By Harini Fernando –
Women constitute over 50% of the total population in Sri Lanka. However, when it comes to political representation, the number of female politicians in the country remains alarmingly low. Although we boast about electing the world’s first female Prime Minister who served three terms in that capacity and subsequently had a female President who served for two consecutive terms, we have not seen any notable progress in women’s representation in politics.
When taking into consideration women’s representation in the previous parliament, only 5% of the 225 MPs were women, i.e. only thirteen of the 225 were females. A recent research carried out by Verite Research affiliated Manthri.lk revealed that based on these data, Sri Lanka ranked 182 out of 193 countries with regard to female representation in parliament. This research also indicated that Sri Lanka ranked one before the last in the South Asian region with Maldives taking up the 183rd position. Countries such as Bangladesh and Pakistan, which constitute of more conservative societies with lower literacy rates ranked higher with regard to female representation in parliament.
When looking at the total number of nominations that were received from all leading political parties for the General Election 2020, the number of nominations of female candidates does not constitute even 10% of the nominees from each party except for the Tamil National Alliance which has exactly 10% of female candidates. The last Local Government Election introduced the 25% mandatory quota for nominations where we saw all political parties at least attempting to get more female candidates to contest at the election. However, the total number of nominations from female candidates amounted to only 10%. Of course, it was not an overnight success. Nevertheless, these are small steps that may eventually lead to a substantial change in the political system in the country. We all know that the lack of female candidates in nominations is reflective of the deep-rooted patriarchal mindset and the lack of institutional reforms to encourage more women to engage in politics. Be it the United National Party (UNP), Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) or Janatha Vimukthi Permuna (JVP), there is minimum encouragement for women to participate in politics. The highest number of female candidates at the 2020 General Election is 17 which is evidence enough to highlight the fact that none of the major political parties have at least one female candidate to represent one district. Therefore, even if someone wanted to vote for a woman, the choice is incredibly limited.
Out of the 29 MPs that entered the eighth parliament through the National List, only two MPs were women: one from the UNP and the other from Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi. This further demonstrates the deep-seated patriarchal norms that are prevalent in all political parties. The National List is something that could be easily utilized to create more gender balance in the parliament. However, every time we witness it being used as a back door for defeated politicians to enter into the parliament.
More often than not, the female politicians who contest and eventually become MPs are people who come from political backgrounds. Those who are outside of this political sphere are quite reluctant to engage in politics and are even discouraged by people around them to not engage in politics. Therefore, there is a long way to go in empowering women to engage in addressing issues that concern them as a community that constitutes half of the country’s population. We cannot give the sole authority to men to make decisions especially on issues related to women.
Regardless of religion or ethnicity, be it issues related to sexual and reproductive health of women, sexual harassment or amendments to the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act, a bunch of men (including priests), will not be able to understand the issues from a woman’s perspective. Women need to have a say in the issues that are pertinent to their lives. Moreover, today, more and more women are acquiring quality education. Oftimes, women are more qualified than their male counterparts, but the prevalent patriarchal norms and institutional structures hinder them from achieving their fullest potential. This is why institutional reforms become key in electing more women to the parliament until we reach a gender-balanced parliament.
Of course, just like the male candidates, there might be female candidates who might not deserve your vote. This further narrows down the choices one might have when voting for women. However, given that each voter has the choice of casting 3 votes, it is extremely important that out of the three votes, you cast at least one of them for a well-deserving female candidate because the change has to start somewhere.