Another election, another government beckons us. As is always the case with us Lankans, we have found ourselves besotted with the race. Each one has his or her favourites and now and then we have heard lip service paid to the usual issues. Many a time I have heard the importance of adequate female representation in the parliament but it seems to be limited to just that – talk. Sure enough, we do have some women among the ranks of legislatures but whether they represent female interests, adequately or not, remains the big question mark.
Apart from being a fashionable topic, women’s interests represented in the political space continues to be an issue that really seriously must be debated. I personally believe that much needs to be done – as far as women’s rights and issues go. Although we do see a tendency to take the bull by the horns in tackling gender issues, the right approach would be a planned one that can be sustained. Whether we have a parliament with the will and the appetite for such a long-term effort, we do not know.
Electing the right female representation to the parliament remains key in the whole numbers game. Having actors elected is not the best choice although it does garner votes often enough. Popularity is one thing and the will and the ability to get work done in areas of national importance is another. Although it makes us feel good to see women elected to parliament, it doesn’t have to necessarily be the women who will represent women’s interests. Men can be just as good legislatures who can truly comprehend and represent the interests of their constituents, whether male or female.
Female interests at a national level can vary. From social issues such as gender-based violence to the breakdown of social structure as a result of mothers going for employment in the Middle East to economic ones in which microcredit and other economic empowerment measures that keep rural homes fed, women tackle many challenges every day. For most, it is all about keeping the children fed and in school, a roof over their heads and clothes on their backs. It is often enough about investing in the future of the children and dealing with everyday issues. Some must struggle with alcoholic husbands and violence while others are breadwinners in women-headed households.
Their issues and problems are not always the popular political stories. Yet, for thousands of women across Sri Lanka, these issues continue to be struggles they must come to terms with. Issues such as employment, reliable child care facilities, child support services and other family-centred issues continue to be considered as key for urban women who form a considerable part of the workforce.
A significant number of women are also entrepreneurs, who face challenges in sourcing new markets, enhancing financial facilities and facilitating better suppliers. They may not always be the right political opportunities that make great stories for the cameras but they nevertheless face very real problems. Do those that represent them in parliament address these issues adequately?
The political space does not always represent female participation adequately. Globally, Sri Lanka holds the 128th position for female representation in parliament. As per the UN statistics, only 22 percent of the world’s parliamentarians were female as at January 2015, although it does show a slow increase of 11.3 percent from 1995. As at January 2015, there were 10 women serving as heads of state in the world while 14 are serving as heads of governments.
Rwanda has the highest number of women parliamentarians worldwide with women occupying over 60 percent of the seats in the Lower House. Globally, women account for less than 10 percent of parliamentarians in single or lower house across 38 states worldwide. In Sweden, 44 percent of the parliamentary seats are held by women, making it the country with the highest rate without any gender quota.
Europe continues to lead as far as adequate representation of women’s rights go – the political space there gives adequate opportunities for women to be identified, recognized and included in the process of decision-making. Yet, we need to keep our eyes focused on the standard issues of gender-based violence, inequality and gender inclusion but more needs to be done outside that standard framework. There are new areas and new issues that must be addressed. There are better and bigger opportunities for the parliament and the politicians to engage with women at all levels and address what concerns them.
As Sri Lanka goes to polls in less than a month, we continue to be dogged down by the same old. Can we review the way we perceive issues that are important to us and can we truly ensure that there is more space for women to be included in the political discussion at a national level … the decision is ours and ours alone.
(Nayomini Weerasooriya, a senior journalist, writer and a PR professional, can be contacted at email@example.com)
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