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Sri Lanka’s current debate on electoral reforms has highlighted a demand for greater equality in gender representation through a quota for women representatives in Parliament.

With women constituting over 50% of the country’s population and occupying less than 6% of Parliamentary seats, it is abundantly clear that female political representation in Sri Lanka in indeed in a dismal state. Despite the call for a quota for women in Parliament being raised consistently over the years, however, both governments and political parties have to-date, seemed largely indifferent towards the issue. Why the reluctance for the quota for women? Do women in Parliament really make any difference?

Why do we need women in Parliament?
Questioning the need for women in Parliament is like questioning the importance of self-government over colonial rule. The fundamental premise of democracy is that it empowers people to govern themselves through their political representatives. Thus, Parliaments are intended to represent their societies. 

‘Modern Parliaments are those in which citizens recognize themselves and find answers to their questions and aspirations.’

AB Johnsson, ‘Foreword’, in S. Palmeri, Gender-sensitive Parliaments: a global review of good practice, Inter-Parliamentary Union, Reports and document no. 65, 2011, p. v, accessed on August 20, 2013.

On this basis, it is important that our representatives truly do represent us – that they can identify with us, are aware of our problems, concerns and aspirations and that they will advocate for us, and govern on behalf of us, in accordance with these. 

Just as it is important to a country that they are governed by individuals who are ‘one of them’ and thus do truly represent them, it is important for the various groups and communities that make up a country that such representation, includes representation  of such individual groups and communities as well. It is this that ensures that democracy does not become majoritarianism.

The call for female representation is thus not just about women’s rights or women’s empowerment. It is not enough that our political history boasts of a female President and Prime Minister. As much as the need for female representation in Parliament is about female empowerment, it is also about something far more fundamental to us as a society – democracy. When all groups and communities in a country have more effective legislative and political representation, our society moves closer to the ideal of democracy and further away from the danger of majoritarianism. And a more democratic society is something we all will benefit from. Because of this, more women in Parliament is not just a women’s issue, it is everybody’s issue. 

Do quotas work?
Quotas are what have often been described as a ‘fast track’ solution to the issue of female political under-representation. Women’s quotas in Parliament have often been resorted to in countries where women have historically been almost totally excluded from politics, such as Jordan or Afghanistan. Quotas are however, far from a panacea for the global issue concerning the political under representation of women.

‘One cannot deal with the problem of female representation by a quota system alone. Political parties, the educational system, NGOs, trade unions, churches—all must take responsibility within their own organizations to systematically promote women’s participation, from the bottom up. This will take time. It will not happen overnight, or in one year or five years; it will take one or two generations to realize significant change.’ - Birgitta Dahl, former Speaker of Parliament, Sweden.

It is undeniable that the problem of female under-representation runs deeper than merely numbers in Parliament. The underlying issue is one that results from the larger issue of a patriarchal society. Society does not ‘see’ women as political representatives. This includes not just men, but women too, who do not see themselves and/or other women as suitable political representatives. 

The problem of female political under-representation is one that necessarily needs to be tackled at several levels. This ought to include advocacy targeting governments, political parties and voters, training for female candidates and institutional changes to facilitate effective representation by women in the legislative and political arenas. Such changes are absolutely necessary, and it is important that both the government and civil society recognize this, and act accordingly. It is also important to recognize, however, that they would take several years, perhaps even decades to bear fruit. Sri Lanka cannot wait that long for this change. 

It is for this reason that quotas for women are a necessary tool to be used in addition to the other more long term solutions. However, quotas are often seen as undemocratic, in that it restricts the choice of voters by forcing them to elect women to a certain number of seats. Quotas are also seen as ineffective, forcing political parties to nominate ‘token’ female candidates merely to satisfy a technical requirement. 

It is important, however, to recognize that introducing a quota for women, in addition to yielding more immediate results in terms of numbers, can also contribute towards the more long term, substantive goal of challenging entrenched obstacles to female political representation. A quota for women in Parliament will give female candidates an opportunity to enter Parliament. Over time, voters – both men and women - would begin to ‘see’ women as political representatives. As with any quota, there is always a danger that there would be ‘token’ candidates. However, as part of a long-term solution, together with effective training and advocacy, the effectiveness of female members of Parliament would increase. 

In India, women elected on the basis of quotas have been labelled ‘proxy women’, because they could be placed in the local council as stand-ins for their husbands, who might even participate in the meetings in their place. In other parts of the world as well, women in politics; especially those elected through quotas, might be seen as ‘token women’. Research on ‘quota’ women has revealed many cases of purely symbolic representation of women, especially if the women elected have no power base in a constituency of their own, or in the parties or in strong movements outside the political institutions. However, there are also many success stories of women who felt totally isolated and powerless in the beginning but eventually gained confidence and influence. It seems to be crucial for the effectiveness of women politicians that capacity-building programmes are offered by women’s movements or by international organizations - Drude Dahlerup, Increasing Women’s Political Representation: New Trends in Gender Quota.

‘Quotas are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they oblige men to think about including women in decision-making, since men must create spaces for women. On the other hand, since it is men who are opening up these spaces, they will seek out women who they will be able to manage—women who will more easily accept the hegemony of men.’ - Anna Balletbo, former MP, Spain. 

It is high time Sri Lanka tackled the issue of female under-representation at a political level, and a quota for women is a start.

A first step
Earlier this month, I announced that I am in support of 50% (or a minimum of one thirds) of a party’s nominations consisting of female candidates. I call on my party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to take the lead in making this commitment. I strongly feel that it is a necessary step to begin to ensure that our constituency is properly and effectively represented at the highest legislative level. 

I also call on all other political parties - particularly Sri Lanka’s two leading political parties - to make this commitment for their nominations as well. It is only the first step of a much longer journey, but it is high time that we – as a country – began to take it.

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