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Women’s Political Representation in Sri Lanka: Leading towards Prosperity or Peril
December 04, 2017
This paper argues that greater representation of women in Sri Lanka's parliament and local government institutions, and greater gender sensitivity in general, will have substantially positive implications for the country, including accelerating the post-conflict reconciliation and recovery process.
The political participation has become broad and complex and it cannot be understood in isolation from its context. The broad cultural, historical, political, and economic factors are shaping the direction of what is understood by political participation in each country. It can be understood at two interconnected levels - decision making and struggle for power (Attanayake, 2008). It encompasses a wide range of political activities of citizens in electoral and administrative processes, ranging from the right to vote to be elected and to hold office at all levels of governance. Also, they can join with trade unions, vast range of social movements in order to raise public awareness on socially concerned political issues (FIU, n.d.). The modern democratic political system has recognized the freedom of both men and women in influence or to support governance and politics.
Sri Lanka gained the universal voting right in 1931 and Sri Lanka had recognized as a model of Third World Democracy and as a model of women’s participation in the Asian region (Attanayake, 2008). The country elected Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike as the world’s First female Prime Minister in 1960 and elected Mrs. Chandrika Bandaranaike as the country’s first female Executive President in 1994 (Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d.). Sri Lanka is the leading country in the Human Development Index among South Asia. For example, the life expectancy at birth for women is 79.4 years against 72.2 years for men, labor force participation of women recorded as 35.5%, the literacy rate among female remains 91.7%, and 48 per cent of people enrolled in universities are women (Country meters, 2017). Women held senior official positions at the legal sector as chief justice, Supreme Court judges and administrative sector as Secretary to the Ministries, administrators of local governing institutions (Attanayake, 2008).
However, the irony is that Sri Lankan women reached at the highest political status in Asia, while having the lowest representation in the parliament and local government institutions in the country. The patriarchal political parties are in influence in shaping women’s prospects and political system is dominating the voting right of women. The electoral system and institutionalized political parties are the most significant elements that influence on women’s participation in politics (Attanayake, 2008). Recently, President Maithripala Sirisena passed the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, which has a provision of a 25% legal quota for women in local government. This victory can be identified as an important milestone in improving female participation of the politics in the country (Philips, 2015).
In presence, the discourse on participation in electoral processes involves two sides. On the one hand, one argument claims that women’s political participation must be increased in a manner that stands beyond just voting and the party politics, but with more inclusive process as to raise women’s voice in the decision making table and gain the recognition in the society. On the other hand, one may argue that women’s participation in politics already been granted to Sri Lankan women, yet actors who are leading and representing on women, politics have not able to make a productive contribution to increase the women active participation and her recognition in politics. In order to understand this complexity over women’s political participation, one main question must be answered: Why should women’s political representation in Sri Lanka be increased at the local and national level? In addition, it is relevant to understand that how women’s political participation can contribute to improved gender equality, promoted gender sensitivity, and accelerated the post conflict reconciliation process in the country. It can be observed that the prolonged discourse on improving Sri Lankan women’s representation in politics has resulted in increasing the number of women participating in the electoral process and in the political campaigns, yet, gender sensitivity in decision making and active participation of the female politicians in the representative bodies remains very poor.
First, this paper will discuss the need for equal representation of women in decision making and how it has been reflected in existing political bodies. Second, it will discuss the need for gender sensitivity and the efforts carrying out by current political actors in adopting a gender sensitive approach in Sri Lankan politics. Third, the author will look at the potentialities of women’s representation in politics in order to enhance the post war reconciliation process in the country. In contrast, the author will critically look at the role played by elected female politicians in representing women’s issues in decision making bodies. Next, the paper will critically analyze the work done in advancing women’s political representation done by non-government actors. In conclusion, the paper will suggest recommendations government, women political leaders, and civil society take effective actions and make policies to promote proactive political participation of women and make use her capacities for betterment of the country.
Equal representation for women in the decision making process
Women’s equitable representation in elected political bodies is significant due to the following three reasons. First, women constitute more than half of the population in Sri Lanka, but their representation has marginalized from the decision making and political bodies (Law and Society Trust, 2016). Second, the Proportional Representation (PR) system has improved equitable representation, but it has not to make a significant change in the terms of strengthening the democratic governance and third, women have different visions, capabilities, perspectives from men which can be used to boost the development of the country (Kodikara, 2009).
