Canada’s High Commissioner to Barbados Marie Legault has dismissed concerns over the readiness of Barbados for a female Prime Minister.
In a direct challenge to political commentator Maureen Holder who brought up the issue in January, Legault today said she was somewhat startled that it was raised in the first place.
While delivering the Astor B Watts Democratic Labour Party (DLP) lunchtime lecture, Holder, who critics describe as an unabashed DLP campaigner, called for a national debate on whether the country was “seriously ready for a female Prime Minister”.
However, addressing today’s W Portfolio organized International Women’s Day event at the Hilton Barbados Resort, the Canadian diplomat said the Caribbean had already produced four female heads of government and five heads of state, including the current Governor General, Dame Sandra Mason, and there was room for more females in top positions.
“Given the history, I have to say that I was taken aback when in January I saw political analyst Maureen Holder asking if Barbados was ready for a female Prime Minister and advocating for a national debate on it. I think every country is ready for male or female prime minister. Gender does not have an impact,” Legault said.
Although the fledgling United Progressive Party has a female leader in Lynette Eastmond, political observers agree that it is the Barbados Labour Party (BLP) leader Mia Mottley who is likelier to become the country’s first Prime Minister should a woman be elected to the premiership in the upcoming general election, due by early June, but for which Prime Minister Freundel Stuart has yet to name a date.
It was only yesterday that the BLP made a naked appeal to voters to give Barbados its first female Prime Minister, noting in a statement ahead of today’s observance of International Women’s Day that while women in Barbados had made significant strides over the years and the island recently appointed its second female Governor General and its first woman Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), “unlike Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Dominica, Barbados is yet to have its first female prime minister.
“The forthcoming general election presents an historic opportunity for us to break this remaining glass ceiling and finally be on par with our CARICOM neighbours,” the party said in the statement released by its chairman George Payne.
Today, Legault also referred to progress made here and in the rest of the region on women in politics, but said their participation continued to be limited.
“In terms of women’s participation in politics, Grenada has led the way with 33 per cent women in parliament and Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago at 31 per cent. On the opposite side of the spectrum, currently Belize only counts with 9.4 per cent women in parliament, and St Kitts, Antigua and Barbuda and St Vincent and the Grenadines, between 11 and 13 per cent.
“In terms of Cabinet, Grenada, Dominica and St Lucia account for 27 to 36 per cent, while Antigua, Barbados and St Kitts have seven to 11 per cent and St Vincent has no women at all in their Cabinet,” she said.
Meanwhile, Legault also dealt with the issue of economic empowerment, stating that women continued to face a number of stumbling blocks in this area, including difficulty in accessing finance, and access to land and other means of production, leaving women and their families more vulnerable to poverty.
“For instance, in Barbados and in St Kitts and Nevis 80 per cent of ownership of farms, especially large ones, is predominantly male,” she said, adding that while women had made gains in tertiary education there was still a high percentage of females in low wage jobs and in the informal economy.
The diplomat also expressed concern about the level of violence against women in the region, as well as the slow pace of their social development and empowerment.
For instance, she said a UN Women report for 2016 revealed that in Barbados the poverty rate among female-headed households was 19.4 per cent, compared with 11.5 per cent in households headed by men, while all countries in the region experienced a higher rate of rape than the world average, with three of them – Jamaica, St Vincent and the Grenadines and the Bahamas – being in the top ten.
“Between 52 per cent and 73 per cent of women reported experiences of sexual violence by a partner in Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad,” she added, while pointing out that females and youth were less likely to report crimes to police, especially if the offender is known to lawmen.
Warning that sexual harassment was a serious issue in the region, the high commissioner also called out Barbados for its laws on domestic violence, saying it was one of 37 countries where spousal or marital rape was not illegal, although she stressed that “fortunately there are steps in the right direction”, given changes to the Domestic Violence Act and the recently proclaimed Employment Sexual Harassment Act.