30 May, 2024


The Necessity Of Increasing Women’s Political Representation In Sri Lanka

By Mira Philips

Mira Philips

Mira Philips

In a few short weeks, President Maithripala Sirisena will attempt to pass the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, which proposes a number of electoral reforms. There has been much discussion in the media about the impacts of the reforms on political parties, such as introducing a hybrid system of Proportional Representation and First-Past-the-Post, abolishing preferential voting, and adding 30 additional seats to Parliament. However, it is disconcerting to observe that Sri Lankan media and political leaders are indifferent to the amendment’s conspicuous disregard for improving women’s political representation.

Chulani Kodikara (2011) describes the experience of women in Sri Lanka as a “paradox of strong development indicators and weak political representation.” While literacy rates and educational attainment amongst women are high, their representation in the various levels of government is dismally low, especially in comparison to other South Asian countries such as India and Pakistan (Wickramasinghe & Kodikara 2012). Women represent 52% of Sri Lanka’s population, and yet, they account for less than6.5% of parliamentary seats, 6% of seats in provincial councils, and 2% of seats in local government (Ariyaratne 2015). Under-representation globally can be attributed to a number of factors, but the gendered nature of politics and entrenched stereotypes that privilege men as leaders and women as caregivers, have had a sustained impact on women’s exclusion (Wickramasinghe & Kodikara 2012; Krook & Norris 2014).

Sri Lanka is doing fantastically well if it is looking to contest for the title of “Top Country for Excluding Women from Politics.” If this is not the case, then the 20th Amendment presents an opportunity to kick-start a process to improve Sri Lanka’s standing when it comes to women’s political representation and good governance. So, will political leaders seize this moment? Or will they continue down a road that sees half the population on the fringes of the political sphere?

Policy recommendations

With a goal of reserving 25% of seats in Parliament for women candidates, Women & Media Collective (2015), alongside various other women’s groups, have compiled a list of policy recommendations for the 20th Amendment that political parties are encouraged to support. While there are pros and cons to each of these suggestions, they can ultimately serve as springboards to move Sri Lanka closer to achieving some level of gender parity in politics. The recommendations are as follows:

1. Regarding the 165 seats elected through the First-Past-The-Post system, women’s groups would like to see either electorates that are majority women be reserved for women candidates or one electorate per district be reserved for a woman candidate. It should also be mandatory for political parties to reserve 25% of space on their nomination lists for women.

2. With 31 seats to be elected at the district level through Proportional Representation, districts may only be able to appoint one or two candidates. Thus, it should be mandatory for women to be included as the first candidate on this list.

3. The remaining seats will come from the National List, which has a maximum number of 59. It is recommended that every 2nd appointment from the National List be given to a woman.

4. For multi-member electorates, it is recommended that at least one woman be nominated to contest.

Advocacy groups favour closed nomination lists, arguing that they give women a greater chance of being elected, when they otherwise might not be due to voter prejudice against female politicians.

Against Quotas

The recommendations proposed by these groups largely focus on instituting mandatory quotas and reservations to ensure 25% representation. One argument against this stems from the belief that affirmative action leads to a decrease in quality, since it is assumed that women do not have adequate experience to serve in office. As such, more qualified candidates may be overlooked in favour of increasing women’s representation (Pande & Ford 2011).

Another issue raised, is to what extent quotas can actually bring about substantive equality. Reserving electoral seats or spaces on nomination lists does not guarantee that women will be elected, nor does it mean that women will be more likely to run. Furthermore, if politics privileges men, how do quotas serve to change a political culture that is biased against women as political actors (Pande & Ford 2011)? How can they ensure that women who are elected are able to achieve actual influence in a male-dominated sphere?

Some of these concerns do accurately point out issues the level of impact quotas can have on their own, but others reflect deep-seated assumptions about meritocracy, women’s roles, and a lack of awareness about the structures that inhibit gender parity in politics.

Why are women under-represented?

Some contend that if women remain outside politics (or the public sphere in general), they do so at their own discretion. However, how free or unmediated are people’s choices? Katherine Cross (2015) succinctly argues that characterizing the choices women have made as wholly autonomous ignores that “there were a variety of “push/pull” factors that made these choices easier for them, more attractive, and, indeed sometimes the only viable choice they could make.”

