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Policy Brief on Democracy and Governance, 2

Policy Brief
Democracy and Governance

Social Scientists Association
August 2011


Inclusion of Women for Better Local Government

Introduction One major democracy deficit in Sri Lankas local government is the
exclusion of women in representation as well as in policy formulation and implementation. While some womens groups have recognized this as an issue that requires policy attention and rectification, policymakers are yet to respond to it constructively.

Women: Extremely low representation of women in government is a recurring Present Status of shortcoming in Sri Lankas democracy. Representation

Sri Lanka has no quotas for women in parliament or any other elected body.

Sri Lankan women obtained universal franchise rights in 1931. By 1932 the colonial legislature of 50 members had two women members, which was 5% of the total. Eighty years after Sri Lanka obtained universal adult franchise and six decades after political independence in 1948, womens representation in the legislature has not improved at all. At the national level, in a Parliament of 225 members, there are only 13 women MPs. This is only 5.6% of total membership. Provincial councils have a percentage of 4.2% women representatives. In all local councils (municipal councils, urban councils and pradeshiya sabhas), out of a total of 3,928 members, there were only 53 women in 2010, a percentage of only 1.8%. Sri Lanka has no quotas for women in parliament or any other elected body. In contrast, India has a quota of 33% for women in the local government panchayats. On the question of womens representation in elected bodies of governance, Sri Lanka lags behind many countries in the developing world. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal are far ahead of Sri Lanka with regard to women in government.

Policy Brief on Democracy and Governance, 2

Women and Political Even though limited in number, Participation: Trends women do participate in

Political parties do not encourage women to enter electoral politics.

electoral politics. Some have become members of parliament, provincial councils and local government bodies. Research and Surveys conducted by the Social Scientists Association and other scholars have attempted to understand the reasons. The circumstances under which this limited number of women has entered electoral politics show a pattern that is useful in understanding why the number is so small. This pattern has the following characteristics: (i) Political parties do not, as a matter of practice, encourage women to enter electoral politics. Parties have an overwhelming preference for male candidates at national, provincial and local levels of government. (ii) Very few women show active interest in entering electoral politics. Most women as well as most men consider politics as an area of activity better suited for men. (iii) The spread of violence as a means of running successful election campaigns deters even those women who show an interest in joining electoral politics. Electoral violence is often cited by politically active

women as a reason for their family members discouraging them from participating in politics as candidates, even at local elections. (iv) Sri Lankas system of proportional representation has also been cited by many as a factor that has contributed to low participation of women in representative politics. Under the PR system, electoral divisions are much bigger than the constituencies or wards that existed previously. This has made election campaigning an extremely costly affair. It requires considerably high levels of financial and human resources. There are very few women who have interest in active politics and who have such resources at the same time. (v) Many women who have entered politics share a basic common background. They have entered politics to replace a male family member who has died or been killed during political violence. Such male kin whom women have replaced could be a father, husband or brother. Sri Lankas women presidents, prime ministers, ministers, MPs and local government representatives provide ample evidence of this dominant trend.

Many women have entered politics to replace a male family member who has died or been killed during political violence.

Barriers to Womens At the local level, there are Political Participation at specific reasons for less the Local Level participation of women in local
politics. SSAs researchers have found that in Sri Lankas rural districts, among women social and political activists there is keen interest in entering

electoral politics. However, due to a host reasons, they are either discouraged or not given a chance. Some of the barriers to womens political participation, as found through research, are as follows:

Policy Brief on Democracy and Governance, 2 (i) Local political party structures are usually dominated by men who decide who should be the candidates. Unless there is strong pressure on them on behalf of a few women, they are extremely reluctant to promote women candidates. This can be attributed to two reasons. Candidates are usually chosen from among those who hold positions in local party structures and it is usually men who dominate party offices. Moreover, women are rarely elevated to the status of office bearers of local party organizations. The second reason is existing prejudice against women that they cannot win elections. (ii) There is no pressure from national party leaders on local party leaders to promote women as party activists and eventually as party candidates at local elections. Existing political party structures and organizations do not provide space at the local level for women to gain exposure, experience and training. Women party members and supporters are used primarily during election campaigns to perform labour intensive work

3 such as cooking and preparing food for male election workers and distributing manifestos and propaganda material of individual candidates. Thus, as often happens, local level party politics is not a school of political education for women. (iii) Those few women who have entered electoral politics have, almost as a rule, relatively affluent and elitist family/social backgrounds. The fact that they belong to the local elite is a positive factor for their being selected as party candidates at elections. In many instances, their male family members are political or economically influential. They provide women candidates, who happen to be family members, with both political and economic backing, enabling the women to break the barriers. However, the vast majority of women political and social activists with an interest in participating in electoral politics as candidates have no such backing from male family members because of their relatively low socio-economic status.

Prejudice against women that they cannot win elections

Women party members and supporters are used primarily during election campaigns to perform labour intensive work

What Do Women Citizens The following are statements Say? made by some rural women

on the question of women and political participation. Womens participation in politics is essential for strengthening democracy. Presently, women have no place in the village due to male domination. We need to develop our ideas and put them forward.

It is necessary to ensure meaningful representation of women in the pradeshiya sabha. If women are not able to come forward as candidates, they should be provided representation through some other means. It is essential for povertystricken communities such as ours to obtain representation

Policy Brief on Democracy and Governance, 2 and publicize our needs if democracy is to be strengthened. It is women who have a special knowledge of the problems in the village pertaining to women and children. We need space to develop our ideas and put them forward. There should be a way in which they can be referred to the pradeshiya sabha for village-level democracy to be strengthened. Democracy implies representation of the ideas of everyone in the community. Thus, womens place as members of the community should be recognized and given representation in the political system. Women should be able to attend meetings of the local authority and put forward suggestions and raise questions. Representation of women is necessary. A compromise solution put forward by another woman was the following: Due to the difficulty of representation and obtaining nomination, office bearers of womens societies in the area should form themselves into a representative committee within the pradeshiya sabha.

