Bettering the gender balance is ongoing work


Tuesday, March 19, 2019

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On March 8, 2019 the world commemorated International Women's Day (IWD) under the campaign theme ''Better the balance, better the world”. The significance of IWD cannot be overstated as it serves as a powerful reminder of the monumental strides that women across countries, cultures and time have made on numerous fronts amidst universal gender inequalities which have long operated as formidable barriers to the actualisation of their full potential.

However, while it is absolutely critical that we recognise and celebrate these strides, including the remarkable achievements of a number of trailblazing women as important signifiers of progress in the struggle for full equality and inclusion, there is much work to be done before the important goal of the gender equality is realised.

Certainly, women in this country still grapple with very real issues that present significant challenges to their ability to claim space as true and equal partners in the project of nation-building, as well as to achieve economic parity with men. One such issue which assumes particular significance, given the theme of IWD 2019 #Balanceforbetter, is their alarming under-representation at the zenith of leadership (political and otherwise), and decision-making in key spaces of power and influence. Then there is the menace of gender-based violence which affects women disproportionately, and severely stultifies their capacity to fully and equally enjoy their fundamental human rights and therefore presents itself as a serious impediment to the achievement of gender balance.

Poor representation in spaces of power

At present, women are woefully under-represented in Jamaica's Parliament as well as in other spheres of leadership, power and influence. This may be a particularly hard pill to swallow for some, especially given that Jamaica either currently has or has had a woman serving, at some point, as attorney general, director of public prosecutions, minister of foreign affairs, and even prime minister.

While, on the face of it, this may paint a picture of virtual equality between women and men in leadership and decision-making, the data have been particularly helpful in piercing this veneer of equality by reflecting what actually obtains in reality. Data presented in a study published by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, titled “Women in Parliament in 2016: The year in review”, revealed that Jamaican women account for only about 17.5 per cent of our parliamentarians and approximately 23.8 per cent of our senators, despite comprising approximately 51 per cent of the Jamaican populace.

With respect to women's representation in extra-parliamentary spaces of power and influence, a 2015 International Labour Organization (ILO) study entitled “Women in Business and Management, Gaining Momentum” found that of the 1,200 companies surveyed in Africa, Asia and Latin American and Caribbean, Jamaica recorded the highest percentage of women managers. However, the study was also keen to point out that this predominance of women as managers was only concentrated at the level of middle management, and women were still noticeably absent, and in some cases excluded, from the highest levels of management in many companies.

Interestingly enough, the study also explored the implications of the gender imbalance in the performance of unpaid caring work within the home by women in relation to men for the achievement of gender balance in business. In particular, the study indicated that in 10 countries women across Latin America and the Caribbean, spent on average between 1.7 and 3.5 times more hours (ie, double to triple the time) on unpaid care work relative to men, regardless of whether they also worked outside the home. In this regard, it also underscored the insidious ways in which stereotypical conceptions of “appropriate” gender roles for women and men, within the public and private spheres, also affected women's prospects for advancement to high level managerial positions at a rate comparable to that of men.

However, quite apart from their appalling low representation at the apex of leadership and decision-making, both within and outside of politics, women continue to be disproportionately affected by the scourge of gender-based violence in Jamaica. The true extent of the problem, which appears, paradoxically, to be hyper-visible — insofar as our newspapers are replete with incidents of domestic “disputes” turned fatal — yet invisible, remains extremely difficult to ascertain particularly in a socio-cultural context where there is widespread under-reporting by victims because of, among other things, stigmatisation, institutional inefficacy and, in some cases, financial dependence on the abuser.

The existence and prevalence of gender-based violence, which encompasses acts of domestic violence, sexual harassment, rape and sexual assault, and femicide, among others, pose a major threat to the promotion and achievement of gender equality. The connections between gender-based violence and gender inequality are so potent that the executive director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo- Ngcuka, has said that they are “two sides of the same coin”. In a presentation delivered at a Violence Prevention Conference in 2017, she noted that gender-based violence perpetuates gender inequality and, together with the adverse gender norms and stereotypes that drive the violence, anchors its resilience in many societies across the world.

Unfortunately, despite its ubiquity, the issue of gender-based violence has yet to be given the priority attention it merits by policy and decision-makers at all levels. A tangible, yet symbolically important, example of this ambivalence towards the issue is reflected by the fact that there is currently only one major shelter, which is currently operated by non-government organisation Woman Inc serving as a place of refuge for victims of domestic violence as well as their children. This untenable state of affairs subsists even as numerous promises have been made by our elected representatives to construct additional shelters to better respond to the needs of victims of domestic violence, who oftentimes cannot simply leave an abusive situation because they have no alternative options for safe housing.

In a related vein, the apparent reluctance of decision-makers to enact legislation to afford full protection against sexual harassment in diverse contexts, despite its prevalence within our society, also reflects a strong apathy towards the issue of gender-based violence, which they are duty-bound to purposefully tackle and ultimately eradicate.

So, in the final analysis, notwithstanding that significant progress has indeed been made by our nation's women in various areas of social, cultural and political life, the existence of certain realities (including under-representation in critical leadership and decision-making spaces as well as the prevalence of gender-based violence, among others) tells us that there remains much work to be done.

Quite significantly, these realities speak powerfully to the fact that bettering the balance between women and men must be seen as ongoing work that will only be finished when women are able to claim their space as equals at the decision-making table in all respects, are no longer constrained in the enjoyment of their human rights by any manifestation or threat of violence and are truly seen and respected as partners in the process and project of nation-building.

Amanda Quest is a law student and freelance researcher with an interest in human rights issues. Send comments to the Observer or

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