CALD Womens caucus 11-14 August 2011, Malacca, Malaysia

The Women’s Caucus of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats recently held a Workshop on Strategies for Women Candidates in Melaka in Malaysia. The event was hosted by the Women’s Wing of the Gerakan Party of Malaysia, and included delegates from nine Asian countries. Apart from staff from the CALD Secretariat, and from the Thai office of the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung, which sponsored the event, the only men present were CALD Secretary General Neric Acosta of the Philippines and myself as CALD Chair.

Having missed the last meeting of the Women’s Caucus, I thought I should find out more about it since by next year I shall no longer be CALD chair and hence not eligible to attend. I was duly impressed, by the energy and commitment of all the delegates, and realized again the importance of ensuring a significant space for female participation in politics.

I should note that I was also enthralled, having attended a predominantly female event for the first time in nearly half a century. As a child I had attended a few guide camps with my mother, and found the evening conviviality fascinating, camp fire items, singing and dancing that bonded in a much more affectionate way than in similar gatherings for men only. In Melaka, at the grand dinner hosted by the Gerakan Party, at a centre for Babas and Nonyas, the descendants of Chinese and then European sailors who had found local wives over the centuries, the host was a jolly old Chinese gentleman dressed as a woman. He had an enormous repertoire of songs, including Sinhalese ones, and was accompanied by a two man band that went back to the days of Englebert Humperdinck. The elegant dancing of the distinguished women present was a joy to watch.

But equally satisfying was the level of discussion and debate during the two days of the Workshop. Our own delegate, a lawyer from Kurunegala, more than held her own (having indeed led the dancing to begin with) and worked well together with the lady from Pakistan, the only other South Asian. I felt again the waste in the failure of the FNS in India to have developed more active Indian participation in CALD, given the enormous abilities of Indian women – and the fact that contacts between women are more likely to develop cooperation between India and Pakistan than the masculine scoring of points that seems to characterize current relations.

I was the sadder about this lacuna, since I had been duly impressed by the various female politicians we had met during the recent Parliamentary visit to India. Indeed many important positions under the Indian Constitution are now held by women –

– those of President of the Republic, of Speaker of the Lok Sabha and of Leader of the Opposition. In addition arguably the most powerful position in India at present, that of leader of the Congress Party, is held by a woman, although being of Italian origin she decided not to take up the post of Prime Minister.

Except for Sonia Gandhi, we had meetings with all the women mentioned above. They were all of them extremely articulate, well briefed, incisive in their comments and questions but always polite and sensitive. Even Pratibha Patil, the President, whom I had thought was a figurehead, and one that had obtained the post because stronger personalities were less acceptable to other members of the governing coalition, turned out to have a very forceful personality in her gentle fashion.

Would we have been able to match that in Sri Lanka? I fear not, even though I think that as individuals we have some very competent women in Parliament now. Our system of elections demands that what might be termed feminine characteristics are suppressed to compete aggressively. And then the need to stay ahead of the game, for future elections, building up troops of supporters who will ensure competitiveness, prevents development of the conceptual capacities that the Indian politicians displayed in such abundance.

Efforts to change this through quotas for women will not work if the quotas are within the PR system as we now have it. That is obvious, but less obvious is the fact that a quota for nominations, even if a first past the post system is reintroduced as part of a mixed electoral system, will not work either. The Indians told us that this had been considered, but the result would be that men would be selected first for safe seats, and then women fitted in to more difficult ones. And in Sri Lanka we have weakened the proposal still further by proposing a joint quota for women and youth together, as though to make it clear that we are working in terms of cosmetic solutions, not commitment to a principle of ensuring broader representation.

Recognizing these problems, India is now proposing the establishment of constituencies reserved for women. While it may seem a restriction of choice in that voters in about a third of the constituencies nationwide will not be able to select men, that argument does not really make sense because in any case choice is limited to the candidates who are nominated, with the natural restrictions that party systems often entail. It should be noted however that, to overcome this limitation, it has been suggested that the number of electorates should be increased, so that existing opportunities for choice should not be curtailed.

Dr. Sudharshani  Fernandopulle

Dr. Sudharshani Fernandopulle

In the mixed system that is now proposed for Sri Lanka, ensuring female representation will be easier. But we must make sure it is a mandatory provision for fulfillment, not just in terms of ensuring a particular proportion of nominations. And then we must also develop better ways to ensure good use of the women who do get into Parliament. There are a number of accomplished backbench women now, including the highly qualified professional Dr Sudharshani Fernandopulle. She is obviously of great use in international fora, but she could also be made better use of in consultative committees.

Someone like Malini Fonseka should have a specific role with regard to cultural activity, perhaps through chairing a committee to ensure good use of our new national theatre building, which is in danger of being just that, a building, rather than a centre for the performing arts as such buildings are in culturally more active countries such as China and India. And we can surely develop mechanisms to ensure synergizing with regard to the capable new female entrants to Parliament from the opposition too.

In short, quotas for women should not be about tokenism. If we believe that women can contribute more in terms of particular capacities, we should develop mechanisms to promote fulfillment of those capacities. Compared to many countries in Asia we have educated and competent women, we have to make sure that their capabilities are used in the general interest too.

Island 16 August 2011