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Women organising for change

Sunday, July 22, 2012

This is the fourth 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 organisations in the post-independence period to the present day. In the Caribbean, the 1970s and ’80s saw the formation of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) influenced by the “new social movements” that had emerged internationally in the late 1960s and ’70s.



They represented social groups and issues that had not received enough attention during the push to independence and national development—women, youths, farmers, indigenous peoples, rural development, the environment, etc. Terms such as “human rights,” “empowerment” and “participatory democracy” entered the Caribbean political lexicon.


These NGOs represented a line of continuity, with earlier movements such as the anti-colonial and labour movements. But they also represented a rupture with the past tradition of mass movements, being small organisations that acted as catalysts—articulating a rights-based agenda, raising new issues for public debate, and influencing governments to integrate their concerns into national development policies and programmes.  


Among them were groups of women who defined themselves as feminists, that is, they saw themselves as working to bring about change in relation to gender-based discrimination and inequalities. While often socialist or black conscious, they had reached feminism through a critique of the limited recognition given to women’s equal rights by the nationalist struggles, trade unions, left political groupings and Black Power movements.



These groups insisted on organising a space for independent analysis and action from a women’s rights perspective both within, and often outside the earlier movements.


Other groups of women saw themselves, first and foremost, as black women living in societies that were still in early transition from colonial rule, where race and class were intertwined with political, economic and social power, and where black men also belonged to the oppressed group. And women, it was argued, should not “divide the struggle” by organising independently for their own issues.


Meanwhile, as Cecilia Babb of the Caribbean Policy Development Centre has noted, for “grass-roots women,” “the issue is survival, putting food on the table for their children, often where they are the sole breadwinners,” and “until this survival is managed, it is very difficult for grass-roots women to engage in debate, mobilisation and lobbying on issues which impact on the very survival we are trying so hard to ensure.”


In Trinidad and Tobago, the Concerned Women for Progress (CWP) was this country’s first feminist organisation, founded in 1980, which rallied around equal pay for equal work, violence against women and abortion. CWP disbanded in 1983 and some of its members formed The Group, which was, according to UWI professor Patricia Mohammed, a “more woman-centred organisation” involved in consciousness raising and advocacy on violence against women, among other issues.



Three members of The Group founded Women Working for Social Progress (Working Women) in 1985, which continues to work on issues of women’s illiteracy and economic rights, and national issues such as corporal punishment.


The Caribbean Association for Feminist Research (Cafra), a regional network of women’s organisations and individual feminists was formed by 40 women’s rights activists in Barbados in April 1985. Cafra’s mission has been “to celebrate and channel the collective power of women for individual and societal transformation, thus creating a climate in which social justice is realised.”


The Caribbean feminist movement participated actively in the regional and international networks that blossomed from the mid-1970s. The United Nations (UN) named 1975 as International Women’s Year. The UN adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw) in 1979, which became a pivotal instrument for women’s rights activists in the Caribbean.


The UN World Conferences in Mexico City (1975), Copenhagen (1980), Nairobi (1985), and Beijing (1995) had a significant impact on Caribbean women’s organising. Regional programmes of action were co-ordinated by the Caricom Women’s Desk established in 1980. National programmes were put in place by Women’s Bureaux, the governments’ institutional structures for achieving gender equality.


While these UN-led approaches sought to address various manifestations of discrimination against women, they did not challenge the structural features of the international political, economic and socio-cultural order on which gender-based inequalities were buttressed.


At the national level, Caribbean women’s organisations have lobbied governments on women’s rights and gender-equality issues; influenced and assisted in the drafting of legislation; brought pressure to bear on governments to adhere to international conventions and instruments; challenged governments on macroeconomic and trade issues, such as structural adjustment policies and the setting up of free-trade zones; and delivered services to improve women’s lives in their families and communities.


They have also worked with governments to develop national gender policies in the Bahamas, Belize, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Dominica, Guyana, Jamaica, St Kitts and Nevis, and Turks and Caicos Islands. At present, despite challenges, women’s organisations collaborate with governments, trade unions, the private sector, a broad cross section of civil society organisations, academic institutions, such as UWI’s Institute of Gender and Development Studies, and men’s organisations—to advance equality between men and women.


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