MORE women in political representation, including in Parliament and the Senate, is key to women's issues being placed on the national agenda, as well as better representation of the interests and ideologies of both sexes.
“It is critical that regional Parliaments undergo demographic and democratic reforms, which will reflect the gender composition of their electorates,” former Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller is quoted as saying during her first public lecture as an honorary distinguished fellow of The University of the West Indies (UWI), titled “Gender Justice & Equity in a Post-Colonial Society. A Critique of the Ideology of Pulling Ourselves up by our Bootstraps”.
The event was hosted by the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at The UWI Regional Headquarters on April 25.
Noting that “if women are not at the decision-making table, their long-term contribution to gender justice will remain negligible”, Simpson Miller said that the 2017 Global Gender Gap Report ranked Jamaica 74 out of 144 countries in political empowerment.
“This ranking is clearly associated with the small number of women in Parliament, in the Cabinet and in the Senate,” she declared.
Calling for more women to be “brought to the table to influence the content of policies and legislation”, Simpson Miller said that having more women in Parliament would potentially strengthen the advocacy for women's specific concerns, including issues like domestic violence, sexual harassment, rape, incest, child maintenance, and others.
The former prime minister said that this conversation is taking place at a critical time, when global developments indicate “the environment potentially conducive to women's participation is under attack, because we still live in a painful patriarchal world”.
Quoting a March 2015 report of the UN Working Group on the issue of “Discrimination Against Women in the Law”, Simpson Miller said that it warned the international community that “we are seeing regressive signs, often in the name of culture, religion and traditions, that threaten the hard-fought progress in achieving women's equality”.
She noted that “not only do atrocities against women persist, but in many ways have become more insidious and invasive”, and that there are clear indications that despite some gains which have been made, rigorous attention and advocacy are still required to radically change the lives of women and girls globally.
“Global statistics point to a gendered asymmetry in political leadership,” Simpson Miller said, and in Jamaica, only 11 out of 63 or 17.5 per cent of women are in the Lower House — the highest number since universal adult suffrage.
She said that “more than disheartening, the figures challenge the objectives of international frameworks such as the Sustainable Development Goals, especially Goal 5 on gender equality, and also create challenges to commonwealth frameworks which are designed to increase women's representation in political institutions”.
The disparities, Simpson Miller said, are not only worrisome when considered against the established targets of these frameworks, but become even more so when considered against the backdrop of the “1995 Beijing Platform for Action”, which delivered that “…without the active participation of women and the incorporation of women's perspectives in all levels of decision-making, the goals of equality, development and peace cannot be achieved”.
She noted that in the last 20 years, more than 20 states within the Commonwealth have opted for the introduction of political gender quotas in an attempt toward creating an enabling environment for increasing the political participation of women.
While noting that “quotas are often an opportunity to create a level playing field”, Simpson Miller said “discourses around the introduction of gender quotas must be with a clear understanding that including women in the process of governance is not just about adding women, but more about women feeling sufficiently emboldened and empowered to take on the social issues as they sit at the table”.
Calling for “a template and mechanisms which challenge the subtle and diverse structural barriers to create development agendas that are sustainable”, Simpson Miller said that these agendas must lead to visible change in gender equality, and, as a result, have an impact on the political landscape.
She said several studies show that the value of ensuring that there is a critical mass of women in Parliament, whether through quotas or other means, is that once they are there, women will move beyond numerical reality to qualitative leadership and engage in a kind of governance that's transformational.
Declaring that she was “in no way suggesting that gender equity can only be achieved through the parliamentary process or through representational politics”, Simpson Miller said, “We tend to apply a narrow definition of politics, equating it with representational politics, and by doing so, pioneering women whose politics took the form of resistance are often ignored.”
“They are denied access to the corridors of power, and the streets sometimes became their political platforms; their house of representatives. When we employ a more revolutionary and inclusive definition, however, we see clearly that activism and agency must feature in any discussion on Caribbean women's politics.
“They must be discussed outside of the narrow confines of the post-slavery and post-independence activism and contemporary Caribbean feminisms. Finally, women must use their numbers for critical change,” Simpson Miller declared.