What needs to change for the 5% of Women in Politics and the 52% population of women in Sri Lanka -2
Recap from Part 1:
The first segment of this article deconstructed the gender quotas initiated across Sri Lanka's local government system, with 25% of women included at the local level and a proposed 30% quota at the provincial level. It was observed that the presence of gender quotas alone do not remove deep-rooted inequalities and that Sri Lanka has a long road ahead in terms of achieving gender equality in political representation and participation. The importance of normalising women’s active and substantive representation in politics, as opposed to the tokenistic representation provided by the quotas, was highlighted.
Part 1 also discussed that despite Sri Lanka's past successes with women at the highest tier of government, the active representation of women in politics at present is limited, with only 5% of women legislators serving in the national government. Whilst shedding light to numerous other challenges faced by aspiring women politicians, the article concluded that although the introduction of mandatory quotas is one way forward, women’s meaningful engagement in politics should be facilitated through a combination of approaches rooted in dismantling archaic norms, values and structures that discriminate against women aspiring for power.
Gender quotas - milestones and successes:
With the operationalisation of a 25% quota at local government, the current cohort of elected women representatives (EWRs) have witnessed certain milestones and successes. In addition to leading development efforts in their communities, the majority of elected women in local government have undergone training and capacity development programmes initiated by government and non-government stakeholders.
One such intervention was pioneered by UN Women in Sri Lanka through a model of multi party and multi stakeholder dialogues, bringing together women community leaders and women representatives elected via the 25% quota at local government across all 25 districts in the country. The dialogues were unique and the first of its kind as it transcended traditionally siloed political parties and ethnic, religious, and regional groups by bringing together women local government representatives from diverse backgrounds. The discussions enabled EWRs to operationalise plans of action by focusing on common issues in their communities, which has been pivotal in addressing drivers of conflict and inclusive development agenda for the country.
The implementation of a 25% quota at local government has also made way for positive lobbying efforts to enforce a 30% quota at provincial councils that was gazetted in July 2017, making it mandatory for all political parties and independent groups to field at least 30% women candidates in Provincial Council (PC) elections.
At the national level, the Women's Parliamentarians' Caucus has called for a uniformed electoral system for all elections in Sri Lanka (i.e. local government, provincial councils and national government) with a universal quota for women’s representation, by increasing the number of nominations for women to at least 30% in parliamentary, provincial council and local government elections, as well as to ensure 50% representation of women in National Lists across all political parties. In addition, the Caucus has recommended regulations and accountability on campaign financing to ensure equal opportunities for participation, whilst lobbying to introduce legislation when implementing quotas for women in political party structures and creating an enabling environment for women in governance. The Caucus has also proposed that the Parliamentary Select Committee on electoral law reforms introduce legal provisions relating to the prevention of violence against women in elections, which are currently being articulated.
What needs to be done for women's active representation in politics:
The local government gender quota has generated a positive trajectory, with women previously not involved in politics invited into the political space. It has been an important milestone that, if extended to the provincial and parliamentary levels, could help see a dramatic reversal of the extremely low rate of women’s political participation.
However, quotas can be insufficient when challenging structural inequalities that marginalise women in politics. When set in the context of the men-dominated culture with limited avenues for gaining experience for some elected women, a quota risks the involvement of women in uninfluential, gender stereotypical roles. Women from ethnic and religious minorities face further challenges within the political sphere, often resulting from language barriers to cultural and faith-based discriminations.
Therefore, increasing women's participation in politics requires a comprehensive approach i.e. the implementation of temporary special measures to achieve a gender balance in decision-making bodies (gender quotas), coupled with capacity building and training initiatives to support women's political participation at the local and national levels. Opportunities for training to enhance women's capacities including practical skills, (i.e. public speaking, use of social media) and modern leadership approaches are equally significant.
Such efforts should be complemented by a legislative framework and political party system that nominates women in politics and promulgates voter education. Parties have a pivotal role to play in order to increase women’s participation and success as candidates. A change in party politics is essential to foster greater transparency around the nomination of women to party lists, as well as the distribution of party funds in a fair and equitable manner.
Research indicates that public perceptions of a 'strong leader' is associated with the male figure whilst women are associated with submissiveness and passivity, hence 'not fit for leadership roles'. This alludes to the need for continuous public advocacy and education surrounding traditional gender norms. Violence perpetrated against women and particularly against women in politics is another deterrent that calls for stronger legislation and support mechanisms.
Solidarity among women and mentorship is also important. Newly elected women often profess that senior women politicians neither reach out to congratulate them on their successes nor offer mentorship to navigate their newly appointed roles. Whilst there are some exceptions, competitive party politics may inhibit greater solidarity and mentorship between women politicians.The Women Parliamentarians’ Caucus of Sri Lanka is a key avenue for women politicians to coalesce across party-lines and increase the visibility of common issues affecting women and girls, while also challenging gender biases in politics. As detailed above, an empowered stance by the Caucus can enforce key decisions regarding women's inclusion in politics across socio-economic and ethno-religious boundaries.
As a signatory to international conventions, Sri Lanka is also responsible for adhering to international standards that guarantee women equality, political and socio-economic rights. These include Article 2, 7, and 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), Articles 3, 25, and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as Article 2 and Article 7, subsection (a) and (b) of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) which speaks of the responsibility of states to “take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the political and public life” (CEDAW 1981).
Whilst amendments to election laws and quota systems, along with education, advocacy and adherence to international standards are essential support mechanisms, it is equally important that men act as allies of women in politics. Seeing as women have been excluded from years of progress and access to leadership opportunities, it is necessary that men welcome women into leadership spaces and share them, while being cognisant of the specific needs of women as the ‘gender minority’ within a traditionally men-dominated sphere. It is often witnessed how powerful women are subjected to sexism, violence and sexual harassment (both online and offline), merely on the basis of being a woman in a public space. With men in politics becoming sensitised to such issues and allowing for a shared collegiate space with women, a stronger case can be made for alleviating discriminations faced by women, which in turn can pave the way for legal protections on violence and harassment against women in politics.
It is conclusive therefore, that a multi-pronged approach is necessary to effect holistic change for aspiring women politicians. It is essential for a country healing from a 30-year civil conflict, that underlying discriminatory practices be addressed in order to productively engage women - who make half of the country’s population - in sustainable peacebuilding and development processes.
As noted by economist Kenneth Boulding, there must be ‘inclusive peace’ in order for a country to transform, and the inclusion of women and men across the board is key to achieve this transition.
Read first part of this article -
Lihini is a development practitioner based in Sri Lanka. She hasa BA in International Studies, Communications and Gender Studies from Monash University; and a MA in Global Diplomacy from SOAS - University of London. Her research and writing focuses on the nexus of gender, development, peacebuilding and security in the Asia-Pacific region.
The opinions expressed in this article are her own and do not represent the views of any affiliated organisation.