THE increased number of women candidates who contested last Thursday’s general election is a positive development for the country’s democracy, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) resident representative for Jamaica Denise E Antonio has said.
In fact, she believes that harnessing and cultivating the talent and expertise of both men and women in an equitable manner will only enrich the island’s development prospects.
“Women must not only offer themselves for political representation, they must be actively encouraged through incentivised policies and programmes to participate in the political process,” she told the Jamaica Observer just ahead of the finalisation of the preliminary ballot count for the country’s 63 constituencies last Thursday.
With a population size of just over 2.7 million and more than half being females, according to 2018 data from the Statistical Institute of Jamaica, of the 126 candidates who contested the country’s 18th general election, 30 — 18 from the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and 12 from the People’s National Party (PNP) — were women. When the dust settled, 18 of them passed the post first to book their seats in the House of Representatives — seven more than were elected in the 2016 national polls, which was the first time in at least 25 years that women candidates received a double-digit outcome at the polls.
In the two general elections prior to 2016, that is 2011 and 2007, only eight of 21 women and eight of 22 women candidates, respectively, managed to book their spots in the Lower House.
“Modest steps count, but we need bolder action,” Antonio told the Observer. “Jamaica’s National Policy for Gender Equality sets a target of 30 per cent of women in decision-making positions, and we believe that the historic numbers of women nominated for the current electoral cycle will move Jamaica closer to attaining this goal.”
With the election of the 18 women last Thursday, 14 for the JLP and four for the PNP, Jamaica is just shy of the 30 per cent target among Members of Parliament.
According to Antonio, who represents an organisation that works in about 170 countries and territories helping to achieve the eradication of poverty and the reduction of inequalities and exclusion, Jamaica’s development agenda will be advanced if the benefits of a gender-sensitive arliament are considered.
“UNDP’s landmark 2015 publication, Where Are The Women: A Study of Women, Politics, Parliaments and Equality in the Caricom Countries – a Jamaica case study, presents the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s [IPU] Plan of Action for Gender-Sensitive Parliaments as worthy of consideration,” she said. According to the IPU, “a gender-sensitive parliament responds to the needs and interests of both men and women in its structures, operations, methods, and work”.
She joined the call for Parliament to implement the IPU Plan of Action at the national level by setting concrete objectives, actions, and deadlines suited to its national context, and to regularly monitor and evaluate the progress towards the goal of gender sensitivity.
“Achieving the sustainable development goals [SDGs], especially SDG 5: Gender Equality, hinges on more women being part of the decision-making process at the highest level. Let us continue to strive in this positive direction,” Antonio told the Observer.
The issue of gender equality in Parliament was one of the talking points after the leadership debate two Saturdays ago, which was the final in the three-part national political debate series hosted by the Jamaica Debates Commission ahead of last Thursday’s general election.
Dr Peter Phillips, Member of Parliament-elect for St Andrew East Central, tackled the issue after questioner Dionne Jackson Miller asked if he would commit to selecting at least 50 per cent women to the Senate.
“We have said that we believe that there needs to be at least 50 per cent representation, both in the House of Representatives and in the Senate, but I think we also need to understand that there are many factors that impede women’s participation,” Dr Phillips replied. “The support for childcare, for example, in the House [of Representatives] and Senate, and generally, is one factor; the fact that women carry a greater share of household work is also another factor.
“So, actually, getting the right level of representation is going to take more than just a commitment, we are going to have to deal with all of these other factors that really impede women’s full participation,” said the People’s National Party president, who has submitted his resignation letter since the party’s crushing defeat at the polls, adding at the time that his party is committed to dealing with those factors.
Rebutting during the debate, JLP Leader Andrew Holness, who was last Thursday returned as Member of Parliament for St Andrew West Central, said the “simple” thing to do is to ensure that more women are targeted in the party’s recruiting.
“We have done that in the Jamaica Labour Party. We have been deliberate in going out and seeking to recruit women, and now we have more female candidates representing the party than ever before,” he said then.