Published On: Mon, Jun 30th, 2014

Celebrating women in Caribbean development: Conferring the 2014 CARICOM Triennial Award for Women

Marion BethelIntroduction

How important it is to recognize and celebrate our heroes and she-roes, the late Maya Angelou once reminded. Come July 1, 2014, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), will contextually observe this reminder when it confers its prestigious Triennial Award for Women on another distinguished woman of the soil, Ms. Marion Bethel.

Ms. Bethel, a Bahamian attorney, scholar, poet, film-maker, creative writer, strong advocate for gender equality, human rights activist and a wife, joins the ranks, as the 2014 Awardee, of some of the Caribbean’s most excellent and earnest, fearless and forceful, committed and creative   women. No doubt, this conferral, the eleventh of its kind, is one of the signal highlights of the  live streamed, official opening of the Thirty-Fifth Regular Meeting of CARICOM Heads of Government, taking place in Antigua and Barbuda from 1-4 July 2014.

But what in essence is this esteemed award? Who are its holders? And what is their composite story? These questions are answered after a brief diversion which provides a snaphot of our world situation and puts into context women’s continuous role in changing it.

Global poverty  profile, links to gender equality and women’s empowerment: A glimpse!

According to a 2014 World Bank Report, Voice and Agency: Empowering Women and Girls for Shared Prosperity, despite the progress of the past two decades,”2 billion people live in extreme poverty; 774 million adults are illiterate; 783 million people have no access to clean water; and 2.5 billion lack sanitation”. More specifically, the report indicates that these deprivations often simultaneously affect the same people and that “being a woman” is one of the common markers of disadvantage. In this last context, the disadvantage is  played out in many ways: discrimination in access to education, work and economic assets; limited voice in society and the economy  as a result of under-representation in politics and in government, and in the corporate world; child marriages - some sixty-five percent of women with primary education or less globally are married as children;  violence against women  and girls is predominant and pervasive -  one in three worldwide will suffer sexual and /or physical violence in her life time. The report also states, “in most of the world, no place is less safe for a woman than her own home”. In our own Caribbean, in 2009, some of our countries were among the top for reported incidences of rape; and one in three women, on average, experienced domestic violence, according to a CEDAW [1]report.

Notwithstanding these shocking facts, women continue, against the odds, to play many distinct and important roles in society and the fruits of their labour continue to be seen. For example, the 2012 World Development Report: Gender Equality and Development highlighted wide-ranging and unprecedented progress in important aspects of the lives of girls and women over recent decades. According to the report, “more countries than ever guarantee women and men equal rights under the law in such areas as property ownership, inheritance and marriage. Gender gaps in primary schooling have narrowed in many countries. Globally, more women than men attend university, and  women are now living longer than men in every region of the world. In all but a handful of countries women have the right to vote”.

The also report also draws attention to the progress that has been made, since 1990, in wage earning  jobs in the non-agricultural sector, noting that in 2011,  40 out of every 100 jobs