About one third of the 150 candidates contesting the August 10 general election are women, and three political parties are led by women.
The NGO Caribbean Women in Leadership (CIWiL) has taken note of the 45 women candidates across the 19 political parties.
“With 30 per cent of the selected election candidates overall being women this ratio meets the minimum threshold established globally for norms and standards in leadership and political participation. This is aligned to the 2011 UN General Assembly resolution on women’s political participation,” CIWiL said in a statement.
The three women leaders are Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan of the Congress of the People (COP); Kamla Persad-Bissessar, a former prime minister, of the United National Congress (UNC); and Nalini Dial of the National Coalition for Transformation (NCT).
The People’s National Movement (PNM) has the most women candidates with 14, and the UNC has 12, while the Progressive Empowerment Party (PEP) has 11. The Movement for Social Justice (MSJ) has two out of five, the Trinidad Humanity Campaign has one out of seven, the COP has one out of four, New National Vision (NNV) has one out of six, the Progressive Democratic Party has one out of two, NCT has one out of two, and One Tobago Voice has one.
MSJ leader David Abdulah said there was no question about leaving half the population out of governance.
“You cannot have social justice if you’re discriminating against people.
“We have always promoted women candidates. In fact, we always try to have as many women candidates as possible, as close to 50 per cent as possible, depending on who offers themselves.”
Gender policies must be priority
He said a few years ago the MSJ made a conscious decision to have a balance of gender on the party executive and has tried to promote women to leadership positions. He added that it was not an abstract balance, that candidate and executive selections were based on merit and the party could not have found better. That being the case, he said it was important to have women, and young people, take on positions of responsibility because of their points of view, experiences, and skills.
“I think it is important for the country to have women in high positions in government. They had to cross psychological and social barriers so there are no longer issues or questions of their capabilities.
“However, given the fact that the system of governance has not changed, you will find that changes that those women who hold office have made have been relatively small and along the margins. They have not changed the political culture in any way, nor can they if the status quo of the constitutional arrangement in relation to political, economic and social power does not change,” he said.
Abdulah also believes the education system needs to change, that young people should be given more opportunities, a more balanced distribution of wealth should be created, and more power should be shifted to local government from the central government. He said if these steps were not taken, no one could make any significant changes.
The MSJ’s belief in the importance of women was highlighted by some of the party’s policies on gender. He said the MSJ was opposed to violence in general and gender-based violence, in particular, so it proposed state funding for more shelters for women and children.
It also advocates for laws to be amended for the police to be able to detain people who are a credible threat of violence against women and children after a risk/threat assessment is made by a social worker, as well as making counselling available to all parties involved.
Other policies addressed issues of harassment and other forms of intimidation in the workplace; the structure of the economy forcing women to work short-term contracts, have less access to opportunities for promotion, or less pay for the same work; day care centres established at the offices of state and private employers; and the Industrial Relations Act to be amended to protect domestic workers and security guards, of whom many are women.
Equality in governance lacking
PEP leader Phillip Alexander said his party would also address the issue of workplaces offering childcare services, since, usually, women take the bulk of responsibility for raising children. Maternity leave and equal pay for doing the same job were just some of the issues he said would be highlighted.
However, he believed in TT, women in governance have let down women of the country. He said they tried to behave like men and did not address issues specific to their gender or promote other women.
“It’s long overdue for us to get to a place where equality means equality. Women have been left out of the conversation for too long and it’s time to fix that. So I think that women, when they get into office in TT, should pull other women up and create avenues for them.”
Alexander said in his experience, women were capable and strong and brought a level-headed approach to politics.
“In the PEP, without the strong women within our ranks, especially the force of nature that is (chairman) Felicia Holder, my number two, the party probably would not exist the way it does today.”
In addition to Holder, PEP’s deputy leader and head of the women’s arm is Limma McLeod Wilkinson. The chairman, treasurer, and most of the directors are also women. In PEP, he said, women were more likely to have multiple responsibilities and handled them with efficiency and grace.