Firstly, citizen of Sri Lanka is not only comprised of men but also women and the majority voice of women remains marginal in the decision making process. Out of 20.3 million population, 50.7% are female while 49.3% are male (Country Meters, 2017). Yet, the estimated political participation rate is 48% for women while 52% for men. Women engage in political campaign and their representation in the elected parliament in 2005 at 5.8% (Labani, Kaehler, and Ruiz, 2009). In addition, disadvantaged groups such as migrant workers, 60% of whom are women are enabled to exercise their sovereignty through voting (Wickramasinghe and Kodikara, 2012).
The parliament is the symbol of democracy and the main political institution that makes decisions on governance. Yet, in Sri Lanka the elected composition of the parliament members shows how women’s voice is marginalized. For example, out of total 225 members of parliament only 13 seats are given to female members; out of the 107 cabinet ministry positions, including deputy and non-cabinet ministers, only three women are appointed as ministers (Kodikara, 2009). Even in the parliament, female members are not getting adequate attention from the parliament on the issues which are particularly hampering on women. Domestic violence is a serious social issue in the country and many women have been suffering from it. Yet, the decision making bodies have not able to prioritize these gender sensitive issues as in the political agendas. In 2011, Member of Parliament (MP) Upeksha Swarnamali, made an emotional appeal from the parliament to eradicate domestic violence after her own experience of wife battery. She revealed that 60% of Sri Lankan women are beaten and 44% of pregnant women are also beaten (Wickramasinghe and Kodikara, 2012).
Secondly, the PR system is important to increase women’s participation in politics, both at the regional and national level as to deepen democratic governance and ensure more equitable development outcomes in the country. The main objective of the PR system is to provide an adequate representation for the minority group or groups in the decision making bodies (Liyanage, 2012). In Sri Lanka, after adopting new liberal, open economic policies in 1977 and the country adopted an electoral system based on the PR system in 1988. Many parties who supported in the PR system hoped to achieve some level of gender parity in politics. Yet, it has no significant impact on the levels of women’s representation elected political bodies. The percentage of women’s representation in elected bodies has deteriorated between 1.9% and 6.5%. In provincial councils, which were established as to decentralize the power local bodies in 1988, women’s representation has never exceeded 6% and women’s representation hovering between 1.0% and 2.0% (Kodikara 2009, Kodikara 2014). These statistics also reveal little about the representation of minority, and it’s really depressing that Tamil, Muslim and other minority women’s representation are completely unrepresented within this minority. For instance, there were only three Muslim women in local government in 2014 of around 90 women. (Kodikara, 2014)
Furthermore, there are a number of reasons for this poor representation of women. Firstly, political parties has become the one of the main hindering factors that prevents advancing women’s representation. The lack of internal democracy within the party, lack of support for women candidates and the absence of women in higher positions of party decision making are caused in this poor representation. Political parties have shown a lack of commitment to recognize women as worthy candidate or work towards strengthening women’s roles as political leaders (Kodikara, 2011). Despite the fact that the most political parties in Sri Lanka have a women’s wing with a significant number of membership, there is no significant growth in women’s representation and no autonomy to mobilize communities to support of female candidates during elections (Kodikara, 2008). Even some potential women candidates who genuinely interested in politics, who gained more popularity among public, and who demonstrated good leadership skills, couldn’t get the nomination from the party. For an example Ms. J Kariyawasam (personal communication, 19th May 2017) was shared that her nomination for the local council election was rejected from the leading political party, Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), due her criticism of corruption and violence of previous president’s government. Even the PR system has increased the numbers of women political candidates, but these increased numbers reveals that this is because fringe parties and independent groups fills their lists with women (Kodikara, 2008).
