S. embassies invite up-and-coming leaders and young opinion makers to the United States. Last year, the Diplomacy Council brought more than 200 international visitors to the Pensacola area.

Monday's group is traveling to various cities around the country to explore the role of women as agents of political change. Visitors included:

» Bhuvaneswarn Sargunam, 28, general secretary for the Indian Youth Congress.

Sargunam said her biggest obstacle in India is getting women elected to the parliamentary level of government.

"Education is still not uniform across India. Women do not enjoy economic freedom, and there is discrimination against women at every level," she said. "But we are seeing more women participate in politics at the grassroots level."

» Halima Askari, 23, deputy head of the Maidan Wardak Provincial Council in Afghanistan.

Askari attributes her political success to a supportive father and the presence of the U.S. military.

"In 2014, if the U.S. Army leaves Afghanistan, it will be bad," she said. "We need an exchange of minds and we need more time to do it, as it is hard work to do."

» Salma Hamza, 45, a member of the Urban Council and chief executive director of the Women's Empowerment and Development Forum in Kattankudy, Sri Lanka.

Hamza is the first Muslim woman politician in the whole east part of Sri Lanka. Only seven of 225 parliament members are women, she said.

"Many women are greeted with violence if they even want to get their names on the nomination list for parliament," Hamza said.

The visitors spoke to a crowd of local women ranging from business owners and professionals to political activists and community leaders.

"These are very courageous women who work against great odds," Diane Mack, creator of the Women's Civic Forum, said of the international guests.

Such exchange programs serve as a phenomenal U.S. diplomacy tool, according to Jena Melancon Gissendanner, executive director of the Diplomacy Council.

"In 2008-2009, after elections around the world were tallied, over one-fourth of the countries represented in the United Nations had currently as their head of state or chief of staff an alum from this program," she said.