28 May, 2022


Sri Lanka: Local Government Without Women

By Chulani Kodikara

Chulani Kodikara

Following the 2011 round of local government elections, for the first time in more than two decades, all local authorities (LAs), barring two, comprising Municipal Councils, Urban Councils and Pradeshiya Sabhas, across Sri Lanka have been constituted. LA’s form the lowest tier of elected government in Sri Lanka and have a range of functions, from provision of vocational training and recreational facilities to primary health care and solid waste management. In addition, Pradeshiya Sabhas have powers in relation to local level development in terms of Sec. 19 of the Pradeshiya Sabha Act No. 15 of 1987. Their potential to be a force in relation to local development has however always been hampered by the lack of financial powers, skills and capacities; excessive powers of and dependency on the central government; the use of political office to promote narrow interests and instrumentalise LAs, etc.

In this article, however, I focus on women’s under representation in local government as an impediment to local development and also as an indictment of the state’s commitment to gender equality in post war Sri Lanka.

Women in Elected Political Bodies

Women in Sri Lanka won the right to vote in 1931, seventeen years before independence and since then have made rapid progress in relation to health, education and employment. Their human development indicators are considered a model in South Asia and beyond. However, positive socio-economic indicators have not translated into political empowerment and women’s representation in elected political bodies remains abysmally low. Currently, women account for only 5.8% in Parliament, 4.1% in Provincial Councils, and a negligible 2.03 % at local level, which is amongst the lowest in the world, certainly in South Asia (The staggered elections for LAs held between 2008 and 2011 returned 4,466 members for 333 local authorities in the country, of whom only 91 were women).

A shift to an electoral system based on proportional representation in 1989, which elsewhere has generally proven more favourable to women, has not significantly impacted the numbers of women elected over the years. Some political leaders are now claiming that a return to first past the post ward system will increase representation, but there is no evidence to suggest that this will be the case.

A major reason for this under representation is the low number of nominations given to women by the major political parties. 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.

Nomination forms for local government elections do not record the sex/gender of candidates, and therefore, official sex disaggregated data in relation to nominations for local government elections is not available. Nevertheless nominations statistics compiled through a scrutiny of nomination forms indicates that at the 2011 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 approx. 3.5% to 7%.

An increase in overall nominations for women under the proportional representation system of elections 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 number. As a result, even an overall increase in their nominations does not translate into electoral gains for women.

Patronage Politics and Networks of Exclusion

At the 2011 elections, many women party activists from the SLFP and the UNP, traditionally content to take a back seat and work loyally for their parties, stepped out of the shadows and sought nominations. Nanda, an SLFP activist from Badulla, 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 didn’t even remember their names. Some women had been preparing for their candidature. Paduma, a long time SLFP activist from Moneragala, not only studied the local government law but observed her LA meetings in order to familiarize herself with its functioning.

Yet many of these women failed to get nominations. There appears to be too much at stake. Political power in Sri Lanka is sustained through elaborate and well-entrenched patron – client relationships from the national to the local levels. These relationships play a central role in the transmission of socio-economic and political benefits, opportunities and positions. Nominations, then, are opportunities to bestow rewards on party loyalists and those with access to power.

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. Some of the women who failed to secure party nominations came forward to contest as independents. But independents have little chance given the patron – client political culture and dominance of the major parties.

The need for quotas

Evidence from across the world suggests that politics is one of the most difficult spheres for women to enter. Even with strong socio-economic indicators, affirmative action, especially quotas, are often necessary to increase women’s representation in elected political bodies.

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. However, attempts to obtain such a quota in party nominations even at local level have met with stiff resistance from most political parties and the judiciary. This is in stark contrast to global developments, where more than 90 countries now offer some form of affirmative action for women in electoral processes.

After years of lobbying for a mandatory quota for women, the Local Authorities Election Amendment Act 2012 only made provision for a discretionary quota of 25% for women and youth. This provision is far from adequate.

The lack of representation also means a lack of entitlements. As Nanda said to me, “There are certain services provided by local councils that benefit primarily women, such as child care centres, maternity health clinics, etc. When there are no women represented in a local council, such services are rarely prioritized by the male councilors. These issues therefore tend to get postponed or neglected. Women need affirmative action. Women have for too long worked to put men into elected office. It is now time for women to enter politics in their own right and to work for our own victories.”

The paradox of strong development indicators and weak political representation of women is a sign of enduring patriarchy, reinforced by political and judicial elites. The frequent reference to a 2500 year-old culture in which women are already equal—something the present regime parrots —is a fig leaf for patriarchy. No wonder the President can say “domestic violence is only until the rice is cooked” and get away with it.

In essence, far from equality, women in Sri Lanka are entitled only to development as defined by a patriarchal state. 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?”

*The Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) is an independent, Sri Lankan think-tank promoting a better understanding of poverty related development issues.  Chulani Kodikara, a Senior Researcher at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies in Colombo.  Chulani studied law at the University of Colombo, and Development and Governance at IDS, University of Sussex, UK.  Her research straddles issues at the intersection of law, feminism, gender and identity politics. She is the author of Muslim Family Law in Sri Lanka (1997), Women and Governance in Sri Lanka (2002, co-authored with Kishali Pinto Jayawardena), and most recently, Only until the Rice is Cooked? The Domestic Violence Act, Familial Ideology and Cultural Narratives in Sri Lanka (2012).

