The Sunday Leader

Women In Sri Lanka Need Allies In The New Parliament

By Sujata Gamage, PhD — Co-coordinator, Campaign for Political Representation for Women

The percentage of women in the first parliament of 1947 was 3%. The percentage of women in the 2004-2010 parliament was 6%.

The historic bill to reserve one third of the seats in the national assembly for women candidates would not have been passed in the Rajya Sabha in India if not for the determination of the leader of the congress party, Sonia Gandhi. The bill has been languishing in the Indian parliament for 15 years. The 100th anniversary of the International Women’s Day, the support of the reigning Congress Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party, the main opposition party, and the presence of a determined leader in the reigning Congress Party finally paved the way for the bill to pass the first hurdle in the Rajya Sabha. The bill was approved on March 9, 2010 in the Rajya Sabha, 186 to 1, with minor party’s abstaining. Abstaining is a mild word. Six minor party members had to be evicted from the Sabha for continuous disruptions of the proceedings.

Sonia Gandhi as champion for Indian women

Mrs. Gandhi took a risk in pushing the bill. The support of the minority parties is critical for the passage of the budget in the Lok Sabha by March 31. But in her interview with Burkha Dutta of NDTV, Mrs Gandhi said – “Every time we try to put up a woman for contesting we hear the same excuse – the opponent is too strong etc. How long are the women of this country going to wait?”

One might view the reservation bill enacted in India as a heavy-handed approach for empowering women. As Lalu Prasad Yadav, the leader of the Rashtriya Janata Dal correctly said “In the name of reservation, prominent leaders’ chances will be spoiled.” The scheduled castes (STs), scheduled tribes (STs) and other backward castes (OBCs) too had their concerns. Among the seven protesting members were Lalu Prasad Yadav from the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Mulayam Singh of the Samajwadi Party and Sharad Yadav of Janata Dal-United. They wanted sub-reservations for SCs, STs and OBCs but these efforts were seen as efforts to make the women’s reservation unmanageable.

Past struggles in Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka we have had a woman prime minister and a woman president but, sadly, their tenure left no mark on the issue of representation for the rest of women in politics in Sri Lanka. In 1931 Sri Lankan women got the right to vote by staying focused on their goal while using their personal influence in the State Council to their advantage. They were first told by men in power that women had to be 30 or older while the minimum age for men was to be 21. But a committee of women led by Daisy Bandaranaike, S.W.R.D Bandaranaikes’ mother, stood firmly by their demand for equal rights. It helped that the women in the committee were well connected to men in power. A.E. Gunasinghe and S. Rajaratnam were two spouses who stood solidly behind the committee’s efforts. In 1931 women in Sri Lanka received suffrage for all women 21 years or older at a time when British suffragettes were still fighting to have the voting age lowered from 28.

Women in Sri Lanka have seen little progress since their enfranchisement in 1931. Equal rights have not led to equal representation. The percentage of women in the first parliament of 1947 was 3%. After more than 50 years the percentage of women in the 2004-2010 Parliament was 6%.

At the time the 2004 parliament was dissolved and the General Election 2010 was called there was pending in parliament a bill to amend the Local Government Elections Ordinance of 1989. The amendment was based on the Interim report of the Select Committee of Parliament on Electoral Reforms. The bill calls for a combination of the old first-pass-post (FPP) system (with each individual appearing as a candidate for a particular electorate) and the current proportional representation system (where an individual has to be part of a list put forward by a recognised political party for a district unit that amalgamates several electorates). The proposed   formula for combining the two methods is, as follows. For a district made up of, say, seven electorates, seven members will be elected on the basis of FPP and the other three allocated for each contesting party on a proportional representation basis for the votes garnered by each party from their losing candidates.

Sadly, the proposed bill has no reference at all to the representation of women and women’s groups. The Campaign for Political Representation for Women in Politics (CPRW, www.lankawomen.net) is an umbrella group that has been campaigning over the past year collecting nearly 80,000 signatures calling for a stipulation that 25% or more of the members put forward by a party for local government elections should be women in order for that party to qualify for PR seats. CPRW believes that this measure is more democratic than a reservation bill because anybody is free to contest a seat but political parties are incentivized to make sure that there are at least 2-3 women for every 10 seats in a given district. The proposal may seem reasonable but who will take it forward for women in this country?

Who will stand for women’s representation in the new parliament?

Starting from the top it looks as if President Rajapaksa had backed down from his earlier favorable stance on women’s representation. In his 2005 manifesto President Rajapaksa’s promised a 25% representation for women in local and provincial councils. In his 2010 manifesto he is generous in his generalities but sparse in his specifics. For example, he says:
“I believe that the women in our country should not be afforded ‘equal’ status, but should be given higher priority.”

