To write this article to be published in commemoration of International Women’s Day (March 8), I was inspired by Devi Balika Vidyalaya (Colombo) student Methsarani Lokuge’s response, when asked by the media about her objectives after her success at the 2013 GCE A/Level examination and becoming first in the island from the Arts Stream. She [...]


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Sri Lanka women’s contribution to diplomacy and international relations


To write this article to be published in commemoration of International Women’s Day (March 8), I was inspired by Devi Balika Vidyalaya (Colombo) student Methsarani Lokuge’s response, when asked by the media about her objectives after her success at the 2013 GCE A/Level examination and becoming first in the island from the Arts Stream. She said: “My desire is to join the Foreign Service and become a diplomat”.

The young girl’s statement indicates the thinking pattern of the present day generation, especially girls, and my objective in writing this article is to help those youngsters, who are interested in international relations and diplomacy, and have an idea as to the roles that certain Sri Lankan women have played in this field

Manel Abeysekera, Kshenuka Seneviratne

The United Nations has declared 2014 International Women’s Day theme as “Equality for Women is Progress for All”. Women who had contributed to the well being of their countries will no doubt be honoured by their respective countries. Mother Lanka can be proud of her daughters who have brought fame to her. Our history is replete with such women. Among them, pride of place is due to that inimitable lady, the late Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the world’s first woman Prime Minister. The British press described her as the “first state-woman of the world” when she became Prime Minister of Sri Lanka in 1960.

Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948 after foreign domination of about 150 years. The handling of the country’s foreign affairs was the responsibility of the Ministry of Defence and External Affairs which came under the purview of the Prime Minister. As if to follow the foot-steps of India, Sri Lanka appointed its first woman diplomat in 1958. India had begun appointing women diplomats since 1946 with the appointment of Vijay Lakshmi Pundit as Permanent Representative to the United Nations (PRUN).

Pakistan in 1954 appointed Begum Raána Liquat Ali Khan as its ambassador to the Netherlands. The honour of being Sri Lanka’s (then Ceylon) first woman Foreign Service official goes to Manel Abeysekera nee Kannangara, who joined the then Ceylon Overseas Service in 1958. However after 1960, several women have opted to involve themselves in diplomacy and international relations in serving Mother Lanka with Ms. Bandaranaike, as Prime Minister, demonstrating her ability in handling international affairs and winning accolades.

Her negotiating skills were beyond comparison. To clarify my position I shall refer to two well-known problematic issues –the Kachchatheevu and the people of Indian origin living in Sri Lanka. With her consummate skills in negotiations and problem solving, she was able to convince India and resolve the issues in favour of Sri Lanka.

Ms. Bandaranaike attended several international conferences and hosted a couple of international conferences in Sri Lanka. She successfully negotiated the settlement of the India-China conflict in 1961 – a win-win situation for both countries. When the border dispute showed signs of an armed confrontation, she separately met the leaders of the two countries and brought about a settlement

Tamara Kunanayakam and Rosy Senanayake

acceptable to both the warring parties.

She was chosen chairperson of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1976 when she hosted the NAM conference. As an illustrious stateswoman she brought credit to Sri Lanka at many international fora. She brought a resolution before the UN seeking that the Indian Ocean be made a Peace Zone. A friend of the former socialist bloc, she worked closely and actively with leaders such as India’s Indira Gandhi, China’s Zhou Enlai, Egypt’s Anwer Sadat and Yugoslavia’s Marshal Josef Tito.

Under the premiership of Ms. Bandaranaike, the Government of Sri Lanka assigned Loraine Senarathna as Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to Ghana in February 1963. Thus began the appointment of non-career women ambassadors to Sri Lankan diplomatic missions abroad. Ms. Senarathna was appointed as Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Italy in 1970.

