Women to the fore | Sunday Observer

Women to the fore

The Local Government elections are over. The debate about the results will go on for some time, as it does following every election, but this is one election with a difference – women have garnered the spotlight thanks to important changes made to election laws.

It beggars belief that although women make up 52 percent of the voting population (close to 16 million), Local Government Bodies and Provincial Councils have only around 2 percent female representation. At Parliament level, it is around 5-6 percent, which is also not impressive at all. This compares dismally even with our neighbours in South Asia, leave alone the developed world.

This is an inexcusable state of affairs for a country that produced the world’s first woman Prime Minister (Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1960) and also an Executive President (Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, 1994). Incredibly, it has taken more than 150 years for Colombo to get its first woman Mayor-elect (Rosy Senanayake). There could be other women mayors/urban council chairpersons once the elected members lists’ are finalized.

Total lack of interest

Women in Sri Lanka are remarkably knowledgeable politically – go to any polling booth on an election day and check what the bigger queue is – generally it is the women’s. Political parties in Sri Lanka should have given greater opportunities to women to enter politics a long time ago, but most of the male-dominated parties were reluctant to make this move. The fact that new laws had to be brought in to accommodate more women candidates for the just-concluded Local Polls is indicative of the total lack of interest on the part of political parties to make a move in this direction.

The authorities deserve praise for this move, however late it may be. There was no option other than compelling political parties to give opportunities for more women. Accordingly, 25 percent of the quota had to be given to women when preparing nomination lists (thus a record 17,000 women contested the election out of 57,000 candidates). Sadly, some political parties and independent groups failed to even fulfil this simple requirement in several electorates, leading to the rejection of their lists.

There were several reasons why women were reluctant to enter the political stage. Regardless of gender, it is extremely difficult to break into politics in Sri Lanka unless one has family connections. Women generally found it daunting to enter the tough world of politics unless they had a close male relative already in politics, such as father, brother, uncle or cousin.

Another factor that affected women, mostly professional ones wishing to enter politics was, intimidation by dominant male politicians. Even during the recent Local Polls, there were reports that some male candidates had harassed and threatened female candidates of their own party/independent group. There were also reports that some religious dignitaries had openly told their congregations not to vote for women.

Dubious methods

The challenge of funding was another factor – under the old Proportional Representation (PR) one had to campaign in an entire district, spending as much as Rs.100 million for posters, meetings, food and drink for supporters, transport and other miscellaneous expenses. It is a well known fact that this leads to corruption – business persons will spend this sum on a candidate, based on the promise that once elected, tenders etc will be given to that person. Most professional women would not agree to such dubious methods to finance their campaigns and they cannot find such vast amounts of money on their own either. Most of these concerns have been addressed by the new Mixed Member Representation (MMR) electoral system, a mix of the First Past the Post and PR systems. Under the new system, members are elected from individual wards or electorates. Thus, the candidates do not have to campaign in an entire district, which drastically reduces the amount of funding required. It also reduces the chances of being targeted for harassment. There are proposals to place restrictions on the amount of campaign funds that can be raised and used for various types of elections, which will further limit excessive spending on propaganda activities.

The local councils are known as the first step in the political ladder. Most top-level politicians have started their political journey from the local bodies which give the councillors ample opportunity to study their respective areas, identify problems and shortcomings and suggest solutions. Women are in an ideal position to engage in this task, because they already know at household level the shortcomings that hinder the progress of their villages and towns. From the Cost of Living to the lack of facilities at the nearby school, they are more likely to know and care for these issues than men.

With over 8,000 new local councillors taking oaths next month, around 2,000 of them women, we can be certain of a better future for our villages and towns. Women have a greater voice in their own areas for the first time in decades, which will hopefully translate into fast action on the ground. They will have to work closely with the male councillors to develop their own areas.

This momentum should not stop with local bodies. Provincial Councils and Parliament itself must be the next goals. They too should see a drastic increase in the number of women people’s representatives following the next elections cycle. Some of the women candidates who have made it to the Local Council will no doubt want to reach these higher-level governing structures. The Local Councils will prime them for that experience.

Political debates

This should also encourage other young, professionally-qualified women to take to politics. They will be a formidable weapon against dishonesty and corruption – the dominant issue in political debates today. Politics does not even have to be a full-time commitment – there already are many politicians from both sexes at all levels who continue their day jobs or professions while engaging in political work.

Political parties should have ‘talent scouts’ in various areas who can look out for women popular among the villagers with an outstanding track record. Such women should be invited to join political parties, because political power can empower them to do more for the community instead of being on their own.

The ideal goal should be 50:50 representation among men and women in politics, but we have a long way to go there. This is certainly not impossible – several countries have already achieved this goal.

The recent Local Government Elections can be considered as the first step in this direction, though the parties themselves must take the initiative from now on instead of just complying with a new legislation. Women must indeed come to the fore in politics in a bigger way.