For the first time in 20 years a woman candidate has been named to contest at the upcoming Presidential Election. Environmentalist Dr. Ajantha Perera being nominated is largely seen as a positive sign for increased women representation in Sri Lankan politics, which remains largely male dominated.
Few will harbor any hope of her winning but when female representation in Parliament has only been about 5% for many years and a woman has not even been a Presidential Poll candidate in two decades, even symbolism becomes important. Every journey requires someone to step up and try to make a differences and this is what Dr. Perera has pledged to do.
According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Sri Lanka with less than 6% representation in Parliament ranks 128th out of 140 countries. Sri Lanka had only 13 women in the Parliament out of 225 seats that formed the last Government. Females represent only 4.1% of seats in the Provincial Councils (PC), and, before the change in legislation only 2.3% of seats in the Local Government (LG) bodies.
This Government said in its policy manifesto that it would increase female representation to 25% at the provincial governing level, while encouraging all political parties to put forward 25% female candidates in coming elections. But this was not to be, with past elections creating even less space to promote female candidates. The new system, though it encourages smaller parties, also discourages them from promoting women.
Most parties have large women’s wings but these function only to promote male candidates. Women who are genuinely interested in pursuing politics do not have their ambitions promoted through these organisations. Ironically, women have to vote overwhelmingly for candidates or parties to gain a clear majority but are rarely given the chance to represent themselves.
Of course, social attitudes, limited resources and entrenched political systems all play a role. However, in a country that has high numbers of intelligent, qualified and ambitious professionals, continued distance from the political sphere is a recipe for disaster. With few women in Parliament, it is almost impossible to make their voices heard when legislation is passed, but results are overwhelmingly felt by women. To make matters worse, women parliamentarians make no effort to promote female representation, often falling in line with entrenched practices that promote social stereotypes. They are more a part of the problem than the solution. None of the 11 women elected this time have ever spoken out or worked for women’s rights and fight shy of embracing feminism. Such retrograde behaviour has left no excuses for Sri Lanka.
Rwanda has the highest representation of women in Parliament with 64%. 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) and Maldives 5.9% (127th). These statics shows female representation in Sri Lanka is the lowest in the region.
Deserving women should have a chance to represent themselves in all levels of governance. This should not be seen as an ‘us against them’ battle but rather an effort to improve good governance through inclusiveness, which largely overlaps minority concerns. The last round of US elections for Congress more women were elected and they have banded together to opposite many detrimental policies proposed by the Trump administration. Sri Lanka needs to start a similar process if it wishes to see the change it so badly desires.