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Monday, July 22, 2024

Sri Lanka – Let’s not insult women: Devolving powers to women is no burden


By S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

There have been recent calls not to implement fully the legal requirement of having at least 25% women in each local government authority. A newspaper has reported that the Election Commission is to ask that the Local Authorities Elections (Amendment) Act No 22 of 2012 to be amended to allow councils to be established even without the mandatory 25 percent quota under special circumstances. This is incorrect for two reasons. First, the 25% quota is of very recent origin and is from Act No. 16 of 2017. And second, no such decision was ever taken at any meeting of the commission.

The Island (16 Feb.) has a statement by women’s groups that speaks of “moves to change the 25% quota for women” and of “recognizing the exceptions in the quota.” The Financial Times (15 Feb.) says “Fresh amendments for the Local Authorities Elections Act would be essential to allow local governing bodies to establish councils, even without the mandatory 25% quota for women, under unique conditions.”

Colombo’s Mayor-elect, Rosy Senanayake, refers in the Daily Mirror (16 Feb.) to the implementation of the 25% quota for women in local government elections being uncertain, and urges that steps be taken to implement the 25% Quota for Women in LG polls immediately.”

Speaking for myself as a member of the Election Commission (and not for the Commission) I say that the women are right in feeling their long-fought-for gains are threatened. Indeed, I do not see any lacunae in the law that need urgent attention. When the quota is the law, we cannot have exceptions. In my view, backdating changes to the law to affect the elections that have already been conducted is improper.

The problem that many see is from the fact that the Local Authorities Election Act states,

27F. (1) Notwithstanding any provision to the contrary in this Ordinance, not less than twenty five per centum of the total number of members in each local authority shall be women members

That is, if we do not have 25% women as members in a local authority, that authority has no standing. This would not be an issue (and in my view is not a serious issue) if not for the exemptions provided

65AA. (1) Where the number of member selected from any recognized political party or independent group for a Local Authority results in an overhang and thereby exceeds the number ascertained to be elected and returned as members under [subsection] (3) of section 65(3), and such number of members so elected [does] not include any women members, then the provisions of subsections (3) and (4) of this section shall not apply to such recognized political party or independent group.

(2) Where any recognized political party or independent group has received less than twenty per centum of the total number of votes polled in a local authority area, and [note well the word and] has less than three members elected or returned, then the provisions of subsections (3) and (4) of this section [which are on the method of apportionment of members] shall not apply to such recognized political party or independent group.

First note that the exemption applies only to parties fulfilling both conditions – receiving less than 20% of the vote and getting fewer than three representatives. The purpose is to give such small parties wide choice in putting forward their best nominees for the few seats they have.

These conditions are often misstated as exemptions for meeting either condition as in one of the news articles cited above. There is also the wrong idea that ward candidates contest and that those on the PR list do not contest. In fact, they all contest. In English, a voter elected is returned; but some official documents in Sri Lanka use elected and returned as being of different meanings. We voted only for the party of our choice and that led to the election of both ward candidates and PR candidates. To ensure their getting in, the PR list candidates also had to campaign – so they, too, are elected. Therefore, it is incorrect to suggest that choosing a person from the PR list is choosing a person who did not contest.

What then is the problem today? As seen by many, it is twofold. First, it is that the methodology specified by Parliament is unlike what one would expect – that 60% of seats are filled from the wards and 40% from PR. To explain, let me take the Ambalangoda UC results (see Table) that all three Commission Members sat down together to check the method employed by our staff:After the PR eligibility list is computed by the method prescribed, the numbers earned from the wards are taken off. Thus, the Podujana Peramuna with 10 from wards and 9 eligible for PR gets no PR seat (that extra seat is what is called an overhang).So it gets no PR seat and since all 10 of its representatives are directly elected, any contribution from it to the women’s quota can be only if any of the 10 elected /returned persons happens to be a woman.

The second alleged problem is that small groupings in a chamber (with less than 20% of the vote and fewer than 3 members) are exempted from having to nominate women. Thus in Amabalangoda, the Podujana Peramuna cannot contribute to the women’s quota, the PLF cannot be asked to contribute because they have only 2 members and 7.5% of the vote, and the UNF has no seat. So the women’s quota (with the exception of any women elected to wards from the PodujanaPeramuna) will have to come only from the UNP and UPFA. In Batticaloa, the ITAK with the most seats by far had all its ward winners men with no PR member.

This might be unfair only insofar as the parties that need to contribute have less choice than the smaller groupings in choosing whom to nominate from among the pool of men and women on their lists. To call that a burden or unfair is a stretch. It is an insult to women – recall strong and determined women who ruled us effectively (if not always justly) such as from Queen Victoria to Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. It would never be a burden if the parties had chosen their best women and not their relatives.

Is it really a burden or unfair to name a woman instead of a man? It shows that we men, especially we old men, do not want to let go. We imagine (because it fits our prejudices) that the 25% quota is a set quota. It really is a minimum standard to exceed which is no crime. We think it is a burden. That by itself shows we really need our women to be liberated from such insulting caricatures.

There is talk of having to amend the laws. No indeed. The Local Authorities Elections Act as recently amended reads

27F. (2) The [Elections Commission] shall by notice published in the gazette, specify the number of women candidates to be nominated in respect of each local authority.”

Thus the Commission has the authority to force the groupings that can, to nominate more than 25% women.

The so-called problem is said to stem from the concept of the opposite of an overhang defined in the ordinance as “overhang” means the number of candidates elected for a local authority from any recognized political party or independent group in excess of the number of such recognized political party or independent group is entitled to have elected in terms of subsection (3) of section 65B of this Ordinance;”

A party has to nominate a woman after the declaration of results only when it wins fewer ward seats than by PR. So why complain even if they all have to be women, especially when they are the party’s own nominees? Besides, even here, the above referenced Act gives the Commission the authority to decide on its own:

“65B(4) Upon ascertaining the number of candidates entitled to be elected and returned as membersof that local authority by each recognized political party or independent group, as the case may be, in terms of subsection (3) [which states how to arrive at the figures], if it is found that the number of members elected from such recognized political party or independent group for that local authority—

(a) exceeds the number ascertained to be elected and returned as members under subsection (3), then such overhang shall be determined by the [Elections Commission].

Let’s please not see problems where there is none. Let’s not delay the inauguration of these long awaited local authorities by waiting for parliament to tinker where no tinkering is required.Any legal change would be required only if even with all free PR candidates nominated by the parties able to do so are women, the 25% quota is not met.

Women have a right to be representatives knowing better than us men the special needs faced by women, children, and the elderly; and knowing and possessing the skills to address as well as us men the general needs of all of us in society. They worked hard for this miserly 25% quota. Let’s not haggle over having to cede just a little more to be in mandatory compliance with the law.

The world over, devolution of powers is seen as the way to include everyone in decisions that concern them. Local authority decisions must be taken at local level and further delays in the inauguration of these bodies cannot be brooked. We men have been deciding all these years with just 1.8% women in our midst in local government. It is time to devolve our powers and let women too have a say.

Courtesy of The Island.


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