Sri Lanka: Why is Sri Lanka lagging behind?

The Daily News - Sri Lanka
There is a silent revolution taking place in the most disparate and unlikely places around the world. It is changing the structures, and the very texture of democracy and governance in those countries.
It is giving voice to a whole section of the population which has been traditionally marginalised from decision making in relation to issues of governance.
Affirmative action for women in politics whether implemented by the state or by political parties is paving the way for hundreds and thousands of women to enter all levels of government traditionally dominated by men.

Indeed, new research on women’s representation in political institutions shows that the use of electoral quotas for women is much more widespread than is commonly held’. At present as many as eighty countries have introduced electoral/political quotas for women in one form or another.

They include countries as diverse as Sweden, South Africa, France, Uganda, Argentina, Bosnia and Pakistan. When you consider the world of quotas for women, no distinction can in fact be made between countries on the basis of rich or poor, developed or developing, north or south, east or west.

In fact, Rwanda, now boasts the highest number of women in a national parliament, thanks to a quota for women introduced in 2003. It is an achievement to be proud of in a country, still in the process of rebuilding a society based on democracy, equality and human rights, following ethnic conflict and hatred which culminated in the brutal genocide of 1994.

Costa Rica is at third place due to a 40 per cent quota for women in electoral lists and the requirement that women must be placed in winnable positions. both these countries have displaced the Nordic countries which were in those positions in the past.

Quotas in countries emerging from conflict

Rwanda is an example of the space that opens up in post conflict countries to address gender inequality and discrimination through legislative and constitutional change when new constitutions and legislative structures are being put in place. There are other examples from around the world.

When South Africa made the transition from apartheid to democracy in 1994, the African National Congress voluntarily adopted its own internal quota for women in electoral lists due to strong pressure from women within the ANC.

Following these examples more and more countries emerging from conflict are adopting quotas as a way of building more democratic, inclusive and participatory societies. In 2005, quotas for women were implemented in elections in Afghanistan, Burundi, Iraq and Liberia; and in 2006 in Palestine.

The increasingly widespread use of quotas stem from the need to:
  • Ensure justice for women who represent half the population and
  • Ensure that women’s interests and concerns are considered and represented in legislative decision making.
The core idea behind quotas is ensure that women are not excluded from political decision making, and to shift the burden of recruitment to these institutions from individual women to those who control the system of recruitment, i.e. to political parties.

Quotas aim at ensuring that women constitute a critical mass of over 30 per cent or 40 per cent in elected institutions or atleast in nomination lists. Quotas represent a fundamental shift from one concept of equality to another, i.e. 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 is now well documented. (In Sri Lanka, in addition to factors such as lack of family support, cultural norms, and women’s double and triple burden of work, the nature of the electoral system, violence and lack of party support act as almost insurmountable obstacles to women’s participation in politics).

In the last few decades following strong pressure from the women’s movement, the second concept of equality has been gaining increasing relevance and support. The principle of substantive equality recognises that real equality of opportunity is not achieved through the mere removal of formal/legal barriers.

It recognises that equality of opportunity and resources require at times that individual 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.

From Scandinavia to the Subcontinent every substantial increase in women’s political representation is attributable to some form of quotas/reservations or electoral reform. And contrary to popular belief fielding more women can actually benefit political parties.

Quotas for women in local government

While quotas for women exist at all levels of government, local government is a good place to start implanting a system of quotas for several reasons: Local government is the level of government where women can enter political life with relative ease, the costs of running an election campaign are relatively low and issues at the local level such as water and sanitation are issues intimate to women. Local government is also a good training ground for women politicians who want to reach higher levels of elected or appointed office in government.

In fact, Sri Lanka does have a strong tradition of women Mayors and heads of local government bodies. At the most recently concluded local government elections, there were several women elected to head local government bodies.

In South Asia, a legally binding quota at local government level is now in operation in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. This is the reason for the dramatic increase in women’s representation in local government from figures as low as in Sri Lanka to more than 20 per cent at present.

Women in Local Government in South Asia, 2000

Country Year women were eligible Women in Local to vote and stand for Local Government seats % of Government Total

Sri Lanka 1938 2

India 1947 33.3

Pakistan 1970 33

Nepal 1955 24.1

Bangladesh 1947 33.3

Clearly there is a need to address this abysmally low level of women’s representation at local government level in Sri Lanka as a matter of urgency.

There is in fact substantial support for the implementation of a quota for women at local government level from the two major political parties in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka may also not have to wait for constitutional reform to implement such a quota, as a Parliamentary Select Committee on Electoral Reform is at present formulating recommendations for reform of the system of elections in Sri Lanka, and a quota for women is well within its mandate to recommend.

The challenge for law makers is to design an effective quota that can be implemented within the system of elections that is ultimately adopted in Sri Lanka.

Chulani Kodikara, The Daily News - Sri Lanka
2006 The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd