Fair hand for fair justice – Daily News

Source: Daily News

When women are in government, the benefits are boundless: corruption lessens, the economy improves, and governance itself is more efficient. One would think such positive results would mean female participation in politics would be high, and ever-increasing. Unfortunately, in Sri Lanka, like elsewhere, this is hardly the case.

Since 1931, Sri Lankan women have had the right to vote. And yet in the 86 years since, female participation in Parliament has never surpassed 6 percent. Worse, female participation in local government hovers around a measly 2 percent and just 4 percent in provincial government. All this despite the fact that the country has had female Heads of State, either in the Presidency or as Prime Minister, for 25 of the 61 years since Independence.

This situation was brought to the fore two weeks ago, at a panel discussion on July 26 on how to operationalize the 25 percent quota for women in local government that was passed in 2016. Held at the Lighthouse at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute, the panel discussion sought to compare the experiences of women politicians from different countries, namely Sri Lanka, the United Kingdom, and Pakistan, on advancing women’s political participation. It was sponsored by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD), the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Problematic Status Quo

UN Resident Coordinator for Sri Lanka Una McCauley said the present situation in Sri Lanka is dire. Giving an introductory speech at the event, she emphasized that Sri Lanka ranked last of all South Asian countries when it comes to female representation in politics.

“This is not acceptable in a country where the majority of people are women,” McCauley said.

Still, McCauley said she remained optimistic, largely due to the mandatory 25 percent quota, yet to be operationalized, passed as the Local Authorities Elections (Amendment) Act No. 1 of 2016.

“I see the representatives of the future of the people of Sri Lanka, and I say people because as women, we don’t just represent ourselves but represent everybody.”

She concluded her speech by saying, “I look forward to working with far more women leaders at the local level in 2018.”

The panel moderator, Kumudini Samuel of the Sri Lankan Women and Media Collective, emphasized that the time for action is now.

“This is a very critical moment in Sri Lanka’s history because we have a mandatory quota that was legislated for,” she said. “We have a situation [in this country] where women have been particularly discriminated against. Women’s participation in local government hovers around 2 percent. But this is the first time in our history that we have a mandatory, legally binding quota, and we must be sure to enact it.”

Throughout the succeeding discussion, many suggestions were brought up by the panel members and the audience in response to how female representation in politics could improve, and specifically how to operationalize the quota.

The panel consisted of Nan Sloane, a former United Kingdom Local Government Councillor with the Labour Party; Claire Haughey, an MP in the Scottish Parliament with the Scottish National Party; Amra Khan, an MP in the Pakistani Parliament with the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus of Pakistan; Hannah David, National Director of the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom and head of the Conservative Party Policy Forum; and Dr. Sudarshini Fernandopulle, the State Minister of City Planning and Water Supply, Member of the Sectoral Oversight Committee on Women and Gender, and Member of the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus.

Potential solutions

Nan Sloane, a member of the Labour Party in the United Kingdom, was up first, explaining how her party increased its representation of women in government at the local level specifically. She said that her party did this by practicing a sort of gender affirmative action at the local level by going to great lengths to nominate women, as well as ensuring that when women were nominated as candidates, it was for elections that were winnable.

“We needed to put female candidates up for races that they could be elected in so that we were actually changing the makeup of local government and not just the makeup of candidates for local government.”

Still, she explained, there are issues that bar women from pursuing politics in the first place that quotas and “affirmative action” alone cannot address.

“Quotas are rarely sufficient to get you to where you need to be,” Sloane said. “You need to back that up with support for women candidates, not just with training but with support for navigating what might be a very unfamiliar environment because politics is not a familiar environment for most women. It can be, even at the local level, quite intimidating and it can be quite a difficult environment. Many women love it. Some women find it difficult. And there needs to be some support for those women.”

Claire Haughey, the member of Scottish Parliament who spoke next, discussed her party’s approach to a more egalitarian gender balance in Parliament. She explained that while the Scottish National Party made efforts, like the Labour Party, to put women up for elections which they could win, the attempts at gender parity went beyond elected officials.

They started with party officers at the branch level.

Each branch of the party is required to have a “women’s officer,” the same way each branch might have a secretary or treasurer. In this way, women’s issues and representation is seen to be as pressing as, for example, financial ones.

Haughey said the Scottish National Party also have at least one women’s conference per year and have set up a “women’s academy,” to train women who are interested not just in running in an election but in becoming more active in politics in their own communities.

Finally, she explained the SNP’s form of “affirmative action”: that if an incumbent was stepping down, the party would be put forward a women-only shortlist for candidates to take the incumbents place. As a result of all these initiatives, the Scottish National Party currently has 42% female representation.

Hannah David, the representative from the UK conservative party, similarly stressed the role of party-wide conferences and initiatives to make politics a more welcoming space for women. She referenced that she herself was involved through a women’s organization run by Teresa May which ensures that women can stand up against men for elections.

And Amra Khan, an MP from Pakistani, rounded out the conversation by bringing the emphasis back to quotas and their import.

“Quotas are imperative for ensuring equality in societies,” Khan said.

Quota must stay at 25 percent

The last member of the panel to speak was Dr. Sudarshini Fernandopulle, State Minister of City Planning and Water Supply and member of the Sectoral Oversight Committee on Women and Gender and the Women’s Parliamentarians’ Caucus. She spoke on the need for Sri Lankan women to tackle the problematic status quo.

“Women here think there might be no problem, but compared to the rest of the world and even to South Asia, we are very much lagging behind.” When the audience was given time to question the panel members, some expressed concerns that the situation wouldn’t be improved, namely because there are considerations to reduce the quota to make it more attainable.

“I urge the chairperson not to let the quota drop to 10 percent,” one female audience member who said she was considering running for local office said to Dr. Fernandopulle. Dr. Fernandopulle said she agreed that the quota could not drop, as did the other panelists.

And throughout the panel discussion, all the representatives dismissed arguments commonly used to explain away the lack of female representation in politics.

“Some people say there aren’t enough women to fill the seats [required of the quota],” said Nan Sloane. “But I think there are enough women. If women aren’t taking up the offer to run for office, then we need to think about changing the nature of the offer. Something is wrong with it.”