Yaneek Page | Innovation in legal funding and economic empowerment
Yaneek, what do you see as the greatest impact of innovation in legal funding for women?
It was a thought-provoking question posed to me on stage by panel moderator Adam Simpson, manager of Global Programmes for UN Women at their celebratory event for International Women's Day in New York City last week. The event was streamed live for viewers around the world via their website.
The objective of the event, staged in partnership with Innovation Norway under the patronage of Her Royal Highness Crown Princess of Norway Mette-Marit and Executive Director of UN Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, was to address financial inclusion, block chain technology, and investment in female entrepreneurs as key drivers for transformational change.
My response drew widespread applause from the audience of entrepreneurs, investors, media practitioners, thought leaders, and others in attendance, several of whom greeted me afterwards to share how fascinated and excited they were by the potential impact of greater access to legal funding and litigant support for women.
It was a proposition many had never considered.
In addressing the gathering, I explained that the appropriate innovation in legal funding could result in greater economic empowerment and participation for single mothers who were unfairly bearing the full economic cost of childrearing and that the outcomes for their children and the society as a whole could be radically advanced. In simple terms, it is the norm in Jamaica for men who have fathered children to avoid paying their fair share of child support and not contribute to the education, health, socialisation, care, and overall development of their offspring from birth through to adulthood.
Although there are no national statistics or estimates of the cost of raising children per annum, throughout the stages of their development, one can reasonably estimate that the cost of shelter, food, education, transportation, healthcare, clothing and other expenses can subsume a significant portion of the income of the average employed person.
Data from the Jamaica Survey of Living Conditions show that over 46 per cent of all households in Jamaica are headed by women and that they have the largest proportion of children.
Tens of thousands of single mothers are being dealt an unfair hand while their male counterparts get away scot-free, leaving overburdened taxpayers to foot the high cost of social safety net programmes, school feeding, free healthcare, and other forms of public assistance including from members of parliament through the constituency development fund. The budgetary provision for the PATH programme alone, which in large part supports approximately 50 per cent of Jamaica's student population, was $11.5 billion for 2017.
What precludes many women from receiving child support is the prohibitive cost of retaining legal representation to navigate the onerous justice system from initiation of court proceedings to the significant challenge of enforcement of judicial orders, which could easily surpass the annual salary of a minimum wage earner.
Unfortunately, Jamaica has yet to catch up to global best practices in proactively and effectively securing parental support for children by establishing local offices for 'Child Support Enforcement' that can assist with locating parents, establishing paternity, quantifying support obligations and enforcing same. As a result, a significant percentage of the country's women will never realise their full economic potential, create wealth, build sustainable and innovative businesses that could contribute positively to our GDP and trade balance.
Most of the enterprises started by women are necessity-driven micro ventures with high rates of failure, limited growth and profit potential that were started because of their economic need to provide for their families in a slow-growth economy with chronic high unemployment. In fact, the highest rate of unemployment has persistently been among young women at almost triple the national average.
In her keynote address at the event, the Crown Princess of Norway stressed that it was unlikely that any country could afford to lose any proportion of its human capital. This is why Jamaica must pay closer attention to the link between economic empowerment and participation of women and equity in child support and childcare at every level.