- Some of Sri Lanka’s women MPs share their biggest obstacles in politics
Women in Lankan politics is a pretty nuanced game. On the one hand, women in Sri Lanka make up 56% of our voter base, but only 5% of legislators are female. This statistic is nothing new and gets tossed around a lot. But nothing really tangible has been done to improve this statistic.
As of 2022, we have managed to elect only 12 female MPs to Parliament (out of a total of 225 MPs). As part of a larger conversation on women in politics this month, Brunch asked some of our female MPs to share with us the one major obstacle they have had to overcome throughout their journey in politics, purely because they are women.
Minister Thalatha Atukorale
Sharing her thoughts, Minister of Foreign Employment and former Minister of Justice Thalatha Atukorale stated that each individual politician, regardless of gender, had their own independent journey. However, in her situation, as we are all aware, she came into active politics in 2004 after the death of her brother Gamini Atukorale, a former Cabinet Minister and Assistant Leader of the United National Party.
“I entered politics because of a family matter. After my brother’s death I chose to step in to active politics and I had to undergo much character assassination due to my reasons,” she said. “If not for circumstances like my own, you need a lot of money to get into politics. Women are especially often viewed as being second class in politics, that they simply cannot match up to the men.”
However, Atukorale noted that as a woman in politics, she had proved herself, having held two Cabinet portfolios, and also being the first woman in the history of the Justice Ministry to hold the position of Minister of Justice. She is proud of what she has achieved.
While her challenges have been such that she had to undergo great scrutiny due to the circumstances that led her to politics, because she is a woman, she has been able to achieve much more than what a man would have done in her position. “I have taken steps to personally look into women’s issues, travelled to the north, the north west, and the east, and have set up an initiative to assist women in these areas,” she said.
Atukorale emphasised that women were a clear asset to politics, as even in a household, while men may be the majority providers, women are simply better at management – and that is what governance requires – effective management.
MP Dr. Harini Amarasuriya
MP Dr. Harini Amarasuriya shared that in her experience, the major obstacle is the lack of self-confidence. “Women are socialised into thinking that politics is not for us. It requires you to put yourself out there in a way that women are often expected not to,” she said, adding that women were “taught to be cautious, not to be pushy, advised not to speak out – you are expected to give way to others first when conducting yourself”.
Dr. Amarasuriya noted that these expectations led to women second-guessing themselves, although these were freedoms that men often took for granted. She noted that her community, a great sense of solidarity, and the support of a political movement that stood by her were the key strengths that had propelled her throughout her journey.
MP Rohini Kumari Wijerathna
Finally, MP Rohini Kumari Wijerathna shared that when it came to obstacles, the first one that she and all other women faced in politics was the difficulty in acquiring nominations. Nominations are up to party leaders, be it at the district level or higher up to allocate slots for women. In levels above Local Government, going all the way up to Parliament is the first hurdle and major obstacle that women will encounter.
Wijerathna also shared that women were, to this day, viewed as weaker and therefore, in politics, the competition tended to get personal when it came to women which came through in a large and intrusive focus (and judgement) on their personal lives. It is rarely that a woman’s political stance is criticised, instead their character is attacked. “Regardless of whether the personal attacks hold true or not, I believe that a person’s personal matters shouldn’t be a matter of public debate and on such occasions, even if it is someone who has absolutely nothing to hide, they fall mentally because of this intense scrutiny,” she said.
Noting that female representation was incredibly important, Wijerathna stressed that female representation was an important measure of progress and, in that regard, Sri Lanka had little to show. One recommendation Wijerathna made for increased female representation at the political level was electing more women via the National List.
“The National List allows for 29 entries; if 50% of that were to be women and if we somehow elect 12 or 13 women to Parliament via polls, then at the very least we will have 26 women in Parliament,” she said, adding that this was only one feasible method to increase female representation in politics.
Note to layout: Please include following in orange box with QR code
This March, in honour of International Women’s Day and Women’s History month, Brunch will be doing a video series focusing on women in politics. For more updates, please subscribe to our YouTube channel Brunch LK.