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Women, politics and subordination

Sunday, July 15, 2012

This is the third in a series of commentaries on what 50 years of independence has meant for women’s rights and gender equality. This week, I focus on women’s participation in political parties.


The male-dominant, tribally-polarised political-party system in place in the Caribbean has not changed significantly from the parties founded and/or led by Norman Manley (PNP) and Alexander Bustamante (JLP) in Jamaica; Eric Williams (PNM) and Bhadase Sagan Maharaj (DLP) in Trinidad and Tobago; and Cheddi Jagan (PPP) and Forbes Burnham (PNC) in Guyana.


Politics has been a male-centred arena, as discussed in an earlier commentary. In the Caribbean, both before and after independence, women’s participation has largely been through the women’s arms of political parties. According to Rhoda Reddock, the formation of the PNM in the 1950s built on women’s extensive mobilisation through the Teacher’s Economic and Cultural Association and the People’s Education Movement, among other organisations.


The PNM Women’s League, the women’s arm of the party, had a strong support base among working-class and lower middle-class African women. Notable women in the early period were Isabel Teshea, Leola Wood and Lucille Baptiste. In 1956, the league’s objectives were to deal with the problems of women, to promote the participation of women in national and community life, to encourage and promote racial harmony among women in the society, and to promote the sanctity of family life.


Reddock points out that despite the league’s important role in mass mobilisation during election campaigns, women accepted their subordinate position within the party and society, and their definition as housewives. In 1956, the PNM’s electoral slate of 24 candidates included no women.


In the case of Indian women, despite their activism in the labour struggles of the 1920s and ’30s (as mentioned last week), the 1950s saw a shift from earlier liberal ideas on women’s involvement. Thus, educated Indian women were excluded from the political mobilisation that was taking place and like the PNM, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) led by Bhadase Sagan Maraj fielded no women candidates in the 1956 elections.


In 1970, President Forbes Burnham declared Guyana a Socialist Co-operative Republic under the People’s National Congress (PNC). The women’s arm of the party, chaired by Viola Burnham, wife of the President, focused on educational programmes and income-generating projects for rural women. According to McAlmont, at the PNC’s first biennial conference in 1975, President Burnham admitted that the hierarchy of the party was male-dominated and agreed that it had not done enough to end discrimination against women in the country.


In Jamaica, the PNP Women’s Movement founded in 1973, played a significant role in the election of the People’s National Party (PNP) under Michael Manley. It comprised largely working-class and poor women, and was led by middle-class women such as Beverly Manley, wife of the prime minister. It sought to link women’s struggle against oppression and discrimination with the democratic-socialist state, and established itself as a strong advocate for progressive legislation on women.


Women are currently leaders of political parties and heads of government in Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica. The Inter-Parliamentary Union’s world classification of women elected to Parliament indicates the following rankings:
• Guyana–31.3 per cent (27th globally)
• Trinidad and Tobago–28.6 per cent (31st)
• Jamaica–12.7 per cent (97th)


However, there are no studies of women’s participation in the post-independence political-party system in the Caribbean to the present day. Also missing from the public record are the histories of individual women in politics. We need to understand the factors that contributed to incremental increases in the numbers of women who were fielded as candidates, contested elections and won seats in Parliament.


In addition, we need to demand that our political parties do more. A Caribbean colloquium on Women Leaders as Agents for Change, hosted by the Government of Trinidad and Tobago in June 2011, resulted in the Port-of-Spain Consensus. It called on political parties to:
• Examine party structures and implement procedures to remove all barriers that directly or indirectly discriminate against women’s participation and leadership
• Set targets of at least 40 per cent of either sex on the lists of candidates for parliamentary and local government elections, and senatorial appointments
• Develop and implement initiatives to facilitate women’s full participation in all internal policymaking structures and electoral nominating processes


We also need to ask the difficult question of whether increasing numbers of women in Parliament have resulted in more women-friendly policies, and greater equity between men and women in the society. Srilatha Batliwala argues that leadership “is a means, not an end. We build leadership skills and capacity for something, to do something, to change something, and not because leadership is a service or product for consumption”.


She puts forward the following definition of women transformational leaders: “Women with a vision of social justice, individually and collectively transforming themselves to use their power, resources and skills in non-oppressive, inclusive structures and processes to mobilise others...around a shared agenda of social, cultural, economic and political transformation for equality and the realisation of human rights for all.”


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