By Carla Bridglal
In 1962, there were only three women sitting in the first Independent Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago: Verna Crichlow and Ada Date-Camps, both PNM senators, and Margaret Lucky-Samaroo, an Opposition senator with the DLP. There were 52 men. Today, there are 13 women in the House of Representatives (out of 42 members) and nine out of 31 members of the Senate. This still falls well short of gender parity but included in that list are the Speaker of the House Brigid Annisette-George, President of the Senate Christine Kangaloo, and the country’s first female Prime Minister and now Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar. In less than two weeks, the country will also inaugurate its first female head of state, President Paula Mae Weekes.
Women are making strides in TT, and while the labour force is still overwhelmingly male, in terms of participants with university degrees, women eclipse men by more almost ten per cent. On the other hand, women also dominate the “unpaid worker” sector of the labour force.
According to the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Gender Gap report, released in 2016 using data collected over a ten-year period, TT ranked an impressive 44 out of 144 countries for gender parity, with a score of 0.723 (1.0 being perfect parity). While the country scored well in terms of education and health empowerment and parity, and improved in economic opportunity, it fell short on political opportunity.
WEF has, however, estimated a nearly 60 per cent wage gap between the earnings of men and women, with men making nearly $240,000 annually compared to the $135,200 earned by women in the same job. A report by the Central Bank of Trinidad and Tobago, using Household Budgetary data from 2008/2009, and published in 2015, suggested that, “at the aggregate level, there is a significant difference between male and female wages. Investigation showed that the demographics with the highest levels of discrimination were in the age groups 35-44, income levels $3,000-$5,999 and private sector employment versus public sector.” Households headed by females were also found to be 2.8 per cent more likely to be poor than male-headed houses.
Little, if anything has been done to legislate wage equality. (The Equal Opportunities Act affords protection against discrimination for employment and the terms of employment but does not specify wages.)
It makes sense, though, to encourage women to work. According to UN Women, increased female labour force participation results in faster economic growth.
Not often considered is the economic impact of domestic violence. Described by Sharon Rowley, wife of Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley as a “national plague that must be eliminated,” domestic violence impacts not only the emotional and physical well-being of the victim, but also their ability for financial independence. For 2018, 15 women have been murdered, mostly in domestic disputes, and countless are still victimised even when they try to escape.
There are no readily available statistics for the economic impact of domestic violence in TT, but a Canadian study in 2015 estimated that employers lose CA$77.9 million annually as a direct result of domestic violence, with billions more estimated in the social and health systems. Similar estimates are given for the US and Australia.
“Being in employment is a key pathway for women to leaving a violent relationship. The financial security that employment affords can allow women to avoid isolation and to maintain, as far as possible, their home and standard of living,” the report suggested.
At the same time, it acknowledged how difficult it is for a woman in such a situation to gain that freedom, with frequent work disruptions and the need to switch jobs, as well performing as jobs that are often low-paying. Domestic violence can also affect the workplace, with the abused bothered on the job by the abuser. Five to 27 per cent of victims end up losing their jobs because of domestic violence.
“Our constitution acknowledges the equal and inalienable rights of all our citizens, both men and women,” Mrs Rowley said in a speech celebrating International Women’s Day.
The unfortunate truth, she said, is that there are still too many women in TT who have no idea what gender parity is about, who have not discovered that they can be empowered, or whose power has been crushed.
“There are still too many women here in Trinidad and Tobago who struggle, who don't know about equal pay for equal work, who have to deal with sexual harassment, rape, and domestic violence. We have to do all that we can do to ensure that all women in Trinidad and Tobago can enjoy equality and dignity. We must all be able to live lives filled with opportunity – lives free from discrimination and violence,” she implored.