However, the specifics of his proposals leave room for interpretation. For example, President Rajapaksa’s proposals in terms of women’s empowerment are as follows:

Implement measures to increase the representation of women within the political and administration framework, so that we could ensure that our educated women are given their due place.

I will make the participation of women mandatory in decision making and policy matters, through their representation in Jana Sabhas where decisions are taken in relation to community development.
What does representation of educated women within the political framework mean? How are Jana Sabhas related to the Pradeshiya Sabhas, Urban Councils and Municipal Councils and who is going to speak for women’s representation in the latter set?

Sadly, the number of men who spoke up for women’s representation in the 2004-2010 legislature was extremely limited. In his presentation to the Campaign for Political Representation for Women (CPRW), Dinesh Gunawardena, the chairman of the Select Committee of Parliament on Electoral Reforms was the first to enlighten the women about the interesting idea that within a mixed system of representation, parties can be pushed into to putting more women by stipulating that only parties that put up at least one woman for the FPP portion of representation will be eligible for the PR or Proportional Representation seats. Dinesh, however, was not open to expanding on his notion to stipulate a certain percentage of nominations for women.
Tissa Vitharana and D.E.W Gunsekera, representing the old left, are apparently somewhat sympathetic to the cause of women’s representation and Milinda Moragoda has been the other exception.

Milinda Moragoda is the rare breed of politician who campaigns on principles. His newly formed party the National Congress has a 12 point programme, the seventh point of which is titled “Correcting the Gender Imbalance” and outlines three specific proposals:

  • End discriminatory laws against women
  • Ensure that 25% of the representatives in all elected bodies (local and national) are women and to set a fixed timeline for this purpose
  • Set up the post of Ombudswoman to address women’s issues.

To our knowledge Moragoda is the only candidate who has made a firm commitment that equals or exceeds aspirations of women in this country.
Women’s Caucus in Parliament

Women’s caucus in the 2004-2010 parliament was a weak one made up only 13 women out of a total possible 225. Of the 32 members in the Select Committee of Parliament on Election Reforms none were women. The presentation by the women’s caucus went unheeded. The bill to amend the local government elections that was gazetted in December 2008 had no reference to women’s representation. In this  parliamentary election of 2010 we have 30+ women contesting and the roster includes four staunch supporters of the Campaign for Women’s Representation — namely, Rosy Senanayake, UNF, Colombo; Shanthini Kongahage, UNF, Kandy ; Kokila Gunawardana, UPFA, Gampaha; Ari Galapaththi, UPFA, Trincomalee; and Anurudhika Dissanayake, UNF, Anuradhapura – all contesting for parliament for the first time. We appeal to the general public to consider casting at last one of their manapes to a man or woman who speaks up for women’s representation in politics.
Not all, men or women, are cut out for politics. It is not fair that some of those who have the ‘fever’ (or ‘une’ as we say in Sinhala) are left out from politics because they are women. Having a substantial number of women entering politics will bring about a qualitative change in the violence-prone political culture in this country. Women are no more saintly than men but their approach to problem solving and dealing with life are different from men.  Violence is not a trait generally exhibited by women. Complexities of society today too require the participation of both men and women in public life.

4 Comments for “Women In Sri Lanka Need Allies In The New Parliament”

  1. Duncan

    Some stubborn facts about women leaders cannot be avoided – If you look at the pioneering woman leaders – Thatcher, Bandaranaike, Maier, Gandhi (Indira) and Kumaranathunga, you will see that they always preferred to work with men, leaving their cabinets almost always devoid of woman. It is proven that women tolerate each other only if one agrees to be totally submissive – as often in the case of Mother–in-law & daughter –in-law relations; hence the lack of encouragement from them for other women to follow.

  2. surendra kumar

    women all over the earth need allies in respective parliaments. It is needed more where literacy, poverty, ignorance, deprivation is more. Let us hope the bill will soon become act in India.

  3. Psycho

    Women in politics? what nonsense.

    You must know if there is traffic jam either we are following a bullock cart or a ralahamy directing traffic.

    Best job for them is the kitchen and make a good tasty meal for the man and look after his kids. That is the purpose of creating a women!!!

  4. Manhood

    All Sri Lankan women politicians came to power on the popularity of their husbands or fathers not on their own right.

    Sirima, Chadrika, Ferial , Gaminis wife, Atulathmudalis wife and the list goes on, now Anoma.

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