A wide cross section of women from different age groups, political affiliations, senators and parliamentary representatives gathered recently at the University of the West Indies (UWI) Open Campus to hold converse about an issue with implications for the country’s development.
The UWI Open Campus, in collaboration with Women Against Rape (WAR) and the Directorate of Gender Affairs, held a panel discussion under the theme “Increasing Women’s Participation in Political and Public Life.”
Opening the discussions was Minister responsible for Gender Affairs, Samantha Marshall, who described gender inequality as “one of the oldest and most primitive forms of injustice” in the world.
“In Antigua and Barbuda, there has been a low participation of women in representative politics. Since Antigua and Barbuda achieved political independence in November 1981, only four women have been elected to the House of Representatives and presently, only 14 percent of women have been appointed as Ministers compared to 86 percent of men.
“More women have been appointed to the Upper House of Parliament with 53 percent women compared to 47 percent of men,” she said.
Minister Marshall added that low participation of women in the political arena is “multifaceted and nuanced”, noting that stereotypes have devalued the women’s labour, disregarding their potential to become political leaders and created the false perception that positions of political leadership belong to men.
“To change the makeup of our Parliament, we must first change our harmful, discriminatory beliefs,” she said.
“Women and men continue to be socialized into systems that reproduce these inequalities. So, while there are no laws or policies prohibiting women candidates or politicians, the unfair expectations and established practices of recruitment by selection by political parties can disadvantage women candidates,” she noted.
The Gender Affairs Minister called for implementation of special temporary measures, as articulated in Article 4 of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
She added that while in the 1980s the Caribbean had two women as prime ministers, “The absence of special measures has left many of our countries far behind globally.”
Meanwhile, former MP for the St. George constituency and the first female elected into the House of Representatives in Antigua, Dr. Jacqui Quinn, argued that women continue to face a double standard in running for political office.
“Why are women in short supply at the top of elected office? History has shown that it is not that we lack toughness, management acumen or proper skillsets,” she said, adding that a study has shown that the issue is simply the “double standard” where women have to do more to prove themselves.
Dr. Quinn also laid the blame for this double standard in political office squarely with political parties for the lack of support of female candidates.
“I lay the blame squarely at the door of our political parties. For decades, the Boy’s Club, on both sides of the aisle, have paid
service to equity, to gender fairness and they closed the door to capable women who can outrun and outperform their less-than-adequate male counterparts,” she said.
Dr. Quinn also called on women to stop using what she considered the false notion of ‘women not supporting women’ in political office.
“For decades, we have bought into that false notion that women do not support women. For the 12 years that I served in active politics, my greatest supporters were women,” she said.
The creation of gender quotas, whether through legislative or through policy, was frequently spoken of during the discussion,
Panelist, Jeanette Charles made the case for quotas to be implemented in Antigua.
“Ultimately, an improvement in how we govern is why we need gender quotas. What I am advocating for is that gender quotas be one of the steps we take,” Charles said.
“If we put measures in place that increase women’s participation and if we put measures in place that increase meaningful participation of all persons, we will have a wider pool of talent to choose from so we will not be seeing the same old men doing the same old things,” she said.