Thirdly, as mentioned in above, Sri Lankan women have demonstrated accomplishments in education, professionals and social life, therefore women poses new and different visions which are essential to push forward the country’s development agenda. Currently, women’s contribution to economic growth is considerable. Women are reported as the highest foreign exchange earners in Sri Lanka's, migrant house maids contribute 6 billion US$ in 2014 while 44% in textile and Garment, 14% in Tea, and 8% rubber and rubber based products, which are the other highest foreign exchange generating industries in Sri Lanka. Two-thirds of the female labor force in the country is in the informal sector (Law and Society Trust, 2016). However, women’s diverse views, visions and experiences are neglected in the classical gender analysis. As Attanayake (as cited in Shirin, 2003, p 2) stated that gender stereotypical views defined women’s role in society in relation to reproductive roles and responsibilities while defining men’s role in society in relation to productive roles and responsibilities. This lead to acquire greater knowledge of and interest in politics while most of the women shows poor interest and confidence in engaging in politics, even though they had a greater knowledge and experiences in the field of their work.
Increase gender sensitivity through women’s political participation
Gender sensitivity is a marginalized factor and deeply rooted in entrenched attitudes, societal institutions, and market forces in Sri Lanka. Researchers found that women who participate in politics have to face more abuse, criticism, violence, and discrimination than men. (Labani, Kaehler, and Ruiz, 2009). The constitutional provisions for equality of treatment and the principles of nondiscrimination are inadequate to deal with existing male dominance political culture in the country.
Further, the current political culture appears as a ‘dirty political culture’, were using and abusing women as disadvantaged communities. Electoral violence, the practice of staggered elections, both at provincial and local levels, disillusionment with the political process and discriminations against ethnic minorities, sexual abuse of women are the key characters of this dirty political culture. An example, Minister S.B. Dissanayake, members of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party made a controversial speech against former President Mrs. Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, saying that he will make her naked and accused in front of the public once he in power after the general election (Ada Derana, December 12, 2014). Despite the press release against his statement either any political party or governing institutions did not take any action against his unpleasant political behavior, still he is operating as a Cabinet Minister of the present coalition government. Similarly, many women candidates, who rise up and challenge this male dominated political system, are constantly ostracized and humiliated. The evidence can be seen from social media with regard to female candidates’ shows bad sexist attitudes, degrading language on their sexuality and personal life. Likewise, in Islamic culture is not really accept for women being in a political leadership and they have to deal with both cultural and political violence if they want to engage in politics. For example, Salma Hamza, Member of Parliament was attacked with fuel bombs by opposition members during election. She was the first Muslim woman politician in the whole Eastern part of Sri Lanka. She said that “Many women are greeted with violence if they even want to get their names on the nomination list for parliament” (Peace Women, 2012). Given this ruthless context, it is more challenging for women who represent ethnic minority groups to survive in the mainstream male dominant political system.
Thus, a gender sensitive approach is essential to institute the policies that can trigger social change and any policy that is devoid of their voice is doomed to fail in terms of sustainability. Simply narrowing the focus of a broader discourse from ‘achieving gender sensitivity’ to mere ‘physical representation of women’ would not solve the underlying problem. Because the main political parties are selecting women for very political reasons as to show their gender sensitive stand symbolically. As stated by Wickramasinghe and Kodikara, “These women seem to have been selected by political parties for very political reasons: family representation to preserve a vote-base (Anoma Gamage); new celebrity entrants to garner a presumed fan-base (Malini Fonseka); and an old party stalwart who has supported the SLFP for decades (Kamala Ranatunge)..”(Wickramasinghe & Kodikara, 2012. P790).
Therefore, a gender sensitive approach needs to be adopted through a holistic manner by cooperating with all patriarchal social, political, religious, economic, and cultural institutions in order to broaden the understanding of each other and make gender sensitive decisions at all levels of decision making bodies (Kahandagama, 2017). In this regard, women’s rights, feminist, civil society organization have able to make significant change in grass root level by empowering rural women and working with minority women’s groups. Women and Media Collective has conducted a consultation on gender and electoral system to encourage participation of grass root women in the political process (Women and Media Collective, 2015). Similarly, Viluthu, Center for Human Resource Development, is empowering women as citizens who are aware of their rights and who are able to claim their rights within their communities and campaigning on on 50% membership for women in their advisory committees. In 2008, the Association for War Affected Women (AWAW) conducted a training of trainers (TOT) program where 25 women leaders, each one from a different district, were trained to further train 50 other women in their own districts for political leadership. In addition, there were many joint action programs, protest, fasts, joint statements, and joint meetings were made in regard to cases of violence against women. In 2001, The Women’s Political Forum, a collective of 12 women’s organizations, came up with the idea of drafting a women’s manifesto prior to the parliamentary elections scheduled that year to highlight a number of critical areas of concern to women in Sri Lanka, including the issue of women’s political participation (Kodikara, 2009).
