The second area discussed at the consultation on women’s rights arranged by Oxfam was that of female participation in politics. The National Human Rights Action plan lays down as a goal an increase in female representation at all levels but, as was shown by the women’s organization that had prepared an excellent presentation on such representation, the percentage at present is painfully low.

This is in marked contrast with the high proportion of women in administrative positions. Indeed, as I have pointed out, the work of the Task Force to expedite implementation of the Plan is taken forward largely by women, three of whom are amongst the most efficient Permanent Secretaries we have – though, sadly, one of them retired last month.

There are those who say that increasing the power of women to actually influence public life is much more important, and indeed it is argued – by some women, as well as one of the male parliamentarians who contributed to the discussion – that women in politics do little for other women. That may be the case, but the point made through the Action Plan, and emphasized by those who had arranged the discussion, was the need for greater female participation in politics to present different perspectives on all issues. Whilst sensitization with regard to the needs of women and children is increasingly essential, it is also necessary to promote wider perspectives on economic and social issues in general.

What has gone wrong in Sri Lanka? Why has the usual phenomenon, of female representation increasing over the years as educational and other facilities improve – and has happened in other countries in the sub-continent even though they began with much worse statistics generally with regard to Sri Lanka – not occurred here? The answer, the statistics we got seemed to indicate, is the introduction of proportional representation in its current form – that last phrase being particularly salient since elsewhere the introduction of proportional representation led to an increase in the number of women chosen.

The Sri Lankan statistics indicated that, while the proportion of women gaining nomination had increased, the number elected was much less. I asked whether statistics were available of the proportion of those elected from those nominated, with comparisons with the past. I am not sure my point was understood, but a cursory glance at the nomination and election figures made it clear that, in the era of first past the post elections, a high proportion of women nominated was elected. In short, there was no discrimination about voting for women generally, which is understandable given the earlier promotion of female education and capacity, as compared to the rest of the sub-continent. And even more obviously, despite this lack of discrimination, women who are nominated find it much more difficult to be elected under the present system.

I have long argued that the present system of election is utterly destructive and, as my father told J R Jayewardene when he introduced yet another of his indulgences of MPs even as he ensured they were less and less independent, turns barons into robbers. The enormous cost of an election when one is competing not just against an opposition, but also against all the others on the list of one’s own party, must surely be a disincentive to those not able to raise vast sums of money. In addition, there is necessarily a blind eye – at best – to violence. Obviously one’s poster pasters, primed generally with alcohol, would get into conflict with other poster pasters, as they obliterated the images of all candidates on their own list except the one they were pasting posters for.

Women find it difficult to compete in a context such as this, and the more praise to them that such is the case. And, one should note, it also seems a waste of resources with regard to what should be the training ground for politicians, the Pradeshiya Sabha elections, for the act makes it clear that those elected have no influence or authority whatsoever. All decisions lie in the hands of the Chairman and, once he is elected, the other members have no control over him, not even with regard to the budget, since its defeat in the Sabha has no real adverse consequences.

One would imagine that he would support other members of his party in their efforts at social service, and this does occur at times. However, given the cut and thrust of electoral politics in our current system, there is also always a sense that he should not allow any individual too much prominence, for they could well be in direct competition next time round, for preferences, at whatever level.

There was some effort to change the system a year or so back but, given the general incompetence that affected the Legal Draughtsman’s Department at the time, the bill had to be delayed. The first draft had serious flaws, including confusion as to how many persons could be nominated for multi-member constituencies. In ironing these out – not entirely satisfactorily – they failed to produce a Tamil version on time, and government accepted the contention of the TNA that to proceed would be wrong. Indeed the Sinhala version only came in the course of the debate, and though in theory we were discussing the unamended version (for the amendments were to be taken only at the Committee stage), given that Parliament has now almost completely got rid of what used to be the most useful place and time for tidying legislation up, the Third Reading, it made sense to suspend proceedings.

Unfortunately, at that stage much opposition kicked in, most obviously from those elected under the prevailing system, and the matter seems forgotten, even though we see the bill on the order paper every day. I can only hope that, not only Women’s Groups, but all those concerned with political reform in the interests of promoting all rights, agitate for reform in this most essential aspect.

Daily News 9 July 2012 – http://www.dailynews.lk/2012/07/09/fea04.asp

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