Speaking Notes of
The Hon Kamla Persad-Bissessar, SC, MP
Leader of the Opposition of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago –
“The Regional Hot Topics Forum” hosted by the Caribbean Americas
and Atlantic Region (CAAR)
at the 62nd annual conference of the
Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA)
Good afternoon, and thank you to the Caribbean Americas and Atlantic Region (CAAR) of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association for your invitation to speak today.
This topic, “Increasing Women’s Participation in Politics” is one that is important to me, and it is something that I sought to advance during my term as Prime Minister of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.
My story is one of many “firsts” – I was appointed the first woman Attorney General of my country in 1995; I was the first female Leader of Opposition and the first woman to be elected leader of a political party. And, of course, I became Trinidad and Tobago’s first female Prime Minister in 2010.
Although women were participating in politics at the time I decided to enter the political arena in the late 1980s, it was still considered unusual, given the cultural norms which relegated women to other roles, such as taking care of the family. Politics was seen as the domain of men – an “Old Boy’s Club”.
I wish to stress that while caregiving and nurturing of the family are critical roles, which I greatly treasure, I wanted to contribute to my country’s growth and development as well. I was determined to do so through service to the people, starting at the local government level. And this has been my guiding thought throughout my political career – serve the people.
I am giving this brief background to my start in politics, not to boast, but to highlight that it is one that women in many countries can identify with today – the struggle to fully participate in the democratic process.
Even though women make up roughly half of the global population, we remain under-represented. Women’s participation in politics has slowly increased in the last two decades from 11.3 per cent in 1995 to 22.8 per cent as of June 2016[i]. This figure is still woefully low.
As noted by UN Women, greater participation by women in politics helps democracy deliver, and countries experience higher standards of living, with positive developments in critical areas such as education, infrastructure and health.
This is because, as noted by Chairman of the National Democratic Institute, Madeleine Albright, “Women raise issues that others overlook, devote energy to projects that others ignore, reach out to constituencies that others neglect, and help societies move forward together.”
I support this view, and I believe that democracy is further enhanced when women are equally represented at the highest levels of public and private office.
But there continues to be limited participation. Why is this so?
There are several factors which sustain a disparate balance of political power, including:
Laws and institutions do not adequately ensure women’s equity;
Inadequate financial resources;
The politics of politics which make it difficult for young women to enter and rise in political structures;
The capacity of women to manage and find a balance between multiple roles – professional, family and community;
The need for comprehensive rethinking of gender roles in society;
The need for greater inclusion and equality; and
The need for women to shift in their mindset towards becoming “agents of change”.
In addition to these, socio-economic factors can also impact women’s ambition to participate in politics. We continue to hear and read stories about violence against women and girls, as well as other crimes committed against them.
In my own country, unfortunately, many women are hesitant to put themselves forward in fear of becoming targets, and as a nation we have to work together to take the tough action needed to remove this barrier to participation in politics.
Over the last few years I have had the privilege to be part of some key events aimed at examining ways to address the low rate of participation by women in politics, and while I am heartened by the progress made, it is clear that more needs to be done.
One of these important events was the Caribbean Regional Women’s Colloquium on Women Leaders as Agents of Change in 2011, from which a number of key strategic goals targeted to increase the numbers of women in political leadership emerged, including:
Increased women’s representation in Cabinet, Parliament and local Government to a minimum of 30%, and where this has already been achieved, strive for parity or 50%;
A review of the criteria and processes for appointments to decision- making bodies in the public and private sectors to facilitate increased women’s representation;
Gender-sensitive leadership training programmes for men and women, (including young people) who are preparing for or are in decision-making positions in the public and private sectors;
The promotion of shared family responsibilities between women and men to increase women’s participation in public life;
Ensuring gender-responsive national budgets and development plans; and
Undertaking economic diversification towards service sectors such as creative/technological industries, ensuring women’s equal participation.
Many of these goals were achieved during my administration. The Regional Colloquium was followed by another important forum – a high-level side event in the margins of the United Nations General Assembly 66th Session in September 2011.
