SRI LANKA: Women in Politics

Saturday, August 18, 2012
Daily News
Southern Asia
Sri Lanka
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 

She pointed out that although many women should like to take part in representative politics, the prevailing political system discourages them, despite being 53 percent of the county's population.

She could have added that women make the biggest contribution to Sri Lanka's economy; besides doing the bulk of domestic work, they pluck tea, sew garments (the main exports) and provide the greater part of overseas workers' remittances.

Rosy is only the latest in a long line of prominent women who have commented on the huge gap between the proportion of women in the population and the proportion of women in politics, or of the differential in political power and status between genders.

Political movements
This differential in power between women and men was discussed at last month's ‘National Conference on the Role of Women in Reconciliation', organised by the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKIIRSS).

Dr Sepali Kottegoda, addressing the issues of women's role in reconciliation and gender dynamics in the transition from war to peace, pointed out that there had been ‘a marked absence of women at decision-making levels in either the political movements that waged insurgency or, the political institutions (government, political parties) structures that conducted counter-insurgency or, in the formal structures and bodies that were put in place either to politically negotiate an end to the conflict or to, at least, end the insurgency by military means.'

She noted that women's representation in politics remained low - unacceptably so considering that the country has South Asia's highest overall social development indicators; in 2011 only 5.8 percent of members in Parliament were women, dropping to 4.7 percent in Provincial Councils and collapsing to an abysmal 1.7 percent in Local Government.

Dr Kottegoda was illustrating the gap between women's capacities and women's representation in decision-making processes, epitomising the perceived marginal role women play. She drew a link of causality between this lack of political power and the recent heightened level of violent crime directed against women, saying that it was ‘a societal issue that stems from differences in power and status between women and men in society and, also the perceptions of power and access to power among men and women'. Member of Parliament Dr. Sudharshani Fernadopulle, another member of the panel, concurred that the representation of women in politics was appallingly low, which had a negative impact on the design and hence effectiveness of development programmes.

Women-centred programmes
She had earlier addressed the seminar on ‘Improving psychological and physical health of women and children in North and East', and had pointed out the need to create women-centred programmes in the North and East for economic and social reconstruction and reconciliation, pointing to the enhanced efficiency generated by the ripple-effect benefits of empowering women.

It is indicative of the lack of progress made on the issue of women's representation that virtually the same sentiments had been expressed at a seminar on ‘Women in Politics in Sri Lanka' held at the LKIIRSS two years ago, on the occasion of the Centenary of International Women's Day. Since then, several elections (local, parliamentary and presidential) have taken place, with hardly any difference in the proportions of elected women candidates.

While it is customary to blame the low numbers of women candidates fielded by each party, attention should be called to the fact that, statistically, approximately the same low proportion of women tends to be elected, regardless of the proportion of women candidates.

The problem appears to be that sometimes women are just added to the list to attract women voters. There is a dearth of electable women candidates; most of the latter having some kind of familial relationship to a male politician, ever since Adeline Molamure became the first elected member of the legislature 81 years ago.

This is exemplified by the history of presidential elections in Sri Lanka: overall there have been just four woman candidates (counting Chandrika Kumaratunga as two, considering she contested twice) and on two occasions a woman was elected. In the first election she faced, Chandrika was represented as the child of two prime ministers and the wife of a dead politician.

Social hierarchy
Of course it is probable that if some form of obligatory proportion were introduced (similar to the 40 percent of candidates below 35 years of age for Local Government elections) the increased choice could lead to greater representation for women.

However, the progression from low representation at the lowest level of politics to (relatively) higher representation at higher levels indicates something about the continuing lack of social status of women as a gender. People will vote for a ‘lady' at parliamentary level, but not for a ‘woman' at the Pradeshiya Sabha level; women are not judged on their ability but on their place in the social hierarchy.

Dr Sudarshani Fernandopulle, for instance was not elected on her indubitable merits as a competent medical practitioner with considerable experience of human interaction, but on being the widow of assassinated Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle. The exception to the rule, of course is for film and television actresses, who do gain national status. Rosy Senanayake owes her position in the legislature less to being a political committed activist than to having been, as the face of ‘Anchor' dairy products, the transcendent media ‘mother'. A political novice, Upeksha Swarnamali came second in the United National Party's Gampaha parliamentary list in 2010, mainly because she was the eponymous heroine of the tele-drama ‘Paba'.

There has to be a commitment on the part of all parties and stakeholders empower women and to transform their social and cultural status, if we are to construct an equitable society. Until then, ours will not really be a democracy.