Where are the women?
As the discussions and debates around the 20th Amendment and
electoral reforms intensify, it is disappointing to note that there is
no conversation flagging the abysmally low representation of women in
Parliament (5.8% at present), nor any political will to introduce
special measures to increase the number of women Parliamentarians. Despite promises in the manifesto of President MaithripalaSirisena to
bring in measures to increase women in governance, and despite 20 years
of campaigning by women’s groups to bring in affirmative action for
women, we are once again faced with the deprioritisation of this
extremely critical issue of the under representation of women.
Given that 51% of the population is female, it is indeed surprising
that consecutive governments have not identified and addressed this need
for representation, resulting ingender insensitive legislation and
policies, and continued systematic discrimination against women. As the
Cabinet subcommittee moves to discuss the proposed electoral reforms
this week, it is imperative they address this critical gap in our
country’s political system.
Historically, women’s representation in Sri Lankan politics has
always been low. Post- independence, the percentage of women in
Parliament has never risen above 6.5%. Women in provincial and local
government have fared no better, with the numbers consistently
stagnating at 6% and 2%respectively.
This has led to Sri Lanka’s reputation as the South Asian country
with the lowest female political representation, and it is ranked 130 in
the world for percentage of women in Parliament.
Given Sri Lanka’s high development indicators it is certainly strange
that political parties cannot or will not find qualified women
candidates to nominate for elections. The historical trends show that no
mainstream party has ever nominated more than 4% of women at a single
The experiences of women already involved in local government show us
why. While women organisers are used to mobilise the female vote for
male politicians during elections, they receive no support in the growth
of their own political careers.
Back of the line
The lack of internal party democracy and absence of women in decision
making positions within the party, as well as political patronage
systems and a lack of commitment to good governance have resulted in
women continuously being pushed to the back of the line.
|Women’s groups have put forward the following proposals vis-à-vis the
proposed mixed electoral system:
1. 165 First Past the Post seats
Reserve seats for women – electorates that have a majority of women
be designated only for women candidates or one electorate per district
be allocated only to women candidates. This electorate can be selected
on a rotating basis. This ensures that women will get 22 seats.
Similar provisions have been made in India and elsewhere.
Alternately, mandatory nomination of 25% women, as candidates in
nomination lists: this ensures that women are given the opportunity to
contest the First Past the Post seats
2. District Proportional
We propose that the district proportional list be larger than the
currently proposed one which is limited to 31 seats, and that at least
one appointment from each District PR list should be a woman.
3. The National List
The national list has a limitation of a maximum number of 59 members,
but this could go down to 37 in the event of seats being allocated from
the overhang. Thus the demand is that every 2nd appointment from the
National list be given to a woman.
4. Multi Member Constituencies
Given the probability that some electorates may be designated as
multi-member constituencies, a minimum of one woman candidate should be
nominated to contest these seats.
The violent political culture and high monetary costs involved in
campaigning are also barriers to women entering politics. Given this
situation, it is imperative that the electoral reforms bring in
affirmative action for women, to counter the institutional and
structural discrimination they face because of their gender. This will
also increase the opportunities for minority women, who are further
discriminated against because of their ethnicity and religion.
Affirmative action, or positive discrimination, is a process used to
promote the progress of a historically disadvantaged group, to achieve
More than 100 countries around the world have some form of
affirmative action for increasing the number of women in government,
either through mandatory or legislated reservations, or voluntary quotas
for nomination lists adopted by political parties. Women in post-war Sri
Lanka have faced a number of issues unique to them, such as
vulnerabilities faced by female-headed households and single mothers,
women with disabilities, and the rise in domestic and gender-based
violence, which need to be legislated for by elected representatives who
are aware of and sensitive to women’s needs.
Opportunity to participate
The 94% male parliament has proven time and again that they are
woefully unequipped to play this role. That being said, women’s issues
are not the only concerns women have. Sri Lankan women have consistently
excelled in all sectors, be it education, science, business, medicine or
law. Now, they need to be given the opportunity to participate in the
political process, not just as voters but as elected members and active
proponents of social, cultural and economic change. It is in this
context that the Collective for Gender Reforms in Politics urges the
President, Prime Minister, Cabinet sub-committee on electoral reforms,
Members of Parliament and political parties to prioritise the issue of
women in governance, and introduce means of ensuring at least a 25%
representation. The proposed mixed electoral system will not be
beneficial to women seeking to enter Parliament, and given the
reluctance of political parties to nominate women, it is essential that
the 20th amendment includes a reservation for women. In the spirit of
yahapalanaya, the reforms process should follow good governance
They should be conducted through a transparent and inclusive process;
ensure proportional representation; address the under-representation of
women and commit to increasing women’s access and opportunity for
nominations; and address the lack of internal party democracy.