Photo courtesy of IPS

Women in Sri Lanka face serious barriers to political representation and the country ranks among the lowest in the world for the percentage of women in national legislatures. After the parliamentary elections in 2020, there were just over five percent of elected women representatives in parliament.

Underrepresentation of women occurs at each level of elected leaders at national, provincial and local government level due to a variety of systemic and institutional obstacles.

In 2016, through the Local Authorities (Amendment) Act, a 25 percent quota was mandated for women and implemented through the Local Authorities Elections Act of 2017. The quota increased women’s representation in local authorities from two percent to nearly 23 percent.

In order to assess the impact of this quota system, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems commissioned a study funded by the Australian government.

The report found that while the numbers of women increased, the quota did not address entrenched gender inequalities within the political system, lack of democracy within political parties and general bias against women in society. However, the quota broke the glass ceiling for women to get elected to local government.

While training had helped, more training linked to gender sensitisation and democratisation was needed for both men and women to address the power imbalances between male and female members in local government.

The study found that female councillors and candidates experienced gender related violence and intimidation that legal frameworks and media practices could not protect them from. Women councillors had to work in a system that facilitated male councillors in its structures.

The report recommended developing gender policies within political parties to ensure gender sensitive participation, power structures, processes and promotion of women.

It said that elections must be held under the Provincial Councils Elections Act so that the 25 per cent quota was met and that a quota of at least 25 percent for women should be introduced at the parliamentary level.

Gender sensitisation training as well as skills training provided to female councillors should be provided to male councillors as well, the report said. It recommended reforming the local government system to make it more participatory, inclusive and democratic.

One of the authors of the report, Kanaka Abeygunawardena, spoke to Groundviews about the study.