|Wednesday, 31 March 2004|
'Voice of Women in Parliament' - a neglected need
Voice of women in Parliament' was the title of a talk by Priyani Wijesekera, Secretary General of Parliament, the chief guest at the Biennial Meeting of the Sri Lanka Women's Conference held on 22nd March, 2004 at the YWCA Hall, Rotunda Gardens, Colombo 3. Following is a report of the speech.
by a correspondent
"Though I myself have no experience in politics, I occupy a position that enables me to have a clear view of the different interests and ideologies represented by various groups which form our nation.
Though women constitute half our population, it is a fact that since independence, the representation of women in our elected bodies is way below the accepted level."
She said it was Boutros Boutros Ghali, the former Secretary General of the UN who once commented that the struggle for women's equality is a part of the struggle for a better world for all human beings. We all agree with him but not much effort has been exerted to improve the representation of women in our elected bodies.
Giving us an insight into the world situation she said, "Over the past forty years the number of women members of parliament over the world has increased fourfold and the data available at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association indicates that the Commonwealth average for women in the year 2000 stood at 13.4%. A United Nation's study has also shown that women's representation does not depend on the affluence of the country.
It is also accepted that a systematic national plan is necessary to increase women's participation in politics.
Botswana has a long term plan targeted to the year 2016 to increase women's participation in national decision making. In the UK "All Women's Shortlists were introduced to ensure that women were selected for "winnable" seats. In the year 2002, the Labour Government introduced the "Sex Discrimination Act" which encourages political parties to use positive measures to encourage women to come forward for elections.
Uganda has a 30% quota for women in representative bodies in Tanzania women's representation is at present under consideration by a Constitutional Review Committee. Current strategies of various countries in respect of women's representation include among others, setting targets and affirmative action, review of electoral systems, public awareness campaigns and formation of women's caucuses in parliament.
In 1997 the records of the Inter Parliamentary Union showed that the world average for women representatives in Parliaments was 11.7% and Asia showed an average of 13.1%. The Scandinavian countries showed an average of 36.4% while the Arab States showed the lowest average of 3.3%.
In Sri Lanka women's representation in elected assemblies has always been low. In the last Parliament of 225 members only ten were women. Out of a Cabinet of 32 ministers only one was a woman and she handled the portfolio of Women's Affairs.
There was no Deputy Minister. Ours is a country that boasts of a literacy rate of 87% and women are keen voters at elections. Therefore it is only fair that women's representations should be very much higher than at present.
Why do we need to include women in politics, and what will their integration bring about?
First and foremost to be truly representative Parliament should have its fair share of women but it should not be a plea for special treatment or privileges.
Women's inclusion in governance would bring about a more conciliatory effect as they would be more oriented towards service to humanity, thus decreasing gun culture and violence. Women would also prefer a more participatory style in politics. They are also accepted to be less egoistic than men.
Women would also give priority to issues of everyday concern like the cost of living, childcare, taxes, education, social services etc. From a woman's point of view budgetary and economic policies would be more important.
At present women's issues are not adequately addressed in Parliament and under representation may be one of the reasons. In Sri Lanka women play a major role in the economy.
They are extensively employed in the tea plantations and the garment industry. They also form the bulk of the migrant labour. Thus the country's three major avenues of foreign exchange earnings are based on the contributions made by women.
Yet the needs of these women have received little attention. More women in Parliament would ensure that these issues will receive sufficient attention because women are more sensitive to poverty.
It is also pertinent to reflect why women's representation in politics remains low. Women are reluctant to engage in politics mainly due to violence. Furthermore slander and character assassination are regular features in politics. Domestic responsibilities also have a discouraging effect because politics is a demanding job and so is the family. The exorbitant cost involved in political campaigning also contribute to their lack of participation.
Male prejudices also contribute in no small measure.
The countries that have introduced quotas agree that it should be a temporary measure lasting only till imbalances are corrected. Some countries by law reserved certain electorates for women in order to compensate their poor chances of being elected.
The national list is also one way of introducing a few women members to Parliament. Though elections under the system of proportional representation is reputed to favour the chances of women's election, the electoral figures in Sri Lanka do not appear to indicate so.
It is also essential for parties to ensure that women participate in equal degree in all their activities. Political and electoral training to increase their ability to face elections is vital for women and it should be at grass roots level where everything begins. Public speaking, political work in the field, interacting with the media, training in lobbying techniques and electoral mechanisms should be introduced together with male participants.
In conclusion Ms. Wijesekera said although constitutions guarantee equality in practice there are huge gaps. Politics is deeply rooted in society and reflects its values.
Women's political rights must be considered in the overall context of Human Rights and what is basically at stake is democracy itself. Therefore it is upto each of us to contribute even in a small way towards this goal, she said.
A lively discussion ensued with the participation of Manel Abeysekera, Manel Nanayakkara, Indraneela Fernando and Indrani Iriyagolle.
Produced by Lake House