Local elections in Sri Lanka last week resulted in the appointment of Colombo’s first female mayor, Rosy Senanayake of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s center-right United National Party (UNP).
Her win follows newly instated requirements that women make up at least 25% of candidates in local elections. This move is an attempt to address the fact that women currently constitute a dismal 2% of local government leaders.
According to the New York Times, Sri Lankan women bold enough to run for election faced sexual assault, intimidation and slander, and some religious leaders went as far as to urge their followers not to vote for female candidates. Last year, prominent Sri Lankan newspaper the Daily Mirror purported that political parties were having trouble filling the female representation quotas “not purely because of the relative backwardness of the women in social life, but also because of their hesitation or inability to cope with the current political and social cultures in the country.”
Despite Senanayake’s long-running career in politics and public life, which has included posts as the state minister for child development, Sri Lankan High Commissioner for Malaysia, and as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Population Fund, much attention is focused on her past life as Mrs World 1985.
Back in 2012, a male parliamentarian claimed to be too mesmerised by her beauty to respond to her questions in parliament. “You are such a charming woman. I cannot explain my feelings here. But if you meet me outside Parliament, I will describe them,” said then transport minister Kumara Welgama.
With or without the respect of their male colleagues, Senanayake and other women in Sri Lankan politics are spurring a new national conversation.
“The people have come to believe that more women must take to politics…[They] feel that if there are more women in politics, corruption will be reduced,” Harshani Sandaruwani, a woman who ran for local council in Kotte, told the New York Times.
Women as harbingers of anti-corruption is interesting given the country’s current political turmoil: former strong man leader, Mahinda Rajapaksa, is threatening a comeback amidst widespread frustration with the current government. President Maithripala Sirisena has so far been unable to weed out corruption like he promised during his election.
While it’s unlikely that the mere appointment of women in a fundamentally corrupt and patriarchal system will result in deep change, representation is the first step towards meaningful female political involvement in Sri Lanka.