Krook & Norris (2014) say that the prejudice against women as political candidates, exhibited in the recruiting practices of political gatekeepers and the voting habits of people, is indicative of the ‘public/private’ divide, in which women are subjugated to roles related to the home and family. The implication here is that women lack the capacity to be decision-makers because, in contrast to men, their skills do not lend themselves to life in the public sphere. Additionally, there is a belief that women will not be able to devote the time and energy to office precisely because they are often also caregivers (Krook & Norris 2014).

These stereotypes not only inhibit women from being recruited and elected, but are also internalized by women themselves, which serves to deter an aspiration to run in the first place (Krook & Norris 2014). Even when women are elected, the pressure to perform increases ten-fold because they must prove themselves with the cards already stacked against them.

We must consider these barriers when we talk about quality or choice. The argument that quotas undermine quality assumes that male leaders are necessarily elected on the basis of merit. Furthermore, it ignores how male domination in the public sphere shapes the skills associated with quality leadership and the very organization of politics, which is not accommodating of women who are attempting to balance multiple roles.

The case for both quota and non-quota initiatives

Quotas are not the be-all, end-all solution. Women who are elected will continue to face difficulties in overcoming the entrenched stereotypes related to their abilities as leaders. Regardless, mandatory quotas can at least improve women’s visibility in the political sphere, which is a starting point to dismantling these prejudices. In their research on the impact of quotas on attitudes towards women leaders in India, Beaman et al. (2009, cited in Pande & Ford 2011), demonstrate that people generally view first-time women leaders elected through reservations negatively. However, for women who have been elected for a second time, the perception is much more positive, showing that in the long-term, attitudes can change. What is needed to change these attitudes is the presence of women in the first place.

Still, quotas cannot change our political culture alone. Rather, they should be supplemented by a variety of non-quota initiatives, which can be taken on by civil society actors and the government. Krook and Norris (2011) identify various non-quota options that can be useful, such as providing assistance for women in campaign funding, which is important since they may not have the same access to networks as men, building women’s capacity in running campaigns and public speaking, and organizing events to motivate women to run and allay the fears they may have internalized due to pervasive gender stereotypes.

Why is greater representation for women important?

Women are of course not a homogenous group whose interests are identical. Their experiences are not only informed by their gender but also by their ethnicity, socioeconomic class, religion etc. However, with a mere 5% of women in government, it is highly unlikely that adequate measures will be taken to address female-specific issues. Research in districts in West Bengal and Rajasthan in India shows that when seats are reserved for women candidates, there is an “increased investment in goods favoured by women” (Chattopadhyay and Duflo 2004, cited in Pande & Ford 2011).

Kumudini Samuel (2011) makes an important point about increasing women’s representation in post-conflict contexts, which is of course pertinent to Sri Lanka. She argues that conflict dismantles certain social structures and thus, challenges the gendered notions so pervasive in the public sphere. Improving political representation in the post-conflict aftermath is thus essential to supplement these changes and allow women to gain more substantive equality (Samuel 2011).

The critical juncture at which we find ourselves regarding women’s representation in 20th Amendment can no longer be ignored. If Sri Lanka wants to chart a course towards good governance, then women must be better represented in government. It is incredibly frustrating that we still have to justify our reasoning for the inclusion of women because it should be common sense. Women’s representation is important for promoting a greater diversity of views in government, combatting damaging sexist notions that subjugate women and diminish their capabilities and value, and because fundamentally, it aligns with their right against discrimination on the basis of gender.

Even though President Sirisena ran his campaign with the promise of bringing good governance to Sri Lanka, the responsibility to promote this cause is not his alone. Rather, it is essential that it is taken up by all members of Parliament. Sri Lanka has tried to improve women’s representation in the past through advocating political parties to use discretionary quotas, but this is not enough. Wickramsinghe & Kodikara (2012) argue that political parties represent the largest impediment to allowing women to transform themselves from aspiring to enter politics to actually being nominated. Discretionary quotas will have little impact in changing the nature of political culture so that it is less biased towards men. Not only that, but the notion of a discretionary quota is, frankly, insulting. Including women in government should be a priority and not something that parties do when they feel like it or when it is politically advantageous. They must not stand idly and allow a chance for equality to slip through their fingers.

