NEXT month will make 25 years since nearly 50,000 women from all around the world and all walks of life met in Beijing, China, and managed over the course of two weeks to bring into being what was at the time the most enlightened proposal for changing the lives of women and advancing their rights.
The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, seen as the blueprint for global gender equality and women’s empowerment, was later adopted by 189 UN member states. It addressed 12 critical areas of concern involving women and girls and these included human rights, violence, education, health, poverty, the economy and power and decision-making.
In the years immediately following, celebrations of “firsts”, in terms of women being finally able to break through the glass ceilings that previously held them below their true potential, appeared to be indications that perhaps true democratisation was on the way.
There is evidence all around us today that those firsts indicated nothing beyond, for the most part, men making grudging lateral shifts. In fact, as of December last year, it was estimated that gender equality was still 99 years away at the current rate of change.
This year, as it had for the past decade, Iceland, a tiny Nordic country with a population of around 360,000, remained the frontrunner for gender equality. The other top nine countries are Norway, Finland, Sweden, Nicaragua, New Zealand, Ireland, Spain, Rwanda and Germany. Not surprisingly, half of these countries have a woman head of government and at least three have gender parity in government.
Although he created quite a stir when he first appointed a gender-equal cabinet in 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, though he repeated it again last year, was unable to prevent Canada’s slide three places to 19 on this year’s Global Gender Gap Index from 16 in 2018. Criticisms were made in 2015 that at least some of the posts were for mere optics.
However, the later resignations of two women—Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould, who was the first indigenous woman to hold that post, and president of the treasury board Jane Philpott—over Mr Trudeau’s policies which they found untenable proved they had accepted those posts for the right reasons. Nevertheless, it is worthy to note that Colombia, Ethiopia, France and Spain had followed Canada in appointing gender-equal cabinets.
On the global scale, however, women make up only about ten per cent of legislative bodies and an even lower percentage of ministerial positions. In fact, unfortunately, some countries are currently seeing a decrease in women’s representation. This is particularly distressing as it is well-known that when in ministerial positions and in parliaments, women contribute to re-evaluating political priorities, including, but not limited to, addressing gender-specific and social welfare issues, which are of great concern particularly today.
Elsewhere, Guyana included, the affirmative action position of having 33.3 per cent of women representation in local and national government and parliament is constantly unfurled as the banner that pronounces progress. It has long grown stale.
Every government in Guyana, before and after the Beijing Platform of Action, has shown its willingness to appoint men in decision-making positions ahead of women, even when the men are incompetent, tainted by scandal, decrepit or just plain wrong.
The current government is no different. To date, its 21 ministerial appointments include some fitting the descriptions in the previous paragraph and—surprise, surprise—seven women. Do the math. The PPP/Civic has already done it and seemingly intends to stick with the minimum recommended representation. Whether there are any Jody Wilson-Rayboulds or Jane Philpotts among the women handpicked for government office this time around remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose—the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Over the years, some of our political leaders, women included, have paid mere lip service to the notions of women’s empowerment and gender equity. As far back as 1976, then-prime minister Forbes Burnham had told the National Assembly “…the underlying assumption of primeval male superiority has bequeathed to Guyana a number of attitudes, prejudices, myths and beliefs which, partly by accident and partly by design, all lead to the common consequence of inferior treatment of women, particularly in economic and social matter”. Yet the 1980 constitution’s mere optical nod to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women was perhaps a better representation of how he truly felt.
Cabinets and parliamentary representation that continue to adhere to the recommended minimum do nothing to change what should be widely acknowledged as a flawed system.
The fight for gender equality has to begin with the eradication of traditional thinking. Guyana is still awaiting its revolution in that regard.