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Raw deal for women in Lankan politics

Women constitute 49% of the population of Sri Lanka. But they have virtually no place in the country's political system or its decision making apparatus.
PTI | By PK Balachanddran
UPDATED ON APR 19, 2004 04:08 PM IST

Women constitute 49% of the population of Sri Lanka. Its women tea pluckers  and garment factory workers, not to speak of the lakhs of housemaids working in the Middle East, rake in the bulk of the country's foreign exchange. But women have virtually no place in the country's political system or its decision making apparatus.

Yes, the country's President is a woman Chandrika Kumaratunga. She is also the world's first woman President and an elected one at that. Her mother, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, was the world's first woman Prime Minister. But there has been no trickle down effect.

The lower, middle and the higher echelons of the political hierarchy have all shut their doors to women, who are expected to be content with voting in the elections.

And the women have been voting, with religious devotion in fact, since 1931, when Sri Lanka took the lead in this region by extending the franchise to women. If the average voting percentage has been consistently above 80, surely, the bulk of the women have been doing their duty by the country's political system.

But voting has not led them to political office or any position of influence. Says Uditha Jayasinghe in "Daily Mirror" dated February 17: "Throughout the 55 years of  independence, women have comprised less that 5% at every level, from local government to parliament."

The "Womens' Manifesto" of 2004 says that in the parliament after the 1994
elections, there were only 11 women in a house of  225. Out of the 25 in the
National (nominated) List, only one was a woman. And this, when the Prime
Minister herself was a women - Chandrika Kumaratunga.

In the 2001 parliament, there were only 10 women (4.5%). This was the lowest
in South Asia with the exception of Bangladesh, according to the Womens'
Manifesto. The Indian parliament had 8.8% women and Islamic Pakistan had the
highest - 20%, the manifesto said.

In the 2002 local bodies elections in Sri Lanka only 77 out of the 3,825 candidates (1.7%) were women.

In keeping with the tradition of neglecting women, the number of women in the fray in the present parliamentary elections is also very low.

But both the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) led by President Chandrika Kumaratunga and the United National Front (UNF) led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe are officially committed to enhancing the representation of women in the political structure.

The  UNF's 2001 manifesto had said that in three years, 25% of  the members
of all decision making bodies would be women. Prime  Minister Wickremesinghe's "Regaining Sri Lanka" policy document had said that 50% of the candidates of any political party should be women.

But the womens' demand was more modest and realistic. In 2003, they told the
Parliamentary Select Committee on Electoral reforms that they would be
satisfied with 1/3 representation in the elected bodies.

But all this has been of no avail. As Namini Wijedasa wrote in "Sunday Island" dated March 7, the Wickremesinghe government had only one woman in his jumbo cabinet, the Womens' Affairs Minister, Amara Piyaseeli Ratnayake. And her Ministry was given only a pittance, just 0.25% of the annual budget!

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