Advocacy, Colombo

Women and politics in Sri Lanka: The challenges to meaningful participation

In an earlier article on Groundviews titled ‘Half a Democracy‘,  the author referred to the virtual absence of women in political institutions in Sri Lanka, and their resultant inability to define  politics and influence decision making in a context of continuing conflict, soaring prices, and widespread human rights abuses by the state.

I want to add that the main obstacle to equal political representation of women in political institutions in Sri Lanka is POLITICAL PARTIES – their lack of commitment to give nominations to women, the lack of internal party democracy and the present political culture perpetuated by parties. Following more than a decade of women’s activism on the abysmal numbers of women in political institutions, it is true that the two major political parties now feel obliged to pay lip service to increasing women’s representation. Recent election manifestos of both the SLFP and the UNP make promises about increasing nomination of women candidates and implementing a reservation or quota for women. In reality however, beyond the symbolic inclusion of one or two women in nomination lists, both parties have not taken concrete action to seriously address the under-representation of women in political institutions. The enormous costs of contesting elections, the thuggery and violence, the competition within the party fostered by the proportional representation system and the general lack of support for women candidates from male colleagues mean that even the few women who are offered, are often reluctant to accept nominations.  

Women’s efforts to independently contest elections at the local level have also failed due to a political culture which does not recognize the legitimacy of such groups over established political parties. There is also the fact that women voters themselves do not vote for women candidates. The Sinhala Tamil Rural Women’s Network (STRWN) based in Nuwara Eliya was among the first independent women’s group to contest for provincial council elections in 1999. A community based organization working on issues of poverty alleviation, micro credit, health, education, environment and peace, with a membership of approx 29,000 members, STRAWN decided to contest elections mainly to address the marginalization and pauperization of vegetable cultivators in the area, but failed to win a single a seat.  This was also the fate of two other independent women’s groups which contested the Colombo Municipal Council elections in 2000 and the Kurunegala Pradeshiya Sabha in 2006, respectively.

The only way to address this imbalance then is through a legal quota for women which makes it mandatory for political parties to give nominations to a certain percentage of women at elections. Quotas aim at ensuring that women constitute a critical mass of 30% or 40% in elected institutions and represent a shift from the concept of formal equality to the concept of substantive equality. The classical liberal notion of formal equality assumes that removing formal barriers, for example giving women the right to vote and be elected to political office is sufficient to give women equal access to political institutions -  the rest is believed to be the responsibility of women. However, deep rooted socio-cultural and economic barriers which impede women from equally accessing political power are now well documented throughout the world. The principle of substantive equality recognizes that real equality of opportunity is not achieved through the mere removal of formal/ legal barriers. It recognizes that equality of opportunity and resources require at times that individuals or groups be treated unequally especially when they are disadvantaged due to conditions /circumstances beyond their control. Quotas and other forms of affirmative action are thus a means towards equality of results.

Since the late 1990s, a number of women’s organizations in Sri Lanka have been demanding for 30% quota for women at least at the local level. In the period 2000 – 2002, the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) undertook a process of research, advocacy and district level mobilization on the issue of quotas in order to create a discussion and debate within civil society and political parties, and also to determine what kind of quota would work for women in Sri Lanka. Do we want reserved seats or a percentage in the nomination list, should it be an open list or a closed list? Do we need to abolish the system of preferential voting at least at local level? etc. At the time the overwhelming majority of women preferred a return to a ward system at the local level and the reservation of 1/3rd of wards for women on a rotating basis during elections (as in India). This demand was informed by the understanding that a mere 30% in the nomination list under the present proportional representation and preferential voting system cannot ensure that 30% of women will in fact be elected. The magic of numbers proved to be a powerful advocacy tool at the time. By juxtaposing our staggeringly low rate of representation with the high physical quality of life (PQLI) of women in Sri Lanka as well as the increase in representation of women in the rest of South Asia following the implementation of quotas, ICES was able to highlight the issue as a critical issue of concern for women, but was unable to sustain the momentum created by those discussions.

With the appointment of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Electoral Reform in 2003 (as reconstituted in 2006), women’s organizations again mobilized on the issue of quotas. The International Centre for Ethnic Studies, the Women and Media Collective and the Muslim Women’s Research and Action Forum collectively and the Mothers and Daughters of Lanka (a network of women’s groups) presented two memorandums making a series of recommendations which addressed the problem of women in politics. These organizations also gave oral evidence before the committee in October 2003.

The Interim report of the Select Committee dated 5 June 2007, has recognized the need to increase women’s representation in politics, but makes a very weak recommendation that

  1. political parties should include provisions in their policies to ensure  nominations of women candidates in order to guarantee better representation of women in Parliament, Provincial Councils, and Local government bodies, and
  2. that the necessary legal provisions be formulated to make it mandatory that every third candidate nominated by a party secretary from the national list shall be a woman candidate.

The first recommendation allows parties the discretion to adopt policies that will increase nominations, without making a mandatory direction about how nominations for and representation of women should be increased at each level of government. Furthermore given that no party is bound by any list when it comes to the appointment of national list MPs, what purpose would a legal 1/3rd reservation in the national list serve, unless it is also made mandatory that the party is bound to adhere to a closed list submitted prior to the elections. If that is so, according to votes polled at the last elections, the UPFA would have been forced to appoint four (4) women, and the UNP three (3) women, respectively, from the national list. Not an insignificant number given the current statistics of women in parliament. None of the other parties however would have been obliged to do so as no other party obtained more than two (2) national list seats. In any event when these recommendations will be deemed final and implemented is unclear.  

In the interim, 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).

It may be a long wait for this political culture to change. Do we need to revisit and reframe the discourse on increasing political representation of women in Sri Lanka, in order to have an impact in the near future?