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Women And The Post-Independence State

Ladies in limbo
Sunday, July 29, 2012

This is the fifth 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 and the post-independence state. In her book Third World Feminism and Nationalism, Sri Lankan feminist Kumari Jayawardena examined the process by which women, many of whom had been actively involved in national liberation struggles and independence movements across the developing world, were relegated to the status of secondclass citizens, once their countries achieved national independence.



In 1962, the United Nation’s (UN) Commission on the Status of Women recommended that national governments establish commissions to improve the position of women. The UN defined these “national machineries for women” as “a single body or complex organised system of bodies, often under different authorities, but recognised by the government as the institution dealing with the promotion of the status of women.”



It took another decade for developing countries to begin putting in place these state structures. The UN’s International Women’s Year and first World Conference on Women in 1975 proved to be important milestones, as women’s organisations demanded collectively that the UN and national governments take action to end the discrimination and inequalities faced by women globally.



In 1979, the UN adopted the Convention on the Elimination Against All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), often referred to as The Bill of Rights For Women. Every nation state that has signed the convention is expected to submit a progress report to the CEDAW Committee every four years. These are global public documents and are accessible on the UN Web site.



Civil society organisations can submit shadow reports that often expose disparities between the achievements reported by governments and women’s actual realities on the ground. Caribbean governments began setting up Women’s Desks or Women’s Bureaux in the mid- 1970s. In 1974, Trinidad and Tobago appointed a National Commission on the Status of Women and in 1980, it established a permanent commission.



In 1986, the commission was replaced by a Women’s Bureau within the Ministry of Social Welfare and the Status of Women. In 1991, the Division of Women’s Affairs was set up within the Ministry of Community Development, Culture and Women’s Affairs.



Women’s bureau The title of women’s bureaux signals the weak institutional structures they represented. In many developing countries, they were no more than a tiny office, with a couple of women and a miniscule budget, with the huge task of transforming women’s social, economic, cultural, political and civil rights and status.



A Commonwealth Secretariat report on six Caribbean women’s bureaux referred to them as “ladies in limbo.” And a Bridge study discussed the “ghettoisation of women’s issues in government structures.” The bureaux were expected to put in place legislation on women, eg, on violence against women, equal pay for work of equal value, property rights, maternity leave, etc.



They were also expected to deliver “income-generating projects” for women. Taking their lead from UN approaches promoted in the 1970s, these projects focused on European women’s activities such as crochet, knitting and embroidery, which were far removed from the realities of Caribbean women’s lives in plantation economies, subsistence agriculture, and domestic and other poorly-paid employment. In some Caribbean countries, one can still see vestiges of these approaches to women’s economic empowerment.



In fact, anytime you come upon a women’s bureau, the women’s arm of a political party or a faith-based organisation that offers income-generating classes for women in crochet, knitting or embroidery, you’ll be able to identify its origin. The issue of their location is a further sign of the lack of importance assigned by the state to women’s bureaux.



They were located at the bottom of the political hierarchy of government ministries, and allocated budgets that were often a fraction of one per cent of the country’s gross national product. However, there are some exceptions. The South African post-apartheid ANC government placed its gender machinery in the President’s Office, a pivotal location for challenging and transforming the inequalities faced by women in all areas of life.



Australia’s is located in the Prime Minister’s Office. Limited as they were, these bureaux served to remind the nation state of its international commitments and obligations, facilitate legal reform, formulate policies and deliver programmes, and act as a conduit for dialogue between women’s organisations and the state. Gender mainstreaming In the 1990s, the UN advanced “gender mainstreaming” as the new approach to promoting equality between women and men.



It recognised that gender inequality operates in all sectors of the society, and therefore needs to be addressed in the “mainstream.” A move has been underway to rename the women’s bureaux as gender bureaux. Ministries of Gender have also emerged in a number of Caribbean countries to promote gender equality within the national development agenda.



However, there has also been much resistance to the genderequality agenda within mainstream state agencies responsible for finance, trade, agriculture, science and technology, the environment, etc. In other words, ministries with significant budgets to bring about real equality between men and women.



In addition, Caribbean governments’ promotion of gender mainstreaming in the 1990s coincided with the tension between the women’s rights agenda, and Errol Miller’s concept of “men at risk” which became influential due to the increasing dropout rate and under-achievement of boys in the education system.



Since the 2000s, the development of national gender policies in a number of Caribbean states and non-independent territories has served to raise awareness of the need for gender justice in all spheres of life. Caribbean countries with national gender policies are: the Bahamas, Belize, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Dominica, Guyana, Jamaica, St Kitts and Nevis, Suriname, and Turks and Caicos Islands.



In Trinidad and Tobago, a national gender policy has been in the works since 2002. The Government may wish to consider adopting the policy in celebration of the nation’s 50th anniversary of independence, in order to right the historical wrongs of women’s unequal place within the independence project (as I have been pointing out in this series of commentaries).



And to mark the importance the country places on women’s rights and gender equality, as it enters the next 50 years of independence.


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