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What needs to change for the 5% of Women in Politics and the 52% population of women in Sri Lanka -I

Gender gap in Sri Lanka:

The island nation of Sri Lanka is renowned for its tuk-tuks, sandy beaches, and interestingly, for being the first state in the modern world to produce a woman Prime Minister (Sirimavo Bandaranaike) in 1960. Subsequently, the daughter (Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumarathunga) of said Prime Minister held the title as Sri Lanka's first woman President from 1994 - 2005, serving two terms in office.

Source: Flickr

Over the past two decades however, Sri Lanka has seen a steady decline in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report, which ranks countries against economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. Sri Lanka was ranked 116 out of 153 countries as of 2021, on account of the country severely lagging behind in women’s economic participation and political empowerment. This is compounded by the Inter-Parliamentary Union's ranking of women’s representation in parliament, which as of 2021, places Sri Lanka at 181 out of 193 countries.

Women’s representation in Sri Lanka’s national parliament has never exceeded 5.5%, and at present it is only 5.3% in a 225 member parliament. This pertinent lack of women’s representation in politics is often normalised through references to past successes with women in leadership. However, both Sirimavo and Chandrika come from the same family, with deep-seated political roots. Both women also garnered the sympathy vote to some extent, having run for office after their spouses were assassinated while leading active political lives. Their success cannot be applied to the average woman aspiring to enter Sri Lanka’s political arena, as witnessed in the low percentage of women represented in parliament today.

Gender quotas at local government:

With a view to address the prevailing inequity of women in politics, in 2016 Sri Lanka introduced a bottom-up 25% quota for women to enter local government through an amendment to the Local Authorities Election Act. The local government system has a long history in Sri Lanka dating back to 1946. The system was revised in 1977 with the introduction of a three tiered mechanism of local government comprising of: Pradeshiya Sabhas (PS), Urban Councils (UC) and Municipal Councils (MC). A further constitutional change was initiated in 1987, with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which introduced a new layer of governance at the provincial level as Provincial Councils (PC).

Amidst a host of practical difficulties and resistance from the traditionally patriarchal party stronghold, 17,000 women out of 56,000 candidates ran for local government elections in 2018, vying for over 8,000 posts. As a result, women’s representation in local government skyrocketed from 89 to 2,300 and at present women make up 23.75% within the three-tiered local government system. Prior to the 2016 amendment, women’s representation in local government had never exceeded 2% due to the dominance of a patriarchal culture within political parties and the extremely low party nominations provided for women as a result. However, the new quota has changed the course of party nominations for women, which in the past has fluctuated between 4% and 10%.

Women’s representation at the provincial level is approximately 4% as of today. However, similar to the 25% quota introduced to the three-tiered local government system, a gazetted bill in July 2017 sought to amend the Provincial Councils Elections Act, No.2 of 1988, making it mandatory for all political parties and independent groups to field at least 30% women candidates in PC elections. Nevertheless, PC elections are yet to take place since the initiation of this amendment, and the operationalization of the 30% quota for women in PCs is at a standstill.

Why have challenges faced by women in politics continued:

Despite such achievements at local government, there is a general scepticism amongst women’s organisations about the sustainability of these quotas and their perceived impact on party politics at the national level that are largely shaped by patriarchal values.

For instance, even with the introduction of quotas at local government level, women counsellors and legislators have been left to their own devices with minimal training opportunities and limited access to resources. Women representatives are also held to a higher moral standard than their men counterparts, often receiving backlash for being outspoken or for stepping beyond the confines of the socially accepted norm of ‘the demure woman’. The local government quota system in itself had problems, with certain wards and party alliances nominating a lower number of women candidates, thus leading to a reduction of the overall percentage of women being represented (23.75% instead of the mandated 25%). The lack of preparation in some wards resulted in priority being given to relatives and close associates of men politicians by overlooking qualified and competent candidates.

Similarly, the majority of women in politics in Sri Lanka have familial ties that endorse their presence within the political domain. Since the debut of Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Sri Lanka’s woman legislators have repeatedly painted an image of ‘the devoted wife’, who steps out of the shadows to dutifully carry on the legacy of the deceased or retired spouse. This narrative does not only rob women from an independent political career but also leaves a permanent imprint of ‘the family legacy’ that does not necessarily reflect the aspirations of the average woman.

Women continue to have unequal access to resources when seeking nominations and participating in electoral campaigns. UN Women indicates that the lack of access to funding is one of the main obstacles for women to participate in political campaigns, and that economically disempowered women are ruled out from a ‘rich man’s club’ tied to big money and political campaigning. In addition, a majority of women face political violence and harassment, including voter intimidation, physical assault, verbal slander and online abuse. An assessment by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) shows an alarming rate of Violence Against Women (VAW) running for the 2018 local government elections. VAW in elections is a threat to the integrity of the electoral process and to the sustenance of democratic governance, as it coercively excludes women from having a voice in the political sphere. A survey conducted by the Social Scientists’ Association (2017) highlights that 75% of women respondents had not voted for women candidates. The survey also points at traditional gender norms that place the ‘male figure’ as the preferred leader and provider, while the ‘female figure’ is associated with more submissive and nurturing roles. This also prompts questions as to whether women voters are being influenced or intimidated, whether women candidates are not receiving sufficient nominations, or whether there is a glaring lack of visibility provided for aspiring women politicians through sponsorships, media platforms, etc.

Dismantling deep-rooted gender inequalities:

It is also important to note that of the Elected Women Representatives (EWRs), there is a huge mismatch between their tokenistic or descriptive representation and their active or substantive participation. Descriptive representation refers to the number of women represented, whereas substantive participation refers to the actual influence they have in ensuring political outcomes (Childs & Krook 2009). The goal of a gender quota therefore, is to increase the descriptive representation of women, thus consequently raising the substantive participation of women in politics. In the Sri Lankan context, the active participation of women legislators at the national level as projected on is minimal at best. Accounts from EWRs in local government also point to the continued suppression of female voices, as witnessed in a recent incident where a woman councillor from the Maharagama Urban Council was assaulted for videoing a lewd comment made by a man representative. More women councillors have come forward in solidarity stating that:

“[Women] members are treated likewise in all MCs, UCs and Pradeshiya Sabhas. Whenever we try to speak the [men] council members irrespective of their party affiliations shout at us and humiliate us. Their domination is mostly overlooked and we have no chance to speak on the problems of the people who had voted for us.”

This leads to the conclusion that gender quotas do not effectively solve deep-rooted inequalities underpinned by systemic patriarchy. Sri Lanka has a long way to go in terms of achieving gender equality within the sphere of political representation and participation. Although the introduction of mandatory quotas is a start, women’s meaningful engagement in politics should be facilitated through dismantling archaic norms, values and structures that discriminate against women aspiring for power. As a country healing from a 30-year civil conflict, it is essential that these underlying discriminatory practices be addressed in order to productively engage half of the country’s population – i.e. women – in sustainable peacebuilding and development processes, with ample opportunities for meaningful leadership.

[Stay tuned - Part 2 of the article will discuss successes within the existing cohort of women in local government, while also outlining Sri Lanka’s way forward in improving gender equality in politics at the national level]

Lihini Ratwatte

Lihini is a development practitioner based in Sri Lanka. She has a BA in International Studies, Communications and Gender Studies from Monash University; and a MA in Global Diplomacy from SOAS - University of London. Her research and writing focuses on the nexus of gender, development, peacebuilding and security in the Asia-Pacific region.

The opinions expressed in this article are her own and do not represent the views of any affiliated organisation.

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