By Annie Banerji
NEW DELHI, Nov 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - With campaign promises like free sanitary pads and childcare for working women, the candidates in Sri Lanka's presidential election are going after the female vote like never before, in what some activists see as a generational shift.
An increasingly vocal women's rights movement, a rise in the number of women in local politics and the growing role of social media have all contributed to a focus on the female voter, campaigners say.
"This is new and quite unprecedented," said Sepali Kottegoda, programmes director at Sri Lanka's Women and Media Collective.
"Women's issues have rarely been a focus, at least it has rarely been highlighted in this way," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
Kottegoda said the relative youth of some of the candidates pledging improved women's and LGBT+ rights was a factor - among them Sajith Premadasa, Sri Lanka's 52-year-old housing minister.
Premadasa, seen as a frontrunner in the race to be the next president, has launched a "women's charter" packed with pledges from improved maternity leave to safer public transport and a new women's commission to tackle discrimination claims.
His promise to provide free sanitary products earned him the title "Pad Man", after the hit Bollywood movie of that name.
"Until sustainable cost effective alternatives are found, I stand by my promise to provide sanitary hygiene products free of charge," he tweeted last week, saying more than half Sri Lanka's girls missed school during their periods.
The problem is particularly acute because sanitary products are heavily taxed in Sri Lanka - until last year, the levy on imported pads was more than 100 percent.
The other front runner, the 70-year-old former defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, has promised more childcare centres for working mothers and debt relief for rural women from microloans.
Meanwhile, 50-year-old opposition candidate Anura Kumara Dissanayake has pledged to reform marriage and divorce laws, strengthen laws against sex abuse and pass legislation to "prevent distress ... due to outdated traditions such as dowry".
Dissanayake, an outsider who represents the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peremuna party, has also pledged to decriminalise gay sex - a national first.
The focus on women and LGBT+ issues echoes a similar trend in neighbouring India, where it was driven by increases in the turnout of female voters.
Sri Lanka does not break down voter turn-out by gender, but Shreen Abdul Saroor of the Women's Action Network said female turnout had historically been good and 52% of Sri Lanka's registered voters were female.
"In Sri Lanka, there are separate queues for men and women during voting and the female queue is always the longest and we have seen women coming in great numbers," she said.
Women's rights campaigners have given the candidates' pledges a cautious welcome in a country where such issues have long been low down the political agenda and where female participation in frontline politics remains low.
Just 12 of Sri Lanka's MPs are women, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an independent organisation promoting democracy, and only one of the 35 candidates in the Nov. 16 election is female.
Megara Tegal, a gender researcher at the Law and Society Trust, said it was "positive to see women's issues being discussed", but feared some candidates were paying lip service.
"It appears as though the political parties have finally realised that women make up 52% of the population, and their needs need to be addressed," she said. "Whether they genuinely want to empower women however is uncertain."
(Reporting by Annie Banerji @anniebanerji, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian issues, conflicts, land and property rights, modern slavery and human trafficking, gender equality, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)
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