Colombo, Elections, Gender, Identity, Politics and Governance, Polls

A perennial struggle: Women’s political representation in Sri Lanka

Women constitute 52% of Sri Lanka’s population, however women constitute only 2% of elected members of Local Authorities. A critical concern is the very low levels of nominations received by women (approximately 6%) from political parties (See table below). Much of the blame for this under representation must be borne by the major political parties which have consistently failed to give adequate nominations to women. They are the parties that win seats in any local election.

In South Asia, our immediate neighbours with whom we enjoy close historical and cultural ties, the under- representation of women at local elected political bodies have been addressed through legally enforceable quotas for women. In fact Sri Lanka remains the only country without any special measures to facilitate women’s representation in Local Authorities. In Bangladesh, at least 25% of seats are reserved for women in Union Councils (1996 legislation); in India not less than 33% of seats are reserved for women and other marginalized groups in all Panchayats or Local Bodies (1992 Constitutional amendment); in Nepal 20% of Village and Municipal Councils are reserved for women (1990 Constitution); and in Pakistan 33% of seats are reserved for women at the Union, Tehsil (Municipality) and District level (2000 Devolution Plan). Obviously, all these countries have recognized the necessity for women’s representation in local authorities as both a factor of development as well as a fundamental rights issue. We remind the two major political parties that such provision is necessary to fulfill promises made in Mahinda Chintanaya and Deya Dinawan Aya to the effect that nominations for women will be increased.

Serious under representation of women among elected members of local government bodies has distorted the agendas of these agencies in ways that divert attention away from vital issues such as malnutrition, water and sanitation, alcoholism and gender based violence.

The government has just dissolved Local Authorities around the country and called for elections to be held in March 2011. We urge all political parties to ensure that women get at least 25% of the nominations at these elections. Unless and until nominations by political parties are substantially increased, it will not be possible to increase women’s representation in Local Authorities, which in turn will continue to limit women’s participation in Provincial Councils and in national level politics.

There are challenges, and serious ones at that. As Chulani Kodikara avers in Women and politics in Sri Lanka: The challenges to meaningful participation,

“…women’s groups will continue to demand for increased representation for women in political institutions on the basis of equality, democracy, justice, etc even though this language appears to have lost all currency in Sri Lanka. No amount of appeal to these values has so far changed party attitudes towards nominations for women even at the local level. There is clearly too much at stake. As many political analysts point out political power in Sri Lanka is maintained through elaborate and well organized patron – client relationships that connect actors from the national to the local levels. These relationships play a central role in the socio-economic as well as political benefits, opportunities and positions available to people.  Nominations during election times are opportunities to bestow rewards on those party loyalists, but not indiscriminately. To be considered a ‘winnable’ candidate, money and muscle are important as is the active involvement in maintaining and supporting the chains of dependency between the party and the constituency. Most women lack both money and muscle and are passive ‘clients’ in the margins of these networks (except if you a wife, widow or daughter of a politician of course).”

Further, as noted in a previous article published on Groundviews,

“Ensuring gender justice in the aftermath of war does not happen in isolation. It is more often than not part of a wider process which addresses root causes of the conflict and which attempts to negotiate a new post war social order in which all people irrespective ethnic, gender, religious or other differences are ensured equality and social justice. Post war reconstruction and reconciliation in Sri Lanka is however almost exclusively government led without the benefit of such a process. This is what we desperately need an inclusive process in which all of us, men and women, can re-imagine and renegotiate the fundamental contours of this nation state in a way that the rights of all identity groups are recognized and respected.”

[Editors note: Also see in-depth video interview with Chulani Kodikara here. The interview deals with, inter alia, the challenge of women’s representation in party politics in Sri Lanka.]

  • Samanthi Gunawardana

    It was interesting that this excellent documentary began with a man setting the scene and framing the context – sounds familiar no?! Nonetheless, this is a timely reminder about the abysmal level of women’s presence in political leadership. Sadly, this translates to all areas of leadership, from trade unions to corporations. Despite women in high ranking positions (President), we have not seen broader inclusion of women in various political processes.
    As the documentary shows, women are committed and vital participants in the ‘unofficial’political processes but face barriers to institutional positions. In a 2005 report Prof Amrita Basu found that across South Asia, as individuals, women were relied upon by the major political parties, but were not addressed as a group that had faced discrimination (see http://www.unrisd.org/publications/opgp5).
    What is striking about Sri Lanka is that there are vibrant provincial and national level women’s movements or networks that have worked tirelessly outside the more formal political processes. They’ve worked on broad issues such as war and reconciliation, workers rights and other human rights issues.
    However, as Kumudini Samuel and Chulani Kodikaranoted noted in recent interviews on Groundviews, this participation does not translate into access to politics, even within progressive left parties.
    I remember very vividly a conversation I had with a trade unionist and lifelong socialist who was committed to mobilizing more women for better working conditions in BOI workplaces. I had asked him to introduce me to some women leaders in the trade union movement. He laughed and told me, “It will be like finding the mythical tree in the mythical forest!” Yet, when I found women workers informally worked together in the factories to better their working conditions and utilized whatever avenues were open to them to solve their grievances (via worker’s councils, going to a trade union or NGO, writing anonymous letters to management, speaking back to lower order supervisors, staging walk outs etc).
    I also found a common retrain from political parties and other groups like trade unions when asked why there wasn’t more women involved in their leadership was that while women might be found in rank and file or committee positions, it was the women themselves that did not come forward (e.g ‘women are shy’ ‘women are not interested in politics’ ‘women can’t come to meetings or stay late because of their family duties’). Such convenient gendered attitudes must also change. As the women in this documentary show, Sri Lankan women from all walks of life are interested in politics, they are not shy and they can make the time to better their communities.

