Helping women run for office in upcoming Sri Lanka local elections

“I had heard about the new women quota but had little knowledge on how local government operates and the opportunities for public involvement”, says Ms. Jeeva Nishanthini, a 26-year-old local Tamil resident from the Nuwara Eliya district, Central Province of Sri Lanka.

Between October 2016 and March 2017, Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD), in partnership with the Federation of Sri Lanka Local Government Association (FSLGA) organised five workshops targeted at potential cross-party women candidates.

Local government elections are due in 2017; the last elections were in 2011 and held without a compulsory quota for women candidates. The introduction of the quota by the Cabinet in 2016 is widely supported by political parties who welcome the requirement to nominate a minimum of 25% women candidates to compete in provincial council elections.

As a result of the WFD workshops , prospective candidates such as Jeeva have a better understanding of how the 25% quota , along with practical knowledge of local government, could help Sri Lankan women become more active in political life.

“My political interest started when I was a 20-year-old” Jeeva explained, “I had tried once to contest the local election even though I didn’t have sufficient knowledge of local government”. Sri Lanka’s system prior to the introduction of the quota could not guarantee support for women candidates from party structures or from traditional patriarchal communities. “Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough support of my family or party leaders” Jeeva said, “I was helpless and disappointed very much”.

The workshops supported capacity building amongst marginalised groups, particularly women and different ethnic backgrounds in regional and rural Sri Lanka who were offered the opportunity to develop their political knowledge and skills. As part of the training, participants were encouraged to develop a joint action plan focusing on policies relevant to women in the local area.

Participants were also encouraged to form a cross-party network of women candidates to continue supporting one another until and beyond the provincial elections. WFD provided a venue for Sri Lankan civil society and individuals to engage with political representatives who also attended.

“I am thankful to the coordinators who have helped me and my other colleagues” Jeeva says . Efforts by Jeeva and other pioneering women candidates in the upcoming local elections will help make women’s voices heard in Sri Lankan’s politics and invite more and younger women engage in the public domain. For effective democracy to root, women must gain representation and become actively involved in the decisions affecting their own communities.

WFD and the FSLGA are hopeful that this initiative can contribute toward greater gender equality by empowering more Sri Lankan women to get involved in politics. Once a bigger pool of female candidates is established at local level, opportunities increase for women, and more women become inspired to compete in the 2020 general election.

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The Speaker’s role in Sri Lanka

“May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here.”

Thus, spoke William Lenthall, House of Commons Speaker, in a seventeenth century tussle with the Monarch. Incidents like this contributed to shaping the role and establishing the independence of the Speaker.

Fast forward a few hundred years to February 2017. One of Asia’s oldest parliamentary democracies, Sri Lanka, hosted a round-table with presiding officers and parliamentary officials to explore the rules, conventions and practices related to the Speaker’s role and office.

As the Sri Lanka Parliament continues to operate and reform its Westminster style parliamentary system, there is scope for greater awareness by elected representatives, political parties and officials about the Speaker’s role, function and how best practices can be adapted to the Sri Lankan context.

The Speaker’s office plays a critical role in managing the chamber in Westminster style Parliaments. Cross-party support and participation in deputising are important to maximise understanding of the presiding role and its responsibilities. In the current Sri Lanka Parliament of 225 Members, the Speaker and Deputy Speaker or Chairman of Committees are from different parties of the ruling national unity government and the Deputy Chairman of Committees is from the Opposition. In addition, there are ten Members of Parliament on the Panel of Chairs, selected from the different political parties and factions. They can and do deputise for the Speaker.

Through exchange with peers, practical examples and discussions, the inaugural February 2017 round-table aimed to build the capacity of presiding officers and senior parliamentary officials to effectively fulfil their responsibilities and respective roles. Round-table discussions explored how presiding officers should handle points of order, questions of privilege, time allocation for Members who wish to speak, unparliamentary conduct and so on. Delegates from the United Kingdom and Sri Lanka participated in the day and a half long round-table.

(Above From Left to Right: Ms Dina Melhem, WFD Regional Director, MENA and Asia; Baroness Frances D’Souza, Mr Karu Jayasuriya, Speaker of the Sri Lanka Parliament; Sir Nicholas Winterton; Mr Priyanga Hettiarachi, WFD Sri Lanka Country Representative; Mr Chamal Rajapakse, Former Speaker of the Sri Lanka Parliament)

Crispin Poyser, House of Commons Clerk, traced the history of the House of Commons Speaker. Robin Ramsay, Adviser to the Northern Ireland Assembly Speaker, outlined Westminster practices adapted to a devolved context. Baroness D’Souza, Former Lords Speaker, revealed the rarefied elements of presiding in the House of Lords. Sir Nicholas Winterton, Senior Member of the House of Commons Panel of Chairs, emphasised the virtues of impartiality and fairness in rising above the hurly burly of everyday business. Together, their insights and experiences were expertly deployed to navigate the challenges and opportunities for those presiding and supporting Speakers in the United Kingdom.

