Saturday, March 25, 2006
The Caribbean's New Political Strike Force
"Women hold up half the sky", is an ancient Chinese proverb which means that women are equal partners to men. In recent years since Dame Eugenia Charles of Dominica became the first female head of Government in the Caribbean, women in the Region have been dominating the world of politics. The recent victory by Portia Simpson Miller as both Leader of the People’s National Party and Jamaica’s first female Prime Minister, is another clear manifestation of this trend as the Caribbean electorate look to women for a greater variety of quality leadership and responsible governance in the affairs of the Region’s political and social statecraft.
Apart from Dame Eugenia and now Simpson Miller, others have made history in the highly contested gender political theatre; they include Janet Jagan (Guyana) Kamla Persad-Bissessar (Trinidad and Tobago), Billie Miller (Barbados), Grace Duncan (Grenada), Cynthia A. Pratt (Bahamas) and Dame Lois Marie Browne-Ewans (Bermuda).
The indomitable Dame Eugenia was dubbed the `Iron Lady of the Caribbean’ synonymous with Baroness Thatcher’s persona of ambition, drive and doggedness. Until her death in 2005, she remained committed to Regional Integration and was always concerned about the exclusion of women from Caribbean institutions – whether public or private. American-born Janet Jagan was the first female President of an English-speaking Commonwealth country until 1999 after succeeding her late husband, Dr. Cheddi Jagan, who was the fourth President of Guyana.
Persaud.Bissessar was the first woman on the Caribbean twin-island of Trinidad and Tobago to serve as acting Prime Minister in 2000 while holding the position of Attorney General. Billie Miller was Deputy Leader of the Barbadian Opposition in 1993-94, and since 1994, has been Deputy Premier and Minister of Foreign Affairs. Grace Duncan served as Deputy Premier and Minister of Health, Housing and Environment between 1996-98 in the Grenadian and was also Ambassador-at-Large for Caribbean Affairs from 1999.
Cynthia Pratt was Deputy Leader of the Opposition and Deputy Leader of the Progressive Liberal Democratic Party and served as Acting Prime Minister briefly in the earlier part of this century during the ilness of the Premier of Bahamas. Dame Marie Browne-Ewans of Bermuda is an exceptionally gifted political leader. She was the first female official Leader of the Opposition anywhere in the Commonwealth, heading her Party during 1968-72. Global (power) politics is still however, male dominated with fewer women having the chance to serve their country at the highest level despite their experience and formidable talent.
Interestingly, when Jamaican Portia Simpson Miller was elected leader of the ruling People’s National Party (PNP) her election made 2006 International Women’s Day appear more than symbolic. This new Jamaican phenomenon signalled a paradigm shift in politics, reasserting the cardinal relevance of gender equality and equity in the process of human development, including politics which is supposedly the art of `Big Business’.
However, besides the Jamaican community, little is known about Simpson-Miller, and in 2005, a journalist writing in the Jamaican Observer said this about that country’s `darling of grassroots politics’. “The polls have always been kind to Portia Simpson Miller, endorsing her again and again as Jamaica's most popular political personality. But, her ratings, and her passion, and her charisma, have never been enough. Perhaps overshadowed at points by her stridency and confrontational approach, last evidenced by her "no draw me tongue" warning to an opposition member.”
It is said that after the late Michael Manley and his successor, Percival J Patterson, Simpson-Miller remained the most popular of all politicians. Since 1978, she has been a stirring advocate for the poor, the dispossessed, the oppressed and those who remained voiceless and faceless in the corridors of power. During that time, she has been a top executive of the PNP and in the recent leadership race; she secured 1,775 votes, while her nearest rival, National Security Minister Dr. Peter Phillips, took 1,538 votes.