Enhance the post conflict reconciliation process in Sri Lanka
The end of the thirty years of war began with new challenges and issues in re-establishing and representing the women’s identity in current social, political and economic sphere and integrates women into the post conflict reconciliation process. For example, new problems emerged; such as the increased number of female headed families, reintegration of female ex-combatants of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) into society. The proportion of Female Headed Households (FHHs) in Sri Lanka has been consistently increasing since 1970s, According the Household, Income and Expenditure Survey (2012/2013), out of 5.2 million households in Sri Lanka, 1.2 million households or 22.6 % of the households is women-headed. According to other estimates, there are more than 90,000 female headed households in the north and east regions in Sri Lanka (UNDP, 2015). These women’s groups have been facing issues such as need of livelihood assistance, lack of accountability for acts of sexual and gender based violence, violation of the right to access to property, and disappearance of their family members (UNDP, 2015). Similarly, reintegration of female ex-combatants to the society is a serious challenge in post war reconciliation process. According to the Minister for Prisons Reforms and Rehabilitation, Chandrasri Gajadeera, there are only 700 ex-combatants out of 11 000 remain in the rehabilitation centers. Of these, an estimated 3000 were women (Kanagasabapathipillai, 2013). These female ex-combatants face critical issues in education, psychological problems, and physical injuries, and finding job opportunities. The major difficulty for women ex-combatants is that civilian society does not agree them to use their skills they developed in the armed movement (Murray, 2011). Both Sinhala and Tamil societies are not accepting these former carders thus, make them feel more vulnerable and hopeless in rebuilding their lives.
Hence, women representatives would be more capable of understanding and supporting for those who affected by the conflict and raise these marginalized community issues to the mainstream social and political dialogue for better prospect of post conflict reconciliation. However, there is no strong political will or female politicians to raise these marginalized women’s issues in the decision making bodies in Sri Lanka. Most of the non-government organizations and international groups are working with local women leaders in rebuilding their lives after the conflict. For example, many organizations are focused on their work on providing security and protection for these women. They provide legal support for FHHs families to enforce land rights, provide awareness raising and support to obtain land documents in misplaced of deeds, provide support to obtain other lost documents such as birth, marriage, and death certificates. Agencies also provide legal aid and assistance to help women take their cases to court, lobbying for labor rights and increasing women’s political representation at the local and national levels. The Widows Forum “Amara” set up by Vilithu to support FHHs to obtain details about missing persons, assists women to locate missing documents and get their land back. (UNDP, 2015)
Likewise, developing Disarmament, Demobilization, Reintegration and Reinsertion (DDRR) programs for Women Combatants highlight the active political participation of women fighters. It can be protected and promoted through the sufficient representation of the women combatants in the peace negotiations and political participation of female ex-combatants after elections. It also identifies the need for equipping those women in participating democratic, civil and political structures (Silva, 2005). During the peace talk in 2002, was established Sub Committee for Gender Issues (SGI) to ensure the women inclusion in the peace process. It was comprised representatives from both the government and LTTE female cadres. There was no autonomy or independence for the both female delegation of SGI and failed to safeguard the women’s interest in the peace negotiation process, due to the domination of male governing structures from both government side and LTTE side (Samuel, 2011).
Still, after the 10 years of the end of the war, there is no specific government lead program in promoting political participation of women fighters. However, Viluthu is working on a political campaign to lobby Tamil political parties as well as the LTTE to include more women in politics in the North and East. The campaign was titled “Aduppadiyilirunthu Arasiyalvarai Amimbathukku Aimbathu” (50:50 - From Pots and Pans to Politics) and it has resulted in winning two seats in 2004 parliamentary elections; Padmini Sidambaranathan from Jaffna and Thangeswari Kathiraman from Batticaloa (Kodikara, 2009). Women Rights activist Kumudini Samuel, pointed out that political representation in the post-conflict aftermath is essential because conflict dismantles certain social structures and thus, challenges the gendered thinking in the public sphere (Philips, 2015).
