The Sunday Leader

Demand For Equal Rights

  • International Women’s Day

By Nirmala Kannangara

We celebrate the International Women’s Day today (8th of March 2015). However the question which the Sri Lankan women’s movement has been asking for many years is whether women are excluded from the Sri Lankan politics, among other issues.

Sri Lanka has a female population of about 52 per cent, yet their overall representation in politics is barely visible. According to the Women’s Media Collective, only 5.8% of women representation in the Sri Lankan parliament, 4% in the provincial councils, 2.7% in the local government – a very low rate compared to many South Asian countries. Countries with better women representation in politics like Canada have proven to have advanced both socially and economically – and therefore there is pressing need for the women to have a better representation in parliament and in other political institutions for women to actively participate in politics to win their rights. Women and Media Collective highlighted that although women won the voting right as a result of their struggles, up to now, women have not been able to enjoy the fullness of that right even though 84 years have elapsed since then.

Mothers and Daughters of Lanka (MDL) along with the Women’s Media Collective also questions whether women are being excluded from the 100 day programme of the new Sri Lankan government. Speaking to The Sunday Leader, a representative of Women and Media Collective Viola Perera added that this year they are rallying for the International Women’s day with several demands to stand up against the discrimination of women and to give due recognition to women in all arenas. According to them, in 2003 and 2006, women’s views were presented to the parliamentary select committee in writing and vocally, on many occasions – yet those views have been dropped from the drafts. They complained that the drafts made on National Women’s Commission on many occasions in 2001, 2003 and 2007 are gathering dust in those respective institutions.

Viola Perera added that it requires formulation of new laws to increase the representation of women by 25% in the Provincial Councils and Local Government Councils, in order to involve women in the decision making process. She added that within the 100 day programme there were number of promises given to women and they urged the new government to pay attentions to the demands of the women within their 100 day programme.

The Mothers and Daughters of Sri Lanka is thus rallies along with the Women and Media Collectives demanding the government to increase women representation by 25% in the Parliament, Provincial and Local Government Councils and to appoint an independent women’s commission in order to ensure and protect women’s rights and also implement the international agreements. They also urge the government to take measures to ensure 1/3 of representation of women in all the independent commissions and to give solutions to all the women victims of war, workers in the Economic Promotion Zones, migrant workers, farmers, fisher folks, plantation women workers, and the others. In celebration of 105th International Women’s day, the Mothers and Daughters of Sri Lanka is to launch their rally at 11.00 am on the 9th of this month at Diyawannawa and march towards the Parliament.

Kumudini Samuel, founder of the Women and Media Collective, added that, “We need a comprehensive approach to look at women’s concerns.” In this context she added that establishment of an independent national commission on women based on Women’s Rights Act is how we could deal with the issue most comprehensively. She reasoned out that Women’s Rights Act would allow the Independent Women’s Commission to look at women’s rights and women’s concerns in a more holistic way.

“There is a need to increase women’s political representation in a substantive way – so that we get women into decision making positions. It should start from within political parties and then in local governments, provincial councils and in parliament,” she added. According to her if we can have a quota to bring in more women into these political bodies, the historical discrimination against women with regard to women’s representation in politics and leadership and women’s role in political life will stop.

‘UN to help women’s political  engagement in Sri Lanka’

There is much that Sri Lanka can be proud of when speaking of girls’ and women’s empowerment. Sri Lanka is often highlighted as an example in the region regarding education and health for women, especially for achieving high literacy rates among women and the high life expectancy at birth for the girl child. There are also large numbers of women with higher education and professional qualifications serving in the public domain, the private sector, medical, legal and teaching professions, and the arts in comparison to many other developing countries.


The participation of women is Sri Lanka’s workforce is significantly lower than men

We are all aware that Sri Lankan women have enjoyed universal adult franchise since 1931 and that Sri Lanka produced the world’s first democratically elected woman Prime Minister in 1960.

Moreover, Sri Lanka has committed to a number of international instruments such as the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Beijing Platform for Action. It would be important to monitor how the country fares in terms implementation of its commitments taken under these instruments.

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, in particular, encourages National Governments to establish gender balance in government bodies and also take appropriate electoral system measures to encourage political parties to integrate women in elective and non-elective public positions in the same proportion and at the same levels as men. The governments are also urged to review the differential impact of electoral systems on the political representation of women in elected bodies and consider, where appropriate, the adjustment or reform of those systems.

