South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

By Roel Raymond

The amendments to the Local Authorities Bill is likely to be presented in Parliament on October 6. The Cabinet, last month, on September 8, had agreed to amend the existing Local Government Elections Ordinance as well as the Municipal Council Ordinance, the Urban Council Ordinance and the Pradeshiya Sabha Act in light of the apparent shortcomings in the system.
Accordingly a new system — incorporating all previous amendments and all new proposals — is to be presented for cabinet approval, and subsequently in Parliament.

It is said that this new electoral mechanism will be based partly on the ward system — where electoral districts or kottasas, generally within a municipality, form the basis of subdivision — and partly under the Proportional Representation system.
Under the ward system each contesting party at the local government elections will nominate one candidate per ward, and that candidate will only be allowed to canvass in the particular ward assigned to him. Under the Preferential Representation (PR) system the percentage of votes received by each party is calculated against a percentage of received seats. It is said that the new, mixed electoral mechanism will fall 70% under the ward system and 30% under the PR system.

The number of women involved in political decision-making in Sri Lanka has always been extremely low. Representation for women at parliamentary level has been found to be at 6%, at provincial council level 5% and at the local government level an mere 2%, a backward trend, considering the fact that all other South Asian countries have made allowances for women within their political decision making bodies. Shanti Satchitanandan  from Viluthu, a media organisation that works in the North and East, speaking to The Sunday Leader pointed out the fact that Sri Lanka was the only South Asian country with no legal provisions or measures to facilitate a woman’s entry into politics.

This is in spite of there being many women within political parties who have worked tirelessly at a community level, she said, with sufficient qualifications and experience to gain entrance into politics. These women were being constantly overlooked and forgotten within political parties — especially the mainstream ones — that gave a very low level of nomination to women.

Shanti, together with four other major women’s organisations — the Women and Media Collective, the Mothers and Daughters of Sri Lanka, Uva Wellassa Govi Kantha Sanvidanaya, Women’s Resources Centre and the Women’s Development Centre — have been engaged in a large scale campaign, spanning over a decade, calling for a quota for women at a local government level, but say that no positive action has been taken in this regard. This is, in itself, an act of discrimination against women.

Sri Lanka is, moreover, a signatory (15/01/2003) to the CEDAW Convention — the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women — adopted in 1970 by the UN General Assembly, seen as an international bill on the Rights of Women. Countries that have accepted the Convention are expected to commit to a number of measure seeking to end discrimination against women, including agreeing to ‘incorporate the principles of equality of men and women in a their legal system’.  Additionally, countries that have either ratified or acceded to the Convention are legally bound to put to practice its provisions.
Chulani Kodikara, from the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, who has been campaigning for the representation and recognition of women at a political level, speaking to The Sunday Leader said that women in Sri Lanka have been consistently sidelined at a political level. She said that while most other South Asian countries have reserved seats for women — ensuring that women are actually elected — Sri Lankan women were still agitating to gain entry into the nominations list. ‘We are not even asking for reserved seats in Parliament’,  she said. ‘ We are only asking that women be legally allowed to contest, together with the men’. Shanti Satchitanandan expressed the same sentiment. ‘Women are not given the opportunity to run equally’, she said. ‘All we are asking for is the opportunity’.

The five media groups have been asking that women receive nominations for one third of the wards. That is to say, if the Colombo MC were to be divided into 40 wards, women be allowed to put in their names for nomination in one third of the wards, within each party.

This does not ensure victory to the female candidates, who are expected to contest the election alongside other male (and female) candidates, but does allow for more equality within the electoral structure and system.

Additionally, they ask that women be given a 50:50 ratio in the Preferential Representation system, where one women be allowed entry as an alternate to every man.

It is unlikely, they say, that the Bill will be amended in favour of women when it is passed in Parliament this month, although they hope that a change will be made. Previously held discussions — from as early as 2002 — with political parties and its leaders have yielded some recognition to their cause, but the prevalent patriarchal system still hampers progress. What is most regrettable is that the effort made by these women, and scores of others over the past 15 years, will go to waste if no amendments are made in favour of women this time. ‘We will have to make a fresh lobby to amend a law that has already been amended’, Chulani said, ‘which is a huge setback for women’.

Source: The Sunday Leader – 04.10.2010