By Anushka Kahandagama –
Sri Lanka ranked 80 among 160 countries in gender inequality, in the 2017 Human Development Index, doing way better than our neighbors. While the numbers are promising, the Presidential election campaign so far proves otherwise. The 26-inch longer list, 35 presidential candidates, which increased the duration of casting a vote from one hour only have one female candidate. Among the presidential candidates are two Buddhist monks, four people from the country’s minority Muslim community, and two from the Tamil community.While minority communities have 6 candidates, there is one female candidate while the female percentage is 51% In the country’s population. If gender equality is high in the country, the political participation of the females should be in accordance. Unfortunately, there is only one female candidate who is contesting for the presidential election. What prevents women from being politically active is in the question. The answers are not far from the site but can be seen in the presidential election campaign itself.
On 7th of October 2019 the UNP parliamentarian Hirunika Premachandra experienced harassment and obstruction. She was hooted at when she went to the Election Secretariat, in solidarity with UNP nominee, by the SLPP supporters. She is a woman who is already elected as a Parliamentarian and in that sense a person who possess power in the society in many levels. However, if a woman like her has to face this type of harassment for the sole reason of being a woman, is there any space for women in Sri Lankan politics or policy making spaces. Women are being thrown away by highly patriarchal mechanisms. The incident did not stop there but ended up in social media with many vulgar comments on the speech made by her after the incident. She was slut-shamed. It is ironic that the numbers who reacted to her speech outweigh that of the people who reacted to the harassment she faced. Unfortunately, vulgar comments she received is not only from men, but also from women and all are participating in the patriarchal social structure.
Ironically, the SLPP manifesto states ‘Sexual and Gender Based Violence has increased in our country. This is experienced by women in public transport and in society in general. We will create a society that respects women, and aspires to the highest moral and ethical standards to protect girls and women’. The party manifesto being publicly violated by its own members.
Recently there was another controversy arose based on an election promise to provide women with free sanitary napkins. While I do not believe in a political ideology which is based on social welfare without answering the questions which caused gap between rich and the poor, it is unacceptable the responses by SLPP ridiculing the women’s body. This promise being ridiculed by prominent Parliamentarians who support SLPP, stating that it is an embarrassment to listen to this promise with your family. What is there to be embarrassed? The menstruation of women is a natural phenomenon that should be spoken up openly. In a society where first-period blood is celebrated with a public declaration, how is it embarrassing to publicly discuss sanitary napkins? Do we women have to be ‘ashamed’ of menstruation, or is it embarrassing for men to listen to a discussion on sanitary napkins? What kind of future generations do we raise as a country? We raise women who are ashamed of their bodies and men who think it is embarrassing to have a women’s body! These men we raise will hoot, harass, or abuse women due to the shameful bodies we possess as women.
Women who are active in any political space on the island would be discouraged by slut-shaming them and stating that they are not qualified enough. Nevertheless, what about the men who are in power? Are they qualified enough to rule a country or be the representatives for the public? Women politicians are being ridiculed publicly for the mere reason of possessing the body of a woman. What do they suggest? Do women have to participate in politics without a body?
I have only highlighted two incidents which attracted much attention. I do not side with any of the above political parties and just wanted to make a point related to women’s position in the current political campaign. The patriarchal social-economic and political structures discourage women from participating in political spheres.