Strengthening Access to Voting Rights for Sri Lankans with Psychosocial Disabilities

Ahead of Sri Lanka’s parliamentary elections in August 2020 and with support from the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), Consumer Action Network Mental Health Lanka (CAN MH Lanka) launched “Our Vote Matters,” a voter education and advocacy campaign for persons with psychosocial disabilities. The campaign aimed to share strategies and practices to create a safe voter environment and to challenge social stigmas encountered by persons with psychosocial disabilities as Sri Lanka prepared for the August 5 parliamentary elections.

Sinhalese poster from CAN MH Lanka’s “Our Vote Matters” voter education campaign that reads: “Do not use derogatory language about people with psychosocial disabilities to refer to your opponents during your election campaigns. It further stigmatizes people with psychosocial disabilities and can cause distress.”

People with psychosocial disabilities often experience stigma and discrimination from their communities, families and peers, which leads to exclusion from public life. Article 29 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities enshrines the rights of persons with all types of disabilities, including people with psychosocial disabilities, to participate in political and public life. Article 12 states that persons with disabilities enjoy equality before the law and legal capacity on an equal basis with others.

With support from the Election Commission (ECSL) and the Technical Working Group for Disability Inclusive Elections (DIESL-TWG), CAN MH Lanka led efforts to advocate for the inclusion of Sri Lankans with psychosocial disabilities in the electoral process. As part of its “Our Vote Matters” campaign, CAN MH organized consultative meetings at the National Institute of Mental Health to develop advocacy messages in Sinhalese and Tamil and also met with the ECSL to advocate that political parties refrain from using derogatory language that further stigmatizes persons with psychosocial disabilities. This advocacy resulted in the issuing of a public statement by the chairman of the ECSL to political party leaders and media stations acknowledging and reaffirming the right for people with psychosocial disabilities to vote. It was the first such statement of its kind by the ECSL.

“The Election Commission chairman’s statement on the July 15 regarding the right to a voluntary and unbiased vote for persons with psychosocial disabilities was a milestone in the journey towards a rightful community for persons with psychosocial disabilities in Sri Lanka.”
– “Our Vote Matters” Campaign Report, 2020

Beyond advocacy, CAN MH Lanka developed voter education materials targeting people with psychosocial disabilities to encourage them to vote as well as materials directed at the general public as part of a campaign to reduce stigma. The Sinhalese and Tamil voter education materials were distributed to over 210 mental health facilities across Sri Lanka, sharing information on how people with psychosocial disabilities can safely vote during the COVID-19 pandemic. CAN MH also worked with the National Institute of Mental Health and the ECSL to conduct a voter education session for people with psychosocial disabilities residing in an institution. Additionally, CAN MH Lanka’s “Our Vote Matters” get-out-the-vote initiative included a telephone campaign, which paired 25 people with psychosocial disabilities with CAN MH Lanka district coordinators to conduct direct phone outreach nationwide. As a result of these collective efforts, over 10,000 people with psychosocial disabilities across Sri Lanka received voter education materials ahead of the August 2020 elections.

Complementing this direct voter education, CAN MH Lanka also shared campaign messages via social media to raise awareness about voting rights of people with psychosocial disabilities as well as the need to eliminate derogatory language from political campaigns. The social media campaign, with posters written in both Sinhala and Tamil, reached nearly 50,000 people.

CAN MH’s campaigns raised awareness about the rights of persons with psychosocial disabilities to participate in Sri Lanka's political life while promoting an enabling electoral environment for persons with psychosocial disabilities. Looking ahead, CAN MH Lanka, in partnership with the ECSL, DIESL-TWG and other stakeholders, plans to conduct an awareness campaign for Sri Lankans with psychosocial disabilities on the voter registration process and a webinar series on their political inclusion.

Published on November 13, 2020.

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