Sri Lanka’s population has a majority of women according to the 2012 Census and Statistics Survey. Of a population of 20,271,464, 52% are female and 48% male. For the 52% population of women in Sri Lanka, only 13 women were Members of Parliament (MPs) out of 225 seats in the last Parliament (2010-2015). This was less than 6% in Parliament. Currently only 4.1% of seats in the Provincial Councils (PC), and 2.3% of seats in the Local Government (LG) bodies are represented by women. This shows that there is an urgent need in post-war Sri Lanka to have more women in politics who are professionals, intellectuals and committed activists.
Sri Lankan Women Have Voted Since 1931
Since the 1920s changes occurred in the political sphere in particular with the forming of the Ceylon National Congress and the Women’s Franchise Union. “An unexpected change in Sri Lanka was in the status of women, who now demanded political space as the men had done in earlier decades. Women formed organizations and confronted conservative males, causing shock waves and some amusement by their spirited responses to criticism. The achievement in 1931 of franchise rights for all women over 21 years of age was one of the high points of the struggle for Sri Lankan women’s emancipation, a trend which began in the 19th century with the expansion of women’s employment and education.” (Casting Pearls, The Women Franchise Movement in Sri Lanka Malathi de Alwis & Kumari Jayawardena, 2001, p2).
Women have not been given equal status in politics even after Sri Lanka received universal franchise in 1931. This is one of democracy’s failures in the modern political history of Sri Lanka. Some people proudly say that, Sri Lanka produced the world’s first female Prime Minister. This never led to a momentum to get more women, particularly from non-political families, into the mainstream of politics. Since 1930s the percentage of women in politics has never exceeded 6%. Many countries with over 30 to 40% women in politics today received the universal franchise many years after Sri Lanka.
The Sri Lankan Constitution has endorsed the principle of gender equality and non-discrimination and the need to take affirmative action, when deemed necessary, to bring about positive changes. These rights were taken forward in the Women’s Charter of Sri Lanka (1993) and the National Plan of Action for Women (1996). Even though the Constitution includes equality for women, political parties were not given equal opportunity in Sri Lankan politics. This has led to serious issues with regard to the country’s overall socioeconomic development processes in the past and in the current post-war setting.
Educated Women of Sri Lanka
From kindergarten onwards, girls and boys both go to primary and secondary school and the university. Beyond this, after graduation both women and men work together until till they retire. In the higher education sector, in the 2012/2013 academic year, 14,853 female and 9,345 male students were admitted to the universities according to the University Grants Commission. This shows that, not only more women are gaining higher qualifications than their male counterparts but also that they excel in their respective work. But in the most important sector of the country, which is the political decision-making process, Sri Lankan women are marginalized and excluded. This is mainly because the male-dominated major political parties have always excluded women as candidates at elections.
Sri Lankan Women in Politics Low in the World and in the South Asian Region
The situation as of June 2015, according to the Inter –Parliamentary Union’s (IPU) world classification of women’s representation in Parliament is, 13 countries have over 40%, 77 countries 40-20%, 60 countries 20-10%, 17 countries 10-6% represent women in Parliament. There are 22 countries with less than 6% women in Parliament. These are mostly underdeveloped nations which include Sri Lanka, which ranks at 128th place out of 140. The paradox is that, even though Sri Lanka’s health and education indicators are high, still the country shows a low number of women representatives in Parliament.
In the South Asian region, women’s representation in Parliament was Nepal 29.5% (35th), Afghanistan 27.7% (39th), Pakistan 27.7% (64th), Bangladesh 20% (68th), India 12% (103rd), Bhutan 8.5% (120th), Maldives 5.9% (127th) and Sri Lanka 5.8% (128th). These statistics show that in the South Asian region, Sri Lanka has the lowest representation of women in Parliament. Sri Lankan women are educated compared to any other country in the South Asian region, and the time has come for them to take part in the political decision-making processes and fill the gender gap in politics.
Countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh have a quota in place in parliament for women. “In the absence of a quota, a number of women’s organisations have, in recent times, consistently lobbied political parties to include more women on their nomination lists. Their campaigns have characterised women’s political representation as a fundamental right; highlighting the injustice of numbers when it comes to women’s political participation as a sex/gender; and requesting the public to vote for women on this basis –so as to rectify a historical wrong.”(Representation in Politics: Women and Gender in the Sri Lankan Republic,” at 40: Reflections on Constitutional History, Theory and Practice, Maithree Wickramasinghe & Chulani Kodikara, 2012, p.797).
Men and Unruly Politics
In today’s world, women have proved they are good managers in various sectors.This is particularly in the developed world where, women and men equally manage public and private sector corporations. In Sri Lanka too, women are represented in high positions in the public and private sectors, but not in the political decision-making process at the local, provincial and parliamentary levels.
