INTERNATIONAL Women’s Day was on Monday and, of course, it came with radio talk show slots, panel discussions, presentations and purple attire. It is an annual day to celebrate the progress women have made and to take action toward the changes that still need to happen.
The global campaign’s theme was ““Choose To Challenge” and the UN Women theme was focused on women’s leadership (in alignment with the upcoming 65th session of the Commission on the Status of Women). Both themes were taken up and used to frame events and initiatives. It was great to see Corporate Bahamas make space for discussions about women in leadership and the issues we all need to choose to challenge. It is even more important that they contribute to the efforts through resources, including funding, and structural changes that ensure women are in the leadership pipeline, compensated fairly and working in enabling environments.
The Prime Minister recently stated that “the representation of women in Cabinet is at an historic low”. He said he challenges himself, political parties and the nation to ensure more women are in the House and the Cabinet.
These words, of course, are nothing without action. It is not enough to wish for better representation of women. The Prime Minister claimed “a number of women” declined the offer to run on the Free National Movement’s ticket and that he is pleased that more women are running this time around. It will be interesting to see how many women the Free National Movement puts forward. The current proportion is abysmal with only five of the 30 ratified candidates being women.
Unless eight of the nine candidates to be announced are women, there is very little to show for the Prime Minister’s statement about including more women as the party would not even have 30 percent representation. How can we expect more women in Cabinet if they are not going to be on the ballots?
The Prime Minister said he was frustrated by women declining opportunities to run. He did not give the reasons. Maybe they did not see the Free National Movement—or any other party, for that matter—taking firm positions on issues of importance to them. Maybe they do not want to be collapsed into a system that was not built for them. Maybe they do not see the political environment as one they can survive in, much less thrive.
Aside from all of the issues with party politics and the failure of every political party in the country to make clear their positions on important issues, there are specific actions that need to be taken in order to create an environment within which women can safely and successfully participate.
If party leaders care about women’s engagement in political leadership, they need to take decisive, targeted action.
Here are five actions the Prime Minister and all political parties need to take in order to successfully recruit, retain and run women as candidates in general elections:
- Institute a quota. Go beyond 30 percent which is a low bar and does not result in gender parity in a world, and a country, in which more than half the population are women and girls. Low bars do nothing for us. Let’s start with acknowledging that we have a long way to go, then figure out how to get there. Make the quota 50 percent, and do it now. The current administration can still do this on a national level. All political parties can do it for themselves. Let’s call on all political parties to make their positions on women’s leadership clear by instituting party quotas of 50 percent now. This commits them to do the work of recruiting and training women, creating enabling environments within the parties, and improving the conditions of all women so that they are able to pursue opportunities in frontline politics and other forms of political leadership.
- Provide training and mentorship for women. Boys and men are raised and trained to believe that they are destined for leadership while girls and women are often taught that they are to play supportive roles. What we see in the leadership of men and boys and in women and girls is not a result of natural abilities or inclinations on the basis of gender, but gender ideologies that have been used to put people on particular paths. Men and boys have long been considered more suitable for leadership and certain kinds of work, so women and girls have been dealing with implicit and explicit discouragements from leadership and the areas of work that have been reserved for men. This needs to be intentionally interrupted and corrected. We need specific programmes and initiatives targeting women and girls, preparing them for leadership.
- Reject gender stereotypes. Publicly challenge and rebuke all suggestions that gender is a determinant of ability or suitability. Create opportunities for women and girls to pursue education and careers in areas that continue to be dominated by men. Run campaigns that highlight women already working in these areas, their contributions to the industries and to the country, and the support that has made it possible. Encourage the private sector to do the same. One example is providing scholarships and other opportunities such as fellowships to girls and women pursuing education in STEM and trades.
- Reduce the burden of care work. One of the factors that impacts people’s performance in the workplace and both ability and willingness to pursue ambitions is the work they have to do outside of their formal employment. Women are often tasks with the upkeep of the home. Even if a household can afford to employ domestic workers, the supervision and management of household tasks still tends to be the responsibility of the women. Childcare and eldercare are often the responsibility of women as well.
There is so much to be done at home that it is known as “the second shift” and can prevent women—and the girls often enlisted to help and learn from them—from studying and participating in other activities that could help to advance their careers. Recognize that women’s time is not elastic, acknowledge that women have taken on much of the work that the state is obligated to do, and make structural changes to allow and encourage men to share the domestic labour and support women in reclaiming their time. For example, change the expectation that women are solely responsibly for childcare by amending legislation to give parental leave so that fathers have more than five days to help with newborn care, leaving postpartum women to heal and care for babies alone.
- Protect women from gender-based violence. Gender-based violence is a pervasive issue that is affecting families, communities, islands, and the country. It can be physical or non-physical, and it takes place both in person and online. Social media has been weaponized by men, used to discourage women from engaging in public life and punishing them for it if they dare to enter public life anyway. This administration and all political parties need to rebuke all forms of violence against all women, regardless of political affiliation or position. Disparaging comments and ads that target women on the basis on their gender need to be banned.
There are many other ways to create an environment that is conducive to participation of women and other marginalized people.
This needs to be regarded as a matter of priority and a marker of the commitment of the Prime Minister and all political parties to ensuring, not only greater participation of women in politics, but gender parity.
It’s not just about recruiting women and hoping they accept under the current conditions.
There is a responsibility to create a better environment through systems and initiatives that not only demonstrate personal and political commitment, but contribute to a cultural shift that creates space for women to not only lead, but do so with support and the reasonable expectation that they and their families will be safe.