By Hansani Bandara –
The Ceylonese State Council Election of 1931 allowed all Sri Lankan citizens to participate in the democratic process through ‘universal suffrage’. Since then, Sri Lankan women has had the constitutional freedom and right to vote and participate in political activities and the country even went on to elect the world’s first female Prime Minister.
Despite the statutory freedom, women’s participation in Sri Lankan politics has been one of the lowest in South Asia. In fact, only four percent of the seats in provincial councils and 1.9 percent in local governments have been held by women up until 2012; and Sri Lanka was ranked 180th out of 190 countries in the IPU ranking of female representation in parliament as of June 2017.
Passing the Local Authorities Elections (Amendment) Act No. 1 of 2016 sought to address this by introducing a mandatory quota of 25 percent for women through a one-third increase in the total number of seats at the local government level, i.e. Pradeshiya Sabas, Urban Councils and Municipal Councils. This measure was believed to be one that was progressive in terms of promoting gender equality.
The Local Government Elections which were held on the 10th of February also marked the inaugural implementation of the statutes that were introduced by through the above mentioned act. In theory, it meant that 25 percent out of the elected candidates had to be women and that these candidates would be guaranteed of seats in local governments.
However, there had been numerous hurdles along to the road, with uncertainty looming over fulfilling the mandatory 25 percent quota for women councilors. Prior to the elections, incidents were reported from around the country where women candidates were marginalized.
The Programmes and Research Technical Advisor of the Women and Media Collective Kumudini Samuel, at a pre-election press briefing, has reportedly said that, “even though 60 percent of the seats under the first-past-the-post system are contested through a ward, only 10 percent of these seats are open to women. Here too, women have to depend on men to put them on the ward list. Moreover, in many districts competent women were being overlooked when giving nominations, allowing the wives and relatives of politicians to contest. Incidents were reported in the Northern and Eastern Provinces where female candidates and their families were openly threatened by their male counterparts and religious leaders.
Following the elections, the Elections Commission had to hold back-to-back meetings with leaders of political parties to iron out the practical difficulties of this requirement, as it was said that at least 10 councils out of 340 would have to run without the 25 percent minimum representation of female councilors when constituted. The Election Commission stated that there were no legal means to appoint female members to these councils as the political parties had either not won more than 20 percent of votes each and were not obligated to appoint female members, or had no more female members to appoint.
Despite statements from many women’s rights activist groups and female members of local governments, to not default on implementing the law, the authorities faced serious barriers when it was time for the theories to be put into practice.
Women constitute 52 percent of Sri Lanka’s population and 56 percent of the registered voters are female. Against this backdrop, it is quite ironic that the country has failed to engage more women in politics. It is uncertain as to what exactly causes majority of women to stay as far away as possible from actively taking part in politics – is it the misogynic instincts of people towards women in politics or is it our patriarchal culture that confines women to a certain frame? Whatever it may be, it is time to change the status quo.
*Hansani Bandara is a freelance journalist and an alumna of the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies. Her topics of interest include women representation in politics, history and international relations.