Sri Lanka ratified the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) on 05th of October 1981. CEDAW articles 7 (b) states that “State parties shall take over all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the public and political life of the country by ensuring the right to participate in the formulation and implementation of government policy”.
Sri Lankan women have been enjoying the right to exercise universal franchise from 1931 and are nearly 52% of the population. Sri Lanka also produced the first woman Prime Minister to the World in 1960. Further, women are the major contributors to the country’s foreign exchange earnings and Sri Lankan women’s literacy rate is higher than that of other South Asian countries. All these things being true, however, women do not represent themselves enough in political and public decision making bodies in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka has the worst record of women’s overall participation in national and local legislative bodies in the South-Asian region.
Though the majority of women exercise their political rights as voters or campaigners during election times, there was only less than 4.9% of female representation in parliament in 2005 and in the municipality and local government level participation was 1.7% in 2004. The percentage of women in parliament between the 1930s and the present has never exceeded six per cent.
Mrs. Adline Molamure was the first woman to be elected to the Legislature (First State Council) in 1931
Sri Lankan women have been enjoying the universal franchise since 1931.
Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the first world’s female Prime Minister in 1960.
Mrs. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was the 4th Executive President of Sri Lanka, serving from November 12, 1994 to November 19, 2005. She was the first female Executive President in Sri Lanka
The highest number of women representation in the Parliament has never risen beyond 13 out of 225 seats.
Why women are invisible in politics?
There are various reasons and issues that are inherent in Sri Lankan politics that impeded women’s political participation. The political party systems in Sri Lanka is highly male dominated. The gender intensive preferential vote electoral system has discouraged women’s participation in elections. Due to stereotyped attitudes prevailing in the society towards women, they are not encouraged to be involved in politics. Further, the lack of a child care support system at the community level and women’s multiple reproductive roles have taken away a lot of time that could have helped women engage in social networking. Lack of financial resources is also a major impediment for women’s political participation.
In Sri Lanka, politics is always considered a dirty game. This is quite evident during election time because of the high incidence of violence that takes place. The prevailing climate of political violence discourages women in participating politics. In this scenario women are reluctant to participate in politics. In addition, there are cultural barriers which increase the existing gender gaps. This is because Sri Lanka is a conservative society with strong beliefs in cultural norms and deeply rooted prejudices that reinforce gender stereotyping. There are some inherent problems in the discourse of women and politics.
In Sri Lanka there are very few articulated strong independent women since many women are nominated to replace vacancies created by the resignation or death of male relatives. In comparison with other South Asian countries, there is no special quota for women or a special political academy for women to address their training needs and develop skills needed to participate in politics. The proposal for a 30% quota for Sri Lankan women in local bodies was dropped on the grounds that political parties would not be able to find women candidates. Further the lack of opportunity for political training and skills development has been a negative factor that impedes women’s political participation.
Without women no equality, development and peace
The Beijing Platform for action in 1995 declared that without the active participation of women and the incorporation of women’s perspective at all levels of decision making, the goals of equality, development and peace cannot be achieved. The rights guaranteed in international conventions states that” women shall be eligible for election to all publicly elected bodies, established by national law, on equal terms with men, without any discrimination.
The Beijing Platform for Action 1995 Section 181 says that “Women’s equal participation in decision-making is not only a demand for simple justice or democracy but can also be seen as a necessary condition for women’s interest to be taken into account. This was further elaborated in 2004 General Assembly 58th Session Resolution 58/142 reaffirming that “ women’s full and equal participation in the political process and decision making will provide a balance that more accurately reflects the composition of society, is needed to strengthen democracy and promote its proper functioning, plays a pivotal role in furthering women’s equal status, including improving women’s socio-economic status, and contributes to re-defining political priorities and providing new perspectives on political issues’’ The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) include female representation in politics as an indication of progress towards the empowerment of women.
In the global development discourse, development requires decisions by those control resources, covering material as well as non material aspects, including political power. The paucity of female legislators means that the interests of women are not adequately represented in the highest body of the State. Unless women gain leadership in the State governance, market and civil society it will be difficult to transform or shape forces of social, political and economic processes to work in favour of women and gender equality.
Our right and fight
Despite that seven decades have passed from the universal franchise for women, women do not represent enough in political bodies. The percentage of women in parliament is little closer to 4%. It is a very low percentage at the local government level. After decades of struggle for gender equality women are convinced that they have to be in the places where power exists or be in the position to negotiate a better deal for women. It is high time to urge the Sri Lankan government to revisit all existing laws and work on bringing necessary changes to existing election laws allowing a 33% minimum quota of women in Parliament, half of those appointed to the National List be women, 33% minimum quota of women in local government bodies, more women ministers, junior ministers and cabinet ministers, and political parties to increase the nomination of women candidates at all levels. The proposed Women’s Act provides a 25% quota for women.