The First Female Prime Minister

Dec/31/2022 / by Swarnendu Biswas
Sirimavo Bandaranaike
Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Sirima Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike, commonly known as Sirimavo Bandaranaike, was a globally renowned Sri Lankan politician and stateswoman. She achieved the distinction of being the world’s first female Prime Minister of a country when she became the Prime Minister of the then dominion of Ceylon (later it became Sri Lanka) in 1960. By this appointment she also became the first non-hereditary female head of government in the modern history of the world.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike was born into a Sinhalese Kandyan aristocratic family, on 17th April 1916. She was educated in English-medium  Roman Catholic convent named St Bridget’s Convent, in Colombo. After her secondary school education, she worked for various social programmes. She then married in 1940 and got engaged in her family responsibilities for many years.

Socio-political Awareness

Here it deserves a mention that she was exposed to a political environment since her childhood as her father Barnes Ratwatte was a member of the Senate, and of the State Council of Ceylon. That environment probably influenced her political consciousness and foresight. In 1941, she joined Lanka Mahila Samiti (Lankan Women’s Association), then the country’s largest women’s voluntary organization.

Her husband Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike was the founder of the left leaning Sri Lanka Freedom Party (he founded the party in 1951), and he became the fourth Prime Minister of the Dominion of Ceylon  (Sri Lanka since 1972). As PM’s wife, Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s social work was focused on improving the lives of women and girls in rural Sri Lanka.

His short Prime Ministerial tenure lasted from 12th April 1956-26th September 1959, when he was assassinated by a Buddhist monk.

Leading from the Front

While exploring about Sirimavo Bandaranaike one can easily come to know that following her husband’s assassination in 1959, the leaders of  Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) persuaded and eventually convinced Sirimavo Bandaranaike to enter politics and lead the party as its Chairwoman. One can say her entry to the politics was sudden and was fostered by an unfortunate incident. In May1960, she was elected unanimously as the party’s President by the Executive Committee of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, 

She also led Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s return to power in the July 1960 election and became the fifth Prime Minister of Ceylon. She went on to chair the Sri Lanka Freedom Party for more than three decades, that was from 1960 to 1994.

Trouble and Gains with the Left

As a politician Sirimavo Bandaranaike had a leftist slant.The leader was instrumental in nationalizing British and American oil companies functioning in Ceylon, which resulted in both the UK and the US removing their aid to Sri Lanka.

However, her extensive nationalization initiatives which disturbed many business interests of Ceylon and continual food shortages throughout Ceylon probably led to Sri Lanka Freedom Party losing majority in the 1965 elections.

The SLFP government  lost its majority in December 1964 when some MPs from the party deserted the government because of the nationalization of Lakehouse Newspapers.

She remained as the Leader of the Opposition in Sri Lanka during 1965-1970, and again became the PM of the island nation for the second time in 1970 when the UF coalition (which was a product of alliance between SLFP with Ceylon’s Marxist parties) formed by her, came to power with a huge majority.

Important Achievements

One of the most important landmarks of the second prime ministerial tenure of Sirimavo Bandaranaike was that  Ceylon emerged out of the dominion status and became sovereign and independent Republic of Sri Lanka in 1972, after a new Constitution was ratified. The new constitution enabled her to extend her term at office by two years.

Her second tenure as the Prime Minister is also characterized by the nationalization of the British-owned plantations of Sri Lanka, and land reform, which gave land to many poor people in the country, implementation of a national pharmaceuticals policy, which made drugs affordable for common Sri Lankan people. It was also characterized by impressive growth in the manufacturing sector, especially in textiles and garments, and electronics. However, the Sri Lankan economy suffered severe jolt due to the 1973 oil crisis which her government could not alleviate to much extent. Economic stagnation and ethnic tensions were other problems during UF’s governance.

Overall, in both her first two terms as the PM, the country suffered from high inflation and taxes and significant unemployment. Because of her aggressive Sinhalese nationalist policies polarization between the Sinhalese and Tamil populations of the island nation also took place.

In the 1977 general elections in Sri Lanka, Sirimavo Bandaranaikeled UFhad a very poor showing and was ousted from power though Sirimavo retained her parliamentary seat in Attanagalla. 

Facing Reverses

In 1978, Sri Lanka got a new constitution, which resulted in Sri Lanka moving from British-style parliamentary system of governance to the French-style Presidential system of governance. In 1980, she faced charges of abuse of power during her second tenure as the Prime Minister and consequently was removed from Parliament and was prohibited from holding any public office in Sri Lanka for seven years.

In 1988, the leader of the masses contested Presidential election but was defeated by Ranasinghe Premadasa, following a close contest. She became the Leader of the Opposition in 1989. She was also successfully re-elected to Sri Lanka parliament from the Gampaha Electoral District.

Successful Mother-Daughter Team

In 1994, the coalition led by ‘SLFP’ won general elections in 1994 and her daughter Chandrika Kumaratunga was elected as the PM of Sri Lanka. Chandrika also won the Presidential election in November 1994 and became the first female President of Sri Lanka. Chandrika then appointed Sirimavo Bandaranaike as the Prime Minister. Though the office of prime minister in the Constitution of Sri Lanka (which was ratified in 1978) was primarily ceremonial but the first PM of the world continued to have her influence in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party.

However, the mother and daughter differed on their leadership style. Citing health reasons, Sirimavo Bandaranaike stepped down from the post of Prime Minister of Sri Lanka in August 2000.

The great leader died of heart attack on 10th October 2000 at Kadawatha; a large suburb of Colombo. The age of Sirimavo Bandaranaike at the time of her death was 84 years.

FAQs

What is Sirimavo Bandaranaike famous for?

Her becoming the first female PM in the world should ideally be the most important aspect of the biography of Sirimavo Bandaranaike.

Who was Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s husband?

Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike was her husband.

How many times SirimavoBandaranaike became the Prime Minister?

She served three terms as the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka; from 1960-65, 1970-1977, and during 1994-2000.

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