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  • Sasha Anand

The Legacy of Sirimavo Bandaranaike: Paving the Way for Women in Politics


By Divya Beeram


Sirimavo Bandaranaike: trailblazer, visionary, luminary.


Sirimavo Bandaranaike, born in 1916 in Ratnapura, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), rose to power as the world’s first female prime minister.


She was born into a well-off family and eventually married S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, an emerging politician in the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP).


Her husband first became prime minister in 1956, but was assassinated in 1959, just years after election.


Even grieving her husband’s death, Mrs. Bandaranaike took it upon herself to continue leadership of the SLFP.


 


She maintained continuity of her late husband’s work, including socialist economic policies and a neutral stance on international relations.


Under her tenure, several sectors of the economy including banking and insurance were nationalized.


She also introduced the Land Reform Act of No. 01 in 1971, which placed a limit of twenty hectares on privately owned land, and the ​​Land Reform (Amendment) Act that nationalized plantations and farms that were publicly owned.


The ultimate aim of her policy was to increase equity between the country’s less-off, landless peasants, and the rich elite that grasped its control over the country with an iron fist.


However, in 1973, plagued by the effects of the oil crisis, the economy of Sri Lanka began a steady decline. She began a period of austerity to wean the country from the constant stream of foreign aid, assistance, and loans.


In 1975, International Women’s Year, Bandaranaike created a council to focus on women's issues, which would later become the Ministry of Women and Child Affairs.


She appointed the first woman to serve in the Sri Lankan Cabinet, Siva Obeyesekere, first as First State Secretary for Health and later as Minister of Health, and she was honored at the UN World Conference on Women in 1975. 


Yet, after marginalizing the greatest Tamilian majority in Sri Lanka through her support of Buddhism, the Sri Lanka parliament stripped Bandaranaike of her political rights and banned her from running for office in the future in 1980.


By 1986, she had been pardoned, but had lost her party’s support entirely. Her children were left to continue her legacy. Her son, Anura P.S.D. Bandaranaike, became a member of parliament in 1977 and rose to become the leader of the SLFP’s new right-wing, conservative section by 1984. Her daughter and favored child,  Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga held more left wing views and discouraged Anura Bandaranaike from the SLFP and towards that opposing party, the United National Party (UNP).


 

Sirimavo Bandaranaike has paved the way for all future women of power, from Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, to Kamala Harris, our own Vice President.


She was the path forward that the world had looked for.


Oftentimes, as residents of the United States, we forget the progressivity that other countries have maintained, and how far we have to travel before getting there. Countries have had years upon years of leadership by women, but it seems almost impossible in the boundaries of the US, a notion of optimism that we are decades from reaching.


Nonetheless, Sirimavo Bandaranaike remains the beacon of hope whose message will one day lead the world into equitable leadership and powerful policy. 

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