It is a great privilege to be with you today to celebrate International Women’s Day. I’m delighted that we have been able to support this event. What is International Women’s Day and why does it matter? The first International Women’s Day was celebrated in New York in 1909. It was begun as a push for the recognition of women’s rights, in particular the right to vote. This year marks a hundred years since one of the most famous women’s political movements – the Suffragettes – won the right to vote in British elections. This year is the 43rd time that the day has been celebrated by the United Nations. But as recently as 2011, UN General Assembly stated, “Women in every part of the world continue to be largely marginalized from the political sphere, often as a result of discriminatory laws, practices, attitudes and gender stereotypes, low levels of education, lack of access to health care and the disproportionate effect of poverty on women.”
In the last year, we have seen proud women across the world stand up and say enough is enough. The #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns have seen women challenge entrenched behaviours in all sorts of environments: in the workplace, in cultural environments, in religious places, on public transport. It is a reminder, if one were needed, that the struggle for women’s rights and an end to discrimination continues.
Over the years, the scope of International Women’s Day has widened to include recognition of the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. There is no doubt these aspects reflect more holistically the contribution that women have made, make and will make to society. But today I want to return closer to the original focus of International Women’s Day and look at the political empowerment of women in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka has a proud history of being a pioneer on women’s representation. In 1931, the country was one of the first to allow voting rights to women over the age of 21 without any restrictions. Since then, there have been many prominent and noteworthy women politicians and women leaders in Sri Lanka. In 1960, the country became the first country in the world – bar none – to elect a women as Head of Government, when Sirimavo Bandaranaike became Prime Minister. Of course, she was later followed by her daughter, Chandrika Kumaratunga. These are proud achievements in which Sri Lankans can justifiably take pride. But unfortunately, those achievements have not led to the wider political empowerment of women. Currently, only 5.3% of MPs are women. That is not a problem unique to Sri Lanka, but in a world where the average percentage of women parliamentarians is – a still too low – 22%, clearly the problem here is acute.
Before the recent local government elections, women were less than 2% of local councillors. That really isn’t good enough. And that is why we in the EU have supported the creation of a 25% quota for women in local and provincial council elections. There have been some teething problems, calculating the details of how the quota will work in councils where there is an overhang. But, when all the seats have been confirmed, there should be nearly 2000 women councillors – that’s more than ten times the amount we had before the elections. That’s truly a momentous change in the empowerment of women.
For the EU, women’s rights has been described as the silver thread that runs through our foreign policy. Across the world, we advocate for legislative and constitutional reforms to ensure women’s fair political access — as voters, candidates and elected officials.That is why in Sri Lanka we have been working with NGO partners to support women’s participation in elections and help provide training for women political candidates. We have collaborated with civil society on programmes that uphold women’s rights to vote and campaign free from electoral violence.
To what end? What difference does women’s representation make: Women think women. Everywhere where we see women’s political representation increase, we see those representatives putting issues that matter to women on the agenda. Of course, many of the issues that matter to women are the same as those that matter to men – security, the economy, education, healthcare. But we see in Europe that in those countries where there are more women representatives, child care increases. Policies and budgets better reflect women’s needs and interests. In India, more women in politics has improved the economic opportunities and labour force participation of women. Access to water has improved. Addressing the needs of girls and women is impossible without representation of their interests in top decision-making positions.
And the wider impact in society is striking, transforming the economic status, and – often as a consequence – the social status of women. This benefits growth in the economy because more women start to fully participate in the country’s economy. And here in Sri Lanka, that could have a huge impact. Women leave school with the same level of education as men, but less than half the number of men end up in the workforce. And those that do often earn far less money for doing the same work. A change in social status can also be a catalyst for addressing one of the most shameful abuses of women’s rights, violence against women – sadly, a serious problem amongst all communities in Sri Lanka.
The new electoral system will not achieve all these changes on its own. But it does offer Sri Lanka the opportunity to better empower women by growing the number of women’s representatives at the local level – with the hope and expectation that this will start to change the numbers of women elected at provincial and national level, so that women are able to fully realise the aspirations the pioneers of women’s rights had when they established International Women’s Day.