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Women still Under-represented

After 50 years of independance...
Sunday, June 17, 2012

This is the fourth in a series of columns on the national gender policy. This week, I discuss leadership, democracy, governance and security, key aspects of national development that are exercising our minds as we celebrate 50 years of independence in 2012. I wish to acknowledge Jamaican feminist Linnette Vassell for her ideas reflected here, based on a recent paper we co-wrote.


Democracy’s ambiguous relationship with women
Among its principles, democracy posits equality of men and women in law. Men and women’s equal participation in decision-making is recognised globally as a foundation stone of genuine democracy and achieving social justice goals. In Trinidad and Tobago, men and women each represent half the electorate. The country also achieved universal adult suffrage in 1946 during the colonial period. Yet, in 2012, women are under-represented in leadership and decision-making at all levels.


The fact that the country has a female prime minister is often used as an argument that “women are taking over.” However, the actual figures paint a different picture. In Parliament, women represent less than one third of legislators—they hold 28.6 per cent of (elected) seats in the Lower House, and 25.8 per cent of (appointed) seats in the Senate.


In local government, women account for an average of 32 per cent of mayors, aldermen and local councillors. And similar trends are evident in the boardrooms of the public and private sectors. The Network of NGOs for the Advancement of Women conducted a survey in 2009-2010 of all statutory bodies, state enterprises, special-purpose companies, listed private companies, credit unions and trade unions. Women comprised an average of 29 per cent of board members.


Gender socialisation reinforces the perception and practice of politics and governance as a male sphere. The country is seeing some of the most dysfunctional forms of leadership in government, opposition, the private sector and labour movement.



Yet, women’s primary responsibility for the home and family, the traditional functioning of political parties, the high financial cost of seeking public office, the negative media portrayals of female politicians, and the expectation that women leaders should perform perfectly in both the private and public spheres, discourage many women from pursuing leadership.


Low-intensity democracy
This ambiguity between the promise and the reality of democracy points to the fundamental questions of who is accountable to women, and what must this accountability look like. UNIFEM’s (now UN Women) publication Who Answers to Women?



Gender and Accountability puts forward two basic requirements. First, women must be part of accountability systems and must be “entitled to ask for explanations and justifications,” and second, “power holders must answer to women for their performance.”


Interestingly, accountability to women has not been among the indices used to judge Caribbean democracies, said to be experiencing a crisis of governance. Jamaican academic Brian Meeks identified clientelism, centralisation of power, the exclusion of third parties, and the absence of a strong independent civil society. In Trinidad and Tobago, the tribalism of political parties based on ethnicity has long been recognised.  


The Americas Barometer Report 2010 lists Trinidad and Tobago (83.1 per cent) and Jamaica (81.7 per cent) as having the highest perception of corruption in the Americas. What is well known is that corruption is linked to persistent poverty in the region, and the diversion of huge resources from programmes that are critical to the lives of women, men and their families, eg water and sanitation, health, school feeding, education, transport, agriculture and entrepreneurship, and job creation, among others.


Norman Girvan’s comments that: “The ‘Independence’ …bequeathed and the democracy… acquired in 1962 were nothing but a monumental face card” and “very little of substance actually changed” have particular resonance for women. For the majority of women have not secured a significant shift in their relation to power at the levels of the self and personhood, the family, the community, the workplace, the market or the state. Thus their full and equal rights as citizens have been severely short-changed.


Policy measures and actions on leadership and governance
The gender policy would promote gender balance in power and decision-making at all levels, in order to achieve transformational leadership and democracy, transparent and accountable governance, and social justice. The policy would promote examination of decision-making structures and procedures, in order to remove the barriers that directly and indirectly discriminate against women’s full participation.


It would promote career enhancement and personal development programmes for men and women, eg career planning, tracking, mentoring, coaching, training and retraining to equip them to achieve equitable access to leadership, managerial, entrepreneurial and technical positions. It would promote the equal sharing of care responsibilities in the home and family, and implement measures to support work-life balance.


Personal autonomy, safety and security
While social exclusion and inequalities are part of the cause of crime and violence, a large number of young men and boys, too many for such a small population, are involved in illegal firearms, gang violence, drug use and trafficking, robbery, kidnapping, murder and other forms of criminal activity. The prison population is predominantly male. Men are also the main perpetrators of gender-based violence in its various forms—domestic violence, sexual offences, child sexual abuse, and sexual harassment.


Boys and men are also victims of gender-based violence—boys are beaten by mothers, and are often bullied in school and the community for a variety of reasons, including the perception that they are gay. Men are increasingly facing domestic abuse by spouses and partners.


Violence destabilises the security of the individual and society. The State has an obligation to protect persons from violence in the family, community, workplace and public space. The national gender policy would promote positive images of men and masculinity, and take active measures to address men’s specific gender concerns in areas, including family life, education, employment and health.


It would promote public education to improve understanding of gender-based violence, including domestic violence, incest, child sexual abuse, rape, buggery, sexual harassment, forced prostitution and human trafficking, including legal rights, access to redress and support services.


It would institutionalise guidelines for the effective functioning of shelters, crisis centres and temporary safe houses for victims or survivors of domestic violence and their children, including the provision of care for boys over 12 who are often unable to be accommodated with their mothers in most shelters.


The gender policy recognises that leadership, democracy, governance and security are not only key indicators of national progress, but that Trinidad and Tobago’s development over the next 50 years requires that we fully utilise the talents, skills and experiences of all our men, women and young people.


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