Electoral Reform: Where are We, Women? By Zita Barnwell

Electoral Reform: Where are We, Women? By Zita Barnwell

May 17, 2019, the Opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) attempted to make a case for electoral reform in the parliament of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. The government-side of the House, the Unity Labour Party, proposed amendments, which altogether was a new motion, in my most humble assessment.

What struck me about both motions is the fact that both sides of the House totally failed and or omitted to call for increasing the participation of women in parliament. It is most disgraceful and very telling about our current leaders’ vision of the development of St. Vincent and the Grenadines and women’s role in it. Whether this failure is deliberate or mere oversight, it is an unpardonable sin. This 21st century is the era of women’s empowerment and progressive politics, so why must our leaders take this stance?

Women represent a significant 48% of total registered voters. The 2015 general elections saw more than eighty nine thousand voters registered and 73% turnout. The OAS Final Report on our 2015 elections reminds us that “women occupy a significant space in the electoral process. However, this is not reflected in the number of female candidates who seek elected office.” We, the women, carry political events: barbecues, rallies, presiding officers, polling clerks and are supervisors of elections. We are the larger number sitting below the stage dominated by men at our Party’s conventions. More importantly, we are the carers of society.

The said OAS report recommends that “consideration be given to developing legal mechanisms that ensure women are incorporated on the ballot, promote training programs for female political leaders and strengthen civil society organizations working to promote women’s civil and political rights.” Where are we with implementing any of these worthwhile measures?

The Inter-Parliamentary Union’s (IPU) 2018 report on Women in Parliament records Grenada as one of the world’s small nations with “greatest improvement” in women’s parliamentary representation in its single and lower chamber and “biggest gains” in its upper chamber: 13.3% and 15.4% points increase, respectively. Antigua and Barbuda tops the “greatest gain” in its upper chamber with 19.6% point increase. Neither Grenada (under NNP) nor Antigua (under ALP) has legislation that “forces” political parties to make spaces for women. What the parties have done is “cultivate the political will across sectors to ensure greater gender equality,” according to IPU.

Guyana is the only country in the English speaking Commonwealth that has legislation to facilitate the inclusion of women in elective politics. It’s Representation of the People Act (RPA) provides that each party’s top-list and for geographical constituency be no less than 1/3 women. Guyana ranks 40th in the World with 31.9% of women in its parliament. Grenada out ranks Guyana with being ranked 6th. As of January 2019 St. Vincent and the Grenadines dropped from its 146th place (13.3%) to 173rd (8%) out of 190 countries. For almost two decades we have bragged about having a progressive government with progressive policies, but there is nothing progressive about leaving out women in electoral reform. In fact it is downright backwards; the global “critical mass” for women in political decision making is 30% as set by the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

Long established is the fact that only benefits can come from including women at the highest level of politics. Recently, the Washington Post online carried an article captioned “Where women called the shots.” Its author Emily Wax-Thibodeaus says that “since Nevada seated the nation’s first majority-female state legislature in January, the male old guard has been shaken up by the perspectives of female lawmakers.” Ms. Wax-Thibdeaus informs readers that “the female majority is having a huge effect: more than 17 pending bills deal with sexual assault, sex trafficking and sexual misconduct, with some measures aimed at making it easier to prosecute offenders.” Nevada didn’t reach this landmark by accident readers are further told. This huge success, according to Max-Thibodeaus came about through co-ordinated campaign of political action groups and women’s rights organisation. The 2015 OAS report and CEDAW point us in a similar direction, but it seems that we too settled with our no more than 13% mustered since independence.

Obviously, it takes more than one or two women in parliament to see the kind of impressive results of Nevada. Our reality tells us so. In Women, Electoral Reform and political participation in the Commonwealth Caribbean: Effecting change through electoral reform Ms. Cynthia Barrow-Giles Senior Lecturer in Political Science, UWI reminds us there is no guarantee that having more women in parliament will result in women’s specific interest translating into policy action. Ms. Barrow-Giles explains that “given a strong party line and collective responsibility, it is difficult for women to deviate from the party line to influence Cabinet of Ministers, given the few women who are part of the inner circle of government. She adds that “the underlying reality is that male-dominated parties are deliberately neglecting to politically empower women and deliberately refusing to engender an inclusive culture that will promote increasing women’s participation in representational politics.”

Barrow- Giles identifies three types of hurdles that women must overcome to be elected to public office: women must be willing to stand for election; they have to be nominated by their party; they have to be elected by voters. The second hurdle says Barrow-Giles is the most difficult; some studies have shown that even where women have shown an interest in more active electoral politics the selection process discriminates against them. According to Barrow-Giles “the selection process is still partly determined by party leaders who continue to play gatekeeper;” and “gatekeepers are often times men who may see any attempt by women to ascend to political office as a threat to their longstanding political power.”

We must acknowledge that, currently, our leaders do not demonstrate the political will to change the status quo whether by cultivating the requisite culture or through legislation. We must challenge it; for if we, women, fail to demand our proper and equal political space we will continue to remain on the fringes of or totally excluded from the decision making process, and our parliament will remain the ‘bastion of maleness’. BE IT RESOLVED that our future looks bleak and our nation barren if we allow this tragedy to persist.

Zita Barnwell

Lawyer & Human Rights Activist