Women excel in many fields except in politics
By Sugeeswara Senadhira
Sri Lanka is a country that boasts of producing the first woman Prime Minister and a woman Executive President surprisingly elected only 8 women out of the total of 196 elected MPs in the General Election held in 2020. – after 50 per cent or more women voters enjoyed adult franchise for nearly 90 years. Thanks to the National List, four more women MPs were appointed taking the total to 12 in Parliament of the 225 MPs.
Not a single woman member was elected to the first State Council at the Elections held in 1931, the year the first State Council was elected after universal adult franchise was granted by the Colonial rulers. However, in the same year, Adeline Molamure, the first female member of the State Council of Ceylon was elected when she won the by-election held for the Ruwanwella electorate which became vacant due to death of her father, Meedeniya Adigar. Later, Neysum Saravanamuttu also joined the Council winning the Colombo North by-election after her husband Ratnajothi Saravanamuttu was unseated in an election petition.
In the first Parliamentary Elections in 1947 only Florence Senanayake was elected and later Kusuma Gunawardena and Thamara Illangaratne joined the House by winning by-elections after their husbands – Philip Gunawardena due to his imprisonment by British rulers and T B Illangaratne losing an election petition - were unseated. Kusuma Gunawardena, who served three consecutive terms, was known for her constructive contribution during many debates. Another leftist women MP who was a fiery speaker was Vivienne Gunawardena who was in Parliament in 1956-59, 1963-65 and 1970-77.
In the first 4 Parliamentary Elections there were only 3 women members elected. Although Sirimavo Bandaranaike became Prime Minister in July 1960, she too was appointed to the Senate and was not an elected MP, until she contested and entered the House in 1965 and became Leader of the Opposition.
Except for prominent leftist politicians, most of the women MPs were from elitist families and joined politics due to patronage or death of their fathers or husbands. Some analysts are of the opinion that many high society ladies were reluctant to join politics and attract publicity as they were vary of Media attention and adverse publicity due to family scandals if they become popular politicians. The past incidents involving Adeline Molamure and Vimala Wijewardene might have prevented many socialites from entering politics. Sir Francis Molamure, Speaker of State Council was unseated in 1934 after an absence of three months without leave following conviction in the misappropriation of funds while functioning as a trustee.
Mirigama MP, Vimala Wijewardene, lone cabinet minister in the Government of Prime Minister S W R D Bandaranaike was arrested in 1959 as a prime suspect in the Bandaranaike assassination case. The Media attention was drawn to her alleged clandestine affair with the ‘coup leader’ Ven Mapitigama Buddharakkita, who was imprisoned for life.
Undue Media attention could be one of the reasons for women to shun politics. There could be many other reasons also for women representation in Parliament to be less than 5 per cent in a country in which female population is over 52 per cent. This low rate is despite the fact that Sri Lankan women have gradually been able to occupy a higher representation in a number of areas of economic, social and cultural life in Sri Lanka today.
As President Gotabaya Rajapaksa pointed out in his Women’s Day message, Sri Lankan women today challenge men in a number of fields that were earlier reserved only for men. Recent promotion of the first woman Deputy Inspector General of Police was an example of successes of women in spheres earlier believed as areas only men with physical power could hold.
These accomplishments stand as an example not only for the woman’s intelligence, courage and commitment but also for the social justice in and maturity of our society, President Rajapaksa said, but stressed that women representation in the political arena needs to be further elevated.
Increase female representation
Three years ago, when the new electoral system was drafted it was suggested to increase female representation up to 25 per cent at the Local Government Elections. However, that objective could not be fully matched as there were not enough women members were elected. Hence, it was necessary to appoint women members from reserved lists.
As President Rajapaksa pointed out in his message, the Sri Lankan society appreciated and respected the woman and her role as a mother, sister, wife and housewife with utmost dignity since ancient times. The way a country treats and accepts women is a social indicator of its true development. Sri Lanka has been exemplary in this respect.
The national policy framework, “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour” which precisely identifies the role of woman, promises to promote the socio-economic contribution by women. Its eight-fold approach is now being made a reality.
Recognising the imperative need for productive action to solve gender issues, the Women Parliamentarians’ Caucus (WPC) recently urged Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena to appoint a Special Parliamentary Committee (SPC) to look into discrimination against women and violations of women’s rights and make necessary recommendations to ensure gender equality.This letter has been submitted with the signatures of all the female Members of Parliament across party divisions.
It has been suggested that the Committee should present a report in Parliament within a period of one year. The establishment of this Committee has proposed primarily, to address the unresolved issues of the discriminated, on the basis of gender as well as ensuring gender equity and equality are promoted and respected and to ensure, all women and girls are empowered in Sri Lanka. The Secretary General of Parliament, Dhammika Dasanayake said, this notice of motion has been included in to the addendum to the Order Book No. 03 of Parliament.
Eastern Province Governor Anuradha Yahampath said the woman’s fight is not over yet and the main hurdle is that women did not have the political leadership they need in our country. “Less than 6 per cent of our Parliament is made up of women. Women’s leadership needs to be more in our Parliament and in our politics,” she said, summarising the main problem faced by Sri Lankan women.