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How to empower Caribbean women for political leadership

ON International Women’s Day (IWD) 2023, earlier this month, themes chosen regionally and internationally reflected current related trends, most based on levels of global support of, or urgency for, empowering women and reducing the gender inequality gap.

How best to empower women is a question with as many answers as cases of related disempowerment, but since IWD started in 1975, the movement has grown considerably in the Caribbean, from fighting for attention to domestic violence and sexual abuse to Caribbean women today having largely earned successes from long fights for rights — individually and collectively — than thought 48 years ago.

Guyana was the first CARICOM nation to legislate proportional representation of women in the National Assembly, and the number of women being elected to top offices regionally can be seen in current CARICOM Secretary General, Dr Carla Barnett, as well as continuing appointments of women as Presidents and Governors-General, Chief Justices, Police Commissioners and other top-bracket public service jobs earlier treated like domains for “only men.”

The Organization of American States (OAS) and the Saint Lucia Government, on March 3, commemorated IWD 2023 by highlighting gender disparity in political participation and leadership on the island, through a one-day exercise in its House of Assembly (the national parliament), attended by women interested in politics, governance and leadership at the highest level in policy decision-making.

The event also attracted past and present female parliamentarians from both sides of the island’s two-party political divide, including former and current MPs, ministers, civil society representatives, women and youth.

Saint Lucia Senate President, Alvina Reynolds, says the exercise “exposed participants to some of the issues” and “strengthened and empowered them” — particularly young women – “to enter the political arena.”

According to the leading Senator: “It is something many women are still afraid of, but there is a need for that balance in the political landscape for decision-making at the highest level and through sessions like this, we are trying to make that happen.”

Lilly Ching Soto, resident representative of the General Secretariat of the OAS in Saint Lucia said, “Women’s political participation has significantly progressed over the last few decades. However, independent of the commitments adopted on women’s political rights, progress on their implementation has been uneven and slow.”

She noted too, the startling fact that “The World Economic Forum estimates that we will need another 132 years to close the gender gap.”

The Inter-American Commission of Women (CIM) also participated in the Saint Lucia exercise, which followed its own 95th anniversary (February 18).

Ching Soto said it was “a notable effort to make visible the under-representation of women in politics, and encourage dialogue with political actors about the existing challenges.”
Also, that it “seeks a path towards equality in political representation and leadership positions, with a view to creating pathways for the substantive representation of women in decision-making positions.”

OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, speaking before the event, posited that, “Although politics in the Americas has progressed in the inclusion of women in senior decision-making positions, there is still a long way to go.”

He reaffirmed the OAS’ “institutional commitment to eliminating the gender biases and global injustices that still exist,” citing creation (in 2022) of the High-Level Group to Promote the Implementation of the Recommendations of the Electoral Observation Missions on the Political Participation of Women; and the recently-established Plan for Gender Parity in Decision-Making Positions of the OAS General Secretariat.

Almagro said too that “Beyond a mere matter of justice, the benefit of parity and equality is for all of society — and not just for women.”

He added, “The demand that more women participate in decision-making must go hand-in-hand with men not only accepting the agenda for equality from a formal point of view, but also accepting the values that women bring to public life, to the extent that they contribute to the transformation of public affairs and place the challenge of equality at the forefront of decision-making.”

CIM’s Executive Secretary, Alejandra Mora Mora, said the event addressed many of the recommendations made by the 2021 OAS Electoral Observation Mission to Saint Lucia’s General Elections, “in terms of eliminating the barriers and creating enabling conditions for women’s full and equal participation in politics and decision-making.”

Ching Soto noted that “February 18 also marked the ‘Day of Women of the Americas’ and CIM’s first goal was to extend the right to vote to women.”

CIM, she added, “has played an essential role in the transformations that have occurred in the role of women in the Americas over last near-century; and it has the validity and the strength necessary to continue to play this role in the transformations still pending and necessary to change both minds and realities.”

The joint OAS and Saint Lucia effort is commendable, alongside all the other actions taken and statements made on IWD this year to honour Caribbean women and their roles historically, especially over the past five decades.

Guyana has also, this year, taken some more commendable steps, out of the ordinary, to empower women in jobs traditionally dominated by men – as in the 500 women being trained to handle heavy equipment and the 500 police officers trained to better handle domestic violence cases and complaints.

But while the pace of progress is commendable on many fronts, it still lacks sufficient steam in others, like translating the higher number of women in leadership in business and public affairs regionally to a commensurate increase in the number employed.

The road to empowering women in politics only grows shorter over time and it’ll still be some time before the realisation of the OAS Secretary General’s call for “men not only accepting the agenda for equality from a formal point of view, but also accepting the values that women bring to public life…” and Madam Soto’s call for attention to “the transformations still pending and necessary to change both minds and realities…”

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