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May 21 2020 17,789

Sirima Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike, Sri Lanka’s First Female Leader of Government

Sirima Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike was the head of the Sri Lankan government between 1960 to 1965, 1970 to 1977, and 1994 to 2000. She was born on 17th April 1916, at the Ellawala Walawwa in Ratnapura, in British Ceylon, to an aristocratic Kandyan family. Her mother was a reputed Ayurvedic physician while her father a politician. She went to Catholic, English-medium schools but though remained a Buddhist. Ratwatte spoke both english and Sinhala. 

After graduating from high school at age 19, Ratwatte worked as a social worker distributing food and medicine to people living in the jungle villages. She also organized clinics and other programmes aimed at improving the living standards of women. She was appointed treasurer of the Social Service League, a position she held until she was 40. She was married to Solomon West Ridgeway Dias (S.W.R.D.) Bandaranaike, who was a lawyer-turned-politician. At the time, Dias was Minister of Local Administration in the State Council of Ceylon. Ratwatte played hostess to her politician husband as well as raising her family. They were blessed with three children,  Sunethra, Chandrika, and Anura. The three studied abroad and would later serve in the Sri Lankan government.  

Bandaranaike joined the Lanka Mahila Samiti (Lankan Women’s Association) in 1941 and took part in the many social projects started by the association. She became secretary of the association and later served in different capacities as treasurer, vice-president, and president. Her three main focus areas were family planning, girl’s education, and women’s political rights. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was a famous politician who later became Prime Minister. Ratwatte was her husband’s informal advisor and would later join politics herself when her husband was assassinated in 1959. Ratwatte was elected Chairwoman of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and led her party to win the July 1960 election.

As leader of Government, Ratwatte tried to reform the British Colony of Ceylon into a socialist republic. She nationalized organizations in the education, industry, banking, media, and trade sectors. She also changed the national administrative language from English to Sinhala, which caused opposition from the Tamil population. Her leadership as prime minister was blamed for high inflation and taxes, the country’s overreliance on the importation of food, increased unemployment rates, and division between the Sinhalese and Tamil populations. There were coup d’état attempts that failed in 1962 and 1971. She led the country to draft a new constitution and formation of the Sri Lankan republic in 1972. Ratwatte also formed the Sri Lankan Ministry of Women and Child Affairs in 1975 and gave an appointment to the first woman to the Sri Lankan Cabinet. Ratwatte lost in the 1977 elections and was barred from government for seven years from 1980 due to her abuses of power during her rule. She tried to win the office of President in the 1988 elections but failed. She then went on to serve as Leader of the Opposition in the legislature between 1989 to 1994. Her daughter, Chandrika, then went on to become president in 1994 and appointed her to the position of Prime Minister. Ratwatte served as prime minister till 2000 when she retired. She shortly after died on 10 October 2000 of a heart attack at Kadawatha.

Ratwatte is remembered for raising the beliefs of people in women leadership as she became Leader of Sri Lanka at a time when women leaders were not thought of. Her three children also went on to become prominent leaders in government. Ratwatte also worked hard to help her country move away from the colonial past. Her policies were aimed at reducing the ethnic and socio-economic disparities between the population. She also made Sri Lanka a neutral party during the fights of superpowers and aimed at creating alliances between countries.

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