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Women in Parliament: Sri Lanka in Deterioration or Advancement?..

In 1959, Sirimavo Bandaranaike- wife of Solomon W.R.D Bandaranaike, the fourth Prime Minister of the then Dominion of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka)- was met with a predicament. Her husband had been ruthlessly assassinated in a Buddhist extremist conspiracy, and she was unanimously elected party president by the executive committee of the Freedom Party. Despite initial indecisiveness over this decision, her determination and perseverance in sustaining her husband’s legacy triumphed over her hurdles and she became the first female Head of State in the world.

Thereafter, came a slackening of the binds that had subdued female politicians across the world for centuries-as many sourced inspirations from the foundation she had laid in order to rise up the ranks. Female ministers- Indira Gandhi and Jayalitha have credited their success to Bandaranaike, and her daughter Chandrika Kumaratunga reiterated in an interview with us, “She was a trailblazer. She was an example of possibility in the face of catastrophe. She faced sexism too, but she never let it crush her nor hinder her visions for our nation.”

However, it seems the world has learned more from Bandaranaike’s example than her own nation. Despite steady progress in today’s world, female representation in Sri Lanka has steeply declined with only 5.33 % of elected women representatives in the Parliament. A Lankan poll published in 2019 stated that only 6% of the 10 million female population had interest in political participation. Nevertheless, sole accountability for such developments should not be catapulted on women, but rather the collective mindset of Sri Lankan society that continues to impose gender-based pressures on its individuals, therefore immuring women to their “kitchen.”

These stereotypes set a dangerous precedent and may pinwheel into a purging of any liberal reformations favoring inclusivity in the past. This includes, but is not limited to, Employment of Women, Children and Young Persons Act- that initially granted employment opportunities to women of any economic background with the establishment of several garment factories. If overturned, the government would be revoking basic female independence as women will be deprived of their personal savings plunging the nation into a near dystopian society-where women’s privileges are exploited and destructed, and innovation has come to a grinding halt due to inadequate utilization of the whole population’s potential.

Since 2018, however, the light at the end of the tunnel has manifested into view with the Government’s acknowledgement of this gender imbalance and their dedication to implementing measures in curbing this complication from erupting into crisis.

In Act No. 28, that protects the rights of all persons- The Government of Sri Lanka recognizes the importance of fostering gender equality and inclusivity in all facets of society, including the political sphere. They asserted, “We are committed to ensuring that all citizens, regardless of gender, have equal opportunities to participate and contribute to the democratic processes that shape our nation’s future.”

The Government’s prime initiative that has produced considerable successes is its promotion of political participation amongst women. Lack of access to campaign financing, enduring patriarchal attitudes about women’s roles, harrasment, and exaggerated yet crude media depictions of female politicians shackle them from engaging in national politics. In an attempt at combatting these root causes, the Government has sponsored enhanced training, mentorship, and capacity-building programs to empower women in seizing leadership roles within political parties and public office. During the Democracy International Reporting briefing in 2019- Political news has been severely regulated-experiencing multiple rounds of investigation verification in ensuring it does not spill inflated yet harmful narratives.

As a result, the gender divergence has been steadily bridged, with more than half of the electoral makeup consisting of women. In the 2021 world classi­fication published by the Inter Parliamentary Union, Sri Lanka was ranked 178 out of 184 countries in women’s involvement in politics. However, an innumerable are still under-represented in policy-making positions. During the 2019 presidential election, there was only one female candidate out of 35 contestants. Law enforcement puppeted by nepotism, coupled with prevailing loopholes within policing institutes have roadblocked this path to equality.  If the Sri Lankan state fails in binding these loopholes, women will be left powerless-fueling society’s archaic stereotyping.

Although legal measures remain uncertain, societal action is one that stems from personal struggle and therefore harbors a genuine passion at solving these setbacks for society . Hence, civil society organizations, non-governmental entities, and international partners have gathered steam over the recent years in Sri Lanka.  In 2016 Australia’s Ambassador for Women and Girls, Natasha Stott Despoja,-launched an Australian-funded gender equality program  in Sri Lanka. Ambassador Stott Despoja was joined by two women political leaders – Member of Parliament (MP) Sudarshini Fernandopulle and Ms. Rosy Senanayake, a former MP. As part of the program, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) is collaborating with the Election Commission of Sri Lanka, the Institute for Local Governance, and local partners to enforce its “Promoting Women’s Electoral Representation” (POWER) project.

With its POWER program-the local-level quota is more effectively implemented, persisting gender concerns in the media and electoral security are addressed, and momentum is created for a more gender-inclusive electoral environment. Conducting gender-sensitivity trainings for the media and political parties in coordination with the Election Commission will be one of the program’s key initiatives. Despite overlapping with the state’s optimistic yet failing efforts at political inclusivity, these private organizations are dominated by specialists in such fields with dedication towards their task-as their focus is not diverted to different facets of society unlike the government. Therefore, their expertise and support will be invaluable in achieving their goals successfully.

Reliance on third parties, however, do not necessarily reap fruit as change needs to sprout from progressive thinking embraced at individual level. If women are not informed of the laws protecting their rights and the opportunities available to them, then no difference would be made. This is when Public Awareness Campaigns such as “She Leads,” loom into sight-which educate the citizens of the necessity of including women as elected leaders and ushering stories of prominent female changemakers who have encountered rife sexism on their journey to fame, thus instilling hope amongst ordinary girls.

Although disparities in the political sphere are gradually experiencing elimination, progress is inadequate. Expanding female representation not only within electoral bodies, but also decision-making positions is mandatory, as women have the ability to empathize due to their encounter of similar circumstances when rising up the ranks. This empathy means they are bound in implementing policies favoring women, ultimately steering the nation towards the open-mindedness that the world embraces.



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