One of the key expectations of the Local Government (LG) elections was the premise that 25% of women would be elected to represent the 341 councils and municipalities around the country. However, legal and logistical issues that have cropped up since then have put this goal in doubt and raised fresh challenges to significantly increasing female representation at this lowest level of governance.
Capping off days of doubt over the practicalities of implementing the quota, Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya last Friday called on Speaker Karu Jayasuriya’s assistance in resolving the dilemma. Over the weekend, media reports indicated that the breakdown of seats would be notified to all political parties this week but the swearing in of the new councillors will likely be postponed beyond 6 March, partially due to the stalemate at Parliament level between the two main parties.
Ahead of the polls, think tank Verite Research warned that a shortfall in the quota was possible with some LG bodies not having any women at all. In the scenario, they hypothesised that 30% of local authorities could end up with no women members at all, women’s representation may be 10% or less in more than half of the local authorities and the total number of women elected to all local authorities could be as low as 15% of the total representation.
However, Verite noted that anomalies created by rounding-off numbers downwards and in gazetting the minimum quota of women members for each local authority account for a reduction in the total possible representation mandated for women, from 25% to 23.75%. Outcomes that are less than that – and possibly as low as 15% overall – will be due to the exemptions to smaller parties and a limited mandate for ward nominations for women.
Innocuous as this exemption may seem, it is responsible for most of the gap that is created between the promise and the outcome. It is also difficult to understand what principle is at stake in allowing for such an exemption.
Nonetheless, they also expressed hope that if policymakers remain dedicated to increasing women’s representation the overall number would at least exceed 20%, which given the current number of about 2% would still be a huge leap forward.
The elections were seen as a crucial opportunity for strong women’s voices to be raised on critical issues and for gender-sensitive decision-making. The women’s quota is an important reform that took decades of fighting to achieve and this hard won opportunity should not be squandered by enmeshed patriarchal attitudes and by politics-as-usual.
The quota system in local governments is critically important to push forward the progressive agenda of women’s representation and should be a platform to enable more women are elected to the provincial and parliament level in the future. In fact, it would be accurate to say the hardest part of the battle is ahead and the performance of the women will have to be better than their male counterparts to take this cause forward.
This is the chance to give 52% of the population a voice. It must not be sacrificed to political expediency. Hopefully the elected female candidates know what is at stake but the question now is whether they would even be allowed the pre-pledged level of representation.