The February 10 local government elections in Sri Lanka has led to more women holding elected positions than ever before. Prior to the elections, female political representation in Sri Lanka was almost nonexistent; only two percent of local government officials were women. The change in representation can be accredited to the passage of an amendment requiring that 25 percent of political candidates in Sri Lanka be women.
This amendment was passed in 2016, but the February 10 local elections were the first to occur under the new mandate. The recent elections saw 17,000 female candidates run for office. In total, more than 56,000 candidates ran for about 8,000 positions. Only 82 women were elected to local office in the 2011 local elections. After the February 10 election, more than 2,000 women will act as representatives in local government.
Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, has elected Rosy Senanayake as the city’s first female mayor. Mayor Senanayake, a representative from the United National Party, is a prominent activist for women’s and children’s rights. She currently serves as the spokesperson for the prime minister’s office.
The newly-elected female representatives are redefining political norms within their parties. In the past, female candidates have been assigned to outlying districts or entirely prevented from running by powerful men in their parties. The 25 percent candidate quota forced parties to adopt more inclusive policies. Unfortunately, some religious and political heads still urged community members to vote against female candidates.
Increased female political representation in Sri Lanka has the potential to bring new issues to the forefront of government agendas. Many female candidates, backed by women’s organizations, campaigned on promises to end corruption and promote women’s rights. Women’s activist groups like the Eastern United Women Organization (EUWO) have fought for protections for vulnerable groups like women, children and war-affected citizens. These activist groups were natural allies to aspiring female politicians.
EUWO supported the campaigns of 27 women. According to R.G. Podimenike, convener for EUWO, candidates were trained to “eliminate gender-based violence, enhance democratic governance, access government services and promote ethnic reconciliation among multi-ethnic groups who faced three decades of war.”
Long-term effects of the electoral amendment remain to be seen. Ambika Satkunanathan, the commissioner at Sri Lanka’s independent human rights commission, emphasizes that simply increasing female political representation in Sri Lanka will not automatically change the country’s culture.
“The structures will remain, the culture will remain within the local council, within local municipalities and political parties,” says Satkunanathan. “So how are they going to challenge that? We may have elected women, yes that is great. But if they toe the party line, if they are controlled, what is the point?”
With continued efforts from organizations like EUWO, more and more people will move toward the acceptance of gender equality and female political representation in Sri Lanka will only continue to improve.
– Katherine Parks