Photo courtesy Women and Media Collective

The theme for International Women’s Day this year is “Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step it up for Gender Equality”. A good day to reflect on the 25% mandatory quota for women in local government passed by parliament almost exactly one month ago amidst an uproar created by members of the joint opposition who walked in to the well of the house demanding that they be recognised as an independent group. The second and third reading of the bill amending the Local Authorities Elections Act to grant a quota for women was therefore punctuated by interruptions, slogans, shouting and even singing. Scant attention appears to have been paid by over 40 members of parliament to the substance of the bill under discussion. Together with the Prime Minister who presented the bill only five other Members of Parliament – Chandrani Bandara, Marvai Senathiraja Faizer Mustapha, Anoma Gamage and Ranga Bandara – got an opportunity to speak. The Prime Minister in his speech attempted to pacify members of the joint opposition by promising them additional time to participate in the debate. Yet the disruptions and shouting continued prompting him to ask “whether they are against increasing women’s representation? Faizer Mustapha seemed to want to believe that despite the screaming and shouting, none of the members of the joint opposition including Pavithra Wanniarachchi in fact opposed this bill. From newspaper reports it seems clear that only government members finally voted for the bill amidst the chaos and Parliament was adjourned three hours earlier than scheduled.

The theatrics in parliament that day can be seen as a parody of the inattention given to the issue of women’s representation in political institutions by politicians over the years. Indeed even if those members of the joint opposition were not against increasing women’s representation, their behaviour effectively trivialized and reduced it to a non issue. Those who supported the quota, could speak for no more than four minutes. The whole debate lasted no more than 35 minutes. Ultimately the (non)debate failed to adequately foreground the historical significance of the law that was passed as well as its limitations in furthering democracy and women’s political empowerment. The media coverage of the amendment the next day also failed in this task. Most newspapers tended to be preoccupied with the visit to Sri Lanka of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights or the antics of the joint opposition. Some newspapers had inside stories on the amendment but they simply quoted parliamentarians’ speeches or views without any attempt to contexualise or historicise the amendment. There was no reference to the long struggle waged by women’s activists and organisations or the National Committee on Women (NCW) going back almost 20 years, to secure this reservation. Nor was there any reference to the deeply patriarchal and male dominated political culture in Sri Lanka, which has systematically marginalized women from political power.

The substance of the law

The amendment effectively overturns the 25% discretionary quota for women and youth which was put in place when the electoral system at local level was changed to a mixed  Proportional Representation (PR) and Simple Majority system in October 2012. In terms of the actual mechanics –  the new amendment has increased the number of seats at the level of local government by one third, i.e by 2206 seats taking the total number of seats from 6619 to 8825.  This increase amounts to 25% of all seats at local level. It is this increased number of seats that will be awarded to women candidates nominated by political parties on a separate list according to the proportion of votes obtained by each party at the level of each local council. Seats will be allocated according to the order of priority on this list as decided by the party.

The quota will be implemented within the new mixed system of elections. It is beyond the scope of this article to explain the mixed system of elections except to say that the nomination paper for local government will now have two separate parts. The first will contain a list of candidates contesting for single member constituencies (or in a few instances double or triple member constituencies) demarcated within each local government area and another list of members who will elected from a PR list. The second part of the nomination paper will comprise a list of women from a which a certain number will be elected based on the proportion of votes obtained by the party within the whole local council area.

This quota will result in a dramatic increase in the number of women elected to local government.  i.e from 2% to 25% ( in actual numbers from around 90 to over 2000 elected women). According to the amendment, the quota does not bar women from obtaining nominations at the ward level or the general PR list. Theoretically therefore women’s representation can surpass 25% at local level.

Limitations of the Law            

The importance of the increase in the number of women at local government that is ensured by this quota cannot be overemphasized, as numerous strategies to increase representation of women in local government over the past two decades consistently failed due to the dominance of a patriarchal culture within political parties. Yet from the point of view of democracy and women’s empowerment –it is an extremely weak quota. The methodology adopted by the amendment February may not represent the best way of addressing the historical marginalisation of women from local government for several reasons:

(1) It does not challenge the status quo or incumbency of male politicians. Often affirmative action for women in political institutions while increasing the numbers of women also exacts a penalty from men who have dominated these seats for years by forcing male members to give up their seats and make way for women to contest in their place. The quota at local government level in Sri Lanka does not challenge incumbency of male politicians because women will be appointed to seats, that have been added to the original number of seats in local government.

(2) It gives the party unmediated power to decide on who gets on the list as well as the order of priority on the list. It is likely that women who are nominated will be relatives of politicians or party supporters. The vast majority of women who have been active within parties may still be still left out of political power at the local level. Moreover it will perpetuate patronage politics of a gendered kind within political parties over responsiveness to and accountability to a voter base. Already stories are emerging that some party leaders are demanding for sexual favours as the price for nomination on to the women’s list.

(3) Together with members appointed from the separate PR list, women will have to necessarily represent the whole local government area. They will not have a separate constituency of their own which they can nurture or which can hold them to account, robbing them of political experience.

(4) It is certain to create a dichotomy between general seats and women’s seats and women coming in through this quota are likely to have less power and definitely less credibility within the local council than those who are elected as well as those who are appointed under the PR list.

Other critics have raised questions about the monetary cost of the increase in the number of elected members in local government A robust debate on the nature and character of the women’s quota in parliament might have highlighted these limitations and ways of addressing them. This debate still needs to happen and the quota for women in local government has to be seen as the beginning of another phase in the struggle for equal representation of women in local government. This time to ensure that the quota is implemented in a way that furthers democracy and is empowering for women.