THIS year’s observance of International Women’s Day is organised under the theme: “Balance for Better.” It calls for gender balance in income equality, in leadership, in safety and health, in education and really, in all areas of life.
In Guyana, the concept of women championing their rights is nothing new. Kilkenny (1991) acknowledged that since 1946, Janet Jagan and Winifred Gaskin formed the Women’s Political and Economic Organisation (WPEO) as part of their efforts to ensure the political education and organisation of women in British Guiana and to promote their economic welfare and political and social emancipation.
These were women that championed the rights and development of women and struggled to include the demographic into the country’s political leadership- who later became part of the two major political parties with Jagan even becoming President of Guyana in 1997.
And Cecelia McAlmont (2001) noted that since 1946, women have been involved in political leadership- albeit fewer than men- but this number has been increasing during each cycle of Parliament. In fact, following the most recent regional and general elections in 2015, Women in National Parliament index had rated that Guyana’s female representation was ahead of many countries in the world. Here, Guyana recorded 34 percent female representation.
But while it is all good and well-meaning to encourage women to ascend to these leadership positions, it must also be acknowledged the negative side of this.
Cecelia McAlmont (2011), in her study of the participation of Guyanese women in politics in Parliament before 1992, noted: “… women tended to be appointed to “social ministries” relating to health, welfare, education, culture, sports, and women’s affairs. These meetings dealt with traditional feminine issues but had little clout.”
Even to date, we can see that this has continued. Female largely occupy positions in these ministerial positions. There are some cases that stand out, for e.g., Ministers Annette Ferguson and Simona Broomes hold ministerial positions in the Public Infrastructure and Natural Resources Ministries respectively. Even though they are only the junior ministers here, they are at the helm of traditionally male industries.
And it goes without saying that I will acknowledge the historic 102 women in the current United States Congress, as well, when talking about women in leadership.
I am utterly in awe of so many of those women- particularly the ‘Fresh(wo)men’ like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But while the world celebrates their election and accomplishments in this regard, we must also recognise the microaggressive behaviours that they are constantly faced with- I mean just look at how Ocasio-Cortez was called out for a fairly normal video of her dancing as a college student.
This is microcosmic of the wider situation of women in leadership; women are held to a higher standard and are afforded less freedom to make mistakes.
What is important for me, in understanding the gendered dynamics of women in leadership, is that appreciation of the institutional knowledge women possess as a marginalised demographic. I believe that they are able to lead better because they understand what it is like to have less yet, in many cases, do more.
Whether it is receiving less pay, fewer opportunities or on the flip side, more discrimination, I truly believe that women bring insight into these issues to the table.
At home, we are not short of amazing female trailblazers and champions. And that extends far beyond political participation. In fact, I’ll say that in Guyana and the Caribbean, the concept of women having less and doing more is truly illustrated. Women have unique roles to play in this society and one of my favourite points of reference when talking about women in the Caribbean is Edith Clarke’s “My mother who fathered me”.
The title of the study encapsulates the reality in the Caribbean. Women have been the head of the household; they have been the providers and caregivers. And while in the traditional family system the males have been at the head of the household, in the Caribbean a great majority of the families are headed by women. Of course, this is owed to those plantation experiences that created a pervasive situation of male absenteeism, but the bottom line is that we have a society that is built upon women- working doubly hard.
And in pushing for ‘balance’ in the local context, I think it becomes imperative to consider all of these factors. Women have been agitating for their rights and involvement locally for a very long time- even in light of the microaggressions they might endure. And more than that, women have been the foundation of society and ought to be given greater recognition.