Can affirmative action improve women’s political participation?

by admin

Women along with men obtained universal franchise in 1931 when Sri Lanka was under British colonial rule. They took a lead role in the resistance movement and was involved in the early left movement. Since then, Sri Lankan women have had the constitutional freedom and the right to vote and participate in political activities without discrimination. Later, the country went on to elect the world’s first female Prime Minister. (Source:

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Women are 52% of the population and 56% of the registered voters are women. Despite having the world’s first woman prime minister, women’s representation in parliament is the lowest in South Asia. The last parliament had only 13 women legislators out of 225 members (5.8%). Representation in local government is at the same low level.

Sri Lanka that scores well on education and health was ranked 102 out of all 153 countries in the 2020 Global Gender Gap report of World Economic Forum Sri Lanka According to the is due to the low score on political participation. (Source:

In 2019 Sri Lanka’s international ranking by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) was 182 out of 192 countries. (Source:

The reasons for poor representation of women in governance are many. Women are members of political parties but they are overlooked for nominations. High profile women like Sirimavo Bandaranaike, and her daughter Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who became the first woman President of the country, were successful at least in part because they belonged to political dynasties and were seen by the public as surrogates for male relatives. Chulani Kodikara, a women’s rights activist and researcher at the University of Edinburgh, described this practice as “a stop-gap situation; when women relatives of male members were appointed by a political party to replace family members due to death or dislodgement”.

From the first female politician in Ceylon, Adeline Molamure, who was elected in 1931 to the State Council to replace her deceased father, to the first Muslim woman Member of Parliament, Ferial Ashraf, who was elected in 2001 after the death of her husband in a helicopter crash, surrogacy has been the primary instigator of women’s political participation in Sri Lanka’s history. (Although, 24 out of 59 female MPs since 1931 have had no family connections at all). But Kodikara says that even male politicians have had a significant advantage when entering politics with family affiliations. (Source:

Why did the percentage of women in Parliament since the 1930s never exceeded six per cent? At the municipal and local government levels, women were only 2 per cent of elected officials between 2008 - 2012. (Source:



“Women’s voices and issues related to them are not heard enough in Sri Lanka, although they are more than half the population of the country. The main reason for this is the lack of female representation in decision – making positions, especially in the legislature. A mandatory quota of 25% for women was introduced by local the Authorities (Amendment) Act No. 16 of 2017 at the last Local Government Election was held under that but the results were not optimal. (Source: )

The Centre for Women’s Research (CENWOR), in a study conducted recently found that structural barriers such as family disapproval, financial difficulties, dynamics of political parties which cause difficulties in getting nominations to contest the elections, and being compelled to campaign for male candidates discouraged women from entering the political arena. – Dr.Kala Peiries - CENWOR. (Source:

On the other hand “It is possible to identify many forms of political participation in Sri Lanka, ranging from voting and contesting at elections to attendance at political meetings and rallies, membership in political organizations, participation in political strikes and demonstrations, as well as participation in unconventional and illegal activities like terrorism. Yet women’s representation in the decision making sphere of politics, namely in political representation, remains woefully low despite years of activism.(Source:

Way Forward
Low level of women’s representation has always been seen as a conundrum in a country which has performed well on other indicators on women such as education and health.

 Women have the right to influence decisions that affect their lives, whether in the household, community, national governments or international institutions. Achieving women’s
participation and leadership requires understanding the power dynamics and working with women and men to ensure equal access to, and influence in, decision-making processes.

But there are issues related to women as well.

Affirmative action needed
 Increase the use of Right to Information (RTI) relevant to political participation, among citizens and improve public authorities' response to RTI implementation.

 Ensure the nomination and election of qualified women to local government authorities and thereby, strengthen women’s participation in political decision- making.

 Raise awareness, provide training for women political candidates, run campaigns on gender equality, lobby for legislative reforms to ensure women’s fair access to political spheres, and elections that uphold women’s rights. All these can all increase women’s political engagement.

 Train women to plan to contest local government elections and bring them together to demand nominations.

 Political parties provide financial and other support for women who are nominated to carry out political campaigns under party banners.

 Political parties nominate trained qualified women for local government elections

 Publicity campaign tracking women’s entry into local government from nomination to election.

 Names and profiles of all candidates (including women) released to the public ahead of local elections.