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Elections, politics, women and power

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As the election date draws ever nearer and the campaign intensifies, it is timely for us to revisit the issue of the participation of our women in politics. Specifically, it is useful to examine the glaring contradiction between the level of female involvement at the lower levels and their eventual representation at higher levels.

We can begin with prospective candidates to contest the elections. In Trinidad and Tobago where elections will be held next Monday, fully one-quarter of the 131 candidates nominated to contest are women. {{more}}By contrast, the two major parties here are between them likely to field only ONE female candidate, the ULP having selected a female for the West Kingstown constituency. Interestingly, the opposition NDP has stated that they find it “impossible” to find women willing to contest the polls because of the prevailing political culture.

Yet, in the respective campaigns, the participation of women in general is at a high level. They are the operational, mobilization and grassroot fund-raising ‘chiefs’ in the parties, the bedrock on which both the ULP and NDP rest. Their attendance at party functions is exemplary and by and large it is on women that the parties depend to keep the party machinery running smoothly.

Why then do we not see more female candidates contesting elections? Is it just that they shy away from coming forward to compete nationally, or is there a failure on the part of both parties to proactively encourage and facilitate the representation of women on their election slates? With low participation among women being a perennial problem, it needs to be addressed in a positive manner. Gender balancing, however, should not be viewed simply as a cosmetic exercise done for political correctness. On the contrary, it is the only way to craft policies that guarantee that the needs of all are addressed.

There are many deep-rooted reasons why more women are not in the election line-up. One of them deals with the very nature of mass parties and the prevailing political culture. Our politics, especially when we get to elections, can be very nasty and very personal. Many women who possess the attributes to be excellent representatives of the people are reluctant to come forward because of the level of personal attacks. While it is true that men also suffer in this regard, with women in particular, a disproportionate amount of the attention seems to be placed on their personal lives and physical appearance.

The political parties and governments like to point to the number of women in senior positions in the public service and even those they have nominated to Parliament as evidence of their empowerment of women. While this is commendable, the real power, particularly in our Parliamentary dictatorship, lies with the elected political directorate.

Globally, as of August 15, 22 per cent of parliamentarians are women. There are only 11 female Heads of State and 14 women are Heads of Government. How can we continue to justify this in a modern world? Why must half of the world’s population continue to be so under-represented at the level of the exercise of political power?

The Organization of American States (OAS) and many non-governmental organizations have been clamouring for this matter to be addressed, as a matter of urgency. The OAS has gone so far as to put forward concrete suggestions in this regard, but we appear not to be listening, at least where the political parties are concerned. All kinds of excuses are put forward, but the reality is that there is lack of political will on the part of both mass parties to deal with the matter proactively.

Our women must take the lead in this, in forcing the parties which depend on their support to take positive steps to address the imbalance, including eliminating from their rhetoric the denegration and vilification of women in a manner which has its basis in their gender, and pushing for more policies that support families, so that more women would be given the flexibility to offer themselves for public service at the highest level.

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