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Latest comments

  • 0

    Dear Chulani
    Why women were not given/having basic rights throughout the know human civilization until 20th century. Was that merely because males had more physical power than women or was there any other reason.
    Jesus, Buddha have no known women disciples, lot of great humans until recently were males.
    Is there reason for that? . What you are asking could be off the norm?
    Just wondering about this question recently.

    • 0

      Get real Anura!
      Might is NOT right!
      And is more often WRONG!
      Women live longer than men and have staying power and great brain power and innate wisdom – they also are less violent. If the world were ruled by women it would be a better place, except they have been kept down and brutalized by people like you who think that might is right.

      We need fifty percent quotas for women who are more than half the world’s and Lanka’s population. Right now only a few token women are in the Parliament of uneducated criminal morons and there are not enough of them to change the awful political culture which is the pits with the Rajapassa thugs now running the show!

      • 0

        Your left foot might be the same as your right foot nutter.
        Heard of Maggie the hand bag who started the first gulf war and we are still in its orbit. The vicious Cleopatra etc or are you in their business- the oldest?

  • 0

    Not that Ranil Wickramasinghe with his great Feminist wife – Maitree in virgin white – is much better than Rajapassa when it comes to nominating smart and educated women!
    MR and RW are both power hungry dictators, who won’t share power with anyone – never mind women!

  • 0

    Even to date the West where this feminism came do not have many women leaders. thatcher was the exception. On the other hand, even the muslim world has women leaders.

    In Sri Lanka, women are not banned in involving in anything.

    If women are needed for the needs of Feminism, that is stupid.

    this quota thing is simply stupid.

    If women can let them take the whole govt and do it.

  • 0

    Women were created for a specific reason. So was Man. Each has his/her own role to play in society. If nature intended them to be equal, Men would suckling babies and women would be using Gilette razors to shave their beards. Unfortunately, many men, emasculated by their womenfolk and kept in firm bondage, appear on this blog. Its hightime they realized the significance of gender difference as nature intended it to be.

    • 0

      Oh yes. Oh yes. Look around you and you WILL surely see many men suckling babies and many women using Gilette razors in Sri Lanka. Although Im not sure if the men were emasculated by their womenfolk or whether they were naturally born that way, without bxlls. This gender-bending pissu first cropped up in the West where most women anyway are Amazonian in looks and behaviour while the menfolk are as meek and docile as manx cats without tails. Very recently the Aussies Courts ruled that there were men and there were women and now there were also people who were not sure of whether they were men or women or both. This equality business was shoved down the throats of non-western leaders including the Arabs who are mere puppets of the West, under the guise of fundamental rights, political correctness and all that crap. The final result of all this is the breakdown of social values like we see in the West. Dysfunctional families, teachers and religious leaders having trysts with boys under their care, babies being thrown into the rivers, working mothers not knowing which of their bosses is the father of their children, and the list goes on. Gone are the good old days of AACHI GEYY INNEY. Now AACHI also wants a job, preferably a comeback to the political scene. Come on all ye menfolk. Give it to her so that she can continue a repeat of years of mayhem and damage all around. And you call yourselves men.Shame on your breed.

  • 0

    I see your name all over fighting for women to enter politics. It is not that the women do not want to come into politics, but they are not allowed to by the sitting members. Now I understand Muslim Congress do not want to appoint candidates for the NPC elections. They do all the work during the elections. They are involved in door to door campaigning etc.

    Also look at the that Muslim guy and other chauvinist fellows are writing.

    I remember when Chandrika and Gamini Dissanayaka contested the Presidential elections, Azwar( Professional heckler) and the other UNP Muslims spread a message that women cannot be leaders, so Muslims should not vote for Chandrika. They even distributed notices etc. Gamini was killed and their appears his wife as a candidate and the UNP Muslims did not know what to do- Azwar has to eat his words and eat the pamphlets that were distributed.

    Patriarchy dominates religion and culture. Both are always mixed with politics. No religion without politics and no politics without religion. It is true of Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism.

    • 0

      Hello Salmaj. Now I understand the reason for the recent ruling by the Aussie courts.It is because of men like yourself who are not sure of their own gender and cannot match up to societys expectations of them. If you are comfortable being ruled by a woman certainly go ahead. Give up your pants and let her dictate terms to you like in the decadent West. You can sit at home and suckle the babies. And feel proud about it at the same time. Dont we men really feel sorry for cuckholds like you. Good luck and keep fighting for gender equality. You may get it sometime.I mean, from your woman.

      • 0

        Shame to find you talking like this being a Muslim and a follower of Prophet(sal)

      • 0

        Shame to find you talking like this being a Muslim and a follower of Prophet(sal) You must be really suffering from an inferiority complex. Those who cannot match up to women who are educated, informed only talk your language. Women in my family are educated and also powerful, that doesn’t meant I don’t have my rights as an individual. I respect their right as individual and they respect my right. It is people like you all that makes Islam a mockery.

  • 0

    Instead of forcing women to politics or anything let women decide for themselves.

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