Is it time for affirmative action in Sri Lanka to ensure that more women get elected to Parliament and other representative bodies and get to play a more decisive role in the country’s decision-making process? This is the question that has gained momentum in recent weeks with the decision by the government to introduce a new Local Government Election Bill in keeping with the recommendations of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Electoral Reforms.
While affirmative action is not a popular policy in most countries including Sri Lanka, women’s rights groups say it is needed as all the mainstream political parties have failed to give adequate numbers of women nomination to contest from their parties even though they have continued to pay lip service to the need to do so.
Statistically Sri Lankan women make up close to 52 per cent of the population and around 56 per cent of registered voters in the country. Their adult literacy rate is close to 90 per cent. Women’s participation in the labour force is around 35 per cent. And while social indicators place women at a favourable position, their numbers in elected bodies and role in the decision-making process is dismal. In the present Parliament, there are 11 women legislators of the 225 MPs making up around five per cent while in both the Provincial Councils and at a local government level, their representation is even lower.
Minister of Child Development and Women’s Affairs Tissa Karaliyadde favours reserving seats for women in elected bodies but said he has found that women, especially at the village, level are reluctant to come forward.
“It is only now Sri Lanka’s rural women are emerging from the shadow of men. We want women who are politically and socially aware to join politics but I have found they are reluctant to do so,” he said.
Not everyone agrees with this view. While calls for nominations for more women candidates has been a growing demand for some years, the issue is often dismissed with claims that women are hesitant to engage in active politics, as there is too much violence.
Dr. Sepali Kottegoda, Director of the Women and Media Collective who has been in the forefront of the campaign for greater participation says such claims are untrue.
“There are plenty of women who want to enter active politics and play a role in the decision-making process but they don’t have the proper platform to do so. There is complete apathy on the apart of political parties when addressing this issue,” she said.
A good example of this is how a woman was refused nomination by the United National Party (UNP) to contest for the Seetawaka Pradeshiya Sabha election in 2006 on the grounds that the Party had already given nomination to one other woman. However Mallik Aarachige Mary Margaret (53), who has been involved in social service in the area for nearly 30 years, did not give up and instead gathered a group of supporters and filed her name as an independent candidate. By a twist of fate, the UNP list in this PS was rejected and Mary Margaret went onto win the election. Today she is one of the two women in the 22 member Pradeshiya Sabha.
“Having a woman representative at the local government level is an immense boon to other women as they have issues that men will not understand. Women are also less corrupt. Sadly political parties ignore these facts and keep nominating men even though women candidates are better qualified to contest,” she said.
UNP Ratnapura district legislator Thalatha Atukorale who heads the women’s wing of her party Lak Vanitha defended the UNP position and said it has been the most progressive party when it comes to enabling women to enter mainstream politics.
“For the 2006 local government elections we decided to have one woman candidate on each nomination list but now we have asked for 25 per cent of nominations to be given to women to contest parliamentary elections as well as elections to PCs and LG bodies,” she said.
She adds, “From getting a child admitted to school and dealing with the rising cost of living, women are the ones who have to deal with issues on a day to day basis. It is their voice that needs to be heard more in the political arena.”
Chulani Kodikara, a researcher with the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) feels that affirmative action is the only way that the aberration of unequal representation of women can be put right. “We need a mature political approach to this issue but see reluctance on the part of political parties in terms of affirmative action in this regard,” she said.
On a global scale and even in a South Asian context Sri Lanka is lagging behind when it comes to women in politics. With the existence of quotas for women’s political representation, today Nepal has 33.6 women’s representation, India and Bangladesh have 9.1 per cent while Sri Lanka stands at 5.8, according to the Progress of the World’s Women Report 2008/2009 released by the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNFEIM).
UNIFEM also said that higher numbers of women in Parliament and other public office positions generally contribute to stronger attention to women's issues and women in public office encourage greater political engagement by ordinary women.
“While we come out on top in the country’s human development indicators, why is it not considered an embarrassment that women are discriminated in the area of politics,” Dr. Kottegoda asks.
The Parliamentary Select Committee on Electoral Reforms in its report released in 2005 heard representations from women politicians as well as members of women’s groups and recommended that political parties should include provisions in their policies to ensure nomination of women candidates in order to guarantee better representation of women in Parliament, Provincial Councils and Local Government bodies. It also recommended that necessary legal provision be formulated to make it mandatory that every third candidate nominated by a party secretary from the national list shall be a woman.
Both President Mahinda Rajapaksa and UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, representing the two largest parties in the country, in their election manifestos of 2005 promised to increase women’s participation in politics but such promises have just remained promises.
Whether affirmative action is the way to overcome the problem is a contentious question but given the abysmally low interest that male dominated political parties in the country are paying to the issue, it maybe the only way to overcome this aberration.bourne, Australia.