Gender Equality in the Electoral Process in Sri Lanka
By Vasu Mohan, IFES Regional Director for Asia-Pacific and Sarah Bibler, IFES Sri Lanka Operations Officer
Sri Lanka has achieved notable successes in women’s democratic participation; it was the first country in Asia to grant women the right to vote, the first country worldwide to elect a woman head of government (Prime Minister, 1960), and women made up 51 percent of registered voters in 2015. Despite these successes, women are underrepresented throughout Sri Lanka’s political and electoral process at all levels. Currently, only about 5 percent of Parliamentarians are women.
Sri Lanka has an effective and impartial election management body (EMB) under the leadership of Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya. In a July 2015 survey by the Center for Policy Alternatives, the Election Commission of Sri Lanka (EC) comes out as a widely trusted public institution. In 2015, 62.3 percent of polled Sri Lankans said that they had a great deal or some trust in the EMB, up from 38.6 percent in 2014. The EC is committed to implementing credible and inclusive elections in Sri Lanka and IFES has had a long-standing relationship with the commission.
In November 2015, IFES conducted an Electoral Integrity Assessment (EIA) in Sri Lanka, which highlighted vulnerabilities of its electoral system to fraud, malpractice and systemic manipulation. Similar EIAs have been conducted to date in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Georgia, and Burma. Throughout the EIA, IFES’ experts applied a gender lens, enabling identification of actionable recommendations to strengthen gender equality in Sri Lanka’s electoral process. Key recommendations included working with the EC to promote women in senior leadership positions, establish a gender and inclusion unit at the EC and implement gender-equality training for staff. Following completion of the EIA, IFES shared its key findings, including those on gender inclusion, with the EC. To further discuss gender-related recommendations IFES also organized a session with senior Sri Lankan gender advocates.
“Before I hadn’t thought of gender inequality as an electoral issue, but now I understand that it is.” – BRIDGE Training Participant
IFES’ EIA report noted that while women’s participation in Sri Lanka’s democratic process as voters and poll workers is high, women remain underrepresented as candidates, elected representatives, and high-level election administrators. Building on its existing capacity, the newly-formed EC has an opportunity to lead by example, addressing barriers to women’s engagement and actively promoting gender equality throughout the electoral process. Recognizing the critical role that women play in enhancing sustainable electoral processes, IFES is committed to providing the technical support needed for the EC and civil society to promote women’s rights and gender equality at all stages of the electoral process.
In January 2016, building on findings from the EIA, IFES conducted a Building Resource in Democracy, Governance and Elections (BRIDGE) training that brought together 30 participants from the EC and civil society. Led by IFES Regional Director for Asia-Pacific Vasu Mohan and Senior Training Specialist Katie Ryan, participants explored the importance of women’s and men’s equal participation in the electoral process, strategies to promote inclusive participation, examined the electoral cycle from a gender perspective and conducted a gender mapping of Sri Lanka’s elections to identify strengths and possible areas for improvement. Participants also learned several new tools including conducting “force field analyses” and delivering “elevator speeches” to effectively advocate for inclusion-focused initiatives in the electoral process. As one EC participant noted, “we should think to empower women. Ultimately, it will impact the democracy in our country.”
Preliminary analysis of post-test assessments found that a majority of participants agreed strongly that women should be employed at all levels of the EC. Additionally, both EC and civil society representatives expressed that the training provided an opportunity to strengthen partnerships with each other, laying the foundation for greater collaboration on inclusion-oriented initiatives.
In addition to the BRIDGE training, Vasu Mohan was invited as key note speaker to an event organized by the Canadian High Commission on women’s political participation in South Asia. Titled “Because its 2016!”, this event brought together women Parliamentarians from six South Asian countries and civil society advocates.
IFES Chief of Party in Sri Lanka Beverly Hagerdon also presented on a panel on the use of social media for gender advocacy. IFES gender advocacy activities also included preparing a stakeholders’ meeting with women’s advocates to discuss gender provisions in constitutional and electoral system reform, piloting Male Allies for Leadership Equity (MALE) activities, and translating IFES’ Gender and Election Management Bodies: A Best Practices Guide into Tamil and Sinhala.