#VAWIP Blog Symposium: Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka: What’s stopping her?

by Lakmini Jayathilake

1931: Women gain the right to vote

1960:  The world’s first female Prime Minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, elected

1994:  The country’s first female president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, elected

Present:  Lowest female representation in politics in South Asia

Sri Lankan women gained the right to vote 17 years before the country gained independence from the British. The country elected the world’s first female Prime Minister and the fifth President of country was female. Women have made rapid advances in education, healthcare and their participation in the paid economy has been immense; however, little or no progress has been made with respect to their representation in the national legislature.

It is alarming how women go unrecognized in the most important decision making processes in the country. The Asian region has some of the lowest levels of women’s participation in national parliament, amongst them Sri Lanka is one of the lowest. Timor-Leste has 32.3% of women in parliament, Nepal 29.6% and Bangladesh 20.3% while Sri Lanka is at 5.3% and the nomination list has never increased beyond 6% for women.[i] Thus Civil Society Organizations (CSO) especially women’s rights activist from across the country have campaigned since the 1990s for a quota system for women in all political institutions.[ii] Although there wasn’t a backlash from the government or political parties towards these CSOs and women’s rights activist, quota system proposals consistently faced a dead-end.

The quota and what it entails

Following persistent lobbying and campaigning with every government, opposition party and political parties since the 1990s, the women’s movement in Sri Lanka marked a monumental milestone on 7th July 2017, when the Government of Sri Lanka gazetted the Provincial Councils Elections (Amendment) Bill to increase the number of female representatives in Provincial Councils. As the first step, the Government amended the Local Authorities Election Act to include 25% quota for women at the local government elections.[iii] Thus for the first time, a prospective 2000 women will contest in the upcoming local government election in January-February 2018 alongside their male counterparts. To influence local legislature, dismantled gender stereotypes and finally start seeing women as equals.

What’s stopping her?  

Sri Lankan women share many common barriers with women in other South Asian countries which prevent them from entering into their country’s formal political spheres. These include: cultural values, the perceptions of politics as a male domain and women’s double or triple burden of work, lack of family support and balancing responsibilities as a mother and wife all stand as obstacles. The most significant factor however restricting women from entering politics in Sri Lanka is Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV).

Sexism is so deeply rooted within the political structure and society making it almost impossible for women to break through glass ceiling and emerge as true leaders and furthermore be accepted as politicians. Upon entering politics women encounter harassment, intimidation, threats, financial pressure and in some cases sexual bribery to even include her name in the nomination list. Negative campaign material targeting women are commonly spread through various forms of mainstream and social media to undermine and sabotage her participation, of which character assassination and objectification of female candidates are the most common. This further disempowers and discourages grassroots level women leaders from entering politics as lack of funding and increase in care burdens becomes trivial compared to the SGBV she will face when getting into politics. Many female leaders fear they may lose their current social status within the community if they enter politics as it will create further space to target her and tarnish her reputation. The aforementioned ground level realities prevent female community leaders and activists from making an entrance to local political bodies.

The existing patriarchal social structure puts unfair pressure not just on prospective candidates but female politicians alike. They are constantly criticised and their political careers are always evaluated as a justification tool used to validate or dismiss the need for women in the political arena while their male counterparts face no such pressure. Apart from family commitments, lack of financial support and increase in women’s care responsibilities one of the key factors restricting female leaders from all socio-economic backgrounds is the SGBV they face upon entering politics which not only affects her but her entire family and social circle. This significantly hinders women’s participation and feeds into the stereotype that politics is a man’s domain.

The way forward

Sri Lanka currently stands at a pivotal juncture, taking one of the first steps towards encouraging the increase of women’s participation in the political arena. While making policies to promote women’s representation in politics is extremely important it would not be effective if an enabling environment wasn’t created in parallel. It will be ineffective if the country’s political climate, attitude of its citizens and the overall absence of an enabling environment are not favourable and safe for women to come to the political forefront.

Lakmini Jayathilake, development sector professional, Colombo, Sri Lanka

[i] Women in National Parliaments (1st September 2017), http://archive.ipu.org/wmn-e/classif.htm

[ii] Swarna Sumanasekera, Women in Public life (2016), National Committee on Women.

[iii] Disna Mudalige, Bill to increase female representation in Provincial Councils gazetted, Daily News (11th July 2017), http://dailynews.lk/2017/07/11/local/121641/bill-increase-female-representation-provincial-councils-gazetted

 

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