Friday, May 20, 2011

Dominica's Mary Eugenia Charles - A legacy for gender equality in the Caribbean

By Rebecca Theodore

As Caribbean governments continue their focus on the eradication of direct and indirect forms of discrimination against women through legislative reforms and the enactment of gender sensitive social policies, the achievements of Mary Eugenia Charles, grand dame of the Caribbean come to light.

While the accomplishments and contributions of Mary Eugenia Charles to Caribbean politics are widely discussed in the scholarly and popular literature of universities and political arenas; it is also sometimes argued with much speculation, controversy, admiration and hatred. However, Eugenia Charles confronts Dominica and the Caribbean with the picture of a woman attributed with the enigma of power in a patriarchal society. Her leadership challenges the traditional belief of the inferiority of women and the authority and supremacy of men in the male-dominated sphere of politics in the Caribbean.

Rebecca Theodore was born on the north coast of the Caribbean island of Dominica and resides in Toronto, Canada. She writes on national security and political issues and can be reached at rebethd@aim.comAccording to the Journal of Caribbean International Relations, “Dame Mary Eugenia Charles championed the cause of gender equality long before it became commercially fashionable. As a feminist, Eugenia Charles evoked the burning issues of the rule of law, and the rights of the individual in society.” Yet, her relentless demands for equal rights, social justice, and the end of sex discrimination still does not guarantee women in Dominica and the Caribbean autonomy and freedom in the determination of their lives.

At a time when the human rights of women have been in many aspects undermined by ideals of masculine character and by historical disparities in the decision-making process, women in Dominica and the Caribbean should take strength in the strong symbol that has developed around the image of Dame Mary Eugenia Charles in the international arena.

Despite being president of the international federation of women lawyers, occupational segregation in gender-based wage gaps in the Caribbean still registers women as subjects of discriminatory stereotyping. Women in the Caribbean still lack promotional rights, free from job discrimination as social and legal institutions do not pledge equality in employment and earning and social and political participation.

It is against the drapery of such concepts that the distinctions between women as political leaders and gender inequality in the Caribbean are mirrored. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) documents that “despite higher levels of education, Caribbean women continue to cluster at the lower sectors of society in terms employment, wages, and political representation, making them vulnerable to poverty and gender-based violence and harassment.”

The role of women in political leadership in the Caribbean questions the meaning of democracy and citizenship and awakens the need for a more inclusive style of governance and politics. The roles that men and women play in society are not biologically determined and it is time to stop using biology as a metaphor for interpreting reality or other socio-cultural traditions and beliefs about a woman's place in the family and society.

While critics advance the view that gender equality has been achieved within the Caribbean community and it is boys and men who are now disadvantaged; gender inequality in the Caribbean still constrains the lives of women and is still a significant challenge despite important law reform efforts. Women’s level of participation in senior political positions remains extremely limited and violates their fundamental human rights.

Against the backdrop of this view, the need for structural reform, redefinition of power and a re-negotiation of our understanding of the practice of leadership becomes an urgent plea. The need to increase women's participation in politics and decision making is a valid goal especially at a time when attempts of developing Caribbean nationhood and identity are smothered by dependence on male constructs and standards. The Commission on the Status of Women further affirms that “women form at least half of the electorate in most Caribbean states, yet they continue to be underrepresented as candidates for public office.”

The male dominated social system in the Caribbean has excluded and been hostile to female participation in the political arena. According to the ECLAC study, female participation in the politics of the Caribbean is about 20 percent overall. In the English-speaking Caribbean, the average participation of women in Parliament averages 13.5 percent, varying from 7 to 25 percent. This means that recognition of the importance of women in reconstruction and the role and discipline of political parties in the Caribbean needs to be addressed because women's empowerment in the Caribbean is vital to sustainable development and the realization of human rights for all.

If reducing gender inequality is essential to increasing women's economic security, defeating poverty and fostering sustainable development and growth, then Caribbean governments should show greater efforts in advocating for legislation to advance gender equality, to eliminate all forms of discrimination based on sex, and to prevent gender-based violence and increase. The education system and the media should also stop upholding the patriarchal orientation of society as well as the epitomes of male supremacy.

Dame Mary Eugenia Charles will forever remain a strong symbol for years to come as a woman who challenged culture, structures of oppression, and gender inequality in the Caribbean. Her legacy of equality and accelerating human rights for women provide a firmer foundation for social and economic development and security and new approaches to leadership in Dominica and the Caribbean.

May 19, 2011