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Women and the Constitution

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One aspect of the constitutional debate which needs to be heightened is that of a sectoral approach, in so far as the proposed constitutional changes, or indeed the present provisions, affect specific sectors of our society. In this, responsibility and initiative ought to reside with civic and community organisations.{{more}} They ought to be the ones organising discussions and getting-to-know-it sessions where citizens can be familiarized with the content of the Constitutions, current and proposed, so that we can be better informed to make choices on November 25. We seem to be placing too much reliance on talk show hosts and those who frequent the air waves daily for guidance. There is nothing wrong with guidance, much wrong with misguidance, but nothing can beat our own willingness to find out for ourselves, to exchange views with our peers.

Women make up more than half of our population. Many of them have to fill in for the droves of irresponsible men who are merely biological fathers and as such are single-parent Heads of households (All the Christianity we profess as a society has not been able to change this sad aspect of our reality). It means that not only numerically, but socially, women are a potent factor in our social development. But historically, the male-dominated forms of society we have inherited from western capitalist values have led to legal and de facto discrimination against women. This even had constitutional expression which our societies have been struggling to redress all these years of the continuing process of decolonisation.

It is this history of discrimination which gave rise to the women’s movement focussing on equity and equality, campaigning for an end to discrimination based on sex just as it is opposed on the basis of race or religion. That women’s movement in the Caribbean has had its highs and lows, its moments of glory and solid achievement. In latter years, however, it seems to have lost much of its cohesion and focus, especially here in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. This is a pity since opportunities are being provided for the input of organised women in all matters of national policy, including constitutional reform. In my view, these are being insufficiently utilised.

The National Council of Women (NCW) has been represented in the entire constitutional reform process, first on the CRC and later on its successor, the CRSC. The records of those bodies and of its meetings with the Committee of the Whole House (Parliament) would show that the NCW”s representative, Ms. Muriel Byam, has been one of the staunchest members of the Committee, hardly missing a meeting, including those which dragged into the dead of night. Other women on the CRC, such as Sisters Silma McLean and Alice Mandeville of the trade union movement, Dr. Lenoir Dacon-Anderson representing the Medical Association, barrister Nicole Sylvester, a nominee of the Opposition Leader, and Miriam Roache and Audrey Scott, nominees of the Prime Minister, all made important contributions to the reform process. Yet there is a sense that at a mass level the women’s organisations themselves are not sufficiently active in deepening the discussions and spreading the knowledge.

Over the years, there is no disputing the fact that much progress has been made in the social and economic advancement of women in our society. Yet male dominance is still at the heart of our political system and economic hierarchy. Perhaps, in addition to historical factors, the nature of our often abusive, political system, is a barrier to more women being involved in competitive politics, but shouldn’t that also be a constitutional concern? Should our Constitution provide a framework to encourage wider participation of our women in our politics at the decision-making level? I say decision-making , for women are very much involved in the day-to-day politics, campaigning fund-raising etc. It is at the leadership level that their absence is felt. As a consequence, our country is the worse off without this essential partner.

A look at some statistics for Caribbean countries where women’s representation at the highest level, Parliament, makes interesting reading. For female Parliamentarians, Cuba leads the way. Forty-three per cent of their Parliamentarians are women. This compares favourably with the worldwide high of 47% (Sweden). Other notable percentage representation has been achieved in Trinidad and Tobago (33%) and Bahamas (25%) while SVG has 3 women among its 21 MPs. In the area of female Ministers, Scandinavian countries lead the way with a generally more than 50% representation. The previous Grenada government (2007 statistics) led the Caribbean with a 50/50 split, with T&T(36%) and Barbados (28%) showing promising signs. In our country Ministers Renee Baptiste and Girlyn Miguel are the two females among 10 male counterparts as Ministers.

So it ought to be interesting to see where the 2009 Constitution Bill proposes to take us where female representation in Parliament is concerned. In this regard, Chapter 2 is the operative area, outlining provisions under the GUIDING PRINCIPLES OF STATE POLICY. Here there are general provisions ensuring equality before the law (Secs. 11, 17 and 21-1&2). But it is Sec. 21 (3) which is an innovation as it states:

“Political parties are obliged to aspire to having not less than thirty percent of the combined total number of persons whose names are included on the Party List submitted by a party in accordance with section 98 of this Constitution as women; and not less than thirty percent of that combined total as men.”

This is ground-breaking and a challenge to all political parties to have the obligation to aspire to greater female representation. Not enough in my view, but certainly a step in the right direction. How do our sisters feel about this and other provisions?

LET THE DISCUSSIONS AND DEBATE RAGE!

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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