A Woman’s Place is in the House

From the Summer 2013 edition of Islandista Magazine.

With historic numbers of women as candidates in the last general elections and now in the House of Assembly, will this make a change in our politics and law-making? Islandista asks the hard questions.

After a testy and closely contested election season in Barbados, we are now into another season of bacchanal. But we can’t help but cast our eyes back to the February 21st election which was historic in terms of female participation. Twenty per cent of the candidates of the two mainstream parties were women – the highest ever level of female representation.

This carried over into the results and when the ballots were counted, we had a new record – five women in the House of Assembly. Five female senators were added to that number, bringing the numbers of female legislators to ten.

In them, we see the range of Barbadian womanhood. They are single, married, divorced and widowed. They are childless, working mothers and even a grandmother. They are young and not so young.

They reflect the increasingly inclusive and diverse nature of modern Barbadian society, with the Senate led by President Kerry-Ann Ifill who is blind. One hails from a sister CARICOM country – St. John MP Mara Thompson, who maintains her St. Lucian lilt. Senator Esther Byer-Suckoo is bi-racial, born to an Indo-Trinidadian mother and Afro-Barbadian father.

Interesting details surely but what we here at Islandista are interested in is – what does this all mean?

For instance, will we see more issues related to women being debated in Parliament and more pressingly, will more female-friendly legislation come to the fore as a result?

Politics is a rough game, especially in the Caribbean where mud-slinging and scandal is part of the platform and sometimes even parliamentary arsenal. Despite this, will the increased success of female candidates encourage more women to get into politics?

Politics is also an extremely demanding career, with politicos expected to show their face at every funeral, fair and function– demands that leave little time for family. So how do politicians manage the balance?

On the face of it, it would seem that there are very different expectations for men and women. Many male politicians manage high profile careers even while having very young children. Former Prime Minister Owen Arthur and current Transport and Works Minister Michael Lashley have both fathered infants while in office.

Now maybe these gentlemen have regularly done the midnight shuffle, trying to get a crying new-born back to sleep. And maybe they still managed to balance that with the demands of politics. No-one has ever asked this question of male politicians because we don’t even consider it an issue.

On the other hand, we can’t help but notice that very few women enter politics when their children are under 10 years old. It is even more noticeable that many female politicians don’t even have children.

Ironically, this trend has been more evident within the Barbados Labour Party, which has always prided itself on its advancement of women. And while the BLP indeed boasted seven female candidates to the DLP’s five in the last election, only two of them are mothers as compared to all of the DLP’s candidates.

This raises even more questions – does the BLP demand more familial sacrifices of its candidates than the DLP? And since they ended up with four female MPs to the Dems’ one, does this mean that this formula is more successful?

And since we’re speaking about the politics of exclusion, we should perhaps take a harder look at the cabinet portfolios which women have held in Barbados. While women have headed some high-profile ministries such as Health, Education and office of the Attorney General, some remain out of reach such as the prestigious and powerful Ministry of Finance.

Actually, the finance ministry question may be straightforward since that is typically linked with the post of Prime Minister but that too raises disquieting questions.  An obvious one is – since Dominica, Guyana, Trinidad, Bermuda and Jamaica have all gone before us with female leaders, when will Barbados follow their example?

And of course, the biggest question of all is – are we ready yet?


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