2019 Aug 19
Twenty five years ago on the 19th of August, Sri Lanka appointed a Prime Minister who would go on to become the country’s first female President. Forty nine year old Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, later that same year, won a landslide victory in Sri Lanka’s Presidential Election to complete a political earthquake of stunning magnitude by beating her opponent by 2 million votes.
Chandrika Bandaranaike was the daughter of two former prime ministers. Her father was S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, founder of the socialist Sri Lanka Freedom Party and prime minister from 1956 until his assassination in 1959. Her mother was Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who took control of the party upon his death and who served as prime minister from 1960 to 1965 and from 1970 to 1977.
Ms Bandaranaike was educated at the Universities of Paris and London, where she studied political science, economics, law, and journalism. She turned to politics in 1984 and with her husband, Vijaya Kumaratunga, a former actor, helped establish the Sri Lanka People’s Party. When her husband was assassinated in 1988, she formed the United Socialist Alliance. After a period in London she returned to Sri Lanka in the early 1990s and in 1993 formed the leftist coalition People’s Alliance.
In elections held on August 16, 1994, the People’s Alliance took the largest number of seats in parliament, and on August 19 Kumaratunga became prime minister. She then won in a landslide victory in the presidential election held on November 9 when she defeated Srima Dissanayake, widow of the United National Party (UNP) candidate Gamini Dissanayake, who had been assassinated two weeks earlier.
With such monumental progressive strides towards electing a female president, the country still worked under the patriarchal and corrupt culture that was embedded and rooted into the system.
The Ceylonese State Council Election of 1931 allowed all Sri Lankan citizens to participate in the democratic process through ‘universal suffrage’. Since then, Sri Lankan women have had the constitutional freedom and right to vote and participate in political activities and the country even went on to elect the world’s first female Prime Minister.
Despite the statutory freedom, women’s participation in Sri Lankan politics has been one of the lowest in South Asia. In fact, only four percent of the seats in provincial councils and 1.9 percent in local governments have been held by women up until 2012; and Sri Lanka was ranked 180th out of 190 countries in the IPU ranking of female representation in parliament as of June 2017.
Passing the Local Authorities Elections (Amendment) Act No. 1 of 2016 sought to address this by introducing a mandatory quota of 25 percent for women through a one-third increase in the total number of seats at the local government level, i.e. Pradeshiya Sabas, Urban Councils and Municipal Councils. This measure was believed to be one that was progressive in terms of promoting gender equality. But have we really seen these laws bear the true fruit we desire ? With clogs throughout the path it is still a mammoth task for a Sri Lankan woman to push past the barriers and cultural disdain.
Women constitute 52 percent of Sri Lanka’s population and 56 percent of the registered voters are female. Against this backdrop, it is quite ironic that the country has failed to engage more women in politics.
With a few prominent women breaking glass ceilings and participating in our local political sphere, our hearts do flutter with a damaged sense of hope. From Rosy Senanayake, the first female mayor of Colombo to Ferial Ashraff, Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP) MP for Ampara 2010 who have fought long and hard in a world where it is predominantly controlled by old confused men. It is finally our time to ensure our rights and liberties are being met.