Dhammika Dasanayake, Secretary-General of the Sri Lanka Parliament, and senior parliamentary officials, expertly shared insights into the relevant rules, conventions and practices applicable to the Sri Lanka Parliament. The Speaker, Former Speaker and Members of the cross-party Panel of Chairs, who deputise for the Speaker, made valuable contributions, sought clarifications, raised issues and provided their input.

Capacity building and awareness raising involving the Speaker’s role and office remains a niche, important and innovative area for WFD programming. Learning from the round-table and follow up activities may be relevant to Parliaments elsewhere looking for ways to address similar challenges and opportunities. More broadly, the Sri Lanka Speaker “noted the importance of such exchanges for expertise sharing, knowledge gaining and relationship building, amongst MPs, officials and Parliaments.”

Work in this area has everyday relevance and impact. In March 2017, while presiding in Parliament, the Sri Lanka Speaker was confronted with circumstances where Government Members criticised him for being lenient with Opposition Members; and Opposition Members criticised him for favouring Government Members. After giving Members an opportunity to speak, issuing due cautions and warnings, and adjourning the sitting, the Speaker suspended a Member from the Parliament for one week. About this incident, the Speaker is quoted as saying:“We have regulations and traditions inherited from the British Parliament.”


(Top: Participants at the round-table in February 2017)
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Development Effectiveness and the Sustainable Development Goals

(Above: Delegates attended the conference from across Asia, as well as North Africa – Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Thailand, Nepal, Laos, Timor Leste, Indonesia and Morocco were represented)

From alleviating extreme poverty to reducing the impact of climate change for future generations, the sustainable development goals (SDGs) – agreed by world leaders last September – comprise a broad and challenging set of commitments for all states.

Steps must now be taken to ensure that the goals are implemented by 2030.

But what role can parliamentarians play?

Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) supported the Islamic Development Bank (IDB) and the Global Organisation of Parliamentarians Against Corruption’s (GOPAC) regional conference in Jakarta on 30 and 31 August 2016.

Hosted by the Indonesian House of Representatives, the conference brought together parliamentarians from countries across Asia and North Africa to discuss the oversight role they can play to ensure successful implementation of the SDG framework.

(Above: The first panel session provided an overview of the 2030 agenda for development)

The conference had the dual purpose of raising awareness of the targets within the SDGs and also encouraging discussion on best practice for monitoring the progress made towards achieving the goals. It introduced a handbook developed by the IDB in partnership with GOPAC for parliamentarians on the oversight of development funds.

Parliamentarians from across the region expressed a desire to learn more about what the SDGs actually are and the steps they can take to tackle them. Parliamentarians noted this area was usually tackled by the executive, leaving parliament with a limited role in achieving successful implementation.

Encouraging south-south exchanges on implementation is crucial to the success of the goals. The first day of the conference saw representatives from different regions share their experience with sustainable development. MPs from Morocco spoke about the implementation of a new healthcare system that made services more accessible for the under-privileged. Representatives from Indonesia explained how a new taskforce had been introduced to tackle the SDGs, including the introduction of approximately 30 bills currently being passed by parliament. A delegate from Laos welcomed the help from WFD and GOPAC on this issue, noting that the best way to achieve the SDGs was through creating links between countries with different capacities and levels of technical support.

(Above: Moroccan delegation included representatives from both Houses and parliamentary staff )

Post Legislative Scrutiny and achieving sustainable development

Whilst passing legislation is often the first step towards reform and such efforts should be commended, it is not the only step to ensure real improvement to the lives of citizens.

It is not uncommon that the process of implementation of legislation is overlooked. In several countries, it is a hazardous phenomenon that laws are voted but not applied, that secondary legislation is not adopted or that there is no information on the actual state of implementation and effects of the law. All of which could have a fundamental impact on achieving the sustainable development goals by 2030.

WFD is well-placed to facilitate best practice exchanges with countries in Asia because of our expanding presence in the region. With the wealth of British experience on post-legislative scrutiny, WFD can draw not only on the Westminster example of departmental and parliamentary scrutiny but also on the different experience of the Scottish Parliament’s scrutiny through regular committee work. Our global presence means we can also provide insights into different systems and help individual parliaments as they seek to identify the model which best suits them.

(Above: Dina Melhem, WFD’s Regional Director for Asia and MENA)

Dina Melhem, WFD’s Regional Director for Asia and MENA, outlined WFD’s experience with post legislative scrutiny and its development of an assessment tool for parliaments. This will provide a comparative methodology for ensuring successful monitoring and evaluation of legislation.

WFD’s assessment tool and the handbook developed by GOPAC and UNDP will be extremely helpful in the years to 2030 to ensure parliaments play a key role in implementing legislation that achieves the sustainable development goals. Participants welcomed the introduction of the handbook and the development of the assessment tool, noting that regional examples would be extremely useful.

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