ECONOMYNEXT – Though it is eighty-nine years since the first Sri Lankan woman, Adeline Molamure entered the State Legislature, then known as the State Council of Ceylon, the number of women contestants at national-level elections and elected to parliament continue to be dismally low.
Like most other Sri Lankan women in politics, Adeline too entered the State Council on the death of her father, J H Meedeniya Adigar, whose seat she contested and won in 1931. Soon after, when Dr Ratnajoti Saravanamuttu, who was elected to the Colombo North seat, was disqualified when a judge found him guilty of corrupt practices, his wife, Naysum Saravanmuttu contested and won that seat.
Since then, there have been at least one or two women in parliament, many taking over a seat of a deceased male family member, though some, such as Doreen Wickremasinghe and Vivienne Goonawardena were women who played pioneering roles in leftist politics in Sri Lanka and were elected on their own steam.
Sri Lanka produced the world’s first Prime Minister sixty years ago, though Sirima (usually referred to as Sirimavo) Bandaranaike, too came by that honour when she was elected to lead the Sri Lanka Freedom Party,(SLFP) founded by her husband, S W R D, who was shot dead in 1959. He was the Prime Minister at that time.
As Sri Lanka gears up to electing members to the ninth parliament on August 5th, it is indeed disappointing that once again, the main political parties have failed to nominate more women contestants. Between the Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP), which includes the SLFP, the United National Party (UNP), Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), which is made up of several political parties, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) led alliance the National People’s Power (NPP), and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) across 22 Districts, only 24 women are being fielded. Indeed, most of the less popular political parties and independent groups seem to have been able to include more women to run for election.
For the first time in Sri Lanka’s election history, a 25% quota was set aside for women at the Local Government poll held in 2018, though no such allocation has been made for either provincial or parliamentary elections. Nevertheless, it is no excuse that amongst the 7000 odd contestants in this parliamentary poll that the more popular political parties have seen it fit to nominate only 24 women between them. A few women have been named to the national lists of the parties, though that is no guarantee of a seat in Parliament.
In fact, since 2004, there have been only 13 women, both elected and nominated in Parliament, to date.
As Dr Sepali Kottegoda, Director Programmes, Women and Media Collective claims, it is clear that political parties are duplicitous in their commitment to ensuring gender equality. While pointing out the 25% allocation was seen as a key factor towards establishing gender equality on the political stage, she asks whether it is always the onus on women’s organisations to keep pushing for parity at all levels. “Even the Samagi Jana Balawegaya which has unveiled separate plans for the empowerment of women, and even talks of women’s menstrual hygiene has failed to put more women on its list of contestants. Where is the democracy and where is the commitment? There is not even a pretence to include women, it’s more or less telling women they are not needed. It is a damning indictment of the parties, which are of course all male-led!”
The quota for the local government election perhaps gave women a false sense of hope that political parties would automatically include more women in their lists for the parliamentary poll. Women’s Rights activist Sumika Perera points out that the main political parties in her home town of Kurunegala have failed to nominate even a single woman.
There should have been no expectations on the part of the women, that equal representation of gender would be adopted by the parties. “While we can no longer, under these circumstances, even push the “Vote for Her’ slogan, we now realise that we should have been extremely vigilant during nominations and ensured more women were included in the lists,’ she says.
Was it patriarchy that caused Mangaleshwari Shankar contesting through the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP), to be shut out of the TNA list in Batticaloa? Though none of her family members have been politicians, they take a keen interest in politics. Unlike most others who refuse to let women in their families contest, using tradition and culture as an excuse, Mangala had the encouragement of family and friends. A lawyer, with several years’ experience working for Transparency Sri Lanka, the National Peace Council and similar human rights organisations, she had applied to contest through TNA and has no idea why she was excluded.
Here’s a woman who could bring her vast experience of working with war widows and female-headed households, who has a vision of economic empowerment of women, being denied a chance to contest through the more popular TNA. “It is baffling,” she says. Sixteen of the 17 contestants from the TNA in Batticaloa are males.
She is amongst 304 contestants from Batticaloa, vying for 5 seats, and even though she has the backing of family, has been harassed, mainly through social media. While she has taken her complaint to the Election Commission and the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV), Mangala said she has also informed Facebook.
Interestingly, overall Batticaloa has 26 women contesting, 6 from political parties while independent groups make up the rest. Women seem to be more motivated to run for election following the introduction of the 25% quota for Local Government, says retired Eastern University Professor Sitralega Maunaguru.
If that is the case, how is it that political parties have nominated so few women? In some areas, the main political parties have not fielded a single woman.
Apart from societal restrictions on women becoming fully involved in politics the prohibitive costs of running for election further complicates matters. Says lawyer and UNP Municipal Councillor for Moratuwa, Lihini Fernando, unless a person hails from a politically active or an extremely wealthy family, it is next to impossible to get into the fray. Campaign costs can be anywhere between Rs. 20 to 25 million if contesting in Colombo, and Rs. 5 to 10 million elsewhere in the country. And this is true for aspiring male politicians too. “There are those willing to sponsor us, but that would mean being obliged to them,’ she says.
If there is to be a level playing field, then, campaign financing rules must be introduced and capped at around Rs. 5 million. ‘We must also do away with welfare politics of distributing goodies in return for a vote and be more engaged with the public,’ she adds. Lihini believes that election laws must be more stringent; door to door campaigning, having one area for all contestants to put up their posters, debates on policy instead of mud-slinging etc., should be the future of politics, she says, adding that the fight for preferential votes even within a party is an issue.
Women who work at grassroots and have a wider understanding of social issues, who have received training in political representation rarely make it into party lists says Rajani Rajeshwari, who, apart from her many activities also leads ‘Valamai,’ a movement for social change. ‘The women are more than willing, yet the patriarchal structures and attitudes that a woman’s place is at home, that they need to obtain permission from their partners etc. continue to restrict them. There is no question around men obtaining permission of their families to be politically active, so why this restriction on women? Political parties don’t want to give women who have the training opportunities, instead, they continue to field wives, widows and daughters from political families.’
Women have waited and advocated long enough to be treated as equals in the political and decision-making levels says Rajani who adds that the only way to break this cycle is for women across all ethnicities and religious backgrounds to come together and form their own political party. ‘We should not wait until the next election is called, but get down to business right away she says, adding, men can be members of our party, but it will be led by women.’
Perhaps, that time has come!
And while that dream becomes a reality, it is up to the electorate that has been clamouring for newer and younger faces in parliament to also elect more women representatives. (Colombo, August 2, 2020)
Kshama Ranawana is a writer, journalist and activist