With respect to her portfolios, she has been Minister of Local Government and Sport since October 2002 and previously Minister of Labour, Welfare and Sports (1989 to 1993), when she first entered Parliament for the Parish of South West St. Andrew. She was Minister of Labour and Welfare (1993-1995), Minister of Labour, Social Security and Sports(1995-2000), and Minister of Tourism and Sports (2000 to 2002. Professionally, Jamaica’s `Iron Lady’has a First Degree in Public Administration and has an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters and is married to Errald Miller, formerly Chief Executive Officer of Cable & Wireless Jamaica Ltd.
Significance of Triumph
So then, what is the real significance of Simpson-Miller’s triumph over equality in gender politics in Jamaica? What does it say about democratic traditions in the Caribbean as a whole? The Region is usually criticized for its almost uncompromising emulation of outmoded political institutions, yet this new development in a country that has a population of nearly a quarter of the size of London, demonstrated that it can change its political tact based on the will of the electorate – the masses.
Since 1962, women have made significant advances in Jamaican politics although they continue to lag behind the men and according to some experts; women will continue to play the supportive role in politics unless significant changes are made. Joan Brown Clinton of the Jamaica Women's Political Caucus explained that explained that big interests are the ones who tend to support male politicians and are the ones who in turn want favours. “Women tend to be more interested in family and community issues politicians should be working in the interest of people and not in the interest of businesses and this is the main reason a party will never put a woman in a safe seat," she said.
In the last election in 1997, Jamaican voters elected only six of the 25 women seeking political office and only one was given decision-making position. Despite the small number of women, Mrs. Brown Clinton said party selection has become more women friendly over the years. Since the Caucus was born, she said political parties have become less discriminatory. "The biggest obstacle women face is that politics is run by the 'old boy’s network' and who has access to money," Joan Grant Cummings of the Coalition for Community Participation in Governance stated.
Executive Director of the Bureau of Women's Affair, Dr. Glenda Simms, supported this view. The economic situation she explained, restricted women’s ability to participate fully, and added that there is need for a change in attitudes of those who own capital as it regards women. Women make up 52 per cent of the Jamaican population and they have struggled for equality for years. “We don't want anymore paternalistic equity with the menfold, we must be there at the table, " Dr. Simms said
Dr. Simms expressed disappointment that after spending 13 years in the opposition, the JLP could not have attracted more women to the party. Jamaica is signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against women, adopted by the UN Assembly in 1979 which emphasizes the importance of equality between women and men in public life. (See http//www.idea.com). Despite this, women remain significantly under-represented in decision-making positions.
A new group, "Women's Manifesto Committee 2002" is calling for political leaders and parliamentarians to take affirmative action to increase the level of women's participation in politics and decision-making to 40 per cent. They hope that this will be reflected in the next senate and the fielding of female candidates in the local Government elections as well as on the Boards of State-owned enterprises. The group is also lobbying for the next Government to appoint a Minister with the sole responsibility of women's affairs.
One of the main challenges facing Simpson-Miller is the implementation of a policy of reform to enable women to advance unto legislative bodies to eradicate gender discrimination, illiteracy and poverty and a host of other socio-economic problems directly impacting on women. The key will be to have a consensus among various political and other interest groups on issues around gender equality.
Indeed, the elevation of Jamaica’s foremost activist to the apex of power, speaks volumes about the country’s mature politics in the 21st century. Against the customary rancour associated with political leadership contests, Simpson-Miller’s rivals were determined to `close ranks’ for the sake of the country’s future. The significance of Portia-Miller’s leadership triumph however, was neatly captured by a veteran columnist:
“The election of a woman to the top job symbolises the new self-confidence of Jamaica's democracy. This is in fact part of a worldwide trend that has seen women rise to political leadership in several countries. Chile's Michelle Bachelet, for example, became only the third woman to be elected leader of a country in Latin America, and the first who was not the widow of an illustrious husband. The fact is that in an increasingly complex and globalised world, women because of their socialisation are better suited to lead”
A Nation Beckons
Besides the late artist and `National Mother Figure’, Edna Marley, Jamaica has produced outstanding women in other professions; notably The Honourable Gloria Knight (now deceased), Senator in the country’s legislature and President of Jamaica Mutual Life Assurance Company. This author was privileged to interview Mrs. Knight who effused a quiet dignity, as well as classy attention to details. She led JMLAC with aplomb, proving that Caribbean women were just as good, if not better, than their male counterparts, in managing corporate public entities.
