Photo courtesy of The Daily Mirror

In a country that produced the world’s first female head of state 60 years ago and has since seen the election of a female as its executive president, women trying to enter politics face hostility, harassment, threats, intimidation, violence and personal attacks on all fronts.

One woman was called a prostitute, accused of sleeping with powerful party members to gain influence and even blamed for her own mother’s murder while another was labelled a traitor to her race and an enemy of her people.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa made disparaging remarks about an opponent’s lack of children while in the United States, a congresswoman was accosted in the Capitol building by a male colleague and insulted in the vilest terms. Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has spoken out about women in public life facing threats of violence or rape.

The problem has become so severe across the world, as women’s participation in politics is accompanied by a rise in violence against women, that there is even an acronym – Violence Against Women in Politics (VAWP).

With the rising influence of social media, the slanders and insults against women politicians have only become worse, targeting their dress, physical appearance, behaviour, family background and personal preferences in order to undermine their sense of worth. False statements are made with the knowledge that there will be no accountability.

“Social networking sites, the media and politicians are subjecting many accomplished, brave women to slanderous criticism, forcing them to refrain from the political arena. It is an undeniable fact that the challenges faced by a female politician are many times greater than the challenges faced by a male politician. It is a matter of concern that party leaders and political figures continue to remain silent on the slanderous criticisms they face as female politicians,” said Shreen Saroor, a human rights activist and co-founder of Women’s Action Network and Mannar Women’s Development Federation.

The Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) recorded a rise in complaints about abuse against women as campaigning in the 2020 general election came to a close. “In many cases the attacks come from within their own parties. As a result, women are afraid to complain against their own party leaders and members and we cannot take any action in the absence of a formal complaint,” CMEV’s National Coordinator, Manjula Gajanayake, said.

When she was invited to contest from Jaffna, Ambika Satkunanathan, a former member of the Human Rights Commission, faced a barrage of abuse and harassment as well as false stories about her circulating on social media and by email.

“They want you to be frightened, to back down, to be humiliated and go back to you place. You are an easy target as a woman. It is never a critique of your opinions, values or work but it is a personal attack with the aim of creating misconceptions about you. If you are articulate and strong, you are a threat,” she said, blaming the targeting of women in politics on a patriarchal and misogynist culture that does not value or respect them. “Violence against women and children has been normalised in society,”  she pointed out.

Nalini Ratnarajah was seeking nomination from Batticaloa when she was viciously attacked on websites and diaspora TV channels for being outspoken and progressive. She cited such harassment as the main reason why women do not want to enter politics. “In our society, the dignity of the family is based on the woman’s character. If that is attacked, then the family is disgraced,” she said. “Society believes that politics is a man’s job, that women should do housework and follow cultural norms.”

“Women politicians are objectified, spoken of with sexual undertones and criticised for the way they speak or even for what they eat and drink,” pointed out former parliamentarian Hirunika Premachandra, who is contesting in the upcoming elections.

In an interview with a national newspaper she outlined the attacks against her – that she dated her father’s killer and that is why he shot her father, that she had taken money from the killer to close the court case, that she had a Buddha tattoo on her back and that she was three months pregnant when she got married.

In this toxic environment, where parliamentarians were seen throwing furniture inside the chamber and assaulting the Speaker and each other, it is no wonder that women are woefully under represented at all levels of the political sphere, making up just 5.7 percent or 13 out of 225 members in the last parliament. The current Cabinet of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has just one woman out of the 15 members.

In February this year several women MPs from different parties held a joint press conference to call for more women in politics. “We have worked on making 18 years the legal age to marry, prevention of child marriage, the removal of the column stating whether the parents of a child are married in the birth certificate and the equitable distribution of property among daughters and sons,” said Parliamentarian Thusitha Wijemanne.

The women MPs requested party leaders to have 30 percent of women in the nomination lists for each district and to consider 50 percent reservation for women on the national list. But their appeals have fallen on deaf ears. The five main parties are fielding a total of 1,082 candidates and just 59 of them are women, despite the fact that women represent 52 percent of the country’s population and 54 percent of its voters.

According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, females represent only 4.1 percent of seats in the Provincial Councils, and, before the change in legislation giving a 25 percent quota to women, only 2.3 percent of seats in the local government bodies. After the quota was introduced, women’s representation in local authorities rose from 2 percent to 29 percent because political parties had to field a large number of female candidates.

In the South Asian region, despite having the highest literacy rate and a high school enrolment and university representation, Sri Lanka is almost at the bottom in terms of the number of women in parliament behind Nepal, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Bhutan. Only the Maldives was lower.

The nation is the loser because of the lack of women’s representation in politics at all levels. A report by UN Women on Facts and figures: Leadership and Political Participation, stated that there was evidence that “women’s leadership in political decision-making processes improves them. Women demonstrate political leadership by working across party lines…and by championing issues of gender equality, such as the elimination of gender-based violence, parental leave and childcare, pensions, gender equality laws and electoral reform.”