Version of this article was first published on the CEPA blog


Ariyaratne, Tehani (2015). “Where are the women?” Published on the Sunday Observer Online, May 17, 2015 http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2015/05/17/fea10.asp

Beaman, L., Chattopadhyay, R., Duflo, E., Pande, R., & Topalova, P. (2009). “Powerful Women: Does Exposure Reduce Bias?”Quarterly Journal of Economics, 124(4).

Chattopadhyay, R. & Duflo, E. (2004). “The Impact of Reservation in the Panchayati Raj: Evidence from a Nationwide Randomized Experiment.”Economic and Political Weekly, 39(9): 979-986.

Cross, Katherine (2015). “Choice Feminism: Time to Choose Another Argument.”Published on Feministing.com, May 8, 2015 http://feministing.com/2015/05/07/choice-feminism-time-to-choose-another-argument/

Kodikara, Chulani (2011). “Sri Lanka: Where are the women in local government?” published on OpenDemocracy.net, March 2011

Krook, Mona Lena and Norris, Pippa (2014). “Beyond Quotas: Strategies to Promote Gender Equality in Elected Office.”Political Studies, Vol 62: 2-20.

Pande, Rohini and Ford, Deanna (2011). “Gender Quotas and Female Leadership: A Review.”World Development Report on Gender, 2-42.

Samuel, Kumudini (2011). “Sri Lanka: The Link Between Women’s Political Representation and the Peace Process.”Published online, February 8, 2011.

Wickramasinghe, Maithree, and Kodikara, Chulani (2012). “Representation in Politics: Women and Gender in the Sri Lankan Republic”, in The Sri Lankan Republic at 40: Reflections on Constitutional History, Theory and Practice, edited by the Centre for Policy Alternatives, Colombo.

Women & Media Collective (2015).“Political Representation of Women: Ensuring 25% Increase.” https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/women-in-sri-lanka-seek-25-increase-of-womens-political-representation/

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Latest comments

  • 4

    How can women fighting for equal rights say that they are more equal than others and have a right to be assigned a electorate or a proportion of the seats available.
    Today we have more women in politics than before so for sure we are increased the quantity but have we increased the quality.
    If men and women can compete in all other professions why not politics.
    The requirement of the day is to clean-up politics and not allow or give nominations to Thugs, drug dealers, thieves, criminals war or otherwise. This will help to attract men and women of honor to politics. I you have a vision and the commitment to serve you brothers and sisters you should be given an equal opportunity irrespective of your gender, race or religion.

    • 1

      Equal rights and affirmative action are not in conflict if the facts indicate that there has been a history of inequality. If the lady’s facts are correct (52% of the population, but only 5% of seats) something is grotesquely wrong.

      A constitutional mechanism must be worked to ensure, for example, that at least 25% of parliamentarians are women, and that this formula gradually erodes away in (say) 25 years. I am strong on the concepts; flexible on details.

      • 6

        If you take a look at prisons in Sri Lanka you’ll see it’s overly male dominated. Shouldn’t we introduce female quotas to prisons as well to make it more equal?

        This is funny women want equality on top of that the want special quotas too. It is like dismissing a boy who got 70% of marks in an exam paper in order to add a less talented girl who got only 60% marks for the exact same exam paper just because she is a girl. How’s this going to benefit the country going forward?

        • 2

          That’s an incredibly foolish analogy and shows your complete lack of knowledge on the workings of political parties. There’s a complex set of socio-political structures at play that prevent women from advancing in politics, including but not limited to, the idea that women are not qualified for politics, that politics is “too violent” for women, that women can’t get votes, and the resulting lack of nominations from major political parties who do not put women on nomination lists so that they can contest. In this context, affirmative action – quotas and reservations- are needed for women to overcome these barriers. The playing field is not equal – they are sitting for the same exam paper but the girl’s hands are tied.

          • 4

            As always your feminist logic is flawed. So going by your logic these rules should apply for the jailed prisoners because your so called cultural and social structures won’t let women commit any crimes when you compare it to men. So we should give them some quota to make everything equal. We see more male criminals only because of the social structure and how we were raised.

            Also your gender equality vanishes when it comes to mining, fishing, garbage collecting, construction working or firefighting where almost all the workers are male. Where’s your outrage for equal female representatives in those field of jobs?

            Why should political parties offer nominations to women just because they are women? This again proves your entitlement and ineptness. We live in the 21st century and this is just a poor excuse to cover incompetence of your gender.