In the last decade, it was visible that, Sri Lanka’s respect for Parliament gradually started to decline in contrast to the situation some decades ago. This was mainly because unqualified people became MPs; many of them, without even the GCE O/L or GCE A/L. At the same time contesting elections during the last decades has been a daunting task. Candidates needed to spend enormous amounts of money, use anti-social tactics, use state resources for election campaigns and use political thuggery linked to the underworld. This also prevented women from getting nomination from the respective political parties, as well as from the party leadership. Under these circumstances, in the immediate future, Sri Lanka should overcome male dominance of over 94% in Parliament, PCs and the LG, and have equal representation of female and male, specially, professionals, intellectuals and committed activists.
Change of Presidency in 2015 and the March 12 Movement
The change of the Presidency in early January 2015 was a big leap forward for politics in Sri Lanka. This was because civil society played a crucial role in the Presidential election. The new President was appointed by the majority of votes, which came from all corners of the country, irrespective of ethnicity, religion, gender, class and caste. That political campaign pledged to end corruption and resume good governance in the future. At the same time, Maithripala Sirisena issued a document on “A New Sri Lanka for Women,” pledging a quota of 25% for women’s political representation in LG and PCs.
The March 12 Movement for Clean Politics was launched and the pledge was signed by leaders of all major political parties, including President Sirisena. The movement was supported by civil society, religious leaders and other organisations. There are 8 basic principles introduced by the March 12 Movement for political parties and for voters before nomination and voting. These are; 1. Should not be a criminal; 2. Free of bribery and corruption; 3. Free of anti-social trades; 4. Environment friendly; 5. Not abusing authority; 6. Free of abusive financial contracts; 7. Close to their electors; 8. Adequate opportunities for women and youth. Out of the eight basic principles, the 8th principle on adequate opportunities for women is an important issue to be addressed. Women parliamentarians in the past have proved they were not criminals, were free of bribery and corruption, free of anti-social activities, environment friendly, not abusing authority, free of dubious financial contracts, and close to their electors. Those basic principles will immensely compliment and support women who contest in future elections.
Targeting Women Candidates at the General Election
For the 2015 General Election, major political parties such as the United National Party (UNP), United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA), Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) nominated two or three women candidates, sometimes one for each District they are contesting. Other political parties and independent groups also nominated women candidates from their nomination lists for the General Election.
Sri Lanka should start an intensive campaign for people to “Vote for a Woman” at the General Election 2015. This should be by the major political parties, and voters should be asked to vote for at least one female candidate in each District. This can be worked out and can be realistic if all concerned parties (voters, political parties, civil society, media and others) work together to achieve the common goal of getting at least 40-50 women MPs to the new Parliament in September 2015.
The women’s political wing of each major political party in each District should be able to canvass and ask people to give at least one preferential vote to a female candidate. Since major political parties have strong grass-roots level networks this can be arranged. Further, this campaign should go parallel to the March 12 Movement. Civil society, professional bodies, trade unions and all concerned parties should be supportive and educate voters to give at least one preferential vote to a female candidate.
At the same time, the responsible mass media should give their fullest support to allocate space and free air-time on television and radio and should have female candidates in their regular election-related discussions. The print media should carry a list of women candidates contesting from each District from major political parties and their preferential vote numbers. Collectively, the mass media should support women candidates contesting at the election. In the same manner social media such as facebook, twitter, etc. also can play a key role.
Political parties and the leadership need to be pressurised to accommodate a considerable number of qualified women through the National List to Parliament. This will be a first step towards seeking more women’s representation in future Sri Lankan politics.
Pass the 20th Amendment with the inclusion of a 30% quota for women
The New Parliament will be formed in September, and should immediately work towards passing the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, including at least a 30% quota for women in the Parliament, PC and LG bodies. The National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights Section 5(1) states that 30% minimum representation of women in Parliament, PC, and LG should be included. The current political climate is favorable to discuss this important issue of women in politics, directly linked to human rights.
Inclusion of 30% for women in politics in the Constitution will definitely help Sri Lanka on the international stage where the country is party to important conventions relating to women and human rights. “Under the International Human Rights norms, Sri Lanka as a State Party has national obligations of women’s political participation such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) - 1948, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) - 1966 and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) - 1966 who speak of people’s right to participate in local, national and international decision-making processes. Gender specific instruments such as the Convention on the Political Rights of Women (1952), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) - 1979 reaffirmed these sentiments in its preamble and articles 7 and 8, and went further to set out measures for the achievement of equality between men and women. Sri Lanka has ratified this Convention without any reservations.” (Beyond Beijing: Beyond Numbers, Saama Rajakaruna 2005).
The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) the Goal No.3 on; Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women was set a target to be achieved by 2015, and the indicator was the Proportion of Seats held by Women in National Parliament which Sri Lanka failed to achieve. This should be achieved in the post-2015 development agenda.
Vidya Abhayagunawardena is a researcher in socio-economic development and disarmament. He can be reached at email@example.com