Sri Lanka has very commendable human development indicators for women, which include high literacy rates and exceptional educational achievements. However, despite almost 70 years of female franchise and the election of the world's first woman Prime Minister, the country lags far behind most of the developing world with regard to women's representation in political institutions at local, provincial and national level.
Women make up a mere 5.8 per cent in the current Parliament; 5 per cent in Provincial government and a lower 1.8 per cent in local government. This has had a direct impact on Sri Lanka's peace process and transition to a post-conflict society.
One of the critical and insidious reasons for this is that mainstream political parties have consistently kept women's nominations down to an appalling average of about 5 per cent. Denying women equal opportunity to contest elections, coupled with patronage politics and a bartering of nominations among privileged men have restricted women's access to representative politics.
Being absent from key decision making in the legislature and local government had implications for the peace process. Women Parliamentarians were not present at any of the formal peace negotiations, which were conducted entirely by male politicians. Instead, the Government chose to appoint five women from the non-government sector to a sub-committee on gender issues that was established to advice the plenary of the peace process in 2002/2003. A Tamil speaking Muslim woman parliamentarian was brought into the process only in 2005 in an attempt to kick start the stalled peace talks. Women politicians' engagement with formal peacemaking has therefore been minimal.
Despite these challenges, some women have stepped forward to run in elections in the conflict affected north east at critical moments and when it has been unsafe to contest. In the Municipal elections in 1997, held after a gap of over fifteen years, Sarojini Yogeswaran was elected as mayor in Jaffna. She was assassinated a few months later by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. At the next elections to the Jaffna Municipal Council in the aftermath of the war in 2009, 30 per cent of women contesting won, defying the national norm of 2 per cent. But, disappointingly, no political party came forward to nominate women to stand for parliamentary elections in 2010 from any of the conflict affected north or eastern districts despite women's commendable electoral triumphs post-war at the municipal level.
Sri Lankan women, from local activists to academics and politicians, have advocated for an increase in women's representation for more than 15 years. In the current post-war period the Government has proposed to introduce hybrid proportional representation and first past the post electoral system at the local level. Despite being proposed as a means to enhance power distribution at the local level, this initiative is widely perceived as partisan and was challenged by eleven petitioners in the Supreme Court. The proposed amendments include a non-binding provision to increase nominations for women and youth to 25 per cent. Two petitions by women's groups argued that the provision was a violation of women's right to equality guaranteed in the Constitution and submitted that the persistent failure of political parties ‘to give even a semblance of equality to women' in the nominations process ‘casts a duty on the state to take affirmative action'. It further argued that women should not be grouped together with youth and that the provision to increase women's representation should be mandatory and specific.
However, the court made a conservative judgment upholding the provisions of the Bill, refusing to accept that unequal nominations were a departure from equal treatment.
Sri Lanka needs to make the transition from a post-war to a post-conflict society. Conflicts inevitably produce structural transformations for some women, opening up new social, economic and political opportunities which challenge and reframe gender hierarchies and roles. One way to consolidate such positive gains is to ensure women's participation and representation in post war decision making processes. The experience of South Africa, Rwanda, Nepal and Liberia provide compelling evidence of how policy and legal reforms can contribute to women's empowerment in post-war contexts.
By ignoring historical discrimination against women, both the executive and the judiciary in Sri Lanka have missed a vital opportunity to redress a patent wrong and allow the Sri Lankan polity to benefit from the invaluable experience of more than half its population. This will make an already difficult transition to a post-war society even harder.