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The elephant is still in the room: Woman leaders in the Caribbean

By R.D. Miller

The glass ceiling in the Caribbean may have had a few cracks, but it is still unbroken; and a time when communities are undergoing soul searching regarding who is best to lead them out of crime, poverty, a new direction hoping for a brighter future.

These local and national communities are repeatedly dominated by men, but women have been essential to their rise; whether as an educator, nurse, police officers, or as a wife who holds the family together.

In the past decades, more women have emerged from the shadow and ran for higher offices, but numerous have also failed. It is not their qualifications that were in question, nor dedication to public service, but it is perhaps, “being a woman”.

Since the late Eugenia Charles, the first female prime minister of Dominica, July 21, 1980, – June 14, 1995, no other to date in Dominica. Today, it seems to select women leaders is like a ‘beauty pageant contest’. Their appearance is more important than the experience, or economic policies.

Former prime minister, Portia Simpson-Miller, March 2006 – September 2007 and again January 2012 – March 2016, and Kamla Persad-Bissessar of Trinidad and Tobago, May 2010 – September 2015.

Their defeat created more examinations of how they lost and not their accomplishments. They were too opinionated, failed to connect with a changing demographics; disconnect with the working class, downtrodden, but seldomly people talk about hidden sexism, low voters’ participation, and parliamentary grip for some members not accepting their leadership.

Despite these cracks in the ceiling, it has not created an easy passage for other aspirants. Prime minister Mottley, twice the leader of the opposition before her landslide victory in 2018, is considered one of the regions’ brightest independent thinkers. She recently encouraged more collaboration, especially since COVID-19 for better medical systems and care across the region.

Many titles are now “former” for women leadership in the region, and that cannot become a comfort zone.

Every election has consequences, but losing an election does not mean upward mobility for Caribbean women is lifeless. Having more women in power is critical; especially for young girls to have a role model, their education, healthcare, and safety. This requires mobilization through common threads, where more women supporting each other create tangible long-term opportunities.

Recently, I began to analyze a debate regarding Lisa Hanna, former Ms World 1993, and member of parliament (Jamaica) whose physical beauty gets more attention than her policies.

Will she ascend to the top of the Peoples National Party (PNP) from Dr Peter Phillips, member of parliament, and opposition leader? This remains a crossroad, as to the changing of the guards. Will Phillips, yield power to her or another male comrade after decades in government?

Unquestionable, a candidate mental and physical fitness to lead a struggling nation forward is a fair question. If Lisa Hanna were to be elected the next prime minister, would the elephants leave the room for her to lead?

Based on local reports, her party voters believe she may have a better chance to give Jamaican a clear choice regarding the nation’s future, but with COVID-19 pandemic, stagnated economic issues and high employment, whoever is selected will need a plan to reduce crime, attract investments and reduce the gaps between the haves and have-nots.

Often, politics in the Caribbean appears to operate as an apprentice at a local mechanical shop. An opportunity to show one’s skills only come when the manager has no choice, or can no longer navigate, then one gets a chance to grow.

Leadership is also the ability to recognize that being a passenger one can use the experience of a road travelled for years to offer better direction rather than trying to drive when one must make frequent stops to attend personal needs.

Unfortunately, holding on to power create division, disconnect and stalemate of new ideas for advancement, and to create a pathway for the next cohort of leaders.

In a recent report by Leta Hong Fincher for CNN, she noted that a “United Nation and Inter-Parliamentary Union report highlighted that 10 of 152 elected heads of state were women, and men made up 75 percent of parliamentarians, 73 percent of managerial decision-makers and 76 percent of the people in mainstream news media.”

Maybe term-limits should be considered where communities across the region must ask themselves; are, the better off four years later, feel safer regardless of party affiliation, especially in poor and developing countries plagued with crime and economic stagnation.

General elections should be about the next generation, rigorous debates where voters’ concerns and interests align with their future. The rise of populism leadership never works for Caribbean people. It leads to what seems personal financial gains from elected office; and where messengers are despised, even if the message promotes a better standard of living.

Distributing a-few grocery bags is always good for the poor, but if followed by a camera for a 30-second video tweet while asking recipients to say thank-you to leaders, borders exploitation. Happy Mothers’ Day tweets should be backed with an economic plan to move these young women out of poverty.

Regardless of political ideology, if influential people live in a bubble in their gated communities and selected groups out of touch with reality remain silent or deflect from systematic failures whether corruption, crime, failed policies or suffocation of the youths’ voice, it creates a disconnect and hinders potential women leaders from emerging.

The centrality of women’s issues will not change because of an election. A recent academic journal also noted that an absence of access to crucial career paths is critical especially for young women. In order to reduce these barriers; leaders must mentor and encourage the new generation to lead.

These communities need more voices to address domestic violence; missing students, legislation for equal pay, against harassment; better healthcare, women’s safety to LGBQ issues. It is more than a few tweets for likes, but remain a delicate balance between liberation and expression.

Although more than 50 percent of women in the labor force have at least a bachelor’s degree, effectively matching the number of college-educated men according to a pew research, it does not often create leaders, new businesses, or a chance to become role model for the next generation. Furthermore, not every woman frequently agrees on the same norms, virtue, or values from personal experience, but socio-economic equality upward mobility requires collaboration.

I am not a scholar on women’s issues, and though more women have become legislators in the region, it seems their male counterparts remain in the shadow. They must begin to see women’s issues as one and not those women over there unapologetic to change hurdles in poor communities.

I don’t have a vote or endorsing anyone; and a candidate should not lose an election because she is a woman, nor should he lose because he is running against a woman – but when at the table, it balances the discussion.



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