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Online Feminism for an Inclusive Democracy

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Photo courtesy of Techno Brain

“The global average of women’s representation in politics is 24.6%, in the Asian region it’s 20.5%, in Sri Lanka, it’s 5.3%, with the women population being 52%. There is very little done to address the broad discrimination against Sri Lankan women or provide them protection and empower them to be equal partners in the country’s growth and progress. We need to be cautious and supportive, so women do not feel intimidated by politics perpetuated by the ruling class.” Lihini Fernando, female politician and lawyer.  

Although Sri Lanka has achieved much progress in education, health and most social indicators, the representation of women at every level of governance remains abysmally low. Since the country’s transition to democracy began during the 1930s, the representation of women legislators at the national level has never exceeded 7%. According to Sathya Karunarathne, Research Executive at Advocata Institute, Sri Lanka did not break the glass ceiling with the top political leadership of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike and President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga because the men in their lives held positions in active politics.

In such a context, increasing female representation in politics has been subject to much debate in recent years. Underrepresentation globally can be attributed to many factors, including the stereotypical notions about the “right” place of women in society, which have been identified as a critical factor in why women are often reluctant to play a significant role in politics.

Digital communication platforms play a vital role as the modern form of awareness raising in changing the public discourse on women’s capabilities and political rights. However, to facilitate open access to current communication channels for urban and rural communities, recognizing the right to digital technology as a fundamental human right in the 21st century is necessary, particularly since rural communities represent critical game changing votes in politics.

Do we need women in politics?

Political participation as a human right grants citizens the right to take part, directly or through representatives, in the conduct of public affairs and government, and to vote at genuine periodic elections based on universal suffrage and the secret ballot. However, women’s political participation has been a highly debated topic in a patriarchal and male dominated society. Article 7 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which the United Nations General Assembly adopted in 1979, called for states to take steps to eliminate discrimination against women in the political spheres by ensuring both women and men have equal rights to vote, to be eligible to vote, to be eligible to hold public office, to participate in policy formulation and implementation, and to participate in non-governmental organizations.

Among the various aspects of gender equality, the political empowerment of women is one of the most critical aspects. This includes active political representation and improved decision making capacities at all governance levels. Overall, the political empowerment of women helps advance gender equality and affects the range of policy issues that get considered and the proposed types of solutions.

Active political participation can lead to various gains for democracy, such as more responsiveness to the needs of citizens, increased cooperation across parties and a more sustainable future. This effort also increases the number of women in parliament, improves policy outcomes and promotes inclusiveness in public spheres. It challenges the dominant power structures of men and relations that undermine the consideration of women’s needs and interest in policy making. Women’s representation in governance is significant for promoting a greater diversity of views in government and combatting damaging sexist notions that subjugate women and diminish their capabilities and value.

Online Feminism: A form of awareness raising

As a patriarchal and traditional-minded society, Sri Lanka suffers from the gendered nature of politics and entrenched stereotypes that present men as leaders and women as caregivers. This has impacted women’s exclusion from politics and policy. Although the government introduced a 25% mandatory quota for women to enter the local government in 2016, the expected results were not achieved due to women’s lack of interest and political awareness. Hampered by the social norms surrounding the role of a woman, most females lack the competence and political knowledge to run a successful election campaign on par with the male candidates. This is not healthy, considering the active roles many women play in their communities through various social service activities. Awareness raising among women should be the most prominent solution to address these identified gaps. However, it should be innovative and strategic to increase the level of confidence of women to fight against male dominant political systems.

There has been a growing social media presence, especially during the pandemic, when many social services such as education, jobs, and health and food services were provided online. There were 11.34 million internet users in January 2021 out of the 21.46 million overall population while 8.20 million social media users were recognized during the same period. Approximately 40% of the population has internet and social media access with Facebook and YouTube being the most popular social media platforms.

Considering the social media presence in politics and current affairs, social media spaces have been very active during the elections and crises. The best example was social media campaigns executed by the general public against the incapacity of the former president and his government to manage the economic situation. #GiveUsOurStolenMoneyBack, #GoHomeGota and #GoHomeRajapakshas hashtags trended from March to May 2022. Many people gathered on the roads and did demonstrations due to social media campaigns and increased levels of networking. Social media campaigns can be innovative to raise awareness of increased women’s participation and political engagement in such a context.

