The Absence of Women in Sri Lanka’s Electoral Politics

According to statistics, women constitute 52 per cent of Sri Lanka’s population and 56 per cent of registered voters. Yet today there are only 11 women in Parliament out of a total of 225 members. This is approximately six per cent of members. The percentage gets even less in Provincial Councils and local government bodies.

Sri Lanka has one of the oldest traditions of universal franchise dating from 1931. This country produced the world’s first woman Prime Minister. Yet these facts which we like to boast about have masked the fact that women as a whole are grossly under-represented, and the situation has failed to improve despite the strides that women have made in other fields.

The stagnation of women’s role in politics is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that in 1931 women occupied four per cent of seats in the assembly (not a bad ratio for that era), but nearly 80 years on, the percentage has only climbed to six per cent.

Nor has it been a steady climb. In the parliamentary election of 2000, the proportion fell back to four per cent - the 1931 level; and that was with a woman Executive President at the helm. So it is clear that those few women who attain high places in politics, usually as a result of patriarchal family connections, have not embarked upon any concerted programme to give more seats to women from the rank and file.

This issue was the subject of discussion at a media briefing organized jointly by the Women and Media Collective, the Sri Lanka Women’s NGO Forum and the Campaign to Increase Women’s Political Representation, held last week to coincide with the start of the nomination period for the upcoming general election.

A notable feature of this event was the coming together on a common platform of women from a variety of parties, at a time when politics between their male counterparts has become extremely fractious.

The gathering was addressed by: Ashoka Lankatilaka (UPFA) – Western Provincial Councillor; Rosy Senanayake (UNP) – Leader of the Opposition, WPC; Shanthini Kongahage (UNP) – Central Provincial Councillor; Chandrika de Soysa (UPFA) – Municipal Councillor, Maharagama; Upulangani Malagamuwa. - Former North-Western Provincial Councillor; Shanthi Sachchithanandan – Leader of newly formed People's Rights Party (operating in North and East); Salma Hamsa (Sri Lanka Muslim Congress) – Eastern Province.

They all basically had a three-pronged message: Firstly, that women are grossly under-represented in Sri Lankan politics; secondly, that the participation of more women is likely to make Sri Lankan politics less violent and fractious than it is at present; and thirdly, that women are less able, and therefore less likely, to indulge in patronage politics – i.e. "vote for me and I will give you a job".

Another relevant point that the speakers made was that women are often found in significant numbers as rank and file party workers, and do a great deal of canvassing at local level; but it appears that they have to work twice as hard as their male counterparts before they can get recognition in the form of nomination.

Finally, the culture of organized election violence that first surfaced in the 1980s and appears now to be endemic, seems to deter the party hierarchy from appointing women candidates due to the fear that they will not be able to give back as good as they get. Words such as "shakthiya" and "haiya" (strength and toughness) are used to explain why women are not suitable for the job.

The reply of the women is that if sufficient numbers of them are appointed as candidates the need for such physical toughness may decline. However, such arguments have thus far fallen on deaf ears, and the proportion of women candidates on nomination lists is as dismal as the ratio of those who finally get elected.

Sri Lanka lags far behind other Asian countries in this respect. In a 2001 survey conducted by UN – ESCAP of the percentage of women representatives in local government bodies, Sri Lanka was right at the bottom with a mere 2 per cent. We were surpassed by Japan, Philippines, Thailand, China, Nepal, Australia, Vietnam, New Zealand, India and Bangladesh.

India and Bangladesh, the countries with the most similar social and political systems to Sri Lanka, topped the list with percentages of 33 and 33.3 respectively.

A number of countries have attained reasonable levels of women’s representation only after some form of affirmative action. A quota system has been the most common remedy, under which a certain proportion of seats are reserved for women candidates.

In India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh there is a percentage of seats reserved for women candidates, which ranges from 20 per cent in Nepal to 33 per cent in India and Pakistan.

Nor is this only an Asian problem. Elsewhere round the globe women have faced the problem of under-representation, but in many such countries affirmative action has been taken. For example, in Uganda one parliamentary seat in each of that country’s 39 districts is reserved for a woman candidate.

As Sri Lanka, unlike its Asian neighbours, presently has a system of proportional representation, the most relevant examples for us may be the South American countries where the "PR" system is prevalent. In Argentina, women are required to make up a required percentage of each party’s nomination list at parliamentary, state and municipal elections. The required percentage on the parliamentary list is 30, which has resulted in Argentina ranking 9th in the world in terms of women’s representation in parliament.

Today Argentina has been joined in this system by Bolivia, Brazil, Costa Rica, the Domenican Republic, Ecuador, Peru, Panama and Venezuela in requiring a fixed percentage of women candidates on each party’s nomination list. The figure ranges from 40 per cent in Costa Rica to 20 per cent in Ecuador.

Even in Europe, a quota system has been found necessary in a number of countries including France, Belgium and the Scandinavian countries.

In Britain a voluntary system to promote women that was adopted by the Labour Party had to be dropped when it was challenged under Britain’s Sex Discrimination Act.

However Sri Lanka’s Constitution allows for such "reverse discrimination". Although Article 12(1) states that all persons are equal before the law, and Article 12(2) states prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, Article 12(4) qualifies these provisions by stating that:

"Nothing in this article shall prevent special provision being made by law, subordinate legislation or executive action, for the advancement of women, children or disabled persons."

The juxtaposition of words in the above section is not popular with women, as the problem they face is one of prejudice and not of disability, but nevertheless Article 12(4) will serve to give constitutional sanction to any affirmative action to promote the greater representation of women in elected government at all levels.

It is high time Sri Lanka caught up with the rest of the world in terms of giving its adult women the chance to represent the electorate at all levels of government.

Until the necessary law is passed, it is open to political parties, even at the upcoming general election, voluntarily to increase the number of women on their nomination lists.

(The writer is grateful to the Women and Media Collective for providing much of the factual information on which this article is based.)

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