15th June 1997


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Reserving quotas for women

Though in many areas of the law there is a formal and
theoretical -equality, this has proved inadequate to
provide for the effective participation of women in
political life. Although women have exercised the
franchise for over fifty years the insignificant number
of women in public life show that the barriers to their
participation are more subtle
By Mario Gomez and Shyamala Gomez, University of Colombo

The recent announce ment by the govern ment that it is proposing to reserve 25 per cent of the seats at Parliamentary elections for women, (Daily News 31 May 1997) is to be welcomed. In a country where less than 5 per cent of the members of parliament are women and only three members of the Cabinet are women, there is a need for a policy intervention that would facilitate a greater representation of women in our political institutions - at local government, provincial and national level.

A recent proposal in India to reserve 33 per cent of the seats at Parliamentary elections (on a rotating basis) has not gone through although all major political parties pledged to support the initiative. One of the (alleged) reasons proffered by some of the political parties was that a special reservation for Muslim women and women of backward classes needs to be set apart within this quota of 33 percent.

Women and Quotas

Several factors have triggered this move towards greater political representation for women. One is the understanding that equality at a formal level is insufficient. Women are guaranteed equality by the constitution and the constitution specially forbids discrimination against women. In addition women have right to vote and the freedom to contest parliamentary and local government elections. While these provisions have ensured equality at a formal and theoretical level they have not served to promote equality in a substantive way.

Although it is almost twenty years since the 1978 constitution and since the adoption of its Bill of Rights, not a single case of gender discrimination has been argued through to conclusion. The formal legal equality that the law has sought to project has been subverted by other factors. The law has often proved inaccessible, expensive and unintelligible. This inaccessibility has been compounded by a legal profession that is dominated by males. The formal equality projected by the law has also been subverted by judicial ideology. Judicial attitudes have reinforced gender stereo typing and defended women’s roles principally as a wife and mother. These attitudes have echoed larger social attitudes that women are docile, passive and in need of protection. In the Sri Lankan law these attitudes are evident in many areas, but particularly in the law relating to maintenance, custody and divorce - all areas pertaining to the family. The regulations that govern the granting of resident visas to the foreign husbands of Sri Lanka women is a glaring example of the ‘projectionist’ attitude that pervades social perceptions and the law.

Though in many areas of the law there is a formal - and theoretical -equality, this has proved inadequate to provide for the effective participation of women in political life. Although women have exercised the franchise for over fifty years the insignificant number of women in public life show that the barriers to their participation are more subtle. The case then to move from a position of ‘formal equality’ to programmes that will try and ensure ‘substantive equality’ is a strong one.


Statistics may not present a complete picture, but the statistics that are available to us present a dismal picture. Of the 225 members of Parliament only eleven are women. Of this two are Ministers and five are Deputy Ministers. The previous Parliament was marginally better. During its last two years, there were thirteen women MPs. Of this one was a Minister, seven were Project Ministers and three were State Ministers. (Source: Library of Parliament)

The representation of women in local government bodies is worse. As of January 1994 there were six women out of 209 Municipal Councillor (2.8%), seven women out of 297 Urban Councillors (2.3%) and 34 women out of 2,882 Pradeshiya Sabha members (1.1%). (Source: CENWOR)

Many disparities in society require intervention and the representation of women in Parliament, Provincial Councils and local government bodies is clearly one of them. There is a need for a direct intervention to redress this huge disparity in political representation.

Gender equity will not necessarily follow from statistical parity. Yet statistical disparity - especially a disparity that is this large - calls for some level of intervention.

When the Youth Commission recommended the adoption of youth quotas at local government level they observed that this would lend greater credibility tot he local bodies. The Youth Commission also observed it would give the youth confidence that the democratic process is open and that they can participate in the processes of decisions making in society. (Sessional Paper No 1 of 1990)

These factors apply equally in the case of women. It would enhance the credibility of the electoral process by drawing representation from a segment of society that previously had little representation in political institutions. It would also provide women with the opportunity to participate more effectively in political decision making.

The system of quotas for women is not without dangers. There is possibility that the women nominated by parties may be just token nominations. This is sometimes the case with the youth quota at the local government elections. There is also the danger that the women who are nominated may be the wives, mothers and sisters of existing or previous candidates with few opportunities for ‘fresh blood’. There is no way of preventing ‘puppets’ or what Indian activist Madhu Kishwar calls ‘proxies’ from being elected to Parliament. Yet this danger is there whether the candidate is a man or a woman. One hopes that as with male, MPs, the women elected under the quotas system will be well informed, articulate and committed.

Most people react negatively to the application of quotas or reservations. There appears to be something in the human psyche which resists any departure from the ‘merit’ or ‘most efficient’ principle, even if these standards are not applied in practice.

The Sri Lankan proposal envisages that 25 per cent of the nominated candidates will be women. This would mean that the number of elected candidates would be lower than 25 per cent. This is inadequate. The figure needs to be raised to at least 33 per cent to ensure that between 20-30 per cent of the total number of candidates elected are women. (The UN figure is 33 per cent) There is also a strong case for a 50 per cent reservation that will ensure that half the number elected, or at least half the number nominated, are women.

Institution	Total	No					No of		%of
		Women		Women

Parliament (1997)	225	11	4.8
Municipal Councils (1994)	209	6	2.8
Urban Councils (1994)	297	34	1.1


	No of Women	Total No of MPs

1947	3	95
1952	2	95	
1956	4	95
1960	2	151
1960	3	151
1965	6	151
1970	6	151
1977	7	168
1989	12	225
1994	11	225

(12 women MPs were originally elected in 1994. The President resigned her seat when she was elected President)


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