Editorial/Opinion

Women’s empowerment and political participation

F Word by Sharanya Sekaram

Since 1953, across the globe, several women have risen in political power to leave their mark on the political histories of their nations and continue to do so.

This trend is especially evident in the last few decades, with women including former US Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and Hilary Clinton, former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Theresa May, Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina, and President of the Indian National Congress Party Sonia Gandhi establishing themselves and remaining key players in both national and international political affairs.

As the UK general elections concluded last week, something that was well worthy of applause is the fact that this is the diversity of the Parliament that has been elected:

This Parliament has more ethnic-minority and women MPs than ever before, the first turbaned Sikh, women from science backgrounds, and two more disabled members.

The UK now has 208 female MPs, which is a 32% representation – the highest seen yet.

This once again gives advocates for female representation in politics to highlight the continued struggle in seeing equal representation of women in elected positions – even at its highest, the UK Parliament has not come close to touching equal representation.

In Sri Lanka, we languish far behind even our South Asian counterparts with globally one of the lowest levels of representation of women in elected office. As a video by Transparency International Sri Lanka that was widely shared on social media recently highlighted, we are reminded that women constitute 6% of the representatives in Parliament, 4% in provincial councils, and 2% in local government. Single digits that were forced to change with the 25% quota implemented at local government level.

Hearing these numbers often comes as a shock to many when we juxtapose it with the fact that Sri Lanka elected the modern world’s first female Head of State when Sirimavo Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike served as Prime Minister of Sri Lanka for the first time in 1960.

When she took this position, it was 15 years before Baroness Thatcher was to even become leader of the British Conservative Party and nearly 20 years before Baroness Thatcher ascended to the office of Prime Minister.

The fact is glaring and cannot be ignored – while we continue to celebrate this achievement, it remains indisputable that nations who were once behind us are now ahead, and we have failed greatly in ensuring our women are equally (or even reasonably) politically represented.

There are several factors that affect the low levels of female representation in politics internationally. These factors, such as sex stereotyping, political socialisation (where politics is viewed from a young age as a male domain), and the expected role of women to balance work and family are key issues on an international level, and more so in Sri Lanka.

For example, it is said that “socialisation agents can include family, school, higher education, mass media, and religion”, and this is especially true in Sri Lanka where expected gender roles are clearly reinforced in all available channels.

When discussing women’s empowerment and political participation, we need to be very clear on understanding that it is interconnected with the conversation around gender roles and stereotypes. We need to defend the need for women to be politically active and engaged because we still need to find reasons to explain why women should do something other than uphold the private sphere while men uphold the public one.

This conversation is still deeply rooted in how we view women and their roles at large, and this is in direct contraction to the idea that women can and should be equally as engaged and active in the political sphere as their male counterparts.

Women are people, they deserve this empowerment for the same reasons that men do – as people, they have the right to participate and engage in democratic processes. As the leader of the suffragette movement Emmeline Pankhurst said at the time when British women were fighting for their right to vote, “if it’s right for men to fight for their freedom, then it’s right for women to fight for theirs”. Gender roles are social constructs, and as societies have evolved, so have these roles.

Female suppression

Research Associate of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies Chulani Kodikara explains this by saying: “Sri Lanka has a patriarchal culture in which women are internalised and expected to deal with domestic work and engage in more ‘feminine jobs’.”

She also highlighted that as a result, the “political parties who are the gatekeepers of political institutions are male dominant and lack gender democracy; therefore, women are not given recognition or enough nomination to contest”.

This is exemplified by the fiascos facing women in Sri Lankan politics – ranging from the sexist comments made to MP Rosy Senanayake which appeared on the UK Gaurdian’s list of “Top 10 sexist moments in politics”; to when the former Speaker of Parliament Chamal Rajapaksa was reported on web media saying that women taking the lead sometimes obstructs work in progress and furthermore, that they also impede justice; and the comments made by the Former Minister of Women’s Affairs Tissa Karalliyadde that women should not be elected to public office as they are unable to work alongside each other.

These ideas further feed into the widely held notion that women who do enter politics are limited to popular figures and contribute very little to actual governance. This has been explained by women’s right activist Sithara Shreen Saroor who stated that political parties only wanted vote-pullers, and hence, the notion that popular figures can obtain these much-needed ballots exist.

The engagement of women in politics in nations such as Sri Lanka is amplified by the cultural norm of female suppression. This means that women’s issues and needs are less likely to be heard and represented through media and activism, and the lack of female representation in the political field suggests that many of these pressing issues will continue to go unnoticed. When a group or sector faces higher repression – the need for their representation at decision-making levels is amplified to a greater extent.

Ultimately, we cannot deny that there is a need of political inclusion of women – to be able to truly represent the needs of those whose voices remain unheard at decision-making levels is imperative for a society to function at its highest capability.

Moreover, an interesting point that has been raised on an international level is the fact that “when women are elected, they are more likely to work on the problems they themselves faced” which often includes pressing issues such as access to child healthcare, supply of clean water, and education.

Diversity in representation is imperative through gender, age, religion, race, disability, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, and more. It ensures decision making is done with all groups of society in mind, not just a few.