Women’s Representation: Is it a mere namesake?

Women’s Representation: Is it a mere namesake?

Female political participation is a broad phrase. This does not only mean women exercising their right to vote. But they also encapsulate women participating in the decision making, political activities and in creating political awareness.

It has been over eight decades ever since Sri Lanka had a universal franchise. This has been instrumental in the sustenance of democratic rule of our country in the long run. A key blessing that resulted from this phenomenon is the right to vote for both men and women who are over 21 years of age. Although the right to vote was ensured among both genders, the election reports tell a different story – that there is a clear vacuum in the representation of women. Female participation in politics is even lesser in comparison to many countries. 

The election system in Sri Lanka is such that it does not encourage or promote women political participation, thus it hinders women representation in politics. Accordingly, ‘eight decades of male dominated politics’ is the phrase used by the political enthusiasts to introduce the politics of  Sri Lanka. Statistics clearly show how weak the women’s representation in Sri Lanka pertaining to political participation and law making. Although women make up 56% of voters, their representation in parliament remains abysmally low. Only 12 are women out of 225 legislators.

There are many factors contributing to the weak representation of women. One such important factor that cannot be disregarded is the election system that is in practice in Sri Lanka and its unique nature.  

Many political critiques have observed that this very system is designed to weaken the entry of women into politics by default. As a result of this, a new hybrid system should be introduced in the local government level. That is, No.22 of 2012 Local Government Election Reform Act. In addition, this new act has shown a new direction for this country’s election systems. This has enabled the long awaited election of a people’s representative from the community/village itself.  But this system too entails its own criticisms. An important criticism is that it will further bolster the two party system. There were amendments made in the system that was designed to ensure representation for even smaller parties statistically. The result was the Act No. 16of 2017 Local Government Election Act Amendment.

Uma Chanthirapragash of Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) remarked the following regarding the lack of female representation in Sri Lankan parliament,

“It is a sad state of affairs that the political participation of women in politics is still unstable and lacks a concrete platform. Sri Lanka is known around the world for producing a female Prime Minister and an Executive President. But politics remain unreachable for a woman from the middle class or a woman from the low income household. There are many reasons for this. Whether it is an established political party or a political party of recent origin; they continue to use women as vote collectors for their male representatives. More than 50% of Sri Lankan population is women. Similarly, more than 50% of women are voters who are eligible to cast their votes. Although women can get voted in, but unfortunately they are used as mere collectors of vote, working on the lower levels, as canvassing agents for established political parties for local or provincial governments or parliament. I do not mean this as an allegation. Although fortunately a law was brought in that 25% of the representation in the local government should be women; but it was saddening that many political parties could not even fill the quota with eligible and qualified women with necessary capacity. As a result, they tried to fill the candidates by searching for women in different professions such as teachers, lawyers, women in media, women bankers and so on. Furthermore, there have been incidents where women who were relatives or whose names were filled for the mere sake of it. This points to the lack of structural effort by any political party to include political participation of women in a thoughtful way or empowering them with necessary political knowledge and skills. Therefore, I see this 25% quota as an opportunity to engage in politics for someone like me from a low-income family, from a non-political background, coming from the minority communities such as Tamil or Muslims, who are already constrained by language and cultural restrictions.

Human Rights activist Nalini Ratnarajah said the following:

There are many reasons for the lack of political participation of women in parliament and at every segment of politics. It is difficult to say what the most important reason is. Firstly, the family burden a woman has to carry. Regardless of how educated a woman is, regardless of the economic status of her family, regardless of whether she lives in an urban or rural area, a woman has to look after her children, look after the home, cook for those at home. Thus all these burdens are kept on the shoulders of women. We all live with these burdens. This applies to all women whether she is literate or illiterate, whether she is rich or poor, whether she can speak English or not and so on. These constraints even apply to women who are pilots and women who are judges. These are constraints placed by the society and pursuing a political career amidst these burdens is a challenge. The election systems in place in India and Sri Lanka require money to engage in politics. Running a successful campaign requires money. Thus everything requires money. Therefore, this election system that requires money has not been conducive for women to participate in politics. In addition, election violence takes place prior to, during and in the aftermath of the elections. This further impedes the political participation of women.

There is a perception in society that politics is males job and only men can do it. They only know the ways of the world and women do not understand how politics function. The saddest reality is that although men and women were ensured universal franchise in 1931, we have not passed 5.8% of representation in the 90 years since.

Manjula Gajanayake from the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence remarked the following:

An aspect of proportional representation is that campaigns have to be done in all election districts. Therefore,  it definitely requires money. It requires human effort. They are against violence. It is not easy for a woman to lead having to spend large amounts of money in a large region. This is also a key reason for the lack of women representation.

There is still a doubt whether women receive the necessary patronage or recognition they deserve in the society. For example, the media tend to amplify the shortcomings of women and they fail to highlight their achievements. We are seeing this today. It is also evident that the election reports create hatred against women and as a result people tend to not vote for women candidates. If the media act in good faith, it will not be difficult for women to come to the forefront. This can also be identified as a challenge.

Further, there is no democracy within political parties. The constitutions of the parties have converged the powers on the party leaders or on the secretary of the party. Due to this lack of democracy within the political parties; there is not enough time and space for women to rise up the ranks. Even if they get an opportunity; those women are either well known or related to those in the party ranks. This pervading lack of democracy within political parties further contributes to the dysfunction of the otherwise actively functioning women led political federation or bodies. Sometimes young women do not get any political opportunities since many older women have been stagnating for years. For example, the participation of women in the university socialist bodies is higher. But they cannot be found in the political parties. What happens to them? We need to observe that. Political parties do not give them any opportunities. These women are not involved in the decision making processes. Because of this; the Election Commission published a report saying that 1:4 political participation of women has to be ensured in the political parties and their committees. But only one or two parties out of the registered 76 political parties have women representation. As far as I know, many of these women are not used in decision making bodies. But are used in the district federation for name sake. They continuously violate the rules of the Election Commission. These are also reasons why women do not get opportunities in politics.

National Organizer of CAFFE Sri Lanka Manas Makeen remarked the following:

Social media is an important reason that contributes to political campaigns. When the social media usage between men and women were compared during the last election; the trends showed that women use them significantly less. Many women representatives do not even have a social media account.

An attitudinal change should be brought in the minds of the voters. As men, when women are involved in law making; they can skillfully contribute to the law making. Steps should be taken to transform the attitudes that women can become political leaders.

As amendments were made in the Local Government Law, necessary amendments should be made and steps should be taken in the parliament election law to allocate a quota for women representation and increase the women representatives. Legal efforts as such and their effective implementation can help increase women’s political participation.

Article by Afra Ansar

The views expressed on this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of Hashtag Generation.

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