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Gender Equality in the Caribbean:
Illusion or Reality
November 18, 2004
The book Gender Equality in the Caribbean, Illusion or Reality aims to provide an update on the status of women in CARICOM countries. It follows CARICOM's participation in the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China, in 1995 in which they adopted the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. This book was published for the CARICOM Secretariat as part of their contribution towards the Beijing 5 year review process, following the conference. The introduction notes that although CARICOM governments articulated three main issues that affect women negatively (poverty, violence, and political representation), not much progress has been made since 1995.Male marginalization proponents such as Errol Miller would find little support in this book, as the introduction dryly notes that mention of gender equality elicits "concern about boys" even though education is just one of the key important areas in society.
The first chapter is titled Women, Power and Decision making in CARICOM Countries: Moving Forward from a Post- Beijing Assessment. It seeks to locate the struggle for gender equity within the context of globalization and the global thrust towards participatory development .Furthermore, the author goes on to highlight the main thrust of two CARICOM publications. Firstly, the CARICOM policy frame document, Towards Regional Policy on Gender Equality and Social Justice(1997) which committed to the 'building of new structures of power sharing at the household, community, national and regional levels, where both men and women can participate fully in the sustainable development of their societies'. Secondly, the CARICOM Post Beijing Regional Plan of Action to the Year 2000 also published in 1997 proposed that the government should take specific actions to increase women's representation in decision making in the public and private sector and take steps to monitor the progress made.
The author Linnette Vassell notes that 5 years since the publications, the need for structural reform, redefinition of power and a re-negotiation of our understanding of the practice of leadership is more urgent than ever .She seeks to explore the opportunities and possibilities for sustained peoples centred development and the empowerment of women and postulates that this cannot take place outside of the context of globalization and the effect on social movements and individual men and women in families and communities. She however deals with globalization in an unbalanced way as she focuses only on the negative effects such as the commodification of women's bodies and ignores how globalization may provide opportunities for greater women empowerment. For instance, the technological thrust of globalization may provide greater opportunities to mobilize women across the globe. She goes on to analyse the barriers to increased female participation in decision making under six subsidiary themes: Women in Political Leadership; the attitudes of both genders to women in political leadership; Gender equity within political life and political institutions; the need for a more inclusive style of governance and politics; the important of young women in formulating public policies: and increasing women's capacity to participate in decision making.
She questions the meaning of democracy and citizenship particular in reference to women, "whose human rights have been in many aspects undermined by the patriarchal nature of the state". Noting that one of the conclusions of the fifth Meeting of Commonwealth Ministers Responsible for Women's affairs held in 1996 called for 'no less than 30% of women in decision making in the political, public and private sector by the year 2005', the author offers quantitative data that gives the percentage of women participating in political decision making in different CARICOM countries. Overall the average is 16.8% of women, with Anguila having the lowest (0%) and Trinidad and Tobago having the highest female participation at 20.9 %. The data she presents is very convincing as it provides startling insights into the disparity in women's representation in the political decision making sphere. She concludes by advocating raising women's voices, increasing women's organisational capacity and new approaches to leadership.
In the second chapter Gaietry Pargass and Roberta Clarke discuss Violence Against Women: A Human Rights Issue Post Beijing Five Year Review. Noting that the fear of violence permeates women's daily lives, the authors argue that violence or the threat of violence violates the fundamental human rights of women. They argue that the conventional understanding of human rights does not take into account violence against women by non-state actors. They convey that gender violence is 'profoundly political and results from the structural relationships of power, domination and privilege between men and women in society. They go on to outline state and non-state responses to gender violence and observe that women's advocacy has done a lot to change inadequate laws.
The topics within the book, specifically the first two chapters articulate very valid and legitimate issues, but despite raising some valuable points, the analysis is generally weak and this was reflected in the recommendations made. In Chapter One, the authors dealt with the need to increase women's participation in politics and decision making which is a valid goal, but they give no hint of understanding that this does not necessarily equate to women empowerment, as it is merely women succeeding in the dominant patriarchal beliefs, processes and structures of society . Even though Vassell acknowledges that increased women's participation even at the highest levels has not changed the nature of politics nor outcomes in the daily lives of citizens, she fails to make this crucial link. The attempts of the chapter to analyse the status of women are stifled by dependence on male constructs and standards and thus reflects what I would call patriarchal feminism. Other than discussing how the male dominated social system have excluded and been hostile to female participation, there was no articulation of the effects that excluding the female perspective from decision making has had on the process of developing Caribbean nationhood and identity. Should women be included just for the sake of having more women onboard, or are there real benefits from increasing women's participation in decision making? This crucial question could have been addressed in the essay. This is very important as it is my opinion that the sidelining of the female perspective is one of the main factors underlying social ills, the wanton degradation of flora and fauna, and the tendency of Caribbean nations to mimic developed nations.
Secondly, to discuss the dynamics of women's empowerment, proper consideration of the factors that contribute towards disempowerment must take place. It is not enough to say 'cultural and institutional barriers constrain women from advancing' without addressing the ideologies that are at the core of such barriers. To this end, an understanding of history is important, particularly how female oppression and concomitant male domination came to be an integral part of Caribbean societies through the socialization processes that were created, controlled and legitimized according to the dominant Judeo-Christian norms. Related to this, is how the other social institutions such as the education system and the media have upheld the patriarchal orientation of society as well as the archetypes of hegemonic masculinities. Therefore, change whether in the sphere of increasing women's participation or combating gender violence can only come about with cognizance of the effects of all the factors highlighted above.
Studies and quantitative data are utilized to provide evidence that violence against women is a serious problem plaguing Caribbean societies. The authors posit that "male insecurity (financial, emotional or sexual) is one primary cause of violent behavior", as men try to maintain their position by resorting to compensatory violence. This is a convincing point as male insecurities with the resultant female abuse are intimately linked to the construction of masculinities in the Caribbean. One shortcoming of the chapter is that violence was not properly defined. Though there is passing mention of emotional and psychological abuse later in the chapter the abuse addressed is physical or verbal violence, or the threat of such. The notion of female oppression on an interpersonal level being physical or verbal violence ignores the emotional, financial and psychological abuse that women experience as result of existing in a male dominated society.
Interestingly, research is cited in which among the reasons that women do not leave abusive relationships are; commitment to the union, love for their partners, dependency on partners, embarrassment, family encouragement to cope with the problem, and fear of the abusive partner.There was no mention of how many women stayed in abusive relationships because they had children. This should have been considered alongside the above factors.
Furthermore, one major deficiency lay in the recommendations of both chapters, which omitted mentioning the need for initiatives leading to greater national dialogue on the status of women in the Caribbean, and on alternative leadership and gender abuse. Surely this would help address the other issues surrounding race/ethnicity, color and class that plague women and thus impinge upon their empowerment. How such issues affect on the ability to organize women's empowerment were not addressed. It may be ironic, that those leading the call for increased women's participation would most likely to be those who have been most educated into the ideologies of the elitist male education system rendering them less likely to value the opinions and experiences of ordinary women. There was not adequate consideration of this in the chapters reviewed though there was acknowledgement of the need to organize across race and class boundaries.
The quantitative data outlined in the both essays are its biggest strength and makes the book a worthy read, despite its weak analysis. This data may serve to alert readers to gender inequalities in the distribution of resources and decision making power, but it does little to connect these inequalities to its ideological underpinnings. The authors did not seem to be cognizant of the need to examine how patriarchy has shaped the attitudes and mental constructs of both men and women and thus there was no challenge towards empowering women and by extension men to address gender biases in their own thoughts and behaviors.