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Women’s struggles for equality
This is the second in a series of commentaries on what 50 years of independence has meant for women’s rights and gender equality in Trinidad and Tobago. This week, I focus on women’s struggles in the pre-independence period.
The Caribbean colonies were an important cog in the wheel of the British imperial project of wealth creation. In response, they were served by a ‘democratic’ system that supported capital interests and the propertied classes and exploited the African and Indian population.
Linden Lewis states that in the period up to the pre-independence movements of the 1940s and ’50s, the outcomes for women were shaped by a colonial state that was “masculinist in its personnel, orientation and policy formulation.” Although the majority of women had worked in the public sphere as slaves, indentured labourers, and in other occupations, the ideology that ‘women’s place is in the home’ was pervasive. Linnette Vassell argues that colonial gender policy categorised women as wives and mothers under the authority of men within the private sphere, and placed them in a subordinate position to men in political, economic and socio–cultural life.
Rhoda Reddock makes the point that colonial education policy viewed girls as future housewives, and offered them “limited occupational and vocational opportunities” in line with their “domestic status.” Similar education policy continues to influence the labour market to the present day, as discussed in an earlier commentary.
Women’s early activism for social reforms, political rights
Women began organising for their rights in the 19th and early 20th centuries through religious and social welfare organisations, trade unions, and civic and political organisations. Audrey Jeffers founded the Coterie of Social Workers in the 1920s, which created “breakfast sheds” that provided meals for primary school children. The Coterie linked the struggles for social welfare and political reform to the broader nationalist agenda, and Jeffers was the first Caribbean woman to be elected to municipal office in 1936.
Labour rebellions flourished in the 1920s and ’30s, and women labourers participated actively. Reddock recounts that in 1922, after the Esperanza sugarcane plantation failed to reduce the work tasks, a report stated that “even the women of central Trinidad beat the overseers with hooks and crook sticks when they sought to force people to work.”
Similarly, women weeders at the Brechin Castle plantation attacked the overseer with hoes due to the failure to reduce their tasks, and were taken into custody. The Butler Party attracted large numbers of women and included a Women’s Committee. While its main mission was to prepare meals and deliver them to the male strikers, women of the committee and the wider party took on a more substantial role as the riots escalated in 1937.
The experience of national independence
Women’s organising fed into the process of negotiating constitutional decolonisation and national independence by the male political leadership. While women were granted the vote equally with men under universal adult suffrage, this did not alter the male-female power relations inherited from the colonial period.
The independence project itself, founded largely on British institutional systems and values, did not significantly transform the concentration of economic and social power in the hands of the elite. Upon independence, political power was handed over to the local elite, the majority of whom were African-Caribbean men.
Early Caribbean post-independence economic and trade policies, while stimulating growth in some sectors, did not significantly shift the main features of economic dependence. Nor did they result in positive outcomes for the majority of men and women in the region.
For example, the EU liberalisation of the sugar and banana markets has resulted in male and female workers being robbed of livelihoods. Dominica’s 2008/2009 poverty assessment revealed that the number of banana farmers fell from 6,000 to 1,000 in five years, and many were forced into wage labour. The Westminster system of institutions has been able to secure the peaceful transfer of power through elections and the rule of law, and propel changes in social relations.
Compared to the colonial period, there have been noticeable improvements in the quality of life of the majority, eg, higher levels of employment and per capita income; increased access to healthcare and education; increasing life expectancy, declining fertility rates and infant mortality; and expansion of water, electricity and communications.
However, citizenship rights in terms of economic and social well-being have been under assault and contribute to increasing political apathy, alienation and questioning of the meaning of democracy promoted since independence. And the independence project of ensuring an equitable distribution of rights, resources and representation among citizens is a long way to being achieved.
Girvan’s statement that “the ‘independence’…bequeathed and the democracy…acquired in 1962 were nothing but a monumental face card,” does not speak to the persistent gender inequality that has characterised Caribbean democracies since independence. Indeed, as Linden Lewis has observed, the struggle for gender equality is “not generally part of the consciousness of [Caribbean] men in the vanguard of social change.”
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