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What is holding back Sri Lankan Women from entering politics: Lihini Fernando decodes

ECONOMYNEXT – Despite Sri Lankan women having progressed by breaking boundaries in many fields, their participation in the country’s politics has remained abysmal.

United National Party municipal councillor from Moratuwa, Lihini Fernando, says that even though politics is very cut-throat, women would still enter if there is a streamlined process to ease their participation.

She also called for political will from male-counterparts to bridge the gender gap in politics in an interview with EconomyNext.

A first step she says is enforcing a 25 per cent female and youth quota in provincial councils and parliament.

If we look at the number in the recently dissolved eighth Sri Lankan parliament from 2015-2020, only 5.7 per cent of members were women, and the situation will remain unchanged in the upcoming parliament election too.

The major parties have the largest gender-disparity.

The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) led by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) led by Sajith Premadasa both have nominated just one woman each from the Colombo electoral district while in other districts there were maximum two women contesting from each party.

According to Fernando, about 40 women are running for this year’s election and out which 20 are from the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) –led National People’s Power, only the female politicians who volunteered are contesting.

The women’s quota was first introduced in the Local Government elections in 2018 where 25 per cent female participation was made mandatory.

Fernando says this pushed political parties to bring in the numbers but there is no regulation as such for Parliamentary General elections and only the female politicians who volunteered are contesting.

“I want to emphasize that the quota of 25 per cent women in parliament should be regularized going forward in provincial councils and then even 25 per cent of women and youth in parliament has to be mandatory,” Fernando said.

A quota will ensure women’s participation

She also emphasized the dire need for an Election Campaign Finance Act in the country.

“For example, one of the reasons why women are fewer in the major parties is because of finances, if you want to run an election campaign you have to have a lot of money.  I do not think women who come in have that amount of money to spend, making it one of the clear drawbacks.”

“JVP women don’t have the pressure because their ecosystem and way of running the campaign is different but if you take the main parties like SLPP and SJB you will need money to run a campaign.”

According to Lihini, it costs about 25 million rupees to campaign throughout the whole district.

“I don’t think a new lady who comes into politics will have that sort of a muscle or mechanism. Which is one of the drawbacks,” she pointed out.

Lihini questions why 25 per cent of the national list for women was not made mandatory.

“I am very sad about this because, during the presidential election, all candidates who came forward said they will bring in all these regulations. It doesn’t have to be a regulation; you can implement if you want” Fernando said.

“Even the national list they can say 25 per cent should be mandatory for women so you can bring in corporate sector women, activists, women who are strong on their legislature to make reforms, but it is not happening.

“I think politicians do not have the will. They do not want to give the position to the women. I say this very strongly, sadly women must fight with men to get their place. Even though we are 52 per cent of the population we must ask the men to recognize us. Women must be way more rebellious to escalate this and find their way.”

India and Pakistan have made progress in bridging the gender gap

In Pakistan the Election Act of 2017 mandated three key areas to improve female participation. First, the Act mandated that returns from any constituency where women’s turnout was less than or equal to 10 per cent be nullified.  Second, it criminalized the practice of preventing a woman from voting in or contesting an election. Third, it required all political parties to list female candidates in at least five per cent of their non-reserved national and provincial assembly seats.

Similarly, in the Constitution of 1973 of Pakistan, 10 seats were reserved for women for a period of ten years from the commencing day of the Constitution or holding of the third general elections to the general election to the National Assembly, whichever occurred later.

In 1985 these ten seats were increased to twenty and in 2002 the reserved seats were increased to sixty by General Pervaiz Musharaf.

On the other hand, India has no legislative quota for female legislators in the Lok Sabha or Rajya Sabha (Upper House of Parliament). While national parties are not required to have female contestants in general elections, a constitutional provision demands that 33 per cent of village council seats be reserved for women. The main goal of these constitutional provisions is to close the gender gap at the lowest level. A quota system at the lowest level might allow for ambitious women to be prepared for political office at the outset of their careers. It also makes the public more accepting of women leaders.

Sons and daughters of “political families” get seats

Fernando said, “what has happened in the Sri Lankan political scenario is it is dominated by a set of people and once they leave their sons and daughters come into politics even if they are qualified or not they automatically get that ticket.”

“If you take the last parliament, there were 15 MPs below 40-years and out of the 15, 12 were somebody’s son or daughter. Only three people came from independent sources. That is the sad irony of politics.”

She also pointed out that it is hard for professionals to get into politics. “For instances, I’m a lawyer and because of my profession I’m doing politics and able to fund myself at the same time but people who are working in the private sector for them to come into politics they have to quit their jobs.”

“If we are serious about bringing in young and educated people into politics then there needs to be some sort of mechanism to do so, such as if there are organizations set up and these people are funded.” (Colombo, July 27, 2020)

 

 

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