22nd October 2000
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Focus on Rights

Making a difference through women

By Kishali Pinto Jayawardena
When the idea of proportional representation was first mooted in the Second Republican Constitution of 1978, increasing the number of women in Parliament might have been a distant priority with its framers, preoccupied with more expedient political concerns. Nevertheless, optimists hoped that a spin-off of this electoral system would result in the Sri Lankan political process opening itself up to women in general and not merely women coming from rural or national political dynasties and petty kingships.

Suranganie EllawelaHowever, the month of October 2000 which witnessed the passing away of the world's first woman Prime Minister also sees, in an unhappy coincidence, this hope of joining other forlorn victims of the collapse of representative democracy in this country.

This coincidence is unhappy for obvious reasons. It was Premier Bandaranayake's ascension in 1960, which gave Sri Lanka reason to hope for a role as a parallel Scandinavia in South Asia projecting enlightened women representation in politics. After all, why not? Sri Lanka's women had always scored high on their literacy figures as well as on demographic indicators such as crude birth rate, crude death rate, fertility rate and infant mortality rate.

Political rights were won famously early with the first feminist political group, (Women's Franchise Union), formed in 1927 followed by equal voting rights for men and women four years later. In that same year, the first woman was elected to the legislature. The appointment of the first woman Cabinet Minister in 1956 closely preceded the election of Ms. Bandaranaike as the first woman premier in 1960. Approximately thirty-four years later, her daughter Chandrika Kumaratunga was returned to power as the country's Executive President while Ms. Bandaranaike took up the largely ceremonial role of the Prime Minister in a political system substantially different to the one which she had once Soma K. Tennakoonheaded.

In this process, there should have been a corresponding invasion of the decision making process by women, now amounting to half of the total population of the country. The numbers of women in the early legislatures were minimal, being two or three in assemblies of ninety five (1947,1952, 1956) and one hundred and fifty-one elected seats (1960). The percentages of women being elected ranged from 2.1 to 1.3.

Thereafter, the numbers increased, though not spectacularly, and the percentages rose from 2.6 in (1965) to 4.8 in (1977). When that Parliament, the last under the old system was dissolved in 1989, there were nine women parliamentarians. Only four of these had come in through the popular mandate, operating under the old first- past-the-post system. The remaining five members had been appointed under election laws promulgated under the 1978 Constitution whereby a vacancy in Parliament was filled by appointments from lists of names submitted by different political parties and not through a by-election under the old electoral system. Premier Bandaranaike had, by this time, been deprived of her civic rights and had therefore lost her seat.

Chandrani BandaraThereafter, proportional representation brought in a slightly more optimistic increase in women parliamentarians. Thus, the 1989 Parliament of two hundred and twenty-five representatives numbered twelve women, a number that remained static under the second general election on PR in 1994. Six years later, however, we witness the October elections in 2000 cutting this number drastically with only eight women elected. An interesting development was the defeat at the polls of female politicians holding ministerial or deputy ministerial posts. These included the Minister of Women's Affairs, Hema Ratnayake and two Deputy Ministers (Sumithra Priyanganie Abeyweera and Nirupama Rajapakse). Out of the eight women in the new Parliament, five are new comers. The most notable newcomer in this respect is Ferial Ashraff, succeeding to a political role in the time honoured traditions of South Asian political widows. Whether her role will be largely ceremonial in the fraction ridden SLMC remains to be seen.

But it is the October 2000 percentage drop from 5.3% to 3.5% representation of women in Parliament that is very troubling. We have, in effect, returned to a pre-1970 position in this respect, defeating one of the perceived advantages that a different electoral system was expected to achieve at Ferial Ashraffthe time of its introduction. 

Devastating political violence, the lack of a positive political culture and the reluctance of major parties to field women due to their perceived inability to win seats under the prevalent method of electioneering have all obviously contributed to this regression.

Meanwhile, where mechanisms might have been used deliberately to fill this void, there has been, sadly, no pressure by the political leadership irrespective of whether it is male or female. Thus, both the two main parties did not use the National Lists to advance women candidates even though the PA and the UNP sent thirteen and twelve members respectively to Parliament on their Lists at this month's elections.

The UNP, it appeared, were unable to find any women nominees at all. The two women nominees proposed by the People's Alliance also found no place in the actual appointments. The JVP, however, appointed one woman, (who is a minority representative in addition), out of the two candidates allocated to them of the proportion of their seats. Regardless of whether this was a deliberate strategic move by the JVP or not, the appointment was a refreshing change from the unconcern manifested by the major parties.

Anjan UmmaSimilarly, in August, we saw an earlier guarantee of a 25% quota for women at local government level quietly being dropped from the revised constitutional reform proposals. This was replaced by tepid exhortations to provide for the adequate representation of women "as far as possible". Later, the then Minister of Women's Affairs made even more tepid appeals to all political parties to "make an effort to include more women in their nominations" in the upcoming elections for Sri Lanka's 11th Parliament in October, 2000.

Not surprisingly, however, the nomination of women candidates for elections by the two major parties continued to be within a particular culture of elitism where regional or national dynasties predominated. 

The vastly enlarged numbers of parties contesting added up to one hundred and seventeen (117) women candidates but the People's Alliance and the UNP fielded only eighteen (18) and eleven (11) candidates respectively. Here again, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, put forward the most number of women on its behalf, namely twenty three (23). Though smaller parties such as the Left and Democratic Alliance stressed the need for women representation, their inability to make any impact on the national electorate under PR was a foregone conclusion.

In an age where serious crises of despair are threatening our very individual and national integrity, it is easy to relegate calls for increased women representation in local and national legislatures to the back burner. Nevertheless, the question of how to bring in committed women capable of positively influencing our political culture of violence is vital. This, among other priorities, presently remain in the hands of Sri Lanka's political leadership.

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