Women in politics
a press conference on Thursday, regarding the presentation to President
Mahinda Rajapaksa of the Sri Lankan Women's Agenda on Peace, Security
and Development, Parliamentarian Rosy Senanayake said that the number of
women in Parliament should rise to at least 20 percent.
She pointed out that although many women should like to take part in
representative politics, the prevailing political system discourages
them, despite being 53 percent of the county’s population.
She could have added that women make the biggest contribution to Sri
Lanka’s economy; besides doing the bulk of domestic work, they pluck
tea, sew garments (the main exports) and provide the greater part of
overseas workers’ remittances.
Rosy is only the latest in a long line of prominent women who have
commented on the huge gap between the proportion of women in the
population and the proportion of women in politics, or of the
differential in political power and status between genders.
This differential in power between women and men was discussed at
last month’s ‘National Conference on the Role of Women in
Reconciliation’, organised by the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for
International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKIIRSS).
Dr Sepali Kottegoda, addressing the issues of women’s role in
reconciliation and gender dynamics in the transition from war to peace,
pointed out that there had been ‘a marked absence of women at
decision-making levels in either the political movements that waged
insurgency or, the political institutions (government, political
parties) structures that conducted counter-insurgency or, in the formal
structures and bodies that were put in place either to politically
negotiate an end to the conflict or to, at least, end the insurgency by
She noted that women’s representation in politics remained low -
unacceptably so considering that the country has South Asia’s highest
overall social development indicators; in 2011 only 5.8 percent of
members in Parliament were women, dropping to 4.7 percent in Provincial
Councils and collapsing to an abysmal 1.7 percent in Local Government.
Dr Kottegoda was illustrating the gap between women’s capacities and
women’s representation in decision-making processes, epitomising the
perceived marginal role women play. She drew a link of causality between
this lack of political power and the recent heightened level of violent
crime directed against women, saying that it was ‘a societal issue that
stems from differences in power and status between women and men in
society and, also the perceptions of power and access to power among men
and women’. Member of Parliament Dr. Sudharshani Fernadopulle, another
member of the panel, concurred that the representation of women in
politics was appallingly low, which had a negative impact on the design
and hence effectiveness of development programmes.
She had earlier addressed the seminar on ‘Improving psychological and
physical health of women and children in North and East’, and had
pointed out the need to create women-centred programmes in the North and
East for economic and social reconstruction and reconciliation, pointing
to the enhanced efficiency generated by the ripple-effect benefits of
It is indicative of the lack of progress made on the issue of women’s
representation that virtually the same sentiments had been expressed at
a seminar on ‘Women in Politics in Sri Lanka’ held at the LKIIRSS two
years ago, on the occasion of the Centenary of International Women’s
Day. Since then, several elections (local, parliamentary and
presidential) have taken place, with hardly any difference in the
proportions of elected women candidates.
While it is customary to blame the low numbers of women candidates
fielded by each party, attention should be called to the fact that,
statistically, approximately the same low proportion of women tends to
be elected, regardless of the proportion of women candidates.
The problem appears to be that sometimes women are just added to the
list to attract women voters. There is a dearth of electable women
candidates; most of the latter having some kind of familial relationship
to a male politician, ever since Adeline Molamure became the first
elected member of the legislature 81 years ago.
This is exemplified by the history of presidential elections in Sri
Lanka: overall there have been just four woman candidates (counting
Chandrika Kumaratunga as two, considering she contested twice) and on
two occasions a woman was elected. In the first election she faced,
Chandrika was represented as the child of two prime ministers and the
wife of a dead politician.
Of course it is probable that if some form of obligatory proportion
were introduced (similar to the 40 percent of candidates below 35 years
of age for Local Government elections) the increased choice could lead
to greater representation for women.
However, the progression from low representation at the lowest level
of politics to (relatively) higher representation at higher levels
indicates something about the continuing lack of social status of women
as a gender. People will vote for a ‘lady’ at parliamentary level, but
not for a ‘woman’ at the Pradeshiya Sabha level; women are not judged on
their ability but on their place in the social hierarchy.
Dr Sudarshani Fernandopulle, for instance was not elected on her
indubitable merits as a competent medical practitioner with considerable
experience of human interaction, but on being the widow of assassinated
Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle. The exception to the rule, of course is
for film and television actresses, who do gain national status. Rosy
Senanayake owes her position in the legislature less to being a
political committed activist than to having been, as the face of
‘Anchor’ dairy products, the transcendent media ‘mother’. A political
novice, Upeksha Swarnamali came second in the United National Party’s
Gampaha parliamentary list in 2010, mainly because she was the eponymous
heroine of the tele-drama ‘Paba’.
There has to be a commitment on the part of all parties and
stakeholders empower women and to transform their social and cultural
status, if we are to construct an equitable society. Until then, ours
will not really be a democracy.