Necessary Yet Insufficient
By Eunice Ruth
Politics is all about power capturing, retaining and resisting. Irrespective of what level or in which theatre politics plays out, it simply aims either at acquiring and preventing power, by means that may be good or bad.
Irrespective of whether it is a man or woman, whoever desires to enter politics at any national, provincial or local level, should possess power that is comparatively higher than their contenders. Financial capacity, status and social contacts together determine an individual’s ability to command power within a group.
Amidst all, the struggle for increasing women’s representation in the Legislature has been a long-standing issue and all political parties generally go on the back foot on this issue once the elections are over. To overcome the structural disadvantage that women face when entering political life, women’s organisations have been advocating affirmative measures, such as quotas for women in all legislative bodies.
Recently, a study was conducted by the Women and Media Collective organisation, on ‘Women’s quota for wider political representation in Sri Lanka.’ Researchers Pradeep Peiris and Hasini Lecamwasam conducted the study and revealed the current situation within the country and the measures which can be taken to increase women’s quota in the field of politics.
The study employed a mixed research method and was conducted in Northern, Eastern, North-Western, Central, Uva and Southern Provinces. Interviews were conducted and the survey was used to examine the broader experience of women politicians and understand the specific issues and challenges these politicians face when contesting, getting nominations, and/or carrying out their duties after getting elected.
To contest for a place in a legislative body it is not necessary for an individual to go through a political party. Since 1931, many have contested elections as independent candidates. However, since the 1970s, in the backdrop of widening political party bases, those who contested and more importantly won elections as independent candidates have declined significantly.
The findings of this study pointed out that family background matters when contesting elections. Those who contested and won seem to be the group to come from a political family and still around 32.4 per cent are from a political background.
Introduction of women’s quota
The women’s quota was introduced in February 2018 and has significantly increased women’s representation in local-level democracy. Local-level women politicians believe that the introduction of the quota system is clearly a positive step towards increasing women’s representation at the level of local government.
Aspiring women politicians depend greatly on the party organisation and its national and local leadership for candidacy and subsequent winning. As such, parties have become indispensable for increasing women’s representation in politics, even with the recent introduction of a 25 per cent quota for women in local government bodies.
Meanwhile, a majority of women politicians who contested and won have only one to five years of experience from the party which they have contested. The fact that women without a long history in politics and party works are entering career politics can be seen both as a positive as well as negative development with regard to increasing women’s representation in politics.
It has also paved the way for politically marginalised local level political actors to enter into local councils. However, despite the significant victory, there still remain many questions related to issues such as how local women political activists have benefitted from the quota system, what were the challenges they faced when contesting or attempting to enter through the list for the election.
To consolidate the gains of the quota, it is very important to invest in women who have a long-term vision for a career in politics.
Challenges faced by women politicians
Challenges they face in surviving in politics and what would make them stronger competitors in the male-dominated sphere that is electoral politics was examined. Based on interviews with local women politicians who contested the 2018 Local Government Election, some answers have been found for the above questions and thereby it is important to discuss what needs to be done to sustain the victory of women representatives.
Some women enter politics either to represent their husbands or to strengthen their husband’s political careers. They have more advantages than other women candidates, as they possess the resources and social networks of their husbands. Irrespective of their intention, if these women are provided knowledge on politics, governance and party functioning, these women could remain in politics and rise as strong autonomous politicians.
The study shows that women, who possess a comparatively higher capacity to spend money, are knowledgeable and have the capacity to seek the assistance of their neighbours, party leaders and even men in the constituency have a higher possibility of winning elections.
Male politicians usually dominate the discussions and decision-making process within the party organisations and hardly pay attention to the voices of their female colleagues. However, women politicians state that their educational qualifications and knowledge on political matters allow them to command the attention of male politicians.
Women lag behind when competing with men in electoral politics. Factors such as electoral violence, corruption, and cultural norms that categorise
Sri Lankan electoral politics work against the interests of women who aspire to venture into a political career. Political experience and knowledge can be instrumental abilities for a candidate to win the election.
Meanwhile, lack of adequate finances is a huge obstacle in considering politics as a career option. Due to more restricted access to financial and other forms of capital as compared to men, women are less able to find the money necessary for successful campaigning. Also, women receive a lower wage.
The study has also revealed that, the individuals who have contested and won clearly demonstrated that they have spent an average sum of Rs 264,191 more than those who have contested and lost.
It is important to have a community life and a social network built up between social actors, groups or institutions which will contribute to the success in politics, as one needs to build the necessary network which may transfer into votes in the future. However, these networks are predominantly masculinised spaces and women mostly only have a very weak engagement.
Meanwhile, the support of the family, relatives, neighbours, party leaders and others were not given properly to the women candidates and despite the quota system, women need a strong relationship with the local and national level party leadership.
Especially the newly elected candidates face challenges from opposition parties within the council as well as their electorate. Women politicians feel vulnerable in their electorates due to the work of the members of their opposition party and this is directly related to their lack of access to financial resources.
In addition, compared to male politicians, women politicians find it difficult to visit their constituency. The challenges posed by opposition parties are mainly felt by the women politicians who failed to get into the council either by contesting or through the list or the women who have to maintain their political career without being in power.
Violent political culture is the third and most popular factor that women politicians consider as an obstacle to their political future. It is also widely acknowledged that this keeps women away from politics. Politicians from major parties have the capacity to unleash violence whenever it is required. Such violence is perpetrated not only in killings, assaults, shootings and burning of properties, but also in various subtle forms.
Suggestions to strengthen women politicians
The parties should reactivate their party organisation structures by providing ideological orientation to these new women politicians and women’s organisations should provide training on issues such as electoral politics, democratic political institutions, gender politics and political representation of women.
Building women politicians’ knowledge on areas such as governance, constitutional matters and political history would provide them with an edge over male politicians who possess a comparatively stronger voice within the party.
It is not possible for civil society organisations to avert women politicians from getting into corrupt practices. Instead of rejecting them, civil society organisations should work with them to strengthen women’s representation.
Violence in politics, patriarchal social norms in the society, and patriarchal practise within the party structures hinder women from entering politics and surviving in it. However, the women who contested and won seem to ascribe relatively less importance to such challenges.
The study has suggested that increasing women’s representation should be taken into account and it should be included in the function of political parties in Sri Lanka. Any effort in increasing their knowledge and political exposure would empower women politicians to not only survive in the patriarchal political system, but also to become better politicians.
The lack of leadership skills, confidence, and sometimes even literacy may dissuade women from contemplating a career in politics for fear of being ridiculed by their more experienced male counterparts. Therefore, building the capacities of women representatives and candidates is a crucial requirement in ensuring their participation in decision-making is meaningful and effective, and understanding corroborated by all respondents in the qualitative component across locations. Having better-trained women in these positions will also increase the credibility of the woman candidate or politician.
The study has pointed out that the introduction of the quota system has paved the way for many new women faces outside of political families and parties to enter career politics. This is a positive development in terms of attracting more skilful women into politics who can compete with their male counterparts. However, the danger is that these women could weaken the basis of women’s activism within political parties in the long run unless they are absorbed into the party structure, while simultaneously made to work with women organisations.
Parties should change their attitude towards their women supporters and they should focus on women with various capacities to play leadership roles within the party structure, rather than focusing on women whose role is limited to being loyal foot soldiers.
Civil society organisations should approach more women with the capacity to play leadership roles for various capacity-building and political awareness training. This would be meaningful in ensuring substantive representation over time, as these women are more likely to have political ambitions than their counterparts who possess relatively low levels of said capital.