Engaging women in politics

Last month International Alert Sri Lanka celebrated International Women’s Day with a conference promoting greater involvement of women in politics in the country.

The event, entitled ‘Celebrating women: Towards an inclusive political culture’, was organised in collaboration with the South Asia Policy and Research Institute (SAPRI) and held in Colombo on 6 March.

Attendees included national and international civil society members, government officials, as well as experts in gender and women’s rights, including Radhika Coomaraswamy, former Under-Secretary-General of the UN and lead author of the global study on the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325.

In her keynote speech, former President and Prime Minister, Madam Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (pictured below left), observed that: “We have not advanced in comparison to the work and effort that has been put into [women empowerment]. In the developing countries and in the developed world, women have a second place if not the last place.” She argued that for millennia, all aspects of life and government had been fashioned for male dominance, rendering it difficult for women to enter the political fray.

Minister of State for Children’s Affairs, Hon. Rosy Senanayake MP, emphasised the importance of having female members of parliament when issues of gender, children and family are being discussed. She outlined the current government’s ambitious ‘100 day program’ of policy commitments (available in Sinhalese here) and its provision for a 25% quota for women in local and provincial government institutions.

The event featured rich panel discussions on the topics of ‘Women in politics: Prioritising gender-sensitive legislation in Sri Lanka’ and ‘Understanding the importance for women to engage in politics’. Recommendations made during the discussions included the need for 50% of national politicians to be women, an end to character assassination of politicians (often particularly targeted at female candidates), women’s economic empowerment at the village level and the need for marginalised groups to have access to justice. To achieve this will require the efforts of both female and male politicians and citizens, it was agreed.

Participants also highlighted that religious leaders play an essential role in creating and enabling a culture for women to enter politics in Sri Lanka. The promotion of equal rights could be led by faith leaders through their sermons, discussions and other engagements, it was argued.

The discussion recognised the significant achievements of nearly universal literacy and the vital contribution of women to Sri Lanka’s economy, particularly in the tea and garment sectors and as migrant workers.

Speakers from the UK and Australia showcased successful approaches of working to integrate women and minorities into politics respectively. Councillor Lakmini Shah of the London Borough of Newham shared her experience as a female politician and stressed the need to provide the right type of support (language skills, capacity-building, etc.) to enable women to be active participants in their communities, labour force and in politics. From her experience, in order to get more women to enter into ‘higher-level’ politics and to allow them to thrive in their roles, it is crucial to promote a conducive and supportive environment.

Lastly, panellists called for a ‘gender relational’ approach to increasing women’s engagement in political processes, including youth, working with men and boys of all sections of society, and in ways that go beyond the ballot box.

The conference was a follow-up to a 2014 workshop conducted by the Young Political Leaders’ Forum of Sri Lanka (YPLF-SL), during which there was a pledge to increase the involvement of women in their work as well as generally in engagement within the political system.

With the recent election of a new government in Sri Lanka, there is a real window of opportunity to increase women’s engagement in politics in the country. Speaking on the importance of young women engaging in politics, Sharanya Sekeram, Deputy Curator at Global Shapers Colombo Hub, challenged the idea of what participation in politics actually stands for:

“We must remember that engaging doesn’t only relate to women as political leaders. A voter is also a woman engaging in politics. Women are caring about things in the world around them. I don’t necessarily need to put my name on a ballot paper in order to ask the people around them to engage in politics.”

We therefore need to go beyond just having women in elected positions and also have the active participation of women at all levels in political processes.

You can find out more about our work in Sri Lanka here.

Photos: Top (left to right): Madam Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, Hon. Hunais Farook MP and Hon. Anoma Gamage MP, Deputy Minister of Irrigation and Agriculture; Middle: Madam Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga; Bottom (centre): Ambassador Geetha de Silva, Executive Director of SAPRI.