2019 Oct 10
Globally there are an estimated 22 women are functioning as Presidents, Prime Ministers or Chancellors in their countries. Although impressive, this number is by no means enough.
We have miles and miles to go before women are elected to office worldwide in proportion to their numerical strength, but it would bode well with this article to highlight proudly that Sri Lanka made history by swearing in the world’s first woman Prime Minister fifty-nine years ago. It was on the 21st of July, 1960 that Sirimavo Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike assumed office as Prime Minister. It is said the British press had to coin a new description “Stateswoman” instead of the usual statesman after she assumed office.
Sirimavo, known generally as Sirima, was born on April 17, 1916 as the eldest daughter of Barnes Ratwatte Dissawe and Rosalind Hilda Mahawelatanna Kumarihamy a Kandyan “radala” family of aristocratic lineage.
Sirimavo walked the hallowed academic walls of St. Bridget’s Convent Colombo and went on to get married to the great orator Solomon W.R.D. Bandaranaike from a leading low-country Sinhala aristocratic family in 1940. Their age difference was 17 years and the marriage was hailed as a union between two patrician low-country and up-country families then.
The point that needs emphasis here is that Sirimavo, despite the conventional role assigned to women in Sri Lankan society, in particular in the 1940s and 50s, was an intelligent and versatile companion to her husband, despite being in his shadow. There indeed were far more strings to Sirimavo’s bow than had been acknowledged at this time. In this regard, it is necessary to bear in mind that during this era there was little or insufficient recognition and acceptance of the role that women could play outside the home and in the social arena. Contrary to popular belief she was not just a housewife making tea for the statesmen who paid calls to their home but rather had acquired quite a strong political acumen and diplomacy along the years.
Despite political victimisation that led to the deprivation of her civic rights from October 16th 1980 until their restoration on January 1st 1986, Sirimavo Bandaranaike continued to serve Sri Lanka loyally and diligently.
Sirimavo, a socialist, advanced her husband’s socio-economic policies including nationalization of principal sectors of economy, encompassing banking and insurance; maintaining neutral international relations that is following nonalignment policy with neither West nor East; actively advocating for Buddhism and the national Sinhalese language and culture which brought about an enraged minority groups that felt secluded from the national rhetoric.
The illustrious Sri Lankan power couple Solomon and Sirima had three children who wandered into politics and affairs of the government and public welfare. Her family held a prominent position in Sri Lankan politics for decades. While her daughter Chandrika Kumaratunga served as the fourth Executive President of Sri Lanka, her late son Anura Bandaranaike served as Speaker of Parliament of Sri Lanka and also remained a cabinet minister. The leadership gene clearly was a dominant one in this family pool.
In Maureen Seneviratne’s book “Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the World’s First Woman Prime Minister: A Biography.” She compared the politics of both husband and wife and noted thus “If Mr. Bandaranaike’s stature as a politician and leader was built up over decades of campaigning, Sirima donned hers like a cloak that had been lying in her wardrobe for years, unworn, but which had been pressed and kept ready for wearing at any given moment.”
Apart from being the first female Premier, Sirimavo Bandaranaike has also been her country’s longest serving Prime Minister. Her first term was from 1960 to 1965. Her second Prime Ministerial term was from 1970 to 1977. During these terms of office, Sirimavo was head of the government and effectively ruled the country as the executive presidential system had not been introduced then. In later years, she functioned as PM under an executive presidency from 1994 to 2000, and altogether, she served as PM for a total of 18 years.