In defeat, the ageing Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) continues to wage its war of contempt against Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller. Her decision to appoint three other women to the Cabinet has been mockingly dismissed by Arthur Williams as jobs for the girls. It’s not a dead issue. This disdainful reduction of adult females to mere ‘girls’ is pure sexism; putting women in their place as minor players in a big man’s world.
It makes you wonder if the 13 female candidates fielded by the JLP in the recent election were nothing but window-dressing. How many of these ‘girls’ would have been appointed to the Cabinet had the JLP won? Hardly any, it seems.
In an article headlined ‘JLP unleashes Operation Beautification’, published on November 20, 2011, an Observer analysis makes an intriguing claim: “When Prime Minister Holness names the election date, four PNP men will find they have a pretty little problem on their hands.”
The ‘problem’ women were Dr Saphire Longmore, Dr Patrece Charles-Freeman, attorney-at-law Paula Kerr-Jarrett and attorney-at-law Marlene Malahoo Forte.
As it turns out, all four pretty ladies failed to defeat their male opponents. I don’t suppose these accomplished women were campaigning on the basis of their looks. They’re too smart for that, I trust. In any case, the Jamaican electorate is sufficiently sophisticated to look beyond appearance. It’s substance, not style, that matters when you cast your vote.
But it does seem as if the men in charge of managing the image of the JLP believed that good looks, rather than political acumen, would give the female candidates an edge. Daryl Vaz’s enthusiastic parading of his party’s “13 ‘boonoonoonus’ pretty women” did suggest that women in politics are decorative objects first and foremost.
‘Man must run tings’
There are only four women in Portia Simpson Miller’s Cabinet of 20: a mere 20 per cent. Yet this relatively small number is cause for great concern. The troubling disrespect for the ‘girls’ appointed to the Cabinet seems to confirm that the JLP is committed to the backward notion that ‘man must run tings’.
Eighty per cent of the Cabinet is male! Nobody in the JLP is complaining about jobs for the boys. Why not? Is it because the presence of boys (or old men) in the Cabinet – whether PNP or JLP – is ‘natural’ and, therefore, taken for granted? Turning the size of Mrs Simpson Miller’s Cabinet into a gender issue betrays a deep-seated prejudice against women in politics.
It is true that the prime minister set herself up for sharp criticism by appointing such a large Cabinet. Her own words have come back to haunt her. Last May, when she was asked if she would appoint 18 members to her Cabinet, her response was, “I will not give the country a breakfront.”
The prime minister has definitely given us a breakfront which many fear will ‘bruck wi pocket – back an front’.
All the same, it is not the four women who have turned the Cabinet into a breakfront. The imbalance is decidedly in favour of the 16 far more weighty men sitting pretty in their rightful place, it would appear. And some of these heavy men really do need to lose a lot of ugly weight. They might just tip over the breakfront.
The 51% Coalition
There’s a movement afoot to right the gender balance in Parliament and across the public and private sectors. It’s called the 51% Coalition. And its watchword is ‘development and empowerment through equity’. In a recent press release, ‘More Women in Decision-making – Good for the Country!’, the coalition lauded the JLP for endorsing the National Policy on Gender Equality in its manifesto. It also expressed disappointment at Arthur Williams’ unfortunate remark.
Launched last November, the 51% Coalition takes its name from the percentage of women in the Jamaican population and the world at large. In December, the coalition outlined its objectives in a letter to Portia Simpson Miller, then leader of the Opposition:
i. Quotas must be legislated for public-sector and publicly listed companies to have no less than 40 per cent and no more than 60 per cent of either sex as board members;
ii. The principle of the 60-40 quota for either sex as proposed be applied to the appointments to the Senate and to appointments of members to public-sector boards and commissions even before any law is passed;
iii. The quota principle outlined above be applied to the selection of candidates for local government elections;
iv. A plan for effective implementation of the National Policy for Gender Equality be developed with specific and measurable outputs and specific timelines.
The South African Experience
If you think these goals are far too ambitious and contentious, think again. The keynote speaker at the launch of the 51% Coalition was the South African high commissioner to Jamaica, Her Excellency Mathu Joyini, who lauded the bold initiative:
“Quotas tend to generate discomfort in a society, and it takes leadership and courage to take them on. Often people think that it is about just putting women in positions they do not deserve.
“This cannot be further from the truth. It is really about creating space for women who are capable and competent to break through structural and artificial barriers that are often put by society to limit equal access to opportunities and resources, and equal enjoyment of the benefits of society.”
As a result of the introduction of the quota system in South Africa, there has been an astounding increase in the percentage of women in government: from two per cent before 1994 to 18 per cent in 1994; and 45 per cent in 2010! If the 51% Coalition is successful, there will be far more jobs for the ‘girls’. Not just in the Cabinet but on every public- and private-sector board. And the women, most certainly, will not be dead wood.