Maziki Thame and Linnette Vassell | Beyond the numbers – the substance of women’s representation
Eighteen women have been elected to Parliament. Compared to 2019, this is a 50 per cent increase of women in the Lower House. This comes at a time of historic and drastic decline in citizen participation in the electoral process; a narrowing of representativeness across parties; and continuing economic and health crises, including from COVID-19.
We must be sober in our assessment of our present political moment and what it will require of women as they sit in the male-dominated house of representatives and in a society and global context that perpetuates discrimination against women and overexploits their labour, deepened and exposed since COVID-19. Said differently, we must be wary of expectations that women shoulder the work of “building stronger” in places where they do not have equal representation or benefits. It will be instructive to see how, for instance, they are located in the appointments of the Government and whether they will be included without influence.
We should at the same time see the possibilities that exist and can emerge if the conditions ripen for the building of a gender-responsive agenda that can reshape our reality. This requires, among other things, putting in place strategies to transform political parties, which are themselves gatekeepers of power and decision-making and politics more broadly; socio-economic conditions that affect women, especially negatively; and interpersonal relations between women and women and men and women.
TREMENDOUS INTERNAL WORK
With regard to possibilities for transformation of political parties, tremendous internal work needs to be done. Nonetheless, Andrew Holness told us in the electoral debate that parties simply had to recruit women to increase representation. The JLP commendably recruited more women than the PNP, and 14 of 20 were successful in their contests. That is an important start, but where does that put us in the pursuit of gender justice?
When questioned, Peter Phillips committed to ensuring that 50 per cent of Senate seats would go to women. The PNP should honour this commitment. When Phillips raised the matter of women’s lives and the undue burdens of domesticity they face when considering representational politics, some women were appalled. They could not see themselves in the realities being called out, but he was providing another critical part of the answer of how to pursue and work to achieve gender justice.
In the debate and responses, we were alerted to the problem of the intersection of class and gender in representational politics. We must ask, do all women have the potential to gain influence and a place at the negotiating table? We must consider how women who are married and or are able to hire domestics to tend to their houses and children figure differently than the majority of women who must rely on family and community networks or their own labour to balance public and private lives. And even then, women with support do face challenges.
We must ask in seriousness, what type of women can make it to Parliament? What hurdles do they face? What makes them acceptable to our population, and what is the context that allows for their advancement?
Most telling is the career of Portia Simpson-Miller, a black woman with roots in rural Jamaica and among the urban poor. She made it to the top, participating in a masculinist politics while at the same time presenting herself and being widely accepted as Mama P. We were attracted to the empathy she expressed as a “mother figure”. She argued that it is women who always find a way to care for us and saw that as her role, but that view burdens women specifically.
Despite Simpson-Miller’s success in that framing, and popularity with ordinary people, she was routinely disrespected. We should consider how that disrespect emerged out of the classed, racialised, and gendered reading of her. We should remember how it dogged her leadership and her standing in the PNP itself and ask what, as such, to make of the current moment and what needs to be done to move away from the toxic aspects of the political and social context within which Simpson-Miller existed.
CONTRADICTIONS OF SOCIAL JUSTICE
That context challenges us to look at how women in Parliament view and represent their constituents, beyond the seat they are in, where they stand in their party and the wider society. Often contextualising women as such points us to contradictions within the pursuit of gender and social justice.
We should recall, for example, how JLP member Juliet Cuthbert-Flynn’s bid for reproductive rights was met with dismissiveness by Prime Minister Andrew Holness. He publicly asserted that he had been following the discussions on obeah, abortion, and sexuality and would not be distracted by them because economic growth was his goal.
He said: “If you put them together, it could very well seem to be an assault on the traditional values of the society and how we see our traditional institutions. This Government that I lead is committed to preserving the institution of the family as we have understood it and our parents have understood it.” Are the single female headed households that make up the majority of Jamaican families included in this assessment? Also, are the women who struggle with such issues not represented by Government?
We should not miss the relationship between the condition of women overall and who benefits from the actions of any government. Improving the lives of women requires multipronged approaches and the targeting of groups of women differently to address their diverse challenges. Women around the world, regardless of the macro-economic status of their societies, face high levels of sexual and non-sexual violence, more work in the household, are poorer than men, and are less represented in positions of power. This is the scope of the challenge we face.
Economic growth is no guarantee of improved conditions for women or even the majority of people, especially because growth can occur with expanded inequality. Consider the sex-disaggregated data on the Jamaican labour market, what it reveals about where women are and what it says broadly about the quality of work and remuneration.
STATIN’s January 2020 data point to issues with women concentrated in ‘female sectors’, essentially care work: education, health, the service sector, and in domestic work. Domestic work was the second major employer of women. These are sectors where women receive low wages and where their labour is undervalued.
The data also point us to the over-representation of men in construction - with 96.3 per cent of the sector being men and women at 3.7 per cent. This is significant since infrastructural development is posited as a success of the JLP’s last administration and was prioritised in the electoral contest on both sides through housing construction.
With a clear emphasis on construction as an engine of growth for Jamaica, the question arises: how are women to be advanced in the future if they are not fairly represented in that sector? We should be working to eliminate sex segregation in the labour market and to expand the occupational choices of men and women. This is an important plank of gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.
To those of us looking on, let us advocate that the increase in numbers of women in Parliament, is, therefore, not only about an increase in numbers. Rather, it should include agendas suited to the advancement of women and their families, their freedoms, and for gender equity beyond party interests. It will require initiative and courage from women within and outside of the political parties and in partnership with men to achieve that kind of outcome.
More than ever, vigilance is required to ensure inclusive governance. That goes beyond Parliament to the broader society. Low voter turnout suggests a deepened need for popular education that ties understandings of the outcome of politics to the participation of the people. The outcome of politics must address the people’s needs and interests, including the condition and position of women: their freedoms, safety, rights, socio-economic well-being, their power inside and outside of Parliament, and the well-being of their children and families.
Participation as popular mobilisation should be centred on building self-worth beyond materialistic validation. This is crucial to ensuring that we are not simply into a numbers game, but engaged in constructing the kind of Jamaica where people, regardless of race, class, gender, and sexuality can live with dignity.
- Dr Maziki Thame is a senior lecturer at the Institute for Gender and Development Studies, The University of the West Indies, Mona. Linnette Vassell is an advocate for gender and social equity.