by Stella Ramsaroop
(Originally published in Guyana's Kaieteur News on 20 July 2006)
(In light of recent developments with a certain Minister concerning the young women who claim to have been forced to conduct sexual acts against their will, I thought it would be enlightening to reprint this column from last March to examine these thoughts retrospectively).
On International Women's Day this year, the UN issued a statement calling for more women in the boardrooms for businesses worldwide. This move was to encourage more countries to follow the example of Norway, which recently passed a new law requiring every business in the country to have women occupy 40 percent of the seats in company boardrooms within the next two years or risk having their business dissolved.
Anne Katherine Slungard of Norway, who sits on the UN's Commission on the Status of Women, said of her country, "There were a high number of women in paid work. Norwegian women were also highly educated; 65 per cent of university students were women. So, there was a large pool of qualified women in Norway. The problem was that only 17.8 per cent of the board members were women. Because of the new law, however, Norwegian businesses were actively recruiting women."
With the percentage of women overtaking that of men in Guyana's higher educational system, this is certainly a feasible undertaking for this country that could be implemented in short time. I received an email from a wonderful Guyanese woman that agreed with a recent column of mine concerning the need for more women leaders.
However, the concern for this Guyanese woman – and for many others too - is whether developing countries like Guyana still struggle with a machismo mentality that views women as second-class citizens and sees a movement toward gender equality as a serious threat to the family unit and the society at large. This is a valid concern since there are still many who hold to this lesser view of women, however, I do not think this issue is limited to developing countries alone and also would like to see the U.S. follow in the footsteps of Norway and pass a similar law for gender equity in businesses.
According to the UN report, the Chairperson for the Commission, Adekunbi Abibat Sonaike of Nigeria, responded to questions of gender equality in the least developed nations in Africa in this way, "The African Union, itself, had made it explicit that, especially at the political level, women should be represented at the level of at least 30 per cent. In Rwanda, the representation of women and men was almost 50-50. The political will had been established in Africa. Education was the key to exposing women to different areas and allowing them to realize their potential. Poverty remained a constraint, however, and its feminization must become a thing of the past. She believed strongly that women would soon take their rightful place in society."
How does Guyana measure up to these types of international standards? According to a press release on Guyana's progress from August 2005 by the UN's Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, the nation still struggles with even the most basic of women's rights – protection against violence. The report said Bibi Shadick, Minister of Labour, Human Services and Social Security explained that the lack of financial resources was the most restricting factor to the protection of women.
According to Guyana's report to the UN on its progress toward gender equality, Shadick noted, "there are 65 members of the country's Parliament, of whom 30.7 per cent were women, and that women's participation on the Regional Democratic Council had increased from 21 per cent in 1997 to 30 percent in 2001." The report went on to say, "Although improvement had been recorded in women's representation at some levels of senior public office between 1993 and 2003, those numbers were still relatively low."
There was some very good news from Minister Shadick's report as well. "On the positive side, based on 2003 statistics, women were overtaking their male counterparts in middle management, and now accounted for 52 per cent of all such positions, as compared to 42 per cent in 1993."
Shadick also reported on the new legislation passed last year to protect women, Guyana's completion of a new National Policy on Women and the updating of its National Action Plan for Women for 2005 - 2007 that would "constitute a comprehensive approach to critical issues affecting women in such areas as health, education, employment, leadership, gender-based violence, trafficking in persons and HIV/AIDS."
Of course, my question is whether these plans are actually being implemented, how they are being accomplished and to what degree the new legislation is effective for its primary goal. It is great to make all the right sounds and to create an appearance of moving toward gender equality, but only to the point that it is genuinely effecting change on a national level. I cannot help but wonder if this is just another case when the government is talking the talk, but comes up way short of walking the walk.
Last year a small group from Canada spent a few weeks in Guyana working with the National Resource and Documentation Centre for Gender and Development to collect gender statistics in the country and create of a database to store the collected statistics. According to its report on the project, the organization, Queen's Project on International Development (QUID), was satisfied that it completed its goal of creating a way to maintain a constant source of gender statistics.
The participants from this organisation said, "We created this database, which is basically a collection of tables from a variety of different sources, using Microsoft Access. We sorted the information into six main categories: Population, Education, Health, Employment, Social Services and Crime." However, the group was concerned about whether the database would be consistently updated and maintained once they left.
I would like to know if this database has been maintained and, if so, what has the statistics in these various categories shown since the group left in August of last year. Surely during this time of focus on women's issues worldwide, Minister Shadick and the Guyanese government could provide its female constituents some idea of how they are progressing as a gender – or the lack of progress, which is also important to know.
It is essential for Guyana, especially Minister Shadick and her Ministry, to highlight its efforts towards gender equality if it is genuine in this desire. When the women of Guyana see they have the support of their government to step out and take their rightful place in society, any residual feelings of inadequacy from years of demeaning treatment and low expectations will fall to the wayside. Guyana should lead the way in gender equality, not be a nation that must offer excuses as to why it still cannot protect its women.