A chance for real change

Tuesday, 12 May 2015 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Sri Lanka’s quest to reform its electoral system had grabbed headlines in recent weeks, primarily on issues raised by minority parties. However, the question of female political representation and adoption of a quota system to increase women in Parliament has been largely ignored.

In a country where 52% of the population is female it is incredible that only 4.8% or 13 members of Parliament out of the 225 are women. But sadly this has been the norm for a long time.

Women in Sri Lanka gained the right to vote in 1931. In the post-independence period, Sri Lankan women made rapid progress in relation to health, education and employment, and their human development indicators are still considered a model for South Asia.


However, women’s representation in elected political bodies has remained abysmally low. In Parliament, the percentage of women has stagnated between 1.9% and 6.5%. In provincial councils women’s representation has never exceeded 6%. In local councils, the statistics are even more dismal, with women’s representation hovering between 1% and 2%.

Yet Sri Lanka is credited will electing the world’s first prime minister in 1960 and then ensconcing her daughter has Head of State for two terms. Even today former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga wields impressive political power but such prowess has not translated into broader political empowerment for women. This is largely because it is part of entrenched patriarchal systems rather than a feminist move to change social structures into a more equitable form.


This is also evident in the current framework of many parties including the United National Party and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). 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.


Many activists have proposed that Sri Lanka adopt a quota system for women in the 20th Amendment.  Over a 100 countries including Afghanistan and Pakistan have such a provision.  Deputy Foreign Minister Ajith Perera has even gone on record demanding 50% of national list seats be allocated to women. A worthy goal to promote women in politics should not be confused as another attempt to promote dynastic politics.


Deserving women should have a chance to represent themselves in Parliament. This should not be seen as an ‘us against them’ battle but rather an effort to improve good governance through inclusiveness. Politicians insist a new political culture has dawned; it is now time to prove it.