Another seasoned campaigner is Dr. Beverly Anderson-Manley, political scientist and gender consultant who was a former First Lady of Jamaica. In a conference to celebrate Third World women’s issues in 1991, she called for a gender reform globally and argued that women needed to dismantle the male control over Caribbean state institutions and make women's issues a top priority. Many seminar participants had been part of the movement to bring women's concerns to the forefront of Caribbean politics between 1975 and 1985, including Anderson-Manley, who headed the Jamaican People's National Party in the 1970s.
Professor Carolyn Cooper is another Jamaican and Caribbean pioneer in the social sciences realm - her highly original and acclaimed work on Jamaican popular culture has stimulated lively debates in the fields of Cultural Studies, Gender Studies, Caribbean Studies, Languages and Literature. Situated at the University of the West, she has converted Reggae from a purely based art form into a series of ground-breaking literary products, globally. After all, Jamaica is the `nerve centre’ of culture in the Caribbean and Kingston ranks highly as one of the leading musical capitals of the world.
Simpson-Miller will have to draw on these strengths and achievements to progress her country’s legacy on a sustainable path. A crime strategy involving the security forces, businesses and community organizations is top priority. Civil disobedience has resulted in the country being portrayed as lawless, indiscipline and generally out of control. Moves to improve crime statistics through the acquisition of modern equipment, as well as improvements in the detection of crime, are all vital to the nation’s confidence-building process.
The veteran politician will have to tackle impoverished communities especially in areas where young people are unable to access basic education and training opportunities, as well as employment opportunities, in order to deflect them away from crime and other forms of anti-social behaviour. Young people who are not inclined to pursue the academic route might be interested instead, in taking up relevant vocational courses that are beneficial to them and local communities.
The new Prime Minister must also build on the excellence model created by the Kingston Restoration Company (KRC). This multi-corporate agency has contributed to the redevelopment of Kingston and its surroundings through the creation of employment opportunities, skills training, business start-ups, capacity building and social housing, among other projects. Concerted efforts should be made to apply some of the regeneration practices in other areas of Jamaica to give a much-needed boost to locally deprived communities and their institutions.
Another focus should be to encourage partnerships between local firms and Jamaican companies in Britain, Europe and North America – this can facilitate technology transfers and exchange of Best Practice overall. Micro traders should be persuaded to be integrated into the formal economy, since their `parallel’ economic activities may undermine the economic, financial and tax revenue system of governance. Setting up of local enterprise networks and gradually facilitating access for dedicated entrepreneurs to the Jamaican Chamber of Commerce, is a useful way of modernizing the entire business and local economic development system, nationally.
Health, social welfare, the environment, science and technology, are among a rafter of issues that will come under the rearing spotlight of Simpson-Miller’s new Administration. Modernizing the Jamaican economy is very crucial – boosting exports in international markets, strengthening tourism and improving the physical infrastructure of the country are equally vital. The new PM will undoubtedly have to summon the resources, including high-order skills and experienced brains in the diaspora to support national reconstruction. A dynamic Skills Invest program is a worthwhile suggestion. Consideration must be given to improving the Jamaican Stock Exchange, a sector that is likely to generate tremendous economic benefits through its various financial intermediary services in stocks, shares, property and other `luxurious’ consumables.
Indeed the challenge for Simpson-Miller is enormous, but over the past 20 years, she has demonstrated that she possess the tried-and-tested attributes of a true stateswoman, coupled with the resilience and intelligence to achieve the vision of Jamaica being the best it can be. No one can deny however, that her mandate his onerous, but with her communitarian approach and a natural instinct for viable partnerships, Jamaica and her people will benefit immensely from the genuine stewardship of the country’s first female Prime Minister, Mrs. Portia Simpson-Miller.
© Christopher A. Johnson, March 2006