This year, the theme for International Women’s Day (8 March, 2021) is, “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world.” It celebrates the tremendous efforts by women and girls around the world in shaping a more equal future. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has compounded challenges to gender equality. The UN Secretary-General’s recent report reveals that in several countries where women have been in leadership positions, the response to the pandemic has been particularly effective. For instance, Heads of Government in Denmark, Ethiopia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, New Zealand and Slovakia [and I add Barbados] have been widely recognized for the rapidity, decisiveness and effectiveness of their national response to COVID-19, as well as the compassionate communication of fact-based public health information. Yet the global recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, highlights the gender gaps that remain. The UN SG's Report recognizes that while women’s full and effective participation and leadership in all areas of life drive progress for everyone, they are still underrepresented in public life and decision-making. Women for example are Heads of State or Government in 22 countries, and only 24.9 per cent of the membership of national parliamentarians are women.
The Caribbean has an opportunity to make its collective voice resonate at the 65th Session of Commission on the Status of Women, March 15-26, 2021. The Session is aligned to the theme of the 2021 World Women’s Day with a focus on SDG #5, “Women's full and effective participation and decision-making in public life, as well as the elimination of violence, for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls”. It also relates to the flagship Generation Equality campaign, which calls for women’s right to decision-making in all areas of life, equal pay, equal sharing of unpaid care and domestic work, and ending all forms of violence against women and girls, and health-care services that respond to their needs.
Pioneers of Caribbean Women Leadership
In its Blog, celebrating World Women's Day 2020, GOFAD highlighted as essential reading the seminal study, The UWI Gender Journey: Recollections and Reflections coedited by three of the Caribbean's foremost scholar-advocates, Professors Jocelyn Massiah, Elsa Leo Rhynie and Barbara Bailey. https://www.globalonefrontier.org/blog/2020-world-womens-day-prompts-reflections-and-recollections-on-women-and-development-in-the-caribbean. The study emphasized the role of Caribbean pioneers under the banner, Woman and Development (WAND). They included Peggy Antrobus, Dame Neita Barrow, Lucille Mair, Kathleen Drayton, Nesta Patrick, Magna Pollard and the succeeding generation of Caribbean women leaders. Among them, Rhoda Reddock, Eudine Barriteau, Patricia Mohamed, Verene Sheppard, Lieth Dunn and Rosina Wiltshire. It is important to note the prominent roles of the pioneers and their successors in fashioning the landmark Beijing Platform for Action in 1995 and how they contributed to its consolidation 1996-2010. These women leaders initiated the roll out of undergraduate and graduate women studies programmes, accelerated capacity building in research, the establishment of a robust data base to sustain analysis and policy making, piloted the emergence of new programme areas such as gender and sexuality, construction of masculinities, the making of feminisms, and the blossoming of outreach activities within and beyond the academy. Such outreaches include national-level initiatives on gender policies, gender awareness and training women in leadership. Their active participation in the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination (CEDAW) and in the creation of Development Alternatives with Women in the New Era (DAWN] also coincided with increasing numbers of movements at country level advocating for women's rights and gender equality.
COVID-19 and its Challenges to Gender Equality
The challenges confronting women leaders are compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. The IMF 2020 Report shows that in the COVID-19 era economic conditions are worsening, and women are hit hardest. With a predicted 3-4% increase in unemployment, the crisis could push an additional 25% more people into poverty.
Therese Turner Jones, IDB Caribbean Regional Representative in an article, "The hard facts about Gender Equality in the Caribbean" in Caribbean Development Trends (March 13, 2020), shows that in many countries of the Anglophone Caribbean, the life of a woman holds a singular paradox. Women have years of secondary school education and enroll in tertiary education institutes more than men. "Yet once outside the gilded doors of academia women are confronted by challenges such as lower pay, lack of parental support, insufficient protection from violence and harassment, and other obstacles to career progression". In addition, female students at UWI make up more than 65% of the 2016-2019 graduating classes, but Caribbean women make 60 to 70 cents for every dollar made by men. Only in Barbados, Belize and Guyana does government pay 100% of maternal leave. The lack of this essential benefit in most Caribbean countries is disadvantageous to women since it negatively effects their career path, decrease their income, and may lower their pensions upon retiring.
These inequities are further compounded by the digital transformation ushered in by the COVID-19 era that drives unequal outcomes in education, access to healthcare and financial services. Empirical studies by UNECLAC, the IMF and the World Bank all illustrate how the social and economic inequalities that affected women prior to COVID 19 are further amplified.
According to the World Bank Women, Business and the Law 2020 report, the Caribbean rankings on the gender equality index are variable. Guyana is the exception, with a score of 100, with a legal framework that establishes equal pay for women and men and no constraints on a woman’s decision to work where jobs are available. The report shows that the average labor force participation rate amongst women aged 15-64 is 73.5%. This compares favorably to the global average of 52.3%. However the workplace indicator based on levels of integration of women in the workplace and pay indicator in relation to men, result in a range of comparative rankings for Caribbean Countries as follows:
Meeting the Challenges with the March to Equal Participation
In a fascinating virtual discussion coordinated by the Caribbean Women in Leadership (CIWiL) and chaired by Dylis McDonald (March 1, 2021), the panelist reinforced the major reasons why women leadership matters and the rationale for the march to equal participation. Among their proposals include:
CIWiL has launched a project for a children's book aimed at celebrating the contribution of Caribbean women leaders to the development of the region. https://qrco.de/bbv7q8. Herein lies the opportunity for increasing awareness and building partnerships that will ensure the legacy of pioneer women leaders and their successors, expand beyond recognition given in the CARICOM Triannual Awards for Women (See the 12 recipients since the inauguration of the awards in 1990 https://caricom.org/awards__recognition/triennial-awards/ ). It will also help to escalate the endeavor toward building a bridge of hope for the sustainability of gender equity which includes partnerships with men and boys.
Conclusion: Opportunity to Build a Bridge of Hope for Women Leadership
The foundation exists for Caribbean Women in leadership to surge. Challenges for gender equality are well defined. Success rests on backward and forward linkages, ensuring that strong institutions and leadership potential exist to catalyze the surge.
For example, the Spouses of CARICOM Leaders Action Network (SCLAN), since its inauguration in 2016 was led by First Lady Simplis Barrow of Belize as Chair and First Lady Sandra Granger of Guyana as Vice-Chair. SCLAN commands international platforms, collaborates with the Organization of African First Ladies for Development (OAFLAD) and attracts resources for programmes to reduce gender equality, violence against women and girls, and improve the health of women and girls including access to sexual and reproductive health and rights. In a recent handover of leadership, First Lady Patricia Minnis of The Bahamas has assumed the Chair of SCLAN supported by First Lady Sharon Rowley of Trinidad and Tobago, and First Lady Eloise Gonsalves, St Vincent and the Grenadines. SCLAN's advocacy especially in these COVID times, will be vital in asserting the role of the Caribbean in global arenas such as the UN General Assembly and the upcoming Commission on the Status of Women.
But for advocacy to be most effective, it needs to be anchored in a series of prerequisites that apply to SCLAN and other organizations that promote Women Leadership matters. These include:
These are the pillars on which the Caribbean can revive the vibrancy of wome1n and development toward a robust gender agenda, the drive toward women in leadership and achieving gender equality. In the words of First Lady Sharon Rowley, "this is the time to Build that Bridge of Hope".
Edward and Auriol Greene Directors, GOFAD.