TRINIDAD: Women Demand a Real Gender Policy
PORT OF SPAIN, Mar 8, 2010 (IPS) - A few days after she created history by becoming the first woman to be elected as opposition leader and the leader of a major political party in Trinidad and Tobago, Kamla Persad Bissessar was kicking mad at the "misunderstanding" of the role of women and their contribution to society.
"We comprise most of the teachers and girls outstrip boys in academic performance, yet they do not hold down many top positions in the corporate world or in politics," she told delegates attending the Caribbean Football Union's (CFU) 33rd Congress late last month.
Speaking on the topic "The Changing Role of Women", Persad-Bissessar, 57, said that one of her first tasks, if she is elected prime minister, will be to establish a national commission on the status of women that will address the socio-economic issues facing them.
This commission, she promised, would be different from the "ineffective gender board that has been established by government."
"It will examine and make policy recommendations, analyse current programmes and ensure that they are implemented," she said, reiterating that while women had made significant strides, they were still engaged in a battle for equality and justice.
Persad-Bissessar, who is line to become the third woman ever to head a government in the English-speaking Caribbean, after Portia Simpson Miller in Jamaica and the late Dame Eugenia Charles of Dominica, should know.
In 2007, in an address to a women's forum, she noted "when God created woman, he did not take from the foot of Adam, because then woman would have felt inferior; he did not take from the head, because then woman would feel she was the boss; he took a rib from the side so that together men and women could stand side by side equally."
But during the campaign for the leadership of the main opposition United National Congress (UNC) that governed this oil-rich twin island republic from 1995-2001, former prime minister Basdeo Panday, who formed the party 20 years ago, likened her to a drunkard incapable of leading a country, much less a political party.
One newspaper columnist said he did not believe she is the "brightest, most articulate, people-oriented person in the party" and questioned whether she has proven to be someone who would stand "strong" on matters of principle.
"When a sexist campaign was obviously targeted at her, she said that she spoke as a politician, but also as a grandmother, sister and mother, and ...yet, in scoring such a sweeping victory, she became the country's first female party leader, cracked the glass ceiling in public life and avoided a patriarchal politics which seeks to win at all costs," wrote feminist and university lecturer Dr. Gabrielle Hosein.
"Unexpectedly, her success also signalled an acceptance of gender equality among women and men of all generations and ethnicities. In many ways, her victory was one for Caribbean feminist movements," Hosein said.
Political scientist Professor Selwyn Ryan noted that Persad-Bissessar's momentum during the campaign had been sustained by the gender factor.
"Many women believe that the time has come to cash in the dividends which they have earned. They are next in the queue," he said.
Novelist and essayist Dr. Merle Hodge, who has written extensively on Caribbean family and women issues, said that while the election of Persad-Bissessar is a "milestone" for women in politics, "the majority of women in parliament have not achieved or displayed the kind of gender sensitivity that one would expect, so we women who are not busy trying to be one of the boys can get on with the business of advancing women's issues and not be afraid."
The Network of Non-Governmental Organisations of Trinidad and Tobago for the Advancement of Women says it is urging "more women to take an active part in decision-making at all levels of our society so as to effectively influence and change not only the political, but the national development climate of the country."
Since 2007, the group has campaigned to get more women elected as legislators. It said that the election of Persad-Bissessar "suggests that the electorate is maturing into greater awareness of the value of gender."
Her "clean, clear and focused campaign also signals the kind of 'new politics' that women can bring the political landscape," the group noted.
But over the weekend, the group expressed disappointment that the Trinidad and Tobago government has not developed a comprehensive gender policy for the country.
Addressing a forum to mark the 25th anniversary of the grouping, coordinator Hazel Brown described the draft policy agenda presented by the Patrick Manning government in 2009 as "garbage".
She said the draft was unacceptable because it failed to address many important issues that affect women, such as sexual harassment, labour discrimination, employment and poverty alleviation.
The Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action (CAFRA) has also been critical of the draft policy, noting that while it provides support and guidance to governmental and civil society agencies in dealing with gender and development issues and in responding to national, regional and international obligations, it "does not provide measures dealing with or relating to the issues of termination of pregnancy, same-sex unions, homosexuality or sexual orientation – issues for which we will continue to lobby."
Advocates for Safe Parenthood: Improving Reproductive Equity (ASPIRE), which is campaigning for safe abortion for women here, said that while over the past 20 years women have advanced in terms of access to education as well as professionally, there has been no progress with issues like domestic violence.
"Women are still living under abusive conditions, killed in bed, marginalised in poverty," said prominent attorney and ASPIRE chairperson, Lynette Seebaran-Suite, adding "We need to break this cycle. We still have that old-style oblivion to gender issues."
A 2008 International Labour Office Report noted that women in the public service in Trinidad and Tobago are paid slightly more than their male counterparts, but in the private sector, they get about four-fifths of the salaries paid to men who do the same job.
The report prepared by Rhoda Reddock, the deputy principal of the St. Augustine campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI), and Yvonne Bobb-Smith, a former lecturer at the Ryerson University and New College, University of Toronto, noted that "differences in women's and men's income were greatest at the senior legislative and management level."
But they found that while between 1998 and 2000 "there were limited improvements in all sectors", it was not the case for professionals "where there was some deterioration".
Last week, a new report by the International Labour Organisation noted that that more than a decade after the 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing adopted an ambitious global platform for action on gender equality and women's empowerment, gender biases remain deeply embedded in society and the labour market.
But the report, entitled "Women in labour markets: Measuring progress and identifying challenges", noted there had been an increase in female employment in all but two regions, with the largest gain seen in Latin America and the Caribbean
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