Women in Sri Lanka won the right to vote in 1931, seventeen years before independence. In the post independence period, Sri Lankan women made rapid progress in relation to health, education and employment, and their human development indicators are still considered a model for South Asia. However, as in other countries where positive socio-economic indicators have not automatically translated into political empowerment, women's representation in elected political bodies has remained abysmally low. The local government elections scheduled for 17th March have re-ignited the debate on women's representation, which is only 5.8% in Parliament, 4.1% in Provincial Councils and a negligible 1.8% in local government, perhaps amongst the lowest in the world, and certainly in South Asia.
A shift to an electoral system based on proportional representation in 1989, which elsewhere has generally proven more favourable to women, there has been no significant change in the numbers of women elected over the years. This is largely because major political parties in Sri Lanka have done little that is meaningful to address the under representation of women. Gatekeepers of electoral processes, wielding considerable power to either advance or inhibit women's representation, political parties have shown a remarkable lack of commitment to recognize women as worthy candidates or work towards strengthening women's roles as political leaders.
The nominations statistics speak for themselves. A closer look at the increasing number of electoral candidates, including women, reveals that the increase in the numbers of women candidates is due to fringe parties and independent groups - who seldom win - filling their lists with women. Major political parties with stronger electoral fortunes do not nominate women in any significant numbers. As a result, the overall increase in their nominations has not translated into electoral gains for women.
At the 2006 local government elections, nominations for women by the major alliances/parties – the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the United National Party (UNP) and the Janatha Vimukthi Perumuna (JVP) — ranged from 4% to 6%. It exceeded 10% only in the case of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which following a diktat from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE), nominated at least one woman in each local council in Trincomalee district. Thus, the Trincomalee Urban Council now has a higher number of women than most other local councils in Sri Lanka.
When this month's elections were announced, however, many women party activists from the SLFP and the UNP who were traditionally content to take a back seat and who had worked loyally for their parties for years, distributing leaflets for male candidates, going house to house campaigning etc., stepped out of the shadows of men in their parties and did apply for nominations. Nanda, a UNP activist from Galle, told me ‘for years, we have been working to get votes for male candidates. This time we wanted to go canvassing for ourselves.' Echoing Nanda's thoughts, Janaki, a fellow party-member from Badulla observed that as soon as men got their nominations, they came to the women for assistance to organize their elections campaigns, but once they won, they don't even remember their names. Some of them have long been preparing for their candidature. Paduma, a long time SLFP activist from Moneragala, not only studied the local government law, but observed her Local Council meetings in order to familiarize herself with its powers and functions.
Although official gender disaggregated data in relation to nominations for the forthcoming local government elections is unavailable (and in fact may never be made available), —in itself a clear indicator of how little importance is attached to women's representation — unofficial reports indicate that only a few women were considered winnable and worthy candidates by the selection committees of the major parties. There appears to be too much at stake. As many political analysts point out political power in Sri Lanka is sustained through elaborate and well-entrenched patron – client relationships that connect actors from the national to the local levels. These relationships play a central role in the transmission of socio-economic as well as political benefits, opportunities and positions available to people. Nominations during election times are opportunities to bestow rewards on those party loyalists, but not without discrimination. To be considered a ‘winnable' candidate, money and muscle are important, as is the active involvement in maintaining and supporting the chains of patronage between the party and the constituency. Most women lack both money and muscle power and are passive ‘clients' on the margins of these networks, except if one is a wife, widow or daughter of a politician of course.
Some of the women who failed to secure party nominations have come forward to contest as independents. Despite the patron – client political culture and dominance of the two major parties, independent candidates still have a slight possibility of winning at the local level because the electorate is smaller and electoral thresholds are low (it is possible to win with less than 5% of the vote). Moreover, voters can cast all three preferences for one candidate, and kinship and friendship networks remain relevant and may outdo party loyalties at this level. The upcoming polls will test the extent to which such candidates can hold their own.
Evidence from across the world suggests that politics is one of the most difficult spheres for women to enter, and that even with strong socio- economic indicators, some form of electoral engineering or affirmative action is necessary to increase women's representation in elected political bodies. The recent experiences of women applying for nominations for local government elections in Sri Lanka make it even clearer that the only way to address this gender gap in representation is though a legally enforceable quota for women, which makes it mandatory for political parties to give nominations to a certain percentage of women. However attempts to obtain a legally enforceable quota for women in party nominations even at local level have met with stiff resistance from most political parties as well as the judiciary, who seem impervious to global developments and the fact that more than 90 countries now offer some form of affirmative action measures for women in electoral processes.
After years of lobbying, local government reforms currently being discussed include a discretionary quota of 25% for women and youth. This provision is however clearly inadequate because it combines women and youth with no guarantee of an exclusive quota for women, and also because non compliance will not attract any penalties. The government has justified this weak provision on various questionable grounds including marinating that very few women are interested in politics and that women's political representation is antithetical to Sri Lankan culture and that this demand is fuelled mainly by middle class ‘NGO women' who are trying to force women into politics. Other responses include, that parties are only interested in winning horses, and women are not winning horses, or that a return to a ward system, which is being proposed under local government reforms will automatically increase representation, although there is no evidence to suggest that this will be the case.
Recently the Sri Lankan government has also sought to explain away the low levels of political representation of women to the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), attributing it to women's own choices, their preoccupation with multiple roles, the high costs of electoral campaigns and the lack of confidence of political parties in the ability of women to win votes. The Committee, in its Concluding Observations, reminded the government, in no uncertain terms, that it has a legal obligation to take all necessary measures to increase the representation of women in politics and public life at the local, provincial and national levels, including resorting to temporary special measures, such as introduction of quotas or financial support to women candidates. In addition, it also called on the Government to take all steps to highlight to society as a whole the importance of women's full and equal participation in leadership positions, in all sectors and at all levels.
The paradox of strong development indicators and weak political representation of women is a sign of enduring patriarchy, reinforced by political and judicial elites. In essence women in Sri Lanka are entitled to everything but political leadership. Nominations for the March 2011 local government elections closed on the 27th of January; Paduma, Nanda, Janaki and hundreds of other capable women were unsuccessful in securing nominations. When Paduma heard she was not on her party list, she asked “for how long will the men decide where the wells should be even though it is the women who fetch the water?”