By Mira Philips –
In a few short weeks, President Maithripala Sirisena will attempt to pass the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, which proposes a number of electoral reforms. There has been much discussion in the media about the impacts of the reforms on political parties, such as introducing a hybrid system of Proportional Representation and First-Past-the-Post, abolishing preferential voting, and adding 30 additional seats to Parliament. However, it is disconcerting to observe that Sri Lankan media and political leaders are indifferent to the amendment’s conspicuous disregard for improving women’s political representation.
Chulani Kodikara (2011) describes the experience of women in Sri Lanka as a “paradox of strong development indicators and weak political representation.” While literacy rates and educational attainment amongst women are high, their representation in the various levels of government is dismally low, especially in comparison to other South Asian countries such as India and Pakistan (Wickramasinghe & Kodikara 2012). Women represent 52% of Sri Lanka’s population, and yet, they account for less than6.5% of parliamentary seats, 6% of seats in provincial councils, and 2% of seats in local government (Ariyaratne 2015). Under-representation globally can be attributed to a number of factors, but the gendered nature of politics and entrenched stereotypes that privilege men as leaders and women as caregivers, have had a sustained impact on women’s exclusion (Wickramasinghe & Kodikara 2012; Krook & Norris 2014).
Sri Lanka is doing fantastically well if it is looking to contest for the title of “Top Country for Excluding Women from Politics.” If this is not the case, then the 20th Amendment presents an opportunity to kick-start a process to improve Sri Lanka’s standing when it comes to women’s political representation and good governance. So, will political leaders seize this moment? Or will they continue down a road that sees half the population on the fringes of the political sphere?
With a goal of reserving 25% of seats in Parliament for women candidates, Women & Media Collective (2015), alongside various other women’s groups, have compiled a list of policy recommendations for the 20th Amendment that political parties are encouraged to support. While there are pros and cons to each of these suggestions, they can ultimately serve as springboards to move Sri Lanka closer to achieving some level of gender parity in politics. The recommendations are as follows:
1. Regarding the 165 seats elected through the First-Past-The-Post system, women’s groups would like to see either electorates that are majority women be reserved for women candidates or one electorate per district be reserved for a woman candidate. It should also be mandatory for political parties to reserve 25% of space on their nomination lists for women.
2. With 31 seats to be elected at the district level through Proportional Representation, districts may only be able to appoint one or two candidates. Thus, it should be mandatory for women to be included as the first candidate on this list.
3. The remaining seats will come from the National List, which has a maximum number of 59. It is recommended that every 2nd appointment from the National List be given to a woman.
4. For multi-member electorates, it is recommended that at least one woman be nominated to contest.
Advocacy groups favour closed nomination lists, arguing that they give women a greater chance of being elected, when they otherwise might not be due to voter prejudice against female politicians.
The recommendations proposed by these groups largely focus on instituting mandatory quotas and reservations to ensure 25% representation. One argument against this stems from the belief that affirmative action leads to a decrease in quality, since it is assumed that women do not have adequate experience to serve in office. As such, more qualified candidates may be overlooked in favour of increasing women’s representation (Pande & Ford 2011).
Another issue raised, is to what extent quotas can actually bring about substantive equality. Reserving electoral seats or spaces on nomination lists does not guarantee that women will be elected, nor does it mean that women will be more likely to run. Furthermore, if politics privileges men, how do quotas serve to change a political culture that is biased against women as political actors (Pande & Ford 2011)? How can they ensure that women who are elected are able to achieve actual influence in a male-dominated sphere?
Some of these concerns do accurately point out issues the level of impact quotas can have on their own, but others reflect deep-seated assumptions about meritocracy, women’s roles, and a lack of awareness about the structures that inhibit gender parity in politics.
Why are women under-represented?
Some contend that if women remain outside politics (or the public sphere in general), they do so at their own discretion. However, how free or unmediated are people’s choices? Katherine Cross (2015) succinctly argues that characterizing the choices women have made as wholly autonomous ignores that “there were a variety of “push/pull” factors that made these choices easier for them, more attractive, and, indeed sometimes the only viable choice they could make.”
Krook & Norris (2014) say that the prejudice against women as political candidates, exhibited in the recruiting practices of political gatekeepers and the voting habits of people, is indicative of the ‘public/private’ divide, in which women are subjugated to roles related to the home and family. The implication here is that women lack the capacity to be decision-makers because, in contrast to men, their skills do not lend themselves to life in the public sphere. Additionally, there is a belief that women will not be able to devote the time and energy to office precisely because they are often also caregivers (Krook & Norris 2014).
These stereotypes not only inhibit women from being recruited and elected, but are also internalized by women themselves, which serves to deter an aspiration to run in the first place (Krook & Norris 2014). Even when women are elected, the pressure to perform increases ten-fold because they must prove themselves with the cards already stacked against them.
We must consider these barriers when we talk about quality or choice. The argument that quotas undermine quality assumes that male leaders are necessarily elected on the basis of merit. Furthermore, it ignores how male domination in the public sphere shapes the skills associated with quality leadership and the very organization of politics, which is not accommodating of women who are attempting to balance multiple roles.