Uncertainty of Women’s Political Representation
In this section, the author will discuss the counter arguments on women’s representation in politics. As mentioned in the previous section, there is no legal barrier to the participation of women in political bodies or government institutions in Sri Lanka. However, elected women politicians have failed to contribute to make a meaningful change in women’s status quo. Since 1931, women have been lobbying for improving the quality of women’s participation in politics. The PR system was introduced 1989 as to increase men’s portion in decision making bodies. The country ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) on 5th October 1981. As noted by Wickramasinghe and Kodikara, 52% of Sri Lanka’s formal laws are either partially compliant or fully non-compliant with the CEDAW benchmarks (2012, P.787). However, this raises serious questions on women’s representation on the given formal and administrative space. Do they have able to make a significant change in increasing equal women participation in decision making bodies and promoting the gender sensitivity? How did they make a meaningful perspective on women’s leadership in political bodies? The answer is that there is no significant change occurred in changing the dominant perception of gender equality or gender sensitivity by those elected women representatives. This argument can be further elaborated through the following points.
Firstly, it can be argued that female led elite political culture has not contributed for women’s political moment in Sri Lanka but have reinforced the power and color of their family not the common public interest of women. Since 1931, the women who represented the elected bodies were coming from either Sinhala elite or Tamil elite families and shown the interest of a competitive struggle for social mobility as part of the British colonial process (Attanayake, 2008). The country was appointed both female President and the female Prime Minister during 1994-2000. Former Prime Minister, Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike was the widow of late Prime Minister, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and Mrs. Chandrika Bandaranaike who became the first Executive President in 1994 is the daughter of Mr and Mrs. Bandaranaike. Despite the fact that both held the executive and legislative, there was no meaningful leadership in favor of women. For example the Penal Code was amended in 1995 and only Minister of Justice who took the issue on board by considering the prolonged demand by women’s organizations (Wickramasinghe & Kodikara, 2012). Even though Former Prime Minister, Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike was popular with her public and foreign policy initiatives, her government was collapsed by an elite coup in 1962 and first youth led insurrection in 1971 caused in collapsing governance in the country (Attanayake, 2008). In my opinion, I cannot agree with the given argument because most of these elected women politicians were able to prove that women can take the leadership in decision making bodies as equal to men in male dominating social structure. For example, former president Chandrika Kumaratunga was able to gain a landslide victory in presidential election in 1994 and She led the Sri Lanka Freedom Party till 2005 (Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d.). For me, I believe that the first step of countering male dominant political culture is that establishing women’s leadership in decision making bodies and realizing a society to accept her leadership. Because it is hard for a woman leader to raise her voice in decision making bodies and gain recognition and acceptance her leadership. Therefore, the country should adopt a gender representative governing system and give more space for women to contribute to the development process.
In addition, in my opinion, the recently increased 25% quota would be prepared by the respective political parties; therefore those women who are going to be nominated from each respective political party cannot be solely independent from that patriarchal political system. As stated by Philips (2015, N.A) “preserving electoral seats or spaces on the nomination lists does not assure that women will be elected within the man privilege political culture.” Also, they require adequate financial support in order to run their election campaign which is irrelevant. Most importantly, the majority of women politicians were elected from Sinhala dominant political parties, thus they have not able to represent the marginalized women’s certain issues as tea plantation workers’ rights, free trade workers’ rights, female headed household problems, war affected family issues to the national decision making bodies. All these educated and privileged elected women leaders were able to demonstrate progressive leadership qualities since 1931 but I think the women leaders should be more grounded and sensitive in performing their leadership skills in the current political system.
