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Interview + Women’s Rights Activist:
Political Parties Just Looking For Excuses Not To Appoint Women

New rules for upcoming local elections say a quarter of those elected should be women. This is both harder than it looks, and easier, activist Kumudini Samuel says.

22.01.2018  |  

The Sri Lankan government recently passed legislation requiring that a quarter of all political positions at local level be filled by women. And next month local elections take place under the new system, which combines both first-past-the-post arithmetic and proportional representation.

The Catamaran spoke to Kumudini Samuel, a senior staffer at the Women and Media Collective, based in Colombo, as to the practicalities of the situation.

The Catamaran: The law now says that a quarter of local government positions should be filled by females. But the Commissioner of Elections, Mahinda Deshapriya, has already said this will be extremely difficult.

Political parties cannot say they do not like this new rule. They have to do it. It is the law.

Kumudini Samuel: Political parties should nominate women for 10 percent of the possible seats won by the first-past-the-post method. It is difficult to know whether women would win in this area.

Then what is left is the list of proportional representation. All political parties should make their proportional list half women. Once seats have been decided on the first list, then the rest of the appointments can be made through the second list, using proportional representation.

The Catamaran: But if parties don’t agree to appoint women, will there be a political crisis?

Samuel: At the moment, it is more usual to appoint men using the second list [for proportional representation]. But political parties cannot say they do not like this new rule. They have to do it. It is the law.

There could be the odd occasion where there is no woman, say, when smaller parties only get one or two seats. Then there will be difficulties.

The Catamaran: Can you explain this?

Samuel: The number of individuals on local government bodies is about 8,000. So then about 2000 should be women. In some places, where there are small communities, this could be difficult. It could also be difficult in places where small parties win. But in big areas like Colombo we can certainly get 25 percent of local officials being female.

The Catamaran: Critics are also asking whether we actually have enough qualified women to get into local politics.

Samuel: I completely reject this. Although everybody is talking about thousands of women, in fact it is much easier than this. In a village council there might be 12 members. So you only need to find three women through the lists. If a political party says there are not three qualified women in a village, then they should be ashamed of themselves. They are just looking for excuses.

The Catamaran: Some critics of the new legislation have also said that increasing female representation wont impact on another big problem Sri Lanka has: nepotism and cronyism in politics.  

Samuel: If you look at local politics, this problem is clear. But it also becomes clear that it is all about male relatives and family members.

Another thing that comes up is when certain politicians, women, or men, are introduced into the job because they are popular people. They may not even have any qualifications. We should be careful about electing those kinds of candidates.

Going back to your question, family members are always included in some places. It happens all the time. Political parties should fight against this internally.