The Pulse | Society | South Asia

Sri Lanka’s Problem With Women in Power

The first woman to be appointed as a deputy inspector general of police was removed from office just six months later.

Sri Lanka’s Problem With Women in Power
Credit: Depositphotos

It was a moment worthy of celebration for women in Sri Lanka when Bimshani Jasin Arachchi was appointed as Sri Lanka’s first female deputy inspector general of police (DIG) in October, 2020. This victory was short-lived, however. Six months later Jasin Arachchi was removed from her duties by a three-bench panel of the Supreme Court of Justice.

This decision follwed the filing of a fundamental rights petition by 33 male senior superintendents of police (SSPs), stating that the appointment of Bimshani Jasin Arachchi as the first woman DIG violated the standard procedures followed in the promotion of senior police officers. The petitioners claim that Jasin Arachchi’s appointment was irregular as the provisions that allow for the appointment of DIGs do not include the word “woman.”

Speaking to the local press, Jasin Arachchi stated:

Many hold a false belief that women are incapable of succeeding to […] higher ranks of the police because we are unable to do what is perceived to be ‘male’ work…

My expectation on behalf of all women is that we get a fair opportunity to prove our worth. The same selection criteria, training standards and promotions should be applicable to women as those applicable to male counterparts. It is about time this country brings a change in the society. Regardless of the sector, women should not be deprived of earning [the] recognition they deserve.

Like her female colleagues, Jasin Arachchi was no stranger to strife in her ascent to higher ranks within the Sri Lanka police force. She had to fight when securing her promotion as an assistant superintendent of police (ASP) through a fundamental rights application in 2008.

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In a guest column for the Daily Financial Times, Prabodhini Munasinghe Wickrematunga explains that due to the differentiation of male and female police cadres, women are only able to progress in their careers within the structure provided for the female cadres. Only a limited number of posts are allocated for higher ranks of women officers and if these “female vacancies” are already filled, women have no option to apply for other vacancies arising in the same rank that are reserved for male officers.

Archives from the Sri Lanka Police note that in 2020, eight SSP positions were allocated for female officers while 162 positions were dedicated for male officers. Once these eight positions are filled, a woman is unable to apply for a vacancy arising in the remaining 162 SSP positions reserved for male cadres, even if she were equally or more qualified. This is further compounded by the fact that female officers’ career progression in the police force stops at the title of SSP, while male officers can continue to ascend the career ladder to ranks such as DIG, senior deputy inspector general (senior DIG), and inspector general of police (IGP) – the highest-ranking position within the police force.

This is symptomatic of systemic discrimination underpinned by strong patriarchal notions that diminish the abilities of women as officers in the police force. It is also a residual effect of women being accepted into the police only in 1952, 86 years after the establishment of the police force in Sri Lanka, which by then was a male-centric institution. Adding to this, Jasin Arachchi was appointed as the first female DIG 68 years after the establishment of the female police cadre, only to be stripped from her title a mere six months later. It comes as no surprise that the female cadre position had been created with the underlying motive of maintaining the balance of power in favor of men.

Such norms that govern the Sri Lanka police force are in direct violation of Article 12 (2) of the Constitution of Sri Lanka, which stipulates that “No citizen shall be discriminated against on the grounds of race, religion, language, caste, sex, political opinion, place of birth or any such ground.”

Female police officers are at a huge disadvantage, as the vastly unequal allotment of high-ranking cadre positions allows junior male officers to rise above senior women. Due to the prevailing norm that a woman can only rise within the female cadre positions, they cannot apply for promotions to the ranks of DIG, senior DIG and IGP. The police force does not recognize qualified women officers to hold any rank in the simply as police officers, but instead, limit their career progression through disproportionate allocations made for female cadres. This also explains why the fundamental rights petition by the 33 male SSPs calls for the word “woman” to be included in promotion regulations.

The key takeaway here is that the appointment of Bimshani Jasin Arachchi should not have been done through this problematic existing structure, which does not accept women as high-ranking officers. Instead, as described by Wickrematunga in her article, the existing regulations on promotions should be amended to facilitate both men and women on an equal playing field, by allowing male and female officers to apply for the same positions through merit-based criteria. Alternatively, the structure of the existing cadres could be revised to accommodate sufficient allocations by gazetting senior ranks within the female cadre allocation to be on par with those ranks within the male cadre.

Referring to the female cadres as an “ornamental police force,” veteran journalist Namini Wijedasa underlines that none of the existing women SSPs is heading any special divisions, while no female chief inspector or inspector has been made officer-in-charge of a police station – an indication that the female cadre designation still limits women’s career trajectory in the police force so that men have more opportunities, less competition, and easier access to senior positions. Wijedasa reiterates that to date, there has been no significant effort to reorganize the existing hierarchies and institutional structures of the police.

Jasin Arachchi’s case has brought these irregularities and discriminatory practices to light. It caused an uproar in urban areas of Sri Lanka and has been condemned via a public statement issued by the National Forum Against Gender-Based Violencea collective of 53 agencies representing the government, United Nations, national and international nongovernmental organizations, community-based organizations, and individual experts in the field.

In response, a recent communiqué issued by the police spokesperson stated that Jasin Arachchi will be reappointed as a DIG, although there has been no written confirmation to date. This speaks to a conundrum now faced by the Sri Lankan police on how to retain a qualified female DIG within the existing institutional mechanism, while accommodating other senior women police officers that remain stagnated at the SSP level.

More often than not, there is a definite lack of accountability sprinkled with denial when perusing the subject of women’s access to and opportunities for leadership. For instance, when questioned on Sri Lanka’s limited female representation in leadership, political commentators are quick to respond that the country has witnessed the leadership of a woman prime minister (also the world’s first woman PM), and a woman president, without really addressing the core issues that prohibit women from shattering that glass ceiling. What commentators conveniently forget to mention is that both former Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike and former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga came from the same family with deep-seated political roots. Both women also garnered the sympathy vote to some extent, having run for office after their spouses were assassinated while leading active political lives. Therefore, their success cannot be applied to the average woman aspiring to enter Sri Lanka’s political arena, as witnessed in the abysmally low percentage of women legislators in Sri Lanka’s present parliament (only 5.3 percent women legislators, or 12 out of a total 225 legislators).

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Sri Lanka should take a clear look at amending archaic systems and structures that discriminate against women aspiring for power, not only in the police force, but also in other sectors such as subnational and national government, the tri-forces, the private sector, etc. As a country healing from a 30-year civil conflict, it is essential that these underlying discriminatory practices be addressed in a systemic and structural manner in order to productively engage half of the country’s population – i.e. women – in sustainable peacebuilding and development processes, with ample opportunities for meaningful leadership.