Another ‘NGO’ Agenda
Moreover, as mentioned above, many women right activists and non-government actors are supporting and promoting the women’s political representation as to ensure the gender equality and sensitivity. However, some literature argues that women’s political representation is adversative to Sri Lankan culture and that this demand is fuelled mainly by middle class ‘NGO women’ who are trying to force women into politics. Non-government organization impulses local women to engage with politics as to achieve their political agendas yet they have failed to understand the deep rooted social and political conditions in the society. As stated by Attanayake “The great irony in Sri Lanka is that most of the women’s organizations work is confined to its own world and the common agenda has often tilted towards social welfarism- a legacy of elitism” (Attanayake, 2008, P. 269). Likewise, the impact of those women’s political rights training programs is not clear. No organization was able to clearly say their number of trained women, number of trainees who have received nominations, contested elections and have been elected. None of these organization had also conducted an evaluation of their own training programs. Also found that, the selections of the participants were not based on specified criteria and many young women who did not have any interest in politics had participated in training programs with the objective of obtaining a certificate (Liyanage, 2011). Prof. Liyanage also stated that, “the usual practice of NGOs is once they get the funds they organize training workshops and once the funds are over they do not have an opportunity to concentrate on any follow up programs. Also, some NGOs just conduct training programs without having any needs assessments or systematic preparation of curriculum” (Liyanage 2004: 11 -12).
In addition, the poor coordination and understanding between the women politicians and feminist activists have been resulted in not making a possible change in active participation of women in politics. The feminists expect deep rooted social, political, economic, cultural change in the presence of women in politics. In contrast, women who elected to the representative bodies represent the needs given their gender role in the family and community, such as garbage disposal, child care, drinking water, and infrastructure. This distinct distance of the political interest of feminist and local female politicians prevents in achieving a meaningful change in improving gender equality and gender sensitivity in the country (Wickramasinghe & Kodikara, 2012). Next, there are a number of networks working to increase women’s participation, but networking among these different organizations seems very poor (Kodikara, 2009). I agree that the inability of these networks and organization in building a public consensus on the basis of their wide range of experiences and strategies has resulted in not taking affirmative actions in promoting women’s political participation in the country.
In summing up, several important conclusions can be made in the light of the given analysis of women’s political participation in Sri Lanka. Political participation of women is contested and complex due to patriarchal political culture in the country. Yet, it is inevitable to avoid the fact that women’s political participation is essential in order to ensure the gender equality and sensitivity in decision making, to alter the attitude of women’s capabilities in political representation, and to contribute to the post conflict reconciliation process meaningfully. Since 1931, Sri Lanka has passed significant milestones in achieving democratic governance with the contribution of many parties and still women’s right activists, organizations and networks are pushing the agenda of meaningful political participation of women in the country. Similarly, the existing political bodies and electoral mechanism have made a little change in giving more space for women’s voice in their bodies, but these political bodies and electoral mechanism should adopt a more gender sensitive policies and practices in order to make decisions based on the public needs and interest. However, it can be said that the political power of high profile women has not contributed to uplift the women’s status in the country and they have become agents of driving the political interest of privilege social class. Also, those women leaders or activist have not able to understand the grass root communities needs and aspiration in the terms of engaging in politics.
Therefore, women political participation should be developed not only by increasing the number of female votes or female candidates, but also by adopting gender equal policies in decision making bodies and introducing gender sensitive practices to create a new political culture. As a country emerging out from a major political upheaval of thirty years of civil war, it is important to understand women’s issues as well as their potentialities to contribute to the long term peace and reconciliation process in Sri Lanka.
In this light, all actors of governance, including government, women political leaders, and civil society must collectively work towards making gender reform policies and establishing implementing mechanisms to improve quality of women’s representation in all political bodies. First, all political parties must adopt a transparent and inclusive process in selecting their nominations; to ensure proportional representation; to address the under-representation of women; and address the lack of internal party democracy. Consequently, elected women representatives need to raise women’s issues all decision making bodies and must take a proactive role in addressing sensitive gender issues. They must be confident and capable of representing other women who face many problems such as displacement, access to land and gender based violence. Lastly, the civil society should take responsibility to have a forum to identify leaders who should represent women and need collaborate with each other rather than competing to establish their identity in the non-government system. NGO’s must come out from the funding syndrome and need make more meaningful intentions as to build a strong grass root women’s movement.
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Pujika Rathnayake is a master's degree candidate at the University for Peace as part of the Asian Peacebuilder's Scholarship Programme.