The other non-career woman diplomatic appointment was that of Theja Gunawardena, a well-known journalist, who was sent as High Commissioner to Pakistan in 1975. Prior to her appointment, Ms. Gunawardena was an active member and the chief organiser of the Lanka Mahila Samithi Movement. She had participated at many international conferences on women and development. She was the author of the publication ”Ravana Dynasty in Sri Lanka’s Dance Drama’ (Kohomba Kamkaariya-National Publishing House – 1977).
Manel Abeysekera was appointed as Sri Lankan Ambassador to Thailand in 1980. Ms. Abeysekera’s contribution to the Foreign Service and diplomacy is significant. The Protocol Manual of the Ministry of Foreign affairs was authored by her, while she served as Chief of Protocol from 1974 to 1980. As Chief of Protocol she was tasked with the responsibility of organising the Non-Aligned Summit in 1976. She was appointed ambassador to Germany in 1992 with accreditation to Austria and Switzerland.

In 2011 Ms. Abeysekara published her autobiography ‘Madam Sir’ (Stamford Lake Publication) where she explains the challenges she faced during her diplomatic assignments. In the book, she recalled the highly publicised hijacking of the “Alitalia” aircraft by Sepala

Sirimavo Bandaranaike

Ekanayaka in 1982 and how she successfully settled the issue. Declaring that he carried explosives around his body, Ekanayake threatened to blow up the aircraft unless his Italian born wife brought his son to him.

“Although I am not particularly religious, I prayed fervently at that moment. His wife was persuaded to come, together with his son. After the child spoke to him; I asked him to release the passengers from the plane which he did,” she says in her autobiography.
The second career woman diplomat and the first Sri Lankan Tamil to hold a diplomatic post was Mary Luxhmi Naganathan. She joined the Foreign Service in 1965 and served in Sri Lanka’s missions in Egypt, Britain and Germany. She quit the service prematurely and is domiciled in the United States.

Sarala Manori Fernando joined the Sri Lanka Foreign Service in 1975 and was the first Sri Lankan woman Permanent Representative in Geneva in 2003. She also served as Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Sweden and Thailand.

The year 1981 saw the entry of three women to the Sri Lanka Foreign Service: Geetha de Silva, Chitrangani Wagieswara and Pamela Deen.

Ms. de Silva served as Sri Lanka’s PRUN in Geneva and High Commissioner to Canada. Ms. Wagiswara is presently Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to Canada and previously she had served as High Commissioner to Singapore and ambassador to France. Ms. Deen served as Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Nepal, the Netherlands and Poland.

Kshenuka Seneviratne, who joined the Foreign Service in 1985, is a versatile personality. She was the first woman career diplomat to be appointed as High Commissioner to the United Kingdom in 2009.

She also served as the Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva for some time. On January 17 this year, she was appointed to the much sought after job of Secretary to the Ministry of External Affairs. Before this appointment, she was the Additional Secretary to the Ministry of External Affairs. She is the first woman career diplomat to be appointed to the post of Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs. She has amply demonstrated her capabilities both in multilateral and bilateral diplomacy.

In the 1988 batch of the Sri Lanka Foreign Service there were two women diplomats: Aruni Wijewardena and Grace Asiriwatham.
Ms. Wijewardana served as ambassador to Austria and Ms. Asiriwatham as Ambassador to Nepal and later The Netherlands. While serving at the Sri Lankan embassy in The Hague in 2011 Ms. Asiriwatham joined the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) as its deputy director general. In 2013, she joined the IAEA as its director, International Organisations and Non-proliferation Programme (IONP).

Renowned film Director Sumithra Peries was appointed as ambassador to France in 1995. Her artistic skills enabled her to coordinate various events during her tenure in Paris until 1997.

Rosy Senanayake, who won the title of “Mrs. World” at the inaugural competition in 1984, was appointed as High Commissioner to Malaysia in 2002. She has been a UNFPA Goodwill Ambassador for Sri Lanka since 1998 and has devoted much of her professional life into promoting Sri Lanka worldwide. Ms. Senanayake has taken great interest in promoting the rights of women in Sri Lanka.

