By Harini Fernando –
The last Local Government(LG) election was a significant milestone for the female population in Sri Lanka. Even though Sri Lanka has produced the world’s first ever female Prime Minister and subsequently had a female president who served for two terms, women’s engagement in politics has always been notably low. Regardless of the fact that Sri Lanka has the highest literacy rate in South Asia after Maldives, female representation in politics has been the lowest in the region. Specifically, at the Local Government level it has been as low as 1.9% which is alarming for a country with a female population of 52%. However, with the newly introduced 25% women’s quota, this has increased up to 10%.
Although there was a 25% quota for women, only 10% of the candidates were females. Therefore, in the practical application of the quota, the elections commission had to face difficulties. As the elections commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya said, ‘the elections commission [was] in quandary between abiding by tenets of natural justice and applying the letter of the law.’ Therefore, in the upcoming elections, it is essential for Sri Lanka to have a clearly defined law with non-conflicting clauses, in order to gain the maximum benefits of this quota. Moreover, if in the aftermath of a democratic election, the circumstances force the government to make amendments on the female quota, that is distinctly unfair and undemocratic. On the other hand, it should be appreciated that in the ‘Additional List,’ 50% had to be females.
For decades now Sri Lanka has mostly witnessed women who already have some political background/affiliation coming into the limelight in politics. This has been the case since the time of Sirimavo Bandaranaike. At the recent LG elections too we saw a similar wave where the wives, widows, daughters and sisters of existing local government or parliamentary politicians competing at the election. At the end of their posters and banners they never forgot to mention how the candidate was affiliated to the politician (e.g.: the wife of…/the daughter of…). This brings into our attention how the socio-cultural barriers restrict women from venturing into ‘non-traditional’ spheres such as politics. The traditional expectation of women being housewives, mothers and/or teachers, makes people doubt the leadership qualities of women which eventually result in the reduced participation of women in politics. Moreover, even women have internalized these patriarchal norms and do not believe themselves capable of leading the society. Their capabilities are undervalued and under-utilized due to the societal restrictions. This was largely seen during the election campaign where certain male candidates attempted to mock their opposing female candidates.
The real issue of the lack of women’s participation mostly lies with existing institutions and structures. Most of the unions starting from student unions and labour unions, the female representation is alarmingly low. No executive positions are being held by females. Even though the majority of university students are females, the student unions are run by males and the same applies to organizations such as teachers’ unions where the majority of teachers are females, but the unions are led by males. It is such political movements that will act as platforms and help individuals to develop themselves as leaders and eventually enter into national politics. Giving females the opportunity to actively engage in these movements will encourage them to venture into national level politics. When women are devoid of such opportunities, often men are seen making decisions for women. For instance, abortion laws are being passed with minimum consultation with females. Therefore, it is extremely important to introduce a women’s quota even in student unions and labour unions in order for the voice and opinions of women to be heard. Such measures will gradually empower women as more capable and more confident politicians.
Due to the existing political structure, although women get in through the women’s quota, they will still be dependent on those who hold power within their parties for nominations and appointments. The increase in female engagement in politics, will gradually reduce the violent political culture that is prevalent in Sri Lankan politics and challenge the prevailing male domination over the political sphere. Further, it is also suggested that a female quota should also be introduced to the national list in order for educated female politicians to represent women in the parliament. With regard to the selected women politicians in the 2018 LG elections, in order for this number to sustain and develop, it is important to bring in institutional changes and also gradually change the patriarchal norms inculcated in the minds of citizens.
*Harini Fernando is a final year undergraduate in International Relations at the University of Colombo who writes on a freelance basis on topics such as gender and politics.