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Women to the fore

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Despite women making up about 52% of the population, Sri Lanka has repeatedly had extremely limited women’s representation in politics with less than 5% of women in Parliament. But an opportunity has been given to change this situation at the upcoming polls.   

Under a quota system more than 2,000 women representatives will be elected to local government bodies under the newly-introduced mixed electoral system that calls for at least 25% women representation in local councils. 

Elections conducted under the previous proportional representation system returned only 82 women members to all the local councils which now stand dissolved. The gazette notification giving the number of members to each council was issued on Saturday and it makes it mandatory for political parties to foster strong female leaders and give them an opportunity to stand as candidates. 

Traditionally, while all main political parties in Sri Lanka have active women’s wings that enthusiastically campaign for their male candidates, very few of them are encouraged to stand as candidates themselves. However, under the latest move, political parties, which are often led by men, will have to work to select the best candidates to represent their parties. 

Unfortunately, women’s groups and gender activists have reported of instances when male leaders allegedly demand bribes and other kickbacks from women who wish to be fielded as candidates. Not only is this a gross abuse of power but, left unaddressed, it could mean the chance to create unprecedented change would be wasted.

Ideally, sweeping change in the composition of women at the local government level could increase women’s representation all the way up to Parliament and Sri Lanka would be the loser if it does not take this opportunity. Perhaps the best way to nominate candidates is to allow the women’s wings to do the selection and keep the process as transparent as possible. This would also serve political parties well because they would then get the best pick.  

Other countries have started out with quotas and gone on to create genuine change in their political systems, and this is not limited to developed countries. Having women in politics is crucial to better policymaking that will empower women and in turn encourage them into the workforce. 

Gender issues should not be viewed in silos; benefits from one sector can have wide-ranging spillover effects on others and this is just good economic sense. The political advantages will also be significant.     

With this in mind election watchdog the People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) has called on political parties to field qualified and capable women to have an impact on the functions of local councils and in the decision-making process at the grassroots level.

Accordingly, 8,356 members will be elected to 341 local councils, a sharp increase of 4,486 from the number of members returned to the councils in the last elections. Of them, 3,840 members will be elected under the first-past-the-post system while the rest will be elected under the PR system. Of the 341 local councils, 276 are pradeshiya sabhas, 41 urban councils and 24 municipal councils. All councils should be convened by 15 February next year. Now it’s time to watch the campaigns unroll. 

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