By Sugeeswara Senadhira/Ceylon Today
Colombo, March 9: Sri Lanka is a country that boasts of producing the world’s first woman Prime Minister (Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike) and a woman Executive President (Mrs. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga). But it elected only 8 women out of the total of 196 sent to parliament in the General Election held in 2020. This despite the fact that Sri Lankan women have been enjoying the right to vote for the past 90 years.
However, thanks to the National List system, four more women were nominated to parliament taking the total to 12 in a Parliament of 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 British 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 the 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 through an election petition.
In the first Parliamentary Elections in 1947 only Florence Senanayake was elected. Later Kusuma Gunawardena and Thamara Illangaratne joined the House by winning by-elections in seats vacated by their husbands. Kusuma Gunawardena’s husband Philip Gunawardena had been imprisonment by the British rulers and T B Illangaratne had lost an election petition. 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 four Parliamentary Elections there were only 3 elected women members. 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 the 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 wary of media attention and adverse publicity. Past incidents involving Adeline Molamure and Vimala Wijewardene might have prevented many socialites from entering politics. Sir Francis Molamure, Speaker of State Counci,l was unseated in 1934 after an absence of three months without leave following conviction in a misappropriation of funds case while functioning as a trustee.
Mirigama MP, Vimala Wijewardene, the 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 went to town on her alleged clandestine affair with the ‘coup leader’ Ven Mapitigama Buddharakkita, who was imprisoned for life.
Apart from undue media attention, there could be many other reasons for women’s representation in Parliament to be less than 5 per cent in a country in which females are over 52 per cent of the total population. This low representation is despite the fact that Sri Lankan women have 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 for men. The recent promotion of the first woman Deputy Inspector General of Police is an example of successes of women in spheres earlier believed to be exclusive to men.
These accomplishments stand as an example not only of woman’s intelligence, courage and commitment but also of social justice in and the maturity of Lankan society, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said. But he stressed that women’s representation in the political arena needs to be elevated.
Increase female representation
Three years ago, when a new electoral system was drafted, it was suggested that female representation be at least 25 per cent in Local Government Elections. However, that objective could not be fully matched. It was necessary to appoint women members from reserved lists.
As President Rajapaksa pointed out in his message, Sri Lankan society has appreciated and respected woman in her role as a mother, sister, wife and housewife 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, he said.
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.
Recognizing the imperative of 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 year. The Committee is expected to address the unresolved issues of gender inequality and ensure gender equity and equality. The Secretary General of Parliament, Dhammika Dasanayake said, a notice of a motion on this has been included in to the addendum to the Order Book No. 03 of Parliament.
Eastern Province Governor Anuradha Yahampath said that women’s fight is not over yet The main hurdle is that women do 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, summarizing the main problem faced by Sri Lankan women.