Female representatives to Parliament – Will we succeed in fulfilling the 25% quota

By Sarah Hannan

Women in Sri Lanka have been engaged in politics since the First State Council of Ceylon held from 1931-1935 with Adeline Molamure, CBE, who was elected from Ruwanwella, along with Naysum Saravanamuttu from Colombo North.

From 1931 to 2020, Sri Lanka has seen 124 seats allocated to women with Sirimavo R.D. Bandaranaike taking the reigns as the world’s first female Prime Minister on 21 July 1960 and her daughter Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga being appointed as the Executive President of the Third Parliament of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka on 12 November 1994.

Women’s equal participation in politics and their representation is recognised by the UN Convention on Eradication of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, of which Sri Lanka is a signatory state. The law in Sri Lanka states that women enjoy equal opportunities and equal rights as men, yet it is argued that in practice, the woman is only a second-class citizen in the country.

Female representation in people’s representative bodies in current Sri Lanka stands at 5.8% in Parliament, 1.9% in local authorities, and none at the provincial council level.

In this backdrop, the Election Commission (EC) is in the process of implementing a series of awareness programmes for representatives of political parties and women activists on the empowerment of women politically, amendments to the laws of local authorities’ elections, representation of women in local authorities, and issues thereof.

The quota system of 25% representation in local authorities and issues of women’s participation in politics too will be discussed during these awareness programmes.

This week, The Sunday Morning spoke to a few of the candidates and activist groups on how female representatives could impact the development of the country.

Women should be empowered to hold office

Jathika Handa Co-convener and Stop Child Cruelty Trust Founder/Chairperson Dr. Tush Wickramanayake

52% of the population in Sri Lanka is women who carry the financial burden of a nation in their hands – the labour workforce of women in the Middle East is the main contributor for the economic stability of Sri Lanka. Yet, women form the most vulnerable and overlooked community as well. The grave situation of the women stuck in the Middle East is a classic example of how the Government of Sri Lanka treated our “golden girls”.

Sri Lankan politics have a rich ancestry with pedigree politics taking the lead. Female politicians become overnight sensations when they step into their dead father’s, husband’s, or brother’s roles. Although there may be few successful features in each of their careers, the abysmal depth in the quality of female representation is because they are transformed overnight into the political arena. Unlike in the developed countries, these females have no formal training in politics or experience in working up the ladder of the state service machinery or social services. Hence, the following statistics prove that we should be super intelligent to leave the wrong women out and be courageous to vote the right women in – quality vs. quantity.

During the term of the last Parliament, there were 13 (later 12) female MPs. There were 400 parliamentary sessions but they only spoke on matters relating to women on 15 occasions in total – a shocking 0.28%. Some did not even speak once and some never spoke even on their subject matter.

A prime mistake that successive governments have made is to amalgamate the two most vulnerable communities in society, women and children, into one ministry; Ministry of Women and Child Affairs. Even though 52% of our population are women and are the main income generators from Middle East employment, women have lost their voice not only in Parliament but also in society at large, attracting lower income than their male counterparts in the job market in the professional/corporate field, in entertainment, and sports. They are imprisoned in their own homes due to domestic violence, a subject still taboo in our society. We must be more outspoken and endorse zero tolerance of abuse by any politician on any platform to make it a fair playing field.

A woman has the natural skills of management and organisation. They are gifted with the natural emotions of sympathy and empathy. They are stronger mentally. However, most women are deprived of coming forward in a male-dominant political arena because of a lack of funding, lack of support from their families, and the current pungent state of politics. Therefore, we must encourage our sisters with moral support, defend them against discrimination, increase awareness and training, and empower women to hold office.

Development perceived in a humane perspective

SLPP Gampaha District candidate Dr. Sudarshini Fernandopulle

56% of the country’s registered voter population is female and 52% of the population of Sri Lanka is female, yet we have not been duly represented in Parliament.

By appointing a female representative to Parliament, the women of Sri Lanka will have the opportunity to change many laws and regulations that are hindering the progression of careers and personal wellbeing of women; laws and regulations that are at present used to discriminate against women. For decades, we have been struggling to amend the minimum age of marriage that is set out in the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA).

Furthermore, there are several personal laws which discriminate against women which need to be looked at and amended as well. This can only be achieved if there is a woman’s voice in Parliament who can bring these issues to light.

We need to also look at bringing in clauses to the Shop and Office Employees (Regulation of Employment and Remuneration Act) and amending other labour laws which will empower women to progress in their careers and serve in top managerial positions. If we do not address the discrimination that is faced by women, we are only using half of the population to develop the country.

If women representatives are elected to Parliament during the decision-making process in prioritising sectoral development, they will look at it from a more humane perspective and focus on improving human resources, increasing quality, and adding emotion to the country’s development – for instance, improving the quality of education and providing vocational training, which will not require many budgetary allocations.

Real issues of women have not been raised in Parliament

National People’s Power (NPP) Matara District candidate Saroja Savitri Paulraj

We call upon all Sri Lankans to look to the future of their children and not to make the same old mistake. Use your vote for the betterment of your child’s future. Vote not for only women of decorum, but also for women who are able to make a real difference in your problems and struggles to make your child’s future better.

