The Unfair Burden of the Women’s Quota

A majority of tea pluckers are women. Tea is one of the country’s main exports.

The recently concluded local government elections have been notable for a number of reasons. One of these is that for the first time in Sri Lanka a 25% quota was introduced for women representatives. It now appears from press reports that both the Chairman of the Elections Commission and some of the Political Parties and Independent Groups which contested the elections find implementing the quota to be too “burdensome” and “unfair.” Well, of course!

Is it really fair for these women’s movement type people to go on and on insisting that the quota be implemented?! Especially at a time when all the important men of all political parties are in the midst of trying to sort out which set of men will rule the country in which combination? Because, really, what importance is a women’s quota when compared to ensuring the type of equitable, peaceful, economically strong country we have become used to during decades of policies of an almost all male Parliament?

In the midst of all this, why should anyone be bothered about some quota for women??

Women quota graphic

Why should we care that the quota is the result of a nearly twenty year long hard fought struggle by women’s activists from around the country?

And so what if the law clearly says that Councils cannot be formed without a minimum of 25% of female council members? Oh yes, and that it also says that this minimum has to be achieved even if some other section of the law says something else?

And, come on, who is really bothered that we have by far the lowest rate of female representation  in the region at all levels of government (under 2% representation at local government level)? So what if countries like Nepal, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India have much higher rates of female representation?

Really, who cares that it is essential to have a much higher rate of female representation if we are to see any meaningful change in the things that matter for women and children? Sure, some boring old studies systematically show that female politicians are more likely to concentrate on issues such as daycare, gender equality, reproductive rights, flex time, elderly care, children’s welfare but don’t we have more important things to think about?

And, are we really interested in the fact that more women candidates and representatives will likely result in less violence and intimidation at elections and a more collaborative and empathetic style of leadership and governing? Yes, sure, it will be a seismic shift in the landscape of politics in this country, but no one likes change right?

So, stop it all you feminists! The poor Elections Commissioner is in such a tizzy he has had to resort to relying on “tenets of natural justice” and some mysterious entity called “the Commission’s conscience”. Why all this consternation? It turns out, that due to some intricacies in the provision of the law dealing with how many women members each party has to appoint, some parties in some Councils have to appoint more women than they might have expected to given the percentage of votes they won.

This is obviously unfair and burdensome! Men will be unfairly deprived of the number of seats they deserve and some parties will be burdened with more women members than others and basically all hell will break loose!

Rosy Senanayake, Mayor Elect, the first woman to be the Mayor of Colombo.
Rosy Senanayake, Mayor Elect, the first woman to be the Mayor of Colombo.

But hang on a minute. The number of council members for each Council was drastically increased for this election. And while all of us feel that more elected officials is exactly what this country needs (!), in this case the increase was made for the primary purpose of accommodating the 25% women’s quota. So maybe, just maybe, it would be more unfair if the increase in council seats created to accommodate women are now filled instead by men?

Garments being prepared for the export market. Another major foreign exchange earner, these factories are staffed mostly by women.
Garments being prepared for the export market. Another major foreign exchange earner, these factories are staffed mostly by women.

Oh and hang on another minute. In a country where over 65% of students graduating from State universities are female, where women are by far the top foreign income earners for the country, and where approximately one in four households are headed by females, can we really say that it is a “burden” to have to appoint women to positions of leadership and to represent the people? I suppose the answer might be yes; after all very few women rise to positions of leadership in the government or private sectors, so maybe they are just not suited to being leaders. I mean, given the fair and equitable playing field, wouldn’t more women have risen to positions of leadership if only they were capable enough? After all, Sri Lanka is known for its advanced laws regarding parental leave, reproductive rights, and sexual harassment, the availability of good quality childcare and flexible working hours, and progressive societal and workplace attitudes towards gender equality and gender. Right?

So maybe we should all agree to put aside the quota and appoint even more men. Maybe “the tenets of natural justice” demand it. But, come to think of it, the two basic tenets of natural justice are the rule against bias and the right to a fair hearing. I am assuming the Commissioner was referring in the context of the quota to the former. So, would it be biased to implement a long fought for provision, which is unambiguously contained in the law? Or is it biased to start a more equitable distribution of legislative power between the sexes which will very likely benefit all citizens? Or, perhaps it is biased to “force” some political parties to appoint women to seats that were created specifically for women?

I think I know the answer. But you decide for yourself.

 

Natasha is a lawyer by profession.

 

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