Groundviews

The gender paradox in Sri Lanka

Photo courtesy Talking Economics

Women make up 50% of the population but only 5% of the parliament  – how can this be solved?

”If the women of a country are slaves, the men can never be free”. These were the words written by the Editorial, in the Sri Lankan magazine Voice of Women, as long back as January, 1980. Sri Lanka has a long history of female activist groups fighting for the rights of women since the 1970’s. Much has changed since then: a devastating war, a liberalised economy, a globalised world and new media that breaks old boundaries. In addition, a vital part of Maithripala Sirisena’s winning Presidential campaign was the slogan “A new Sri Lanka for Women”.

Among Sri Lankan women there is now hope for a better future. A future that will include a better life with more freedom and respect towards their gender – in the public as well as in the private sphere. However, a lot of obstacles and questions remain: Will the President and Prime Minister as promised genuinely support women’s struggle for increasing political representation, not just on the local level, but also on the provincial and national level? Will women’s activist groups be able to convince the political parties to support this reform, and will female candidates be able to capture enough votes?

At a recent roundtable meeting with the Norwegian electoral expert Kåre Vollan, female activists surrounded the table. The room was filled with a vibrant energy. Now, many said, is the moment, “But how do we grasp it? What can we do so we don’t loose our chance to change”, the women asked Kåre Vollan, as if the foreign expert had the solution to the problems some of the activists had spent half their life trying to solve.

The subject of the discussion was the prospect of increasing women’s participation in politics in the context of the current constitutional and electoral reforms. One of the possibilities discussed was the introduction of quotas, so at least 1/3 of the seats in parliament by law should consist of women. Kåre Vollan was for this proposal and explained: “In new democracies it is very common to have quotas on women’s participation in politics. You don’t have it in the old European democracies because here it is implemented as a natural part of the thinking in the society, but that has taken a hundred years.” One of the female participants promptly reacted by noting that “in Europe it took a hundred years, but we have had the right to vote in Sri Lanka almost as long as in Europe, so we better speed things up”, implicitly stating the contradictory fact that though Sri Lanka introduced voting rights for all adults in 1931, making it the eldest democracy in Asia, there is nevertheless a high level of discrimination against women and just 5% representation of women in political offices even though women make up over 50 % of the Sri Lankan society.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe has already promised to bring the issue up in the parliament if the women activists can convince political parties to vote for the proposal. So that’s the “headache”, as Maithree Wickremesinghe, Senior Lecturer, University of Kelaniya articulated during the discussion: “We have tried for so long, but how do we convince the political parties that it’s a good idea with quotas? Because they do not buy the ‘human rights angle’!”

Towards the end of the discussion Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, delivered a speech that both provoked, motivated and gave answers to some of the women activist’s questions:

“Please don’t be convinced, persuaded or carried away by this version that some steps will be made now and the rest will come with the new government and in the next election. The opportunity is now. This is not just about women, it is about citizenship, so where is the public campaign on this basis? I have yet to see a major public rally or demonstration in support of this, I have yet to see a social media campaign on this theme, what are you all doing?”

He continued, pointing out that it was about time the women stood up to the politicians, united and used “their power of numbers”.

The challenge for the women activists is, inter alia, to fight a patriarchal culture and discourse by mobilizing voices that are pro-gender equality in Sri Lanka through the media and the public realm, so that in turn pressure can be applied to political parties to encourage the greater and more meaningful participation of women in the political mainstream.

According to activist Dr. Sujatha Gamage it is also necessary that the women activists get more involved in the political world: “Women activists has to take a general interests in politics. Female activists has in some way put themselves in a corner, where they have focused on women’s issues and human rights issues and not politics. I think it’s time female activists goes into the political realm on a broader basis,” she concludes.

According to Activist Shanti Satchithanandam they have tried to navigate in the political realm but without much success:

“We have worked for a long time trying to get women into politics, and we have failed miserably. We have lobbied political parties, we have worked at the grass root level trying to build up women’s leadership skills and tried to promote them as political representatives, but it hasn’t worked.  We haven’t been able to convince the political parties or the voters.”

The voters have been reluctant to vote on women candidates in previous elections, and Satchithanandam emphasizes the need to introduce quotas if female candidate shall have a fair chance, mainly because of two reasons: First, the political culture rewards politicians that are energetic and dictatorial rather than good at mediating and working within teams. Secondly the politicians have until now deliberately nominated weak and unskilled women, leaving the voters the impression that all women are useless when it comes to policy.

According to Shanti Satchithanandam more women in politics will also mean a necessary shift in the political culture: “If you look at the way our politics has unfolded the last 30 years it has really become macho and militaristic. Elections have not been won on policies or performances in the parliament but on macho-power. If we get 40 or 50 women in the parliament this will chance, the women will come with other issues and another political style which will improve the political system”, she states and emphasizes that it’s not just about introducing quotas: “It’s about reforming the political culture and that requires a much more in debt approach to this issue,”

More women in politics would be a big step towards fulfilling President Maithripala Sirisena’s election slogan “A new Sri Lanka for Women” and it would be beneficial for all groups in society, “including women in the top of decision making redresses the imbalance in policy investment, increases educational institutions, public health, and social institutions. It makes the policy more balanced and creates a better society”, the internationally recognized political sociologist Barbara Wejnert explained.

The coming weeks will be crucial. Will the female activist groups succeed in mobilising masses and winning public support? Will the women execute their power of numbers, unite and claim their rights? And are the Sri Lankan people ready to give up a part of the deep-rooted patriarchal culture in support of gender equality?