It is generally opined that Sri Lankan politics had its phoenix moment as the January 8th presidential election came to pass; and as a young person living in Sri Lanka, I consider it a privilege to have witnessed and to have been a part of that ‘democratic revolution’. Unlike ever before in history, people were aware and more interested. Discussions and debates happened at every nook and corner of this small island nation, be it over dinner tables or at the village grocery store. Social media sites were flooded with political content, especially as young people started actively sharing ideas and opinions. More people were aware. More people were engaged.
This change of attitude towards politics was also reflected in the general election that followed after seven months. People were more aware of the importance of good governance and a ‘cleaner parliament’. Many civil society organizations were highly active in their awareness efforts, asking the people to vote for candidates with ‘clean slates’ and sound academic backgrounds. Media, both print and electronic, enjoyed more freedom in terms of content and representation. As opposed to one political party or candidate dominating media, we saw better representation of different political views and opinions. Given the fact that a new voter base of one million young people emerged with the presidential election, and having realized their newly revived political activism, candidates showed more attention to what young people were saying. Hence, even though the election did have its own share of ‘the same old mudslinging’ and hanky panky, this general election was declared by local and international election observers as the most free and fair election in the history of Sri Lanka.
Nevertheless, one aspect remained woefully the same - that of female representation.
Sri Lanka has a majority female population, with 52% of the population being women. Sri Lanka was the first country in South Asia that extended the power of franchise to women. In 1960, Sri Lanka produced the world’s first ever female head of the state, and then in 1994, a woman was once again elected as the President of Sri Lanka. Even with such a blazing history, albeit dynastical in nature, Sri Lanka today ranks 140 out of 153 in terms of female representation, with a less than 6% representation at the National Parliament, 6% in the Provincial Council and a mere 2% in local government.
Despite many efforts by women’s groups in Sri Lanka to introduce a quota for women in decision making bodies - and the President’s promise in his election manifesto to introduce such a quota - female participation in politics remains in its same stagnant position, without adequate policy level action to support and empower women to engage in active politics. The two leading political parties in Sri Lanka, even with many promises in their manifestos towards empowering women, had fewer than 20 female candidates in their nomination lists. Worse, the national lists (a proposed list of academics, intellectuals, activists, etc who are appointed to the parliament on merit by the respective parties) featured no women.
Going beyond this abysmal lack of female representation, even those women who come forth to contest are forced to go through many challenges - challenges that an average male candidate does not have to face. Most female candidates are ridiculed on the basis of looks, personal life and their romantic interests. There have been many instances where violent and derogatory language has been used by both the candidates and the general public, when talking about or commenting on the female candidate. Sexist comments become a ‘norm’ during elections, discouraging many qualified women from coming forward. Women who enter politics are considered by society as ‘rowdy and against our culture’, thereby instilling a deep-rooted antagonism about women entering politics.
Yet another thing to be observed is how the female candidates are largely restricted to talking only about women’s affairs. In many political talk shows, the female candidates are questioned only regarding the plight of women in Sri Lanka and women’s rights. In my personal opinion, this is yet again a sexist approach towards women - to consider that female candidates have no other areas of expertise than that of empowering women. This projection of female candidates once again plays to their disadvantage in the eyes of a voter, who may not consider women’s empowerment a priority (in fact, this is the perception of the majority). This is reflected also in the newly appointed cabinet, which has two female ministers assigned the portfolios which are culturally perceived as belonging to women - women’s affairs and child protection.
Sri Lankan elections have changed for the better in many ways. People now talk about democracy, believe in democracy, and yet they still fail to grasp that ‘democracy’ doesn’t occur without inclusive representation. And with 52% of the population being represented by less than 6%, we are long behind in the line of achieving it.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Royal Commonwealth Society.