Primarily, social media conversations go beyond social group conversations and become a sustained global conversation between women and girls. Sometimes it can also raise awareness outside the community. For example, the protests against former President Rajapaksa’s government in March 2022 started from a small group discussion but had covered the entire island nation and reached the diaspora by July 2022. A picture of a woman holding an infant while participating in the silent protest in front of the president’s house became the most famous image of April 2022 on Facebook and Twitter. Many Sri Lankans have used the same picture as their profile pictures on their Facebook profiles to show women’s and children’s struggles amidst the worsening of the economic crisis.

Online feminism as a form of awareness raising and the ongoing economic crisis provide examples of how effective social media campaigns can be and demonstrate the transformational power of modern digital technologies within gender politics. The younger generation is much closer to the world of social media therefore it is essential to generate discussions on women’s and girls’ issues. A theme such as increased women’s political participation and women’s political engagement could be more relevant for younger generations. Social media platforms that are more popular among younger generations should be used effectively as a critical platform for awareness raising in this digital age.

Can online feminism reach rural communities?

Social media users in Sri Lanka significantly increased by 1.5 million (+23%) between 2020 and 2021, while internet users in Sri Lanka also increased dramatically by 800,000 (+7.9%) during the same period. This happened mainly due to the Covid-19 pandemic and associated factors such as expanding virtual services and communications. However, of the 21.46 million overall population, only 18.8% live in urban areas while the remaining 81.2% live in rural areas. Most rural regions struggle to connect with the internet and social media platforms due to the lack of technological devices and network signals. In this context, social work organizations and service providers find it difficult to reach rural women and girls via online feminism and social media campaigns to raise awareness of women’s political empowerment.

Internet is no longer a luxury service. The UN declared even before Covid-19 that it considers access to the internet to be a human right. Its suggestion that internet access should be a human right provided by the government has become more relevant now because other human rights, including the right to work and education, cannot be adequately realized during public health emergencies. Internet access is essential in the modern world for employment, education and ensuring other human rights such as freedom of expression, association, and access to information.

Although the government has made substantial efforts to transform the country into a digital hub, the government has not yet accepted the internet as a human right politically or legally. This was exemplified by the nationwide social media restrictionformer president Gotabaya Rajapaksa imposed in April 2022 to control the virtual networking of the public against his leadership. Many human rights activists, journalists and legal practitioners condemned this decision and reported it to the Human Rights Commission (HRC). The HRC noted that imposing a social media ban violated human rights and pressured the government to immediately ease the restrictions. Eventually, it was a successful effort, and the government was forced to remove the ban. In this sense, identifying internet access as a human right is extremely important to empower women and protect people’s fundamental rights such as freedom of expression, association and the right to information. Authorities should understand that fundamental rights and the internet are inter connected in the modern world. For example, health coverage, one of the fundamental rights for many Sri Lankans, can now be accessed thanks to technology. Rural communities with insufficient technological infrastructure for the internet will enjoy less protection of specific rights. Therefore, it must be recognized as a fundamental right within its legal framework to ensure access.

Conclusion

Women have been depicted as politically ineffective, unmotivated, naive, invisible and dependent upon the power of men. The primary reason for women’s low political representation in Sri Lanka is the belief that women cannot be decision makers, unlike men, as their skills do not lend themselves to life in the public sphere. There is also a belief that women would not be able to devote the time and energy to run for office precisely because they are often caregivers and homemakers. In a country where women have achieved more significant progress in education, volunteering, and social service activities, women’s political representation is vital to building an inclusive democracy with an excellent representative parliament.

Online feminism, a revolutionary networking platform with the development of globalization, can contribute as an effective mechanism to increasing women’s confidence by empowering them ideologically and emotionally. It can also act as a new digital tool to expand the public’s awareness of the importance of representative democracy and gender equality at all levels.

However, it is essential to empower and reach all communities irrespective of everyone’s geographical location, including rural communities, as they represent nearly 80% of the game changing votes in politics. Politically it is imperative to recognize the right to internet access as a fundamental human right that would encourage responsible authorities to establish digital infrastructure soon within the next few years. It is essential to create an environment for all women to succeed and feel safe in the political system, leading to an empowered society being more receptive toward female leadership and achieving gender equality in politics.

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