Jayathri Samarakone served as High commissioner to Singapore from 2008 to 2010. During her two-year term, she arranged several projects to promote the image of Sri Lanka.

Tamara Kunanayakam is well known for her diplomacy. She served as the Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva from 2011 for two years. Her splendid knowledge of French and Spanish – two UN languages — stood in good stead for her to discharge her duties as PRUN in Geneva. In 2007 she held the post of First Secretary at the Sri Lanka Embassy in Brazil and in 2008 she was appointed as Ambassador to Havana (Cuba).

Ferial Ashraff, a former Cabinet Minister, was appointed as High Commissioner to Singapore in 2011. She is actively engaged in promotional activities on behalf of the country.

In June 2012, Bharathi Wijeratne was appointed as Ambassador to Turkey. Prior to this, she had served as the Honorary Consul of Turkey in Sri Lanka for several years.

The latest addition to the Sri Lanka women diplomatic squad is Anoja Wijesekera. She has been appointed as ambassador to Indonesia. She has had experience in working as Head of UNICEF in Jalalabad, Afghanistan when the Taliban were ruling that country. She also authored a book titled “Facing the Taliban”. (Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2013)

Hasanthi Dissanayaka from the 1996 batch has been serving in Shanghai as Consul General since 2012 while Yashoda Gunasekara of the same batch is our Consul General in Guangzhou, China. Upekkha Samarasinghe, a member of the Sri Lanka Commerce Service, is serving as Consul General in Mumbai, India while Maheshini Colonne, (from the 1998 batch) is our Sri Lankan Deputy High Commissioner in New Delhi. Serving as Sri Lanka’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva is Manisha Gunasekera, a member of the 1996 batch.

In the External Affairs Ministry office in Colombo, 11 women career diplomats are serving as Directors and above. They include Damayanthi Rajapakse, (Director General/SAARC Division), Theja Gunathilake, Director General (Consular Affairs), Aruni Ranaraja, Acting Director General (African Division), Pradeepa Saram, Acting Director General (Middle East Division), Shobini Gunasekara, Acting Director General (East Asia and Pacific), Himalee Arunathilaka, Acting Director General (West Division), Dayani Mendis, Director (Europe & America), Shani Karunarathne, Director (Consular Affairs) and Prabashini Ponnamperuma, Director (Public Communication).

Two senior women career diplomats are attached to the Ministry of Economic Development and the Ministry of Defence. They are Saroja Sirisena, Director General and Sashikala Premawardena, Senior Assistant Secretary.

Of the 164 career diplomats in Sri Lanka’s Foreign Service, 65 are women.

Another notable personality, who had contributed to the development of the Sri Lanka Peace Secretariat, the National Child Protection Authority and the Department of Probation and Child Care, is Hiranthi Wijemanne. She had also served the UNICEF and some other UN Agencies for several years. In December 2010, she was selected to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.

Radhika Coomaraswamy is the Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict. Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed her to that position in April 2006. In this capacity, she serves as a moral voice and independent advocate to build awareness and give prominence to the rights and protection of children affected by armed conflicts. In May, 2003, she was appointed Chairperson of the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission. There are several publications to her credit, including two books on constitutional law and publications on ethnic studies and the status of women. In recognition of her service to the country in particular and the world at large, the President of Sri Lanka conferred on her the title of Deshamanya, a prestigious national honour.

In South Asia, women representation in diplomacy and international relations is on the rise. In 2009, Dipu Moni became Bangladesh’s first woman Foreign Minister and she continues to hold the same portfolio in the new Cabinet.

The first woman to be appointed as Foreign Minister in Pakistan was Hina Rabbani Khar in 2011. In neighbouring India, Preneet Kaur is the present Minister of State for External Affairs. Dhunya Maumoom is the present Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Maldives.
In this context, the possibility of a woman assuming the position of External Affairs Minister in the near future cannot be ruled out.
(The writer is Director (Middle East) at the Ministry of External Affairs)

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