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Women’s economic achievements, challenges since independence

Sunday, August 12, 2012

This is the sixth in a series of commentaries on what 50 years of independence has meant for women’s rights and gender equality.


Caribbean women’s economic status cannot be separated from prevailing social norms and values related to their responsibility for the home and family. Since the period of African slavery, Caribbean family forms have not conformed to the European nuclear family “ideal.” Studies in the 2000s showed that nearly half of households in Jamaica and Barbados were headed by women. And it is estimated that 31–59 per cent of Caribbean children live in female-headed households. These households have a high incidence of poverty, which social welfare programmes simply fail to address adequately.


Last week’s report that 35 “delinquent dads” were arrested for owing over $172,000 in child support represents the tip of the iceberg. What astonished me were the blog comments urging authorities to “gih the men ah break nah” or the claims that “women asked for it” (ie sex), and therefore presumably deserved to be saddled with the sole responsibility for maintaining their children.


A single mother was moved to write: “I have borne the full brunt of feeding, clothing and providing for [my children’s] every need. Many requests have fallen on deaf ears … and I have not once taken him to court to demand or request maintenance.… Many of us [women] maintain our children without input from the men who helped impregnate us.”


A number of legal reforms have been won in response to the high numbers of female-headed households, common-law unions, visiting male partners, and children born out of wedlock. T&T’s Cohabitational Relationships Bill 1998 seeks to address “the realities of conjugal life” and “redress some of the injustices and hardships caused when parties in common-law unions do not recognise their obligations to each other.” And the Distribution of Estates Act, 2000 responds to the inheritance rights of unmarried women, common-law spouses, and children born out of wedlock.


Caribbean women have been economically active since African slavery and Indian indentureship, and continue to participate at relatively high levels in the paid labour force. And since independence, girls and women have taken greater advantage of educational opportunities than boys and men.


But while women have been entering new fields, they are still concentrated in ‘traditional’ occupations with low wages and poor working conditions. A 2010 Inter-American Development Bank report indicated that in Jamaica women were concentrated in four sectors: commerce (30.7 per cent), education and health (22.6 per cent), domestic service (15.3 per cent), and primary activities (12.1 per cent).


The Government and private sector need to do much more to enable women to strike a balance between their responsibility for the home and paid work. They need daycare centres for pre-school children, after-school centres for school-age children, and assistance in caring for the elderly and disabled if they are expected to be effective members of the paid workforce.


In the agricultural sector, Christine Barrow asserts that connotations such as “peasant” for “male peasant” and “farmer” for “male farmer” are at the core of women being written out of agriculture. And when their involvement is affirmed, it is not as “farmers” but as “housewives and mothers” who produce food for their families in their “kitchen gardens.”


UN Women found that Caribbean women have “limited access to and control over the means of production—land and credit in particular.” And Guyana’s Ministry of Agriculture stated that, “If women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20–30 per cent.”


Women entrepreneurs are found mainly in the informal sector. Sookram and Watson showed that while men also engage in the informal economy, they tend to be located at the “business” end with high outputs or remuneration. Women on the other hand, are found mainly at the “household” end. A 2001 study of three Caribbean countries indicated that women dominated the manufacturing, wholesale and retail trade sectors in enterprises such as food processing, catering, garment construction and hairdressing.


Catherine Kumar, CEO of the T&T Chamber of Industry and Commerce, has been quoted as saying that “women have progressed and are being considered for the top positions. It is just that we need to see more women wanting to take up these positions.” What is missing from this statement is why this is so, and what more needs to be done.


Strategies for women’s economic empowerment have tended to focus on policies, projects, training and mentorship. The question that needs to be answered is whether these are sufficient, given the obstacles they face. More also needs to be done to advance women’s participation at the highest levels of the economic and corporate sectors in the Caribbean. While some women have become CEOs of large companies and have forged spaces in  tourism, agriculture, and the oil and gas industry, there are few analyses of women’s location within the major sectors of Caribbean economies.


And compared to men, who dominate discussions on macro-economic and trade policy, women have tended to be silent. There is an urgent need for women’s voices and perspectives to be heard on economic development. It has been reported that the new Minister of Finance is interested in promoting economic growth. This author argues for the need to balance growth with equity.



Economic policies that support both women’s responsibility for the home and family (through, for example, daycare and after-school centres) as well as their business endeavours, would not only enhance gender equality but also increase economic growth. And put us in the running among countries such as Australia, Canada, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore.


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