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Taking Steps Toward Gender Equality in the Caribbean
I recently conducted a sexual health training with a group of employees. After the session ended, one of the men who had attended approached me. Within earshot of the other participants, he interrogated me about whether I had children. When I told him I did not, he responded that by now—the ripe "old" age of 28—I should have found a man to “breed” me and have at least three children.
That this man thought it appropriate to approach a young woman, particularly one who was acting in a professional capacity, and make such comments about her reproductive decisions speaks volumes about gender relations in the Caribbean. Sadly, this incident wasn't surprising, and this man's opinion of women is not unique.
Last month, UN Women held the Caribbean Forum on Gender Equality in the Post-2015 Agenda, a discussion among Caribbean government and non-governmental representatives about women's rights and global development. The forum’s outcome document highlights several areas in which women are still disempowered and vulnerable. It recommends that these areas be prioritized in Caribbean development agendas and underscores the importance of gender equality for countries to reach their full potential.
Three of the statement’s focal points inspired me to reflect on the challenges women face:
Gender-based Violence in the Caribbean
I have noticed a troubling trend where women’s experiences of violence are invalidated and dismissed. Despite the fact that both men and women suffer and perpetrate violence, women’s vulnerability to violence is unique. Up to 7 in 10 women around the world experience physical and/or sexual violence at some point in their lives, and as many as 1 in 4 women experience physical or sexual violence during pregnancy. Half of all women killed worldwide are killed by their former or current intimate partners.
Although I wish things were different, the statistics on gender-based violence in the Caribbean are no different. In fact, all Caribbean countries (where data is available) have higher than the global average for incidence of rape, and one in three women in the Caribbean will experience domestic violence.
Unlike violence in general, gender-based violence is rooted in social expectations of male dominance and female subordination. Gender-based violence, therefore, cannot simply be subsumed under general violence. For governments to combat these abhorrent practices, they need to address the pervasive beliefs about women that support them.
Women’s Economic Empowerment
I note with sadness that women, because they are women, are paid less than their male counterparts for work of equal worth. Women and men differ significantly in their access to economic opportunities and financial well-being. As a result, women are overrepresented in situations of poverty.
In short, money is considered a man’s game, and this mentality abounds from the boardroom to the block. To remove this gap, it must be acknowledged that women’s economic disempowerment is affected by traditional beliefs about the relationship women ought to have with finances, which is not necessarily due to our innate lack of skill, value, or expertise.
Women’s Participation at All Levels of Leadership and Decision-making
Women are still denied, both individually and systemically, the right to hold positions of leadership. Pervasive views about leadership are reflected in the predominantly male composition of all Caribbean parliaments. Despite the public outcry about women who dare to occupy some middle management positions, the upper managerial echelons of countless bodies, boards, and businesses are undeniably monopolized by males.
This picture is a manifestation of the ideology that women are simply unfit to lead, and that leadership ought to remain in the hands of men. I maintain that for development to be optimized, women must be allowed to take their rightful places alongside men, accessing and wielding equal decision-making power. That way, rich and varied perspectives can inform policy making.
The Caribbean Forum on Gender Equality in the Post-2015 Agenda was convened by UN Women to ensure that the voices of Caribbean women and men who are committed to gender justice are heard. Given the hurdles women continue to face, this Joint Statement is a much-needed step toward removing them. A serious treatment of this outcome document would see governments actively working to address the priority areas, ensuring that women’s full citizenship is recognized. Moreover, discriminatory attitudes must be transformed into egalitarian ones that support women’s full capabilities. Perhaps, then, I would not be waylaid at work and pressed to explain why I, as a woman, had not yet been bred.