On a global scale, very few women hold leadership roles in decision-making processes. This unfortunate reality holds true especially at the regional and national levels. Didier Ruedin, a scholar on population studies, notes that “in free and partly free countries, the proportion of women in parliament is closely associated with other measures of women’s status in society.” As the argument goes, if more women are integrated into society—and are viewed as respectable and capable leaders, equal to the social standing of men—then their participation in the political system is more likely.
And since 1945, when the United Nations Charter was adopted, equal opportunity for men and women has become a fundamental principle of human rights. In the gender equality movement, there have been significant changes over the years—particularly in the areas of entitlements and women’s roles in certain activities including decision making. In fact, the 1975 genesis of International Year for Women spawned international agreements benefiting women. Some such declarations include the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights, and the Millennium Development Goals, and they have been enacted to highlight the need for countries to act against discriminatory practices.
Yet many inequalities remain. Statistics show that:
• Two-thirds of the world’s illiterate people are female.
• Nearly 70 percent of the world's poorest people are female.
• Women represent a growing proportion of people living with HIV/AIDS.
• In only 16 countries in the world does female representation in national legislatures amount to larger than 25 percent.
The situation is no different here in the Caribbean; for example, women and girls are three times more at risk of HIV infection than men. Ruedin's argument, which states that the presence of women in decision making serves as a determining indicator of societal integration, is regrettably alive and well as the Caribbean has a low rate of female parliamentary representation. But on the other hand, in many countries women are still seen as less equal than men.
In Jamaica, of the 60 seats available in the Lower House of Parliament (the House of Representatives) women fill only eight. In the Upper House (the Senate) women occupy only five of the available 21 seats. Olivia Grange, minister of youth, sports and culture, who oversees gender and children affairs, is the only female with a ministerial portfolio in the current government.
According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, as of May 2011, Jamaica and Grenada rank 85 out of 134 countries in terms of the number of women represented in Parliament. Rwanda, Andorra, Sweden, South Africa, and Cuba are the top five countries with over 40 percent of women in the lower house of their legislatures. Guyana, with 30 percent of their lower house represented by women, leads the Caribbean at number 24. The other countries are: Trinidad & Tobago (27th), Dominican Republic (52nd), St Vincent & the Grenadines (75th), Dominica (90th), Bahamas (92nd), Haiti and St Lucia (96th), Antigua & Barbuda (99th), Barbados (102nd), Suriname (104th), St Kitts & Nevis (120th), and Belize (134).
The Caribbean has also made some progress in terms of their heads of state by electing female prime ministers. Kamla Persad-Bissessar from Trinidad & Tobago is currently the only female prime minister in the Caribbean and has been in office since May 26, 2010. But Mary Eugenia Charles was Dominica’s prime minister from 1980 to 1995—serving as the first female premier in the Caribbean and the second black female head of state in the world.
Other female heads of state on our sub-region have included:
• Claudette Werleigh, Haiti, November 1995 to February 1996
• Janet Jagan, Guyana, March 1997 to December 1997
• Portia Simpson-Miller, Jamaica, March 2006 to September 2007
• Michèle Pierre-Louis, Haiti, September 2008 to November 2009
Based on the ranking of Caribbean countries in terms of female parliamentary and prime ministerial representation, it is reasonable to assume that the Caribbean has not done enough to remove social, economic and political barriers to equality. Doing so would be a critical step forward in ensuring that all genders equally contribute to and benefit society at large.
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