            Just look at all the internet inventions in the recent past microsoft, facebook, apple, twitter, youtube, google, whatsapp, linkedin, amazon all these companies were founded by young men. What’s your excuse this time? Google won’t let you see the search results because you are a girl.

            Try to take on responsibility for once at least. It is not the government’s fault and certainly not the men’s fault that women lack participation in some areas. Put your big girl’s pants and work hard just like everyday man does and see where it lands you.

            • 1

              lol. Your response is so lacking in any kind of sociological understanding of gender, class, ethnicity, age or ANY intersection really that I won’t even bother getting into it. Maybe read a book or something.

  • 4

    I am personally all in favour that more women should be elected to Parliament. Its only fair.

    In your endeavours you should also speak about the quality of the candidates that seek election, and the standard of conduct that is expected of them after they get elected. They should provide a beacon of light to the Sinhala lions (animals).

    I have watched a tv debate where Pavithra Devi Wanniarachchi participated. I was apalled at her imbecile behaviour. More of them in Parliament are going to be a huge shame for Sri Lanka.

  • 4

    Mira Philips

    RE: The Necessity Of Increasing Women’s Political Representation In Sri Lanka

    “In a few short weeks, President Maithripala Sirisena will attempt to pass the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, which proposes a number of electoral reforms. There has been much discussion in the media about the impacts of the reforms on political parties, such as introducing a hybrid system of Proportional Representation and First-Past-the-Post, abolishing preferential voting, and adding 30 additional seats to Parliament. However, it is disconcerting to observe that Sri Lankan media and political leaders are indifferent to the amendment’s conspicuous disregard for improving women’s political representation.”

    “Chulani Kodikara (2011) describes the experience of women in Sri Lanka as a “paradox of strong development indicators and weak political representation.”

    Sri Lanka had a women Prime Minister and a women President. The got elected due to a variety of reasons, and in the end it is the competency and the policies they represent that matters. Mahinda Rajapaksa, being a man, a corrupt one at that, could nor be re-elected, and was beaten by a farmers son.

    Right now, with better representation by women, will the abuse of women and rapers and murders of women decrease? Will women be more willing to give death sentences to rapists and murderers?

  • 1

    Shut up and go away. If you want to help women and work for their uplift first approach the family unit. Just think, who takes the brunt of day to day family work-life? Cooking cleaning bringing up children and of course they have to go out to work to supplement the family coffers. In addition so many restrictions on their behaviour within and without the family home. Is their any woman who has not been subject to sexual innuendos, harassment and ridicule by men? It is not just in Asia that women are cannon fodder for discrimination it is all over the world in some form or another. Charity must begin at home. As long as women are treated differently in the home and unless women stand up for themselves notwithstanding there’s not going to be much change any time soon.

    • 4


      “Shut up and go away. If you want to help women and work for their uplift first approach the family unit. Just think, who takes the brunt of day to day family work-life? Cooking cleaning bringing up children and of course they have to go out to work to supplement the family coffers.”

      …and avoid being molested, raped anfd killed.

      One American women descibed the wasging macjoine the greatest libertor of womem the last century.

      Washing machines: the true liberator of women
      Women in 1950s Whirlpool ad agree with Pope — washing machine was their true liberator.


      • 2


        “Women in 1950s Whirlpool ad agree with Pope — washing machine was their true liberator.”

        Not exactly, it was the contraceptive pill that truely liberated the women in the 1960s.

        Women stop worrying about unwanted pregnancy.

        • 1

          Native Vedda

          “Not exactly, it was the contraceptive pill that truely liberated the women in the 1960s.”

          … and carrying babies for the rapists..

    • 2

      Who said that cooking and cleaning is an exclusive job for women? In which century are you living?

      Sengodan. M

  • 2

    In response to Navin,

    while you can insult Pavithra Wanniarachchi all you want you must know, [Edited out]Thisuri Wanniarachchi is one of the most progressive youth voices in Sri Lanka right now.

    • 4

      Gamage, I am not sure your comment is even relevant … but I saw a picture (http://www.ft.lk/2014/09/20/the-terrorists-daughter/)of your so-called progressive youth Thisuri Wanniarachch flanked by Rajiva Wijesingha and Dirty Dayan Jayatilleke, two snakes in the Sri Lankan Political grass who are also clever wordsmiths. If one were to be judged by the company one keeps …….