In addition, the political parties are urged to work on party structures and procedures to remove barriers that undermine women’s political engagement including participation in the leadership of political parties on an equal basis with men.

These international obligations have been translated to national commitments through Sri Lanka Women’s Charter and the National Plan of Action on Human Rights.

The Sri Lanka Women’s Charter approved by the Government on 3rd March 1993 stipulates that the State must ensure equitable representation of women in the nomination process at the National, Provincial and Local government elections.

The National Action Plan on the Rights of Women aims to ensure 30% minimum representation of women in Parliament, provincial councils and local authorities.

Despite these commitments and achievements, Sri Lanka ranks 140 out of 153 countries in terms of female representation in parliament, which is one of the lowest in South Asia and the world.


Women occupy less than 6% of parliamentary seats

As of 2012, women occupied just 4% in Provincial Councils and 1.9% in local governments. Without a strong representation of women in decision making positions, there is no guarantee that women’s perspectives are adequately reflected in key policy decisions relating to critical areas such as security, economic development, reconciliation and democratization in today’s Sri Lanka.

If we look at the local context, we see that Sri Lanka has witnessed rising levels of sexual and gender based violence, a phenomenon that requires urgent and immediate attention of authorities.

Increasing number of cases of sexual abuse of children and women are reported particularly from the former conflict zones of North and East, although increasing trends are being observed across the country.

In taking up this issue, we would encourage women parliamentarians to link up with Commission on Status of Women which in its Report on the fifty-seventh session in 2013 urged States to strongly condemn violence against women and girls committed in armed conflict and post-conflict situations, and calls for effective measures of accountability and redress as well as effective remedies.

Coming back to the issue of women’s political representation in Sri Lanka, we understand that such low levels have always been seen as a conundrum when Sri Lanka has performed so well in other spheres such as education and health.

The issue is not only that the number of women elected is low, but that the number of women nominated by political parties to contest at elections is also equally low. Nomination of women to any level of elected body has not increased beyond 7.7 per cent of the total candidates nominated.

We have commissioned several studies which addresses this problem, particularly a joint study done together with the former Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Empowerment in 2009 as well as the National Human Development Report 2014 on Youth and Development.

What these studies reveal is that the reasons for low women’s political participation start at the personal level due to socio-cultural, economic and psychological barriers such as:

- lack of opportunity, or where the opportunity is available, reasons such as disliking politics;

- lack of time due to family responsibilities;

- the likelihood of attacks on character and virtue;

- perceptions on lack of ability or non-worthiness;

- and the perception that politics is increasingly associated with violence.

These coupled with stereotypical notions about the ‘right’ place of women in society have impacted on low levels of women in employment, the public sphere and political representation.

I must mention that in trying to address this issue, in line with the global frameworks and the conventions that I have highlighted earlier, several UN agencies, particularly the UN Women, the United Nations organization dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women, does significant work both in Sri Lanka and other parts of the world. The UN Women now has a dedicated presence in Sri Lanka.

UN Women provides training for women political candidates to help build their capacities, and offers voter and civic education and sensitization campaigns on gender equality.

In India, the Gender Responsive Governance Programme empowers over half a million elected women representatives in six states to make public policy responsive to women, and to ensure that elected representatives have better knowledge of women’s rights. Notably, UN Women is also developing a Gender Responsive Index to rate South Asian countries according to the participation of women in politics and governance.

I would like to highlight the forthcoming UN Women’s project in Sri Lanka on increasing women’s political participation, in collaboration with the Royal Norwegian Government. The project aims to increase both representation and political participation of women at provincial and national levels.

It will work to strengthen the capacity for gender-responsive budgeting in key Ministries; support the Women Parliamentarians’ Caucus; and engage with the political leadership to ensure more nominations for women in elections.

We also support research and policy advocacy to address legal and political impediments to women’s political participation. For instance, through UNDP, we are exploring ways of supporting the electoral reform process in Sri Lanka with technical expertise to facilitate a more informed and nuanced debate on the subject.

In addition, we support trainings, coalitions and lobbying (for example political parties) so that women representatives transform and implement policies, programmes and resource allocations in favor of women’s rights.

We also strengthen the capacity of state institutions to mainstream gender responsive governance in their programmes.

I would like to say in conclusion that we, in the United Nations, will do our best to engage with our national partners to increase women’s political engagement in Sri Lanka.

* Extracts of speech made last week by Subinay Nandy – Resident Coordinator of the United Nations in Sri Lanka

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