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International advances for women, but SVG still lagging

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INTERNATIONAL Women’s Day this year was marked by two very positive developments where the advancement of women globally is concerned. The first of these came in a surprising quarter, Hollywood, long considered a bastion of male chauvinism, with women generally acknowledged more for their physical attributes than for the skills they undoubtedly possess on an equal scale as men.{{more}} At the prestigious OSCARS, the annual ceremony where the outstanding performances and films of the Hollywood film year receive their accolades, the 2010 awards for both Best Film and Best Director fell to a woman, Kathryn Bigelow. In a curious twist of fate, her HURT LOCKER, a low-budget film, edged out the box-office blockbuster and favourite AVATAR, while she got the Best Director award ahead of her ex-husband, James Cameron.

It was the first time in 82 years that a female Director had taken the award. Fittingly, it came right on the eve of International Women’s Day, a just reward for all those years of largely unrewarded effort. Ms. Bigelow was only the fourth female film-maker to be even nominated for the Directors Oscar all those years, reflecting the gender imbalance in the film world. The CELLULOID CEILING, published by San Diego University in the USA, reports that of the top 250 major earning films in the USA in 2009, only 7% were directed by women, incidentally a fall by 2% from the previous year and the same percentage as in 1987. In addition to centuries-old male biases, the difficult nature of a Director’s job and the problems of reconciling it with family life are among the explanations for the low female presence.

The second bit of encouraging news for women all over the world came on International Women’s Day itself. The Indian Upper House of Parliament, the Rajya Sabha, on March 8 voted in favour of a Bill to reserve one-third of the seats in the National Parliament, and all state Assemblies, for women. Currently, the percentage of women representation in the Indian Lower House of Parliament, the Lok Sabha, stands at a mere 10%, less than even in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. The Bill now goes there, with much expectation of approval, given the support by all major parties for the measure. While there has been widespread support for the historic step, the occasion was marred by protests of some Parliamentarians, seven of whom had to be ejected for disorderly behaviour. This ignores the fact that, 62 years after achieving National Independence, equality for women in that great country is still far from reality. Political representation at the highest levels in India lags behind that of its neighbours- Pakistan has 30% female representation in Parliament, Bangladesh 15% and even war-torn Afghanistan has a 27% count.

The affirmative action of the Indian Parliament will, if nowhere else, certainly meet with a warm reception from the 54th Session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. That body has been reviewing women’s progress in precisely that area. As it stands now, the Scandinavian countries lead the world with Sweden boasting a 47% female representation. Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados are leaders in the Caribbean, but interestingly, as far as considering the proportion of Ministers of Government of the female sex, the 2007 Government of Grenada was in the lead in the Caribbean with a 50% ratio.

This issue of female political representation was addressed in this column on October 7 last year in the run-up to the referendum on the Constitution. Now with elections very much on the cards and the political temperature rising, it is again an issue which must be placed in the forefront. Our approach to the choice of a new Parliament cannot simply be one of a choice of party. Every Party seeking our approval must address important sectoral interests as they try to grapple with inbuilt prejudices and discriminatory practices. The status of women and their opportunities for achieving equity must be a priority. Are the contenders addressing these? Are our women sufficiently organised and conscious to demand that political parties address their interests? Women are the bedrock of the support of the political parties here, but once again it seems that their representation in Parliament will be minimal. The Opposition NDP has only been able to put forward one female candidate among the 15 named , and from all indications, the governing party will muster no more than three from 15. Hopefully, with the proposed increase to a 17-constituency Parliament, there will be at least two women from among those nominated to contest the two additional seats.

The irony of all this is that the Constitution, rejected by the electorate on November 25 last, had, partially, tried to address this imbalance in gender representation in our Parliament. Besides Secs. 11, 17 and 21 of the Guiding Principles of Chapter 2, there was a specific recommendation in Sec. 21 (3) :

“political parties are obliged to aspire to not having less than 30% of the combined total number of persons whose names are included on the Party Lists……as women and not less than 30%…as men.”

While to some of us this proposal could have gone further, we the people were not even so forward thinking and out went even that mild progression in our NO vote in the referendum.

Now we are stuck with the consequences and our women, for all their campaigning and fund-raising will again have limited representation in the new Parliament. This year’s IWD again underlined the fundamental weakness of the women’s movement here. Just one week before, hundreds of women lined up on opposite sides of the political battle lines outside Parliament, in support of their respective parties, but come International Women’s Day, neither of their parties could help them mobilise to promote their own specific interests as women. Is this all our political women are willing to settle for? What of the much-vaunted educated and professional women? Women’s political representation is not the be-all-and-end-all, but it is a necessary step in the right direction. Our women must be prepared to take leadership on this score.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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