“Men behave like women are more emotional than them, but when it comes down to getting the job done, I have found that women are far more level-headed and goal-oriented in a lot of ways.”
An inspiration for girls
Arima mayor, PRO of the PNM’s Women’s League, and candidate for D’Abadie/O’Meara Lisa Morris-Julian agreed it was important that women take part in politics because they were a vital part of civilisation and so must be involved in governing it.
“When you see women participating in politics, it speaks about democracy and society’s state. I look forward to the day when being a woman in politics would not be a big deal.”
She said women leaders tend to mentor and help develop and, because TT has so many of them, many young people were now offering themselves up for political service. It also opened the minds of girls to limitless possibilities.
She told WMN when she was a child, the thought of being prime minister or president, or even being involved in politics, did not occur to he,r because the politicians were all men.
That was until Rose Janneire became mayor of Arima.
“That was a whole paradigm shift for me. I was about eight years old and I remember thinking maybe one day I could be mayor.”
She added that visible women leaders were also good for boys, as they would not question the capabilities of their mothers, sisters, or future partners, and that would help shape TT’s culture and society.
Morris-Julian said in local government she often had to lead men, but recently more women joined her team. She said they considered issues from different perspectives and had a more well-rounded view.
“The men I work with, while they are capable and I love them, everything is black and white. Women politicians see black, white, grey and all the colours in between. We really want to make sure we’re doing the best for everyone concerned. While men can do that, with women it comes naturally.”
In addition, she questioned why it was a negative thing for some women to be emotional, as being able to feel empathy, sympathy, pain, sorrow, joy and more made them “more in tune to constituents.”
She said people equated being assertive, bold, and confident with men, but women were also these things.
“Sometimes women have to be assertive, but when they are, people call it aggression. When we start to assign genders to actions and emotions, that’s a slippery slope. It’s not about being male or female on the platform. It’s about getting the point across.”
Asked about the antiquated name of the PNM position of lady vice chairman, she said PNM founder Dr Eric Williams wanted to ensure that, no matter what, there would always be a woman at the decision-making table. And no man could take the position of “lady.”
“Women deserve an equal space and voice and it should never be taken away from them.”
Highlighting the importance of women, the party’s manifesto included policy strategies on providing of shelters and safe places for women and children, implementing policies such as the National Policy on Gender and Development and the National Child Policy to improve the lives of women and children, providing safe houses for women with sons over 12, providing mental health support for women and single fathers, and more.
Diversity in decision-making
Anita Haynes, UNC PRO and candidate for Tabaquite, noted when Persad-Bissessar was PM she started work on a gender policy for the government and implemented a gender ministry to advance issues of equitable treatment and diversity in governance. She also invited technical experts from the UN to work on gender-responsive budgeting, there were programmes for the advancement of rural women, mentorship for young women and girls, and more. The UNC would be looking to put these things back in place.
She said the UNC actively pursued gender balance in its executive. The party had several important women members, including its leader, two deputy leaders, research officer, education officer and public relations officer as well as a women’s arm and several election candidates.
“For us, diversity of the decision-making table has been a key pillar and, of course, that includes gender diversity and ensuring that we have a balance. We work towards a balance because those of us who are in decision-making spaces know the importance of having different voices at that table when policies are being made. so that representation can occur across all different groups.”
Why fight for that balance?
Haynes said having had women as PM, President, Speaker of the House, and Senate President has already made an impact. as more women were getting actively involved in politics and hence more were getting elected.
“What we have seen is more women coming into politics. Therefore, the approaches and the language and the way that we treat with things are fundamentally different, and I think it is most evident on the UNC side.
“I think the system is moving into a space that is more progressive. When we talk about how our campaign is run, it is very people-centred, going out and meeting people and then talking on policies.”
She said there had been “vicious” and often personal attacks on women candidates, which was one of the reasons fewer women put their names forward for candidacy. However, she said when there were more women candidates they were able to stand together and stand up for each other.
“Having more female leaders in high positions has made a difference to our political and social landscape and it will continue to make a difference, because we have a voice in what is acceptable and what is not acceptable and what will be accepted in the those landscapes.”