A key outcome of this event was the signing by all co-sponsors of a joint declaration with concrete recommendations on ways to advance women’s political participation.
From this a tough call was made for increasing women’s political participation and decision-making across the world. These two events are significant in that they provided a blueprint for action for women in the region.
THE CASE OF TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO
Trinidad and Tobago has made some strides in ensuring that women are given the opportunity to participate in the democratic process, and within the Caribbean, the percentage of participation by women in the Parliament is higher than the regional average – currently 31% in the House of Representatives, and 32.3% in the Senate or Upper House.
In fact, we currently have a woman Speaker of the House of Representatives and a woman President of the Senate, which are the fourth and fifth highest offices in Trinidad and Tobago.
It is my hope that young women in Trinidad and Tobago will look to women leaders such as the Speaker, the Senate President, Members of Parliament, local government councilors and alderwomen for inspiration and motivation to enter politics.
I have seen some encouraging signs that more women are putting themselves forward as candidates, for example in the recently concluded local government elections in Trinidad, where 112 women candidates contested.
The political party which I lead – the United National Congress (UNC) put forward the highest number, 56, while the People’s National Movement (PNM) put forward 44, and ten women were from other parties.
It is heartening to see more women – and many of these are young women – showing interest in taking a leadership role in their communities.
At this point, I will speak briefly on some of the work that was done during my tenure as Prime Minister to advance the participation of women in politics.
My vision has always been one of a better quality and standard of living for every person. It was my goal to ensure that every citizen, male and female, was given equal opportunity.
During my term we advanced our commitment to the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women by promoting gender equity enforced by Equal Opportunity legislation.
A Ministry of Gender, Youth and Child Development was established in 2012, which was mandated to advance the national agenda on gender equality; informing public officers on gender responsive budgeting, and ensuring that our children are nurtured and protected.
A draft National Gender Policy was developed to provide a wide-ranging framework for advancing equality between men and women in Trinidad & Tobago.
Among the issues outlined in that policy were transformational leadership and governance, education and human capital, domestic and family life, and health.
As you can see, there was some progress over the period 2010-2015, but the work must go on.
I continue to challenge our women and girls to take on the responsibility of becoming leaders in their communities, to work towards the further national development.
THE ROLE OF EDUCATION
Prior to entering politics, I was an educator, and from that experience as well as my service as a Minister of Education, I have learned that education is the most potent form of empowerment. Through education, women and girls are given the opportunities to stand and compete as equal partners with men in private and public spheres of life and decision making.
During my tenure we were able to advance:
The goal of universal pre-school education by 2015;
Ownership of laptop computers by all children in the 5-year secondary school system;
A vast expansion of tertiary, technical and vocational training; and
Extensive development work delivering ICT access to remote, rural communities.
In order for women to take up leadership roles and effectively participate in the democratic process, they must be equipped with the necessary skills.
In this regard, mentorship and leadership programmes offered by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have empowered potential women leaders with the tools for success, and such initiatives must be commended and sustained.
I strongly affirm that the voices of our women must be heard to ensure proper representation and a strengthened democracy.
There is no doubt that changes in attitudes, cultural beliefs and behaviours are needed, in order for increased participation by women in politics to be facilitated.
It involves awareness-raising, education, training and capacity building programmes, and the promotion of gender equality and equity in all policies.
Women can take a leadership role in the eradication of poverty, hunger and disease; the promotion of sustainable development; the full realization of human rights and the achievement and maintenance of international peace and security.
As I conclude, I leave you with the words of President of Chile Michelle Bachelet, who said,
“When one woman is a leader, it changes her. When more women are leaders, it changes politics and policies.”
We cannot and should not underestimate our role as women in society. It is time for women to become emboldened, to embrace greater leadership roles in their communities, to face the challenges head-on and stake our claim in the political arena.
We must grasp the reins of power with confidence, trusting in our ability to succeed.
December 15, 2016