Womens place as members of the community should be recognized and given representation in the political system.

Democratic Governance Sri Lankas record of extremely without Women? low representation of women

Womens activism at the community level is rarely reflected at the level of electoral participation.

at all levels of representative government reveals that our democracy has a very serious deficiency. It has facilitated the evolution of a democratic system of governance without women. This situation stands in sharp contrast to Sri Lankas achievements in womens literacy, social development, post-primary education and the increasing articulation of women in the labour force. This situation is also anomalous considering the high level of womens participation in voluntary and other associations within the community. As SSAs

research findings show, rural women are particularly active in rural womens societies, credit and thrift societies, Samurdhi societies, and small community groups that have been set up for poverty alleviation, community water and sanitation, small entrepreneurship, etc. Sometimes, women are members of more than one communitybased organization. They are also quite active in the economic sphere engaging in formal as well as informal employment, small businesses and self-employment activities. However, this womens activism at the community level is rarely reflected at the level of electoral participation.

What Can Be Done? In addressing the gender deficit

in local governance, local government institutions and

local elected representatives are at present severely handicapped. The lack of gender sensitivity and

Policy Brief on Democracy and Governance, 2 awareness in governance at local as well as national levels is partly cultural, partly institutional. Therefore, local government institutions need the support and guidance of womens groups to initiate programmes to overcome the gender deficit in local governance. The experience of some women activist groups in the Kurunegala District offers positive lessons. One such activist group is Womens Resource Centre organized programmes to train women in electoral politics and local level political leadership. Politically and socially active women were thus given education and training in democracy, governance, elections laws, election campaigning, fund raising, etc., which women do not get from their political parties. They subsequently initiated discussions with local and national party leaders to accommodate the trained women as candidates at local elections. Some women actually obtained the candidacy of major political parties and several of them even won at the local government elections held in 2011. This experience shows that activist and civil society organizations can take constructive initiatives to address the gender deficit in local democracy. Experience also shows that individual women on their own can hardly break the gender barriers to womens political participation. Political parties and institutions reflect dominant patriarchal values and structures of power I society. For success in promoting political change,

5 strategic alliance building with men can lead to better results. Organized womens groups, along with politically and socially active male citizens in the community, can initiate other democratic actions at the local level. Some of these activities are: (i) Organizing citizens to attend monthly meetings of local government bodies as a step towards citizens participation in local governance. As the experience of women activists of the Womens Resource Centre in the Kurunegala District shows, when the councilors are aware that women citizens are watching them, they develop a greater sensitivity to citizens needs and priorities. (ii) Local government institutions need to initiate gender-sensitive local development policies. Organized womens groups are better placed to make inputs in gender-sensitive local development policies. Gender budgeting and gender auditing are useful initiatives that can be accomplished through collaboration between citizens groups and local councils. Gender budgeting can ensure enough budgetary allocations for women-oriented activities of the local council. It also means that women take part in discussions to decide budgetary priorities of the local council so that programmes for women receive acceptance. Gender auditing enables citizens groups to scrutinise annual budgetary allocations of the local councils and when allocations are not adequate to make proposals to increase them.

Activist and civil society organizations can take constructive initiatives to address the gender deficit in local democracy.

For success in promoting political change, strategic alliance building with men can lead to better results.

6 (iii) Dialogue with political parties and their national as well as local leaders for the inclusion of women in electoral politics is a task which womens activist groups can and should undertake. Sri Lankas civil society groups committed to democratization have not yet included this theme in their activist agendas. It is important such civil society groups work in alliance with womens groups to overcome this democracy deficit in all levels of governance. (iv) An issue that civil society groups are better equipped to address is the exclusion of women

Policy Brief on Democracy and Governance, 2 who belong to economically poor and marginalized caste as well ethnic communities. As we have noted, even the few wemen who enter electoral politics are from the rural elite in class, caste and ethnic terms. Those marginalized women are often excluded from the rural civil society as well. Their inclusion in local civil society as well as the political process is crucially important for the deepening of local democracy. (v). The absence of a quota system to ensure womens representation at all levels of representative governance is a major drawback for womens political rights in Sri Lanka. Political parties have been resisting the proposal for quota system. One lesson Sri Lanka can learn from many Asian countries, particularly from South Asia, is the necessity and relevance of guaranteed representation for in local government. The quota system will enable women to overcome the existing structural barriers to their political participation. Better and greater representation of women in local governance will be good not only for democracy, but also for rural development, social integration and nation- building.

About the Social Scientists Association

The Social Scientists Association (SSA) was founded in 1977, as an institute of knowledge production and dissemination; it has made contributions not only to the intellectual life in Sri Lanka, but the South Asian region and beyond. The SSA has an ongoing commitment to original research, analysis and activity around issues pertaining to peace, democracy, pluralism, ethnic harmony, gender equity, social transformation, labour and human rights. The SSA sponsors and coordinates research projects in the social sciences. It also publishes original research and makes it available to the public through the Suriya Bookshop and the Library and Documentation Centre.

About the Policy Brief on Local Democracy

Policy Brief on Democracy and Governance is an initiative launched by Social Scientists Association with the assistance of International Development Research Center (IDRC), Ottawa, Canada.

Social Scientists Association

Written by Kumari Jayawardana Jayadeva Uyangoda Layout Design Nalinda Seneviratne

Contact Democracy and Governance Research Group Social Scientists Association 12, Sulaiman Terrace, Colombo 05. Tel. +94-11-2501339 Fax. +94-11-2586400 email: Web:

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