|Saturday, 8 March 2003|
Women - the race is yet to be won
by Neetha S. Ratnapala
"Women must be put in a position to solve their problems in
their own way. No one can or ought to do this for them. And our Indian
women are as capable of doing it as any in the world".
Self-governance, they say, is the best form of government. As we move from Athens to the 21st century we hear much talk about democracy, delegation of power, regional governments and territorial integrity plus globalization. In our own small country we have gone through many eras of ancient kings and kingdoms, the Thun Sinhale, and foreign invasions culminating in the island becoming a British colony in 1802.
With the granting of Dominion status we accepted a two Chamber Parliament based on the British model in 1948, changing into a Socialist Republic and single Chamber Parliament in 1972. The constitution framed and amended from time to time has made it a written and inflexible one. What is of concern now is the role of women and participation in the legislature and executive process in the country. This can be noted through the representation women won or were granted or provided by the constitution of the country from time to time.
Sri Lanka's struggle for independence though not bitter as in India, was fought in the State Council and outside by the leaders of the time who dominated the political stage, and well represented by all the communities. A few women mainly in the leftist parties added their might to the struggle. As a colony we could boast of only a handful of English educated or English speaking women in the forefront of the struggle but we cannot overlook the great number that were behind the freedom struggle throughout the country though they were overlooked in the framing of the constitution in 1944.
Taking the first Parliament into consideration - since Independence, the first Parliament constituted in 1947, where 1,887,364 voters cast their votes, with UNP contesting and winning 42 seats and LSSP winning 10 seats, Tamil Congress 7 seats and Communist Party 3 seats among others. Number of electoral districts was 89, and number of candidates 361, percentage polled 55.8%, uncontested seats 1, for Puttalam.
As regards women's representation in the legislature, in the first State Council of 1931, there were two women elected at by-elections held in 1931 and 1932 respectively. Lady Adelaine Molamure was the first woman to be elected to the legislature in 1931 from Ruwanwella. Molamure was also the first woman to be elected to the Senate in the first Parliament of 1947. She was also made the Deputy President of the Senate in 1955. In 1936, she contested Ruwanwella against none other than Dr. N. M. Perera. She was followed by Naysum Saravanamuttu in 1932 from Colombo North. Saravanamuttu found her way into the second State Council of 1936.
The historical representation of women in the first Parliament after Independence was limited to three. Florence Senanayake represented Kiriella, Kusumasiri Gunawardene representing Avissawella - uncontested at a by-election in 1948 and Tamara Illangaratne representing Kandy at a by-election in 1949. Strangely these represented the socialist parties with little representation from the major party at the time, the UNP. This was the trend up to almost 1965. There was only one woman representative in the senate - namely Cissy Cooray, who was appointed in 1947.
After Independence the country was virtually free to decide on its own affairs of governments, foreign policy and international relations but the views voiced in the legislative bodies by women were hardly heard. There was no woman representative in the Cabinet of the first Parliament.
In the second Parliament of 1952 there were only two women representatives in the House of Representatives - namely, Kusumasiri Gunawardene again from Avissawella and Doreen Wickramesinghe from Akuressa (Matara). This was the first time a woman entered Parliament from the South and strangely she was a foreigner. Again there was no place for a woman in the Cabinet or the Executive. There was one representative in the Senate namely Clodagh Kitchilan (UNP). It must also be mentioned that their husbands names mattered in these elections above their own capabilities. However mention must be made of their participation in the agitation for political and social reforms of the time alongwith their husbands.
There was also no representation for women in the appointed list of six members for Parliament. There was no representation for a woman in the Cabinet even through the second Chamber or Senate, though there were two senators in the first Cabinet of 1947 and second Cabinet of 1952. Dudley Senanayake's resignation in 1953 led to the formation of a Cabinet headed by Sir John Kotalawela as the Prime Minister where two senators were represented in the Cabinet yet with no representation for women. The only remarkable thing in the early years of the twentieth century was the equal right to vote for women as voters, and a very slender representation for women in the House of Representatives.
The year 1956 spelt a change in the reins of power from UNP-led, to SLFP-led MEP coalition. The first Cabinet was also formed in 1956 led by S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike as the then Prime Minister. 1956 also saw the increase in the number of women representatives by election to four members. Namely Vivienne Gunawardene representing (Colombo North), Kusumasiri Gunawardene (Kiriella), Vimala Wijewardene (Mirigama) and Kusuma Rajarathna, Uva (Paranagama), by-election. It also saw for the first time women representation in the Cabinet, with Vimala Wijewardene coming in as Minister of Health. This no doubt was caused more by political pressure at the time rather than through women activists. The Mahajana Eksath Peramuna or the Peoples United Front however set the pace for women representation in both the Legislature and the Executive. Vimala Wijewardene continued to hold the Cabinet portfolio until 1960 in the Bandaranaike and Dahanayake Cabinets.
After the assassination of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike and succession of W. Dahanayake to premiership, in the election of March 1960, Dudley Senanayake was sworn in again as Prime Minister with a Cabinet entirely of UNP members. This was short lived and had no women representatives. A snap election followed in July 1960. This election set a record for Sri Lanka as well as the world's women.
Entering Parliament through the Senate, Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the first woman Prime Minister of Sri Lanka and the world. She also had three Cabinets in quick succession from July 1960 - December 1964.
She represented the women through being the widow of the late Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike. She was the first woman to head the Executive in Sri Lanka, holding also the post of Defence Minister. There were two women representatives in the House of Representatives namely Kusuma Rajaratna - Uva (Paranagama) and Soma Wickramanayake (Dehiowita) in her first Cabinet and fourth Parliament. In her second term and fifth Parliament three women representatives namely Kusuma Rajaratna - Uva (Paranagama), Soma Wickramanayake (Dehiowita), Vivienne Goonewardene (Borella), came into the Chamber.
Representation for women increased from three to six in her third Cabinet and sixth Parliament in 1965, as Bandaranaike herself contested for the first time, setting up a base in Attanagalle in 1965. She was followed by Siva Obeysekara (Mirigama), Wimala Kannangara (Galigamuwa UNP), Kusuma Rajaratne - Uva (Paranagama), Mallika Ratwatte (Balangoda) and Leticia Rajapakse (Dodangaslande), both elected at by-elections in 1966 and 1967.
As the population increased so did the percentage of women proportionately but active participation of women in politics was limited and branded to a few families. The seventh decade of the 20th century saw many problems and turning points, Sirimavo Bandaranaike formed a coalition with the CP and LSSP and called it the United Left Front, comprising SLFP, CP and LSSP. In this election six women MPs were elected to Parliament. Bandaranaike (Attanagalle), Tamara Illangaratne (Galagedara), Siva Obeysekara (Mirigama), Mallika Ratwatte (Balangoda) from the SLFP and Kusala Abeywardene (Borella), Vivienne Goonewardene (Dehiwala-Mt. Lavinia) both representing LSSP. There were to be 151 members from 145 seats with 440 contestants in the 1970 elections.
Wimala Kannangara UNP contested Galigamuwa seat but lost to SLFP candidate P. B. Balasooriya. T. H. Fernando contested the Dehiowita seat from the (SMP) Sinhala Mahajana Pakshaya but lost to Dhanapala Weerasekera LSSP and polled only 355 votes. Two women contestants in a straight battle for power were witnessed in Balangoda when Seetha Molamurre Seneviratne - UNP lost to Mallika Ratwatte SLFP.
No women representatives were either elected or nominated to the 30-member Senate or the second House of Parliament. This was soon done away with the constitutional amendments of 1971 confirmed by a 2/3 majority.
Produced by Lake House