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Stabroek News

Women and society in crisis
published: Sunday | March 16, 2008

Robert Buddan, Contributor

Jamaican gender scholars, Taitu Heron and Hilary Nicholson, wrote in 2006 that "Women work two-thirds of the world's working hours, and produce half of the world's food, yet only earn ten per cent of the world's income and own less than one per cent of the world's property". In addition, they hold only 14 per cent of the parliamentary seats worldwide, and only eight per cent of the world's Cabinet positions.

March 8 was International Women's Day. In 1910, a women's conference in Copenhagen called for a day to recognise women's struggles. In 1977, the United Nations began recognising International Women's Day. Yet, more than a decade after the Beijing Conference on Women in 1995, women are still in the shamefully exploited position that Heron and Nicholson describe.

Patriarchal society

Although we hear so much about male marginalisation and the progress of Caribbean women, the conditions of the latter still remain bad. Why is this? Many Caribbean households are matrifocal, that is, mainly run by women but according to UWI social psychologist, Clement Branche, societies still operate in a patriarchal way by an ideology of male domination and privilege. He points to the paradox where, "the matrifocal mothers were seen as central socialising figures, eagerly producing and reproducing the very men who would operate within the framework".

It is as though women are unwittingly reproducing generations of males that maintain the patriarchy of male dominance and the masculine nature of power in society to the disadvantage of women. But at the same time, and increasingly so, the male is failing to live up to the masculine image or is self-destructing in the attempt to do so, resulting in what Errol Miller calls male marginalisation. Patriarchy with its masculine model for males to live up to is especially destructive among lower class men, which helps to break down traditional family and community relationships.

Thus, we have women in crisis who are too poor and disadvantaged to save themselves, running families in crisis with absent or marginal fathers, and neither women nor families can be saved by worsening evidence of men in crisis. Unsurprisingly, the result is a society in crisis and we see this in the pervasive violence, drug use, and sexual misbehaviour in home, school, and community, the lack of responsible parenting, and the poor achievement values and attitudes in education, work and civic duties. It might be that rebalancing the power between men and women is more than just about getting gender relations right. It could be about something more fundamental - rebalancing society itself.

Society cannot be healthy when half of its biological members and those who provide nurturing and leadership in the family, the most basic social unit of society, earn an unequal share of its income and assets and its respect, and controls a small share of its political power, even though they work hard at home and away from home. Women's movements are movements to rebalance society. Probably this is what Portia Simpson Miller means by balancing people's lives. However, it takes more than a women's movement to accomplish this. It takes a social movement of both women and men to rebalance society.

Producing poor learners

Both the economic system of labour and the social system of the family are built upon patriarchal values that suit the profit makers and power holders who are often men. The working poor, most of whom are women cannot bring enough income into the household. This has further consequences. Juliet Melville and Eleanor Wint's study of poverty in the Caribbean say, that the poorest households are three times more likely to take children out of school than the average household. The result is that poor female-headed households produce poor learners who cannot provide society with the productive and satisfied citizens it needs to be in healthy balance.

Worse, the young males, especially those who drop out, are increasingly unable to cope with the expectations of male masculinity. They lack good male role models in the family. A range of dysfunctional attitudes and behaviour follow, including of course violence preventing a healthy society from emerging. Some researchers suspect that parents might now be investing more resources in daughters than in sons as a result, making male marginality worse.

We can make the connection between women's poverty and the health of society another way.

If women cannot support their families then children's rights will suffer and in fact do suffer globally. The Convention on the Rights of the Child has set standards for the protection of children so that they develop as healthy and productive members of society. But these standards cannot be upheld as long as society impoverishes and overburdens its women, the main caregivers and nurturers of society. This produces children at risk. Such problems as poor educational performance, male violence and abused children are symptomatic of the direct relationship between women's poverty and an unhealthy society, and specifically of the crises of women, family, children and men, together.

So, how does one explain the disadvantages to women when persons like Paula Llewellyn can become Jamaica's first female director of public prosecutions; a woman became prime minister of Jamaica; so many women enjoy importance in business and the professions, and a large majority of students at UWI is female and have been for some time now. The problem is not so much with access to opportunities. It is rather with the nature of power and the reproduction of power relations in society.

These women are embedded in a structure of power that works on the patriarchal logic of profit making and power dominance even when they occupy important roles in that power structure. Those roles are programmed for competition and aggression and are embedded in laws, culture and institutions. They become part of the public and private ethos and underlie the way the system works. Society itself becomes a masculine enterprise and women wittingly or unwittingly help to run it that way. Women's movements therefore really need to be a part of broader social movements that transform those power structures to make society more balanced and healthy.

Paula Llewellyn and all the graduates from law school can carry on in the old prescribed way or they can use their positions to identify the overall patterns of gender advantage and disadvantage rooted in the structure of power and become part of social movements that educate, empower and transform women and society.

Lady Bustamante, it so happens, shares her birthday with International Women's Day. She was part of a transformational social movement that brought working people from the plantation society into the modern capitalist economy. But just as the matrifocal family exists within and serves larger purposes of its opposite - patriarchy, the working class family exists within and serves the larger purposes of its opposite - capitalism. We must make the connection between the micro-level studies of the family, the working class, and so on, and the macro-level at which the structure of power operates to reproduce poverty, profit and power. What is frustrating to the women's movement is that too many women have become comfortable with their roles as victims and have even established strategies by which to make do and get ahead as victims, some of them becoming 'successful' women who others are called upon to emulate.

Robert Buddan lectures in the Department of Government, Mona campus, UWI. Email: Robert.Buddan@uwimona.edu.jm

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