      Question is how are we going to get a Parliament full of such well sponsored female highfliers in Sri Lanka. I suppose that the electorate should decide on an MP who will represent it.

  • 5

    The number of women contesting should be increased, but seats should not be reserved. That is up to the electorate to elect the women to the Parliament.

    National List should not be abused to select/appoint women into Parliament. That is left or should be left for the party. Not for defeated candidates wives, sisters and daughters.

  • 3

    I am opposed to quotas for any category, whether it is for youth or women. Later on are we going to have quotas for priests from the various religions, homosexuals, transvestites, crossdressers, convicts, etc? It is competency that must determine selection.

    Legislating quotas is a big mistake. Legislated mistakes are difficult to reverse. If there is a proposal for a quota of 25% for women, on what basis has this been decided? Is there some research data to support such decision? Or is it a nice number picked from the air? Do we need more Malini Fonsekas, Swarnamalis, Geetha Kumarasinghes, or even Pavthra Wanniarachchis, and Nirupama Rajapaksas. No we do not.

    Not only must women be competent ( this applies to men too), they must also lay claim to nomination. That is all. There is no question that more women must enter parliament. But they must do so on merit.

  • 0

    “The Necessity Of Increasing Women’s Political Representation In Sri Lanka”

    Yes BUT No. Once upon a Time we had a Woman politician called CHAURA REGINA, and we had enough of HER.
    Kindly let her know that there is a “350 room spectacular grand Georgian Mansion called “Wentworth Woodhouse” just North of Rotheram going cheap & up for sale at Pounds 8m if she is interested. Its less than a small flat at Knightsbridge.
    Let the Thugs, drug dealers, thieves, criminals earn for the Women and the Women can go and purchase castles in the UK. it will not be dirty money as once upon a time a woman came from a walauwa.

    We as Sri lankans can be proud if a SHE can own it as well.

  • 0

    The main reason that prevents woman from being elected is because major parties do not give nominations for women. They always prefer to give the sitting member or those who had contested at the last election. Obviously almost 95 % of this category are males. Hence women have no chance of being nominated therefore they are not elected.

    There is a constitutional provision for limiting the terms of the President, but MPs go on forever and forever. If an amendment is brought to limit the terms of MPs, we can see new faces of women and men in the Parliament.

  • 2

    Instead of asking for quotas, women should increase their engagement in social activities. Then, automatically they will develop leadership roles and when they come forward to contest elections, a less socially active male will hardly have a chance to win!

    It is good for the ladies to clamour for greater representation and 25 percent of seats is quite a reasonable expectation. But they should first earn the merit to gain that goal. It should be noted that our society holds women of good calibre in high esteem irrespective of their gender.

    Sengodan. M

  • 0

    It is a disgrace that the representation of women in our parliament is less than in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and even Afghanistan. Politicians of the major parties turn a blind eye to appeals by enlightened members of parliament like Rosie Senanayake, because the women’s groups have not pushed for inclusion of a quota in the election manifestos.

    The result is the President had to promise speedy action against the gang rape of the school girl in Kayts, because of the absence of focus by our members of parliament on the social aspects of crimes against women & children. They are happy to nominate the man who celebrated raping 100 young women, the man who raped a foreign woman tourist in Tangalla and killed her boy friend, the politicians responsible for the murder of women in Kahawatte and Matugama. Immediate action should be demanded for Trials at Bar or a separate court for crimes against women & children with, a time limit of about three months for the judgement.

    The re-introduction of one or two members of parliament for each constituency is a golden opportunity for social activists to go from house to house to persuade women to vote women to the parliament, rather than rapists, drug dealers, bootleggers, bookmakers and members of parliament who ask women teachers to kneel in front of the children and burn a vehicles of police officers who charge them for speeding. Such an organisation led by a recognised person will receive tremendous support of all those who voted for good governance.

  • 1

    Why a separate quota for women or for that matter for men? There is no law that states Women are banned from Political office. Sri Lanka has give to the world “THE FIRST FEMALE PRIME MINISTER”. We have had a female PRESIDENT too. Did they achieve these positions because of a Quota system?

    Unfortunately, Democracy is a very funny system. The one who gains the most support wins. So it is best that the better qualified women also come forward to serve this country without fear or favor. I am sure, the masses would recognize such individuals irrespective of their gender.

    MAN or WOMAN makes no difference. CORRUPT or UNCORRUPT matters a lot.

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