Chulani Kodikara has written five articles for Groundviews, three on the topic of women in mainstream politics in Sri Lanka. Revealingly, they are comparatively three of the most under-read articles on this site. Women are not willing to go back to pre-war status quo, a compelling essay written for the special edition on the end of war, has at the time of writing only generated around 450 pageviews, abysmal in comparison to the tens of thousands who read and engaged with other articles in this special edition.
This marked lack of interest in and awareness of a vital issue provided the backdrop for a recent conversation with Chulani on the issue of women’s representation in Sri Lankan mainstream politics. Fundamentally, the issue is marginal to mainstream political parties and of peripheral interest at best to most voters – female and male. In an important essay, Chulani notes that “the main obstacle to equal political representation of women in political institutions in Sri Lanka is political parties” and goes on to say,
In reality however, beyond the symbolic inclusion of one or two women in nomination lists, both parties have not taken concrete action to seriously address the under-representation of women in political institutions. The enormous costs of contesting elections, the thuggery and violence, the competition within the party fostered by the proportional representation system and the general lack of support for women candidates from male colleagues mean that even the few women who are offered, are often reluctant to accept nominations. (From Women and politics in Sri Lanka: The challenges to meaningful participation)
In this interview, I ask Chulani about affirmative action, and also whether for example, the entry of telegenic females sans political acumen to parliament in any way helps advocacy on stronger female representation. Pegged to this, I also question her about substantive equality, that goes beyond, in her own words, the classical liberal notion of formal equality which assume that removing formal barriers, for example giving women the right to vote and be elected to political office, is sufficient to give women equal access to political institutions.
We talk about the role of women in post-war Sri Lanka, examples from South Asia as well as the rest of the world where women play a far more active role in politics, getting women to vote in women, the political culture in Sri Lanka and changing it for the better, experiences of other countries that post-war that have actively encouraged the participation of women in processes of reconciliation and the need, that Chulani herself has identified, to “revisit and reframe the discourse on increasing political representation of women in Sri Lanka”.