The case for both quota and non-quota initiatives
Quotas are not the be-all, end-all solution. Women who are elected will continue to face difficulties in overcoming the entrenched stereotypes related to their abilities as leaders. Regardless, mandatory quotas can at least improve women’s visibility in the political sphere, which is a starting point to dismantling these prejudices. In their research on the impact of quotas on attitudes towards women leaders in India, Beaman et al. (2009, cited in Pande & Ford 2011), demonstrate that people generally view first-time women leaders elected through reservations negatively. However, for women who have been elected for a second time, the perception is much more positive, showing that in the long-term, attitudes can change. What is needed to change these attitudes is the presence of women in the first place.
Still, quotas cannot change our political culture alone. Rather, they should be supplemented by a variety of non-quota initiatives, which can be taken on by civil society actors and the government. Krook and Norris (2011) identify various non-quota options that can be useful, such as providing assistance for women in campaign funding, which is important since they may not have the same access to networks as men, building women’s capacity in running campaigns and public speaking, and organizing events to motivate women to run and allay the fears they may have internalized due to pervasive gender stereotypes.
Why is greater representation for women important?
Women are of course not a homogenous group whose interests are identical. Their experiences are not only informed by their gender but also by their ethnicity, socioeconomic class, religion etc. However, with a mere 5% of women in government, it is highly unlikely that adequate measures will be taken to address female-specific issues. Research in districts in West Bengal and Rajasthan in India shows that when seats are reserved for women candidates, there is an “increased investment in goods favoured by women” (Chattopadhyay and Duflo 2004, cited in Pande & Ford 2011).
Kumudini Samuel (2011) makes an important point about increasing women’s representation in post-conflict contexts, which is of course pertinent to Sri Lanka. She argues that conflict dismantles certain social structures and thus, challenges the gendered notions so pervasive in the public sphere. Improving political representation in the post-conflict aftermath is thus essential to supplement these changes and allow women to gain more substantive equality (Samuel 2011).
The critical juncture at which we find ourselves regarding women’s representation in 20th Amendment can no longer be ignored. If Sri Lanka wants to chart a course towards good governance, then women must be better represented in government. It is incredibly frustrating that we still have to justify our reasoning for the inclusion of women because it should be common sense. Women’s representation is important for promoting a greater diversity of views in government, combatting damaging sexist notions that subjugate women and diminish their capabilities and value, and because fundamentally, it aligns with their right against discrimination on the basis of gender.
Even though President Sirisena ran his campaign with the promise of bringing good governance to Sri Lanka, the responsibility to promote this cause is not his alone. Rather, it is essential that it is taken up by all members of Parliament. Sri Lanka has tried to improve women’s representation in the past through advocating political parties to use discretionary quotas, but this is not enough. Wickramsinghe & Kodikara (2012) argue that political parties represent the largest impediment to allowing women to transform themselves from aspiring to enter politics to actually being nominated. Discretionary quotas will have little impact in changing the nature of political culture so that it is less biased towards men. Not only that, but the notion of a discretionary quota is, frankly, insulting. Including women in government should be a priority and not something that parties do when they feel like it or when it is politically advantageous. They must not stand idly and allow a chance for equality to slip through their fingers.
Version of this article was first published on the CEPA blog
Ariyaratne, Tehani (2015). “Where are the women?” Published on the Sunday Observer Online, May 17, 2015 http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2015/05/17/fea10.asp
Beaman, L., Chattopadhyay, R., Duflo, E., Pande, R., & Topalova, P. (2009). “Powerful Women: Does Exposure Reduce Bias?”Quarterly Journal of Economics, 124(4).
Chattopadhyay, R. & Duflo, E. (2004). “The Impact of Reservation in the Panchayati Raj: Evidence from a Nationwide Randomized Experiment.”Economic and Political Weekly, 39(9): 979-986.
Cross, Katherine (2015). “Choice Feminism: Time to Choose Another Argument.”Published on Feministing.com, May 8, 2015 http://feministing.com/2015/05/07/choice-feminism-time-to-choose-another-argument/
Kodikara, Chulani (2011). “Sri Lanka: Where are the women in local government?” published on OpenDemocracy.net, March 2011
Krook, Mona Lena and Norris, Pippa (2014). “Beyond Quotas: Strategies to Promote Gender Equality in Elected Office.”Political Studies, Vol 62: 2-20.
Pande, Rohini and Ford, Deanna (2011). “Gender Quotas and Female Leadership: A Review.”World Development Report on Gender, 2-42.
Samuel, Kumudini (2011). “Sri Lanka: The Link Between Women’s Political Representation and the Peace Process.”Published online, February 8, 2011.
Wickramasinghe, Maithree, and Kodikara, Chulani (2012). “Representation in Politics: Women and Gender in the Sri Lankan Republic”, in The Sri Lankan Republic at 40: Reflections on Constitutional History, Theory and Practice, edited by the Centre for Policy Alternatives, Colombo.
Women & Media Collective (2015).“Political Representation of Women: Ensuring 25% Increase.” https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/women-in-sri-lanka-seek-25-increase-of-womens-political-representation/