- The sorry state of Sri Lanka’s new Cabinet
Sunday, 3 April, saw thousands of people defy a weekend curfew to protest across the island, demanding a change in governance for more transparent and effective solutions to the ongoing economic crisis. In response, in the ensuing days, the entire Cabinet, aside from the President and the Prime Minister, resigned from their posts.
Protests by the people and public anger have continued to grow as the impacts of the economic crisis hit harder each day. Amidst the chaos, in an effort to mitigate the current situation and build political stability ahead of Sri Lanka’s negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), on Monday, 18 April, the President appointed a new Cabinet.
Public responses to the new 17-member Cabinet highlighted a lack of qualifications, education levels, and past criminal records, in addition to a glaring lack of female representation. As has been the norm in Sri Lankan politics to date, the list displays the lack of female representation, and also does not include a Ministry of Women and Child Affairs.
(No) women in Parliament
From a female representation perspective, the new Cabinet appears to be a step down from the previous Cabinet of Ministers, which included one female parliamentarian in a ministerial portfolio – MP Pavithradevi Wanniarachchi is the only female parliamentarian from the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) who held the portfolios of Health, Energy, and Transport under the former Cabinet.
Despite several female MPs representing the ruling party, the SLPP, in Parliament – MPs Pavithradevi Wanniarachchi, Dr. Sudarshini Fernandopulle, Dr. Seetha Arambepola, Geetha Kumarasinghe, Kokila Gunawardene, Muditha Prishanthi, Rajika Wickramasinghe, and Manjula Dissanayake – no female MPs have been given the opportunity to hold a ministerial post under the new Cabinet.
This is not mentioning the other 12 female MPs who make up the rest of the total female representation in our country’s Parliament: Thalatha Athukorala, Rohini Kumari Wijerathna, and Diana Gamage from the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) and Dr. Harini Amarasuriya from the Jathika Jana Balawegaya (JJB).
As per Article 44 of the Constitution;
(1) (a) The President shall, in consultation with the Prime Minister, where he considers such consultation to be necessary, determine the number of Ministers of the Cabinet of Ministers and the Ministries and the assignment of subjects and functions to such Ministers.
(1)(b) The President shall, on the advice of the Prime Minister, appoint from among Members of Parliament, Ministers, to be in charge of the Ministries so determined.
Evidently, the President in exercising his powers has determined that neither female representation nor a Ministry of Women and Child Affairs is necessary for his cabinet, which as per the Constitution shall be “…charged with the direction and control of the Government of the Republic”.
A shameful state of affairs
Speaking to Brunch, MP Dr. Sudarshini Fernandopulle, who is also the Chairperson of the Women’s Caucus in Parliament, said: “Of course, it is very unfortunate that once again 52% of the population is not represented in our Cabinet.”
“It is very pathetic. There are 12 female MPs currently in Parliament, but, as usual, they have been forgotten,” she added, sharing the view that women were only necessary when parties wanted to come into power and were cast aside once that objective had been achieved.
Noting that we live in a patriarchal society, Dr. Fernandopoulle also said: “Despite women managing the economic aspects of a household and knowing when and what to prioritise in finances, they continue to be underrepresented.” She added that appointing more women to decision-making positions was also likely to lead to less corruption. “Unfortunately the SLPP has never given much consideration to women when it comes to positions of decision making.”
Similarly, MP Thalatha Athukorala, who once held a Cabinet position as the Cabinet Minister of Foreign Employment Promotion and Welfare under President Maithripala Sirisena, said: “I really can’t understand which category the President is trying to appeal to. He has appointed an inexperienced set of youngsters, barely two-and-a-half years in Parliament. Things have gone from bad to worse and the country is in bad shape and so how can people count on this Cabinet?”
Athukorala also highlighted that the previous Cabinet had not been an ideal assembly either, noting that none of those who were previously appointed had sufficient experience to carry out the duties that were expected of them, adding that she had strong concerns about the new Cabinet’s experience and qualifications as well. “It was the same with the last Cabinet also, especially in terms of the lack of female representation. There is no one to take care of women’s affairs at a time where things are continuing to get worse, especially for women.”
Athukorala noted that this was the perfect opportunity to appeal to the international community, to help make way for female representation. However she said she felt these hasty appointments were a misguided effort to showcase political stability to the IMF.
Athukorala also shared that the current President had never shown any real consideration for women’s issues, failing to give prominence to women despite them contributing to the economy – with countless migrant workers, garment workers, and those in the agricultural sector all going unnoticed.
“It is a pathetic situation,” Athukorala concluded. “I say this not as a member of the Opposition but as a citizen of this country.”
A superficial reshuffle?
Shrima Shanthini Kongahage from the United National Party (UNP) also spoke to Brunch, stating: “We condemn these Cabinet appointments. This cabinet reshuffle is only to benefit the Government and not the people.”
Kongahage also said that the new Cabinet appointments overlooked female MPs who had shown their capabilities, commending female MPs such as Dr. Fernandopulle for doing a “superb job” and having immensely contributed during the Covid-19 pandemic. She asserted that those who had made a significant difference and made valuable contributions had been left out in these new appointments.
Kongahage also questioned if there was a deeper rationale for these appointments as they appeared to benefit the ruling party alone. “We have heard reports of deaths happening and the country is in flames, but nobody seems to be too bothered,” she said. “This Cabinet is not for the people, it is for jokers. What are the criteria that have been considered for these appointments? Is it just young people? Is it simply to camouflage themselves against this backdrop of chaos?” she questioned.
Kongahage concluded by saying that women were not respected in this Government and despite being given an opportunity, the Government had once again squandered it, highlighting that this lack of a ministerial portfolio for women alone was sufficient to understand where this Government stood in relation to women’s issues.
Women’s voices and the future
The President’s new Cabinet and its subsequent lack of female representation has drawn comment, ridicule, and disgruntlement from all quarters – from within the SLPP itself to the Opposition, women, and men all across the country. Despite having the perfect opportunity to address the glaring and consistent lack of female representation in decision-making positions and empower over half of the population, especially in a time of crisis when all voices have the power to make a difference, the new Cabinet delivers a blow to women across Sri Lanka. The question that now stands is, how will the new Cabinet ensure women’s voices are heard?