Strength of a woman! - Strong gains for Jamaican females in 2015 but more needs to be done
THE YEAR 2015 was a critical one for gender issues locally, regionally and internationally.
It was the 20th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing and the Beijing Platform for action, which established a clear agenda for realising women’s rights; and recognised gender equality as critical to securing sustainable development.
The year also marked the end of engagement with the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the beginning of working towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Goal five attempts to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.
It was also the Decade for people of African Descent, which calls for attention to multiple forms of discrimination on the basis of factors, such as, gender. But while women continued to make strides in various aspects of Jamaican life, a review of 2015 reveals persistent gaps between the objectives of international frameworks designed for the complete integration of women into society and the lived realities of many women and girls in Jamaica.
PARTICIPATION AND DECISION MAKING
The year started off on a positive note, with Jamaica being hailed by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) as employing the highest proportion of women managers, globally, in its report on Women in Business and Management, Gaining Momentum.
However, while the study found that women managed and/or owned over 30 per cent of all businesses, data also showed that women tended to be clustered in micro and small enterprises, with women still woefully under-represented in senior and executive management in larger agencies.
As Deborah France-Massin, director of the ILO Bureau for Employers' Activities, noted, "there is a long way to go before we achieve true gender equality in the workplace, especially when it comes to top management positions."
Women's presence in management also needed to have been further contextualised, bearing in mind gender wage gaps that persist, where - on average - women consistently earn less than men.
In fact, the 2015 Global Gender Gap Report shows a worsening of the trend, where Jamaica now ranks 65th in the world in relation to disparities in wages earned between men and women, down from 25th in 2006 and 52nd in 2014.
Of note, while Jamaica scored the best in the world in the sub-rank index of females enrolled in tertiary education, women still - on average - earn around $60 to every $100 made by a man in Jamaica.
The resistance to women's access to power and decision making was also observed at the highest levels of the country's governance systems, and the report ranked Jamaica 109th in relation to female participation in national governance.
The ranking comes in the face of calls from both civil society and within the seat of government itself to introduce gender quotas.
Senator Imani Duncan Price's impassioned arguments that no single gender occupy more than 60 per cent of the seats in the Senate, and that a minimum 40 per cent of candidates for national elections be female, was met with resistance even from women, who have been less than 10 per cent (35) of the 362 persons ever elected to Parliament in the 70 years since adult suffrage.
Even with Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller's admonition that "we cannot sit back and feel comfortable because a few women have been able to break through the barriers and create history", the motion in the Upper House calling for gender quotas remains largely immobile.
Of interest, arguments against gender quotas were often based on the assumption that given their predominance in educational and business settings women no longer represented an under-served community and did not-require dedicated representation.
What was not discussed, however, was that despite there higher levels of education, women not only remain clustered in particular sectors but seem relegated to a life in middle management.
Within the space of six months in 2015, the nation collectively mourned the deaths of 19 preterm babies at the nation's hospitals, due to bacterial infections.
In addition to the grief this caused, the deaths seemed also indicative of scant regard for the State's commitment to improving maternal health, i.e., the health of women during pregnancy, childbirth and the postpartum period, as stipulated by Goal five of the MDGs.
But even before the spate of infant deaths, the country's challenge to ensure maternal health was evident.
As early as May 2015, the Planning Institute of Jamaica, in its annual Economic and Social Survey Jamaica, noted that Jamaica had been falling too far behind to meet the targeted two-thirds reduction in infant mortality (under five years of age), or the 75 per cent reduction in maternal mortality by 2015, as required by the MDGs.
More disappointing news came with the appointment of boards of management at the University Hospital of the West Indies and Western Regional Health Authority, ostensibly to usher in reform to the health sector, which failed to show an appreciation for the principles of equitable participation in decision making.
Of the eighteen members across the boards, only two are females; and objections to this antiquated practice and disregard for gender balance fell largely on deaf ears. The old-school patriarchal ideology persists even where one would think it would have least fodder to feed it.
VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN AND THE GIRL CHILD
The World Bank estimates that violence against women costs countries on average around 1.2 to 3.7 per cent of GDP.
For Jamaica, the estimated figure is $57 billion - more than the Government of Jamaica's expenditures for the health sector in 2014. The discrepancy between the resources allocated to addressing what the United Nations has called "the most pervasive violation of human rights in the world today", and the resources actually required to comprehensively address the issue became particularly evident in the report of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, who conducted a country study visit during the period April 15-28.
The Rapporteur noted that violence against women and girls is "normalised, widespread and of pandemic proportions with manifestations within the home, community, workplace and in state institutions".
Unfortunately, while Jamaica was one of the first countries to sign the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) - which requires states to take positive measures to eliminate all forms of violence against women - patriarchal notions of men's entitlement to and power over the bodies of women and girls continues in our society, enabled by a culture that still seems invested in stereotypical and outdated ideas of hegemonic masculinity.
Such ideas find support in the use of popular culture to demean women, in combination with insufficient training of criminal justice personnel and an inadequate response by the legal system to incidents of violence.
THE DECENT WORK AGENDA
Just as the year begun with measured success it appears that as we approach its close, Jamaica may have another reason to celebrate, as Simpson Miller has recently given instructions for the International Labour Organisation convention 189 (Domestic Workers Convention) to be ratified, noting that despite stumbling blocks along the way, she was confident that the Ministry of Labour was working to overcome those obstacles.
When ratified, the convention will offer workplace protection and an increased level of security for the thousands of domestic and household workers in Jamaica, the overwhelming majority of whom are women.
GOING FORWARD: THE HOPE of a NEW YEAR
As we prepare to welcome 2016, fresh with possibilities, let us be guided by the sentiments of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that, "when we unleash the power of women, we can secure the future for all".
Moreover, let us be guided both by our international commitments, including but not limited to the Beijing Platform for Action, the CEDAW and other Human Rights frameworks, which have guided our own National Policy on Gender Equality to create an enabling environment through which women and girls are empowered.
The Institute for Gender and Developent Studies (IGDS) with more than 20 years of scholarship, research advocacy, public education and public service, stands ready to continue building awareness of gender roles and attitudes that create inequality, and to supporting mainstreaming gender in all policies and structures to put an end to all patriarchal practises, which privilege some but deny the rights of others.
The IGDS renews its commitment to promoting sustainable human development for all males and females irrespective of difference related to age, race/ethnicity, class, abilities and other forms of diversity.
• Professor Verene Shepherd is director for The Institute for Gender and Development Studies (IGDS) Regional Coordinating Unit at The University of the West Indies. Suzanne M Charles Watson is a research fellow at the IGDS.