It was our country that produced the world’s first female prime minister; the country that produced the world’s first female executive president. But think of the plight of women in our country. Among women, 52% of the population, 40% of the pregnant mothers suffer from anaemia. Nearly 50% of schoolchildren suffer from undernourishment; of the 100 babies born, 16 have low premature birth weight; we are the second most in inherited malnutrition in Asia; our country places fourth in poverty; one in every 50 persons is addicted to drugs; and one out of every 50 families is imprisoned. All of them are the children of our mothers.

Rulers have brought the country to a state of tragedy, which has become a culturally serious matter. Therefore, we invite you to make a decisive turn in the 2020 general election and make a wise decision for the future of your children, instead of the politics of promises. Vote for the representatives of the entire nation from the nationalist movement and elect a representative who does not betray the mandate.

Today, there is 5.8% female representation in Parliament. The country with the highest female representation in the Asian region is around 32%. We don’t have a problem with the number of people, but it is necessary to question whether the Parliament has so far received representation of women who could embody the voice of the real people of our country.

We condemn situations where people’s representatives are turned in to jokers. A woman should be able to stand for her mandate. Harassment or verbal abuse and sexual harassment on social media are condemned with contempt. This is a major obstacle for women in Sri Lankan politics.

Politics of politicians, descended from powerful families, are undermining women’s politics. This is a serious issue. Adolescence is a time when we should take up challenges and stand up against stealing, cheating, and corruption. But now, the young generation has become a society that often defends criminals and protects them.

The younger generation is kneeling beside the politicians. There is no social progress or advancement in such a country. So, give your mandate to the women who see the offence as offensive; stand up against injustice, stand up against stealing and thuggery, and compete for the compass of the national force.

If your child has to go behind a politician for education and employment, we propose to end that political culture in 2020. I invite all politicians who are not sold under a systematic and systematic programme to rally on a path of pride and dignity.

Elect strong-minded female representatives

United National Party (UNP) Kandy District candidate Shrima Shanthini Kongahage

The UNP, being one of the oldest political parties, this time too will have our loyal supporters who will intelligently use their right to vote during the upcoming election. As a people’s representative and as a council member who has served the Kandy District for over 15 years, I believe that once elected, one must keep the political biases aside and look for ways to uplift the country’s citizens’ livelihoods.

Our party has a trusted governing mechanism which has always looked at developing not only the area that we get elected from, but the country as a whole. While the SLPP (Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna) will have the upper hand in this election, we too should be ready to support the vision of the ruling party. After all, we get elected to Parliament to be the voice for the thousands of people that vote for us.

For a country’s government to efficiently function, a strong opposition needs to be established. That means, the parliamentarians that get elected should closely observe the development work that the ruling party will continue once the new parliament is elected for 2020.

Today, political parties select their candidates based on not their ability to do grassroots-level development work, their social service rendered, or their political experiences and contribution to the country’s development, but rather on what their net worth is and whether they are able to finance the political party’s election campaign. It is a sorry state of affairs that we have to deal with.

Presently, our country’s political atmosphere is built on fear-mongering and attempts to influence the law of the country through thuggery. This needs to be changed and it is the people of the country who have the power to do so.

I would urge the voters to take an intelligent decision when exercising their votes this time, regardless of the political party that is represented. This time, I have observed that in most districts, we have well-read and highly skilled female candidates that have joined in.

It is the responsibility of the citizens of Sri Lanka to elect strong-minded female representatives to Parliament, so that there is a visible female representation that can voice out the pain points that women face in this country and find solutions for long-standing issues that need to be addressed.

I would also like to commend the work done by female parliamentarians during the last Parliament’s ruling.

Firstly, the sexual education book that was to be distributed to Grade Seven students, “Hathe Ape Potha”, was a publication designed by Dr. Thusitha Wijemanne while she was serving at the Ministry of Health. That was something that the education system was lacking all these years. Creating awareness among adolescents about their sexual and reproductive systems in turn improves their quality of education and can contribute towards improving their quality of life too.

Secondly, Dr. Sudharshani Fernandopulle, representing the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) while serving in parliament committees to address issues of violence against women, issues of children, and issues faced by state sector workers, was seen as an instrumental figure that became the voice for these sectors. Dr. Fernandopulle has also contributed immensely to develop children’s health and education and improve the level of education in poverty-stricken rural families by offering scholarships to deserving children.

An important decision

Social activist and entrepreneur Vraie Cally Balthazaar

Over the last five years, we have repeatedly shared our concern about the very small number of women who have represented us in Parliament. I also find it very problematic that only one woman below the age of 40 holds office.

Having more women in Parliament is important to be able to create a future that is representative of us, as citizens. If we are to create a system that is truly responsive to our needs, it makes more sense to have people who understand and empathise with our concerns, specifically as women.

The list of women contesting at this general election is sadly not very long, but I hope we are able to take some time to study about the women in our respective districts. The push to have more women on the list must be a proactive one and should begin well before nominations.

We must remember that too many decisions about women’s rights, work, and bodies are taken by a group that does not represent the majority of our population. This is what we must strive to change.