  • Samanthi Gunawardana

    It was interesting that this excellent documentary began with a man setting the scene and framing the context – sounds familiar no?! Nonetheless, this is a timely reminder about the abysmal level of women’s presence in political leadership. Sadly, this translates to all areas of leadership, from trade unions to corporations. Despite women in high ranking positions (President), we have not seen broader inclusion of women in various political processes.
    As the documentary shows, women are committed and vital participants in the ‘unofficial’political processes but face barriers to institutional positions. In a 2005 report Prof Amrita Basu found that across South Asia, as individuals, women were relied upon by the major political parties, but were not addressed as a group that had faced discrimination (see http://www.unrisd.org/publications/opgp5).
    What is striking about Sri Lanka is that there are vibrant provincial and national level women’s movements or networks that have worked tirelessly outside the more formal political processes. They’ve worked on broad issues such as war and reconciliation, workers rights and other human rights issues.
    However, as Kumudini Samuel and Chulani Kodikaranoted noted in recent interviews on Groundviews, this participation does not translate into access to politics, even within progressive left parties.
    I remember very vividly a conversation I had with a trade unionist and lifelong socialist who was committed to mobilizing more women for better working conditions in BOI workplaces. I had asked him to introduce me to some women leaders in the trade union movement. He laughed and told me, “It will be like finding the mythical tree in the mythical forest!” Yet, I found women workers informally worked together in the factories to better their working conditions and utilized whatever avenues were open to them to solve their grievances (via worker’s councils, going to a trade union or NGO, writing anonymous letters to management, speaking back to lower order supervisors, staging walk outs etc).
    I also found that a common refrain from political parties and other groups like trade unions when asked why there wasn’t more women involved in their leadership, was that while women might be found in rank and file or committee positions, it was the women themselves that did not come forward (e.g ‘women are shy’ ‘women are not interested in politics’ ‘women can’t come to meetings or stay late because of their family duties’). Such convenient gendered attitudes must also change. As the women in this documentary show, Sri Lankan women from all walks of life are interested in politics, they are not shy and they can make the time to better their communities.

  • ordinary lankan

    How can you make this relevant?

    A democracy assumes a functional public realm; and a functional public realm assumes a functional private realm. The content of our character is defined by many things but a key influence is close relationships.

    So my point is that the excessive use of reason you rely on for this issue (for example 52% are women and they have 2% representation, etc etc) is flawed because it fails to engage with the realities of the social realm.

    Gender remains a terribly misunderstood concept – I suspect because those who promote gender equality (like many intellectuals who seek to promote human rights, democracy etc) have only a strong rational (as oppposed to a rational cum emotional) engagement with it. The sinhala words for gender are “shtree purusha samajabavaya” and for stereotyping (gathanugathika charyavan saha gathi pevathum”. Gender discrimination is an implicit reality but when we try to discuss it we get stuck.

    One problem is that it is human nature to discriminate and gender is one of the most deep rooted forms. The challenge is to weave this thread into the whole fabric – to contextualize your point by promoting a balanced perspective rather than simply pushing the gender point.

    In her video Chulani said that one of her objectives is to secure the quota irrespective of the quality of representation. This opens the door to tokenistic conformity. It must be recognized that we are deeply concerned about the quality of representation (by both men and women) rather than a mere formal equality.

    You also overlook the major problem that we as a society have collectively forgotten the art of using legal and policy reforms for the public good. starting with the constitution legal changes are simply tools used by special interest groups to notch up a symbolic victory on paper. Reality does not matter because we all live in a make believe state where we fight for some narrow corner and are satisfied with narrow victories.

    we need to move below the political level – work at the level of kantha sanvardana samithi where the poor are making a valiant effort to get on their own feet and seek changes at the interpersonal level first

  • ordinary lankan

    Two more points

    Just as women have a right to participate in politics – they also have a right not to participate – and not to be pushed by academics and other activists who have themselves chosen not to take part in politics directly.

    Secondly – and this is a point that emereges from developmental psychology and the advances in science – theory of relativity etc. There are no men and women. Only the patterns of relationships they create. From this standpoint we must focus on the quality of relationships between man and woman – to treat either as static entities would to be get fooled by our own construction.

    It is not that these points are foreign to feminism. They KNOW these things – but in SL they seem to be short on application.

    best wishes

  • Belle

    Ordinary Lankan,

    “In her video Chulani said that one of her objectives is to secure the quota irrespective of the quality of representation. This opens the door to tokenistic conformity. It must be recognized that we are deeply concerned about the quality of representation (by both men and women) rather than a mere formal equality.”

    Actually it isn’t tokenistic. Given that the area of political representation would be new to women, you can’t expect high quality from the get-go (unless they come from the political families), though you will probably get a lot of sincerity and hard work. They need time and opportunities to build on that experience. Chulani understands that people have to start somewhere. This is how affirmative action works.

  • ordinary lankan

    Cannot disagree with you Belle – but remember we are talking ab a Govt that has taken tokenism and deceptive facades to unprecedented heights.

    the proponents of this issue have themselves admitted there is a need for fresh thinking – because previous approaches have fallen by the way side – I would like to see that fresh thinking come out –

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