‘Sex symbols’ a poor proxy in Sri Lanka

By Eve Aronson, Marlijn Meijer, Eleonora Maria Mazzoli and Filiz Dagci 

A movie star, a beauty queen and a popular model are among candidates running in Sri Lankan’s provincial elections on March 29, leading some Sri Lankans to accuse political parties of pushing “sex symbols” in the name of female political representation. 

The arrival of models and actresses onto the political stage, with their pictures splashed across newspapers, is beginning to make voters wonder about the political motivation behind such moves. 

“Today, we must grapple with the possibility that celebrities, mainly women celebrities, are being used as smokescreens in politics,” said Colombo-based human rights advocate Ayanthi, who did not want to be identified out of fear of repercussions by the government. 

Sri Lanka does not hold a particularly boastful track record on women’s representation in politics, and theit consistently low participation, with only about 5% of parliamentarians being female (compared with about 10% in India) adds to suspicions about the sudden influx of unconventional female candidates this year. 

Former Miss Sri Lanka and popular model Gayesha Perera, singer Ginger (Judith White), actress Ruwanthi Mangala and Malsha Kumaratunga, daughter of Minister of Posts and Telecommunications (and former actor himself) Jeevan Kumaratunga, are all candidates in Saturday’s voting. 

Ayanthi notes that discourse on the issue used to be dominated by women gaining political clout through male relatives. “We have witnessed women enter the political arena following the bereavement of a husband and/or father who had been a political figurehead,” she said. “That’s been the typical pattern until recently.” 

The appearance of the current crop of female candidates on ballot sheets raises questions about whether they are simply being used as political puppets to attract votes and to quell simmering discontent over the continued lack of serious women’s participation in the upcoming elections. 

Ayanthi and other advocates of greater participation of women in Sri Lankan politics can only guess about campaign agendas that are formed behind closed doors, while noting that blatant objectification is not new to female representatives in Sri Lanka. 

During a session in parliament last year, Minister of Transport Kumara Welgama publicly announced his attraction towards United National Party (UNP) MP Rosy Senanayake: “I am so happy to answer a question by a beauty queen like Rosy Senanayake,” the minister said. “You are such a charming woman. I have no words to describe my feelings. But if you meet me outside parliament, I will describe them.” [1] 

A January article in the Republic Square noted that there are systemic challenges in Sri Lanka that make it almost impossible for women to win seats, whether cultural, religious, nepotistic, or financial, that would allow them to establish themselves as credible politicians. [2] 

“Reports have revealed that a large number of regional politicians with years of experience behind them have been neglected in favor of ‘sex symbols’,” notes Sri Lanka’s Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE) on their organization’s website

CaFFE was established in 2008 to monitor and ensure democratic processes in Sri Lanka. The organization acknowledges that including more women on the ballot is a positive step towards more equitable politics. 

Nevertheless, the campaign affirms that politicians are sexualizing female candidates at the expense of more experienced women in the party, resulting in a loss of faith in democracy. “Sri Lankan politics have a dearth of strong female politicians, and the current actions of main political parties have contributed to the increasing loss of respect to politicians among the voters, which has an adverse effect on peoples faith in representative democracy.” 

Sri Lanka is not alone in contentious political representation. In South Asia, only 7% of women are members of political parties. [3] Low representation of women leaders across South Asia include Bangladesh (18.5% women members) and Bhutan (8.5% women in the National Assembly). 

Sri Lanka boasts a 97% literacy rate among women. With a female literacy rate of just under 60% in Bhutan and 86% inBangladesh, the higher presentation of women in politics than Sri Lanka is indicative of a disconnect between a literate, education female population and representation in the political sphere. 

According to the United National Party’s Rosy Senanayake, Sri Lanka is one of the countries worldwide with the least amount of women represented in politics. [4] Senanayake said: “The president pledged to increase female representation by 25%. But the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs still couldn’t enact laws to increase female representation over 30%.” 

In response to Senanayake, Minister of Child Development and Women’s Affairs Tissa Karaliyadda said the government will not support certain international and local conventions aimed at improving gender equality in the country. [5] “Women enjoy equal recognition and protection. Most of these conventions go against our culture and religion,” he said. 

Fred Carver, of the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice, a global organization, said in February that the Sri Lankan government was “not interested in constructive engagement at all”. 

Ayanthi reaffirmed Carver stating that political participation with a focus on women has not been a top concern for successive governments. “We must engage in a very serious discussion with the government to increase women’s political participation,” she says. “Most certainly to prevent the potential erosion of women’s rights and agency as held at present.” 

The March 29 elections will then be more than routine provincial politics. This year’s campaign has planted seeds of resistance among Sri Lankans who are now, more than ever, questioning and challenging the old guard. 

1. Welgama enthralled by Rosy’s charms, Daily Mirror, December 3, 2012.
2. Backlash over ‘sex symbol’ candidates shows why female representation is such an important issue in Sri Lanka, The Republic Square, January 27, 2014.
3. See here.
4. Karaliyadda: Women’s rights ‘against our culture and religion’, The Republic Square, December 9, 2013. 
5. As for note 4. 

Eve AronsonMarlijn MeijerEleonora Maria Mazzoli andFiliz Dagci have backgrounds in journalism, international development, media and communication and women and gender studies. 

This article was developed from a research project commissioned by Oxfam on Women and Peacebuilding. The project is being carried out at Utrecht University Data School in Utrecht, Netherlands, and will be presented at a symposium in May

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