Sunday Times (Sri Lanka)
‘Obedient women don’t change the world’
A voice for change, PhD student Deena Tissera who is making inroads in Scottish politics shares her views on women and leadership
Living in a country that has never elected an ethnic minority female to its Parliament, it seems that “being a woman is the first hurdle in the challenge of entering politics,” says Sri Lankan-born PhD student Deena Tissera.
As vice-chairperson for Aberdeen Central (Labour branch) and vice-chairperson of her community council - Deena, 33, wants to change Scottish politics for the better, while overcoming barriers like sexism, ageism, and racism.
Born in Chilaw, Deena grew up in Colombo and attended The British School in Colombo. She was deeply inspired by her parents - her late father was a doctor, and her mother a former beauty queen and movie star.
In 2010, she competed for the Miss Sri Lanka title for the Miss World pageant. Soon afterwards, she moved to Scotland to pursue a degree in Medical Science at the Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, aspiring to be a surgeon.
Her first taste of politics came with her election as vice president of the international arm of the university’s student union. Deena served for three terms, representing over 16,000 students, tackling various issues such as unfair immigration laws affecting international students, educational attainment gap, anti-discrimination and equal opportunity, mental health and promoting diversity etc.
In 2013, she helped form the South Asian Students’ Union, an organisation that represents and promotes the educational, welfare, social, and cultural interests of South Asian students in the UK.
“We successfully campaigned against the British Government for its unfair immigration laws that discriminated against inter
national students,” she tells us. Deena received the bronze student achievement award from her university, as well as five awards from the Scottish government for her efforts.
Growing up, Deena would accompany her father on several health and humanitarian missions in Sri Lanka, including on visits to war zones, and disaster hit areas. At that impressionable age, “the perpetual cycle of poverty and health inequality” she saw made her determined to become a doctor.
However, after she completed her undergraduate degree, she felt medicine often does not treat the grassroot causes of disease and her desire to improve people’s lives in meaningful ways then led her to pursue a Master’s degree in Global Health and Management at the University of Aberdeen. Here she became actively involved in the University’s Labour Students’ Movement.
In 2016, she joined the Labour Party and participated in the campaigns for the Westminster elections.
At the time, she was also one of the five women selected in Scotland to take part in the ‘Jo Cox Women in Leadership programme’ with the Labour Party. She was also mentored by the former Scottish Labour Party Leader Kezia Dugdale at the Scottish Parliament.
Her passion to break the cycle of the diversity deficient political system led her to move a motion for gender balance at a Scottish Labour Party conference in 2018. This called on the Labour Party to give 50 percent of their target seats and regional list seats to women, and to prioritise diversity during candidate selection. The motion was successfully passed and is currently being implemented in selected constituencies.
Today, Deena also organises campaigns on local and national issues as well as local and national government elections, while pursuing her PhD focused on the study of Public Health. She also works with local representatives and case workers to represent the local residents of the community council region.
Deena believes that community and government-led programmes, robust policies, good governance and strong leadership along with medicine can cure and eradicate many diseases. “A great example of this theory is the milestone that Sri Lanka achieved by eradicating malaria, as recognised by the World Health Organisation,” she says.
After completing her PhD, she looks forward to standing for the parliamentary election. “I have yet not decided if this would be Westminster or the Scottish Parliament,” she adds.
The appointment of United States Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, an ethnic minority female, will hopefully make the world more open to electing more women into political leadership. She believes representation is key in constructing inclusive policy, and that it is increasingly evident
that women contribute in significant ways as policy makers, as they tend to provide solutions to policy issues with emphasis on quality of life reflecting the priorities of families, women, ethnic and racial minorities, etc.
More young women around the world should be encouraged to come forward into politics and be trained and mentored with the knowledge and skills to take up political leadership, she believes. Having knowledge and willpower can enable women to stand up against any form of injustice or inequality, and with the right kind of support from organisations and bodies that promote equality and take action against inequality, they can go a long way.
Her advice to women is simple. “Obedient
women don’t change the world. Don’t be afraid, gather the knowledge and the wisdom and go break the stereotype, break the glass ceiling and follow your dreams.”
She owes it to her motherland for shaping her into the woman she is today, Deena says, grateful to her parents and fellow Sri Lankans who have given her love and support over the years. “You empower me each day.”
Humanity and love is what matters the most during this global pandemic, she feels. “Sri Lanka has undergone many tragedies and has seen many atrocities, and in my experience, the most beautiful thing I have seen is how all people come together to help one another in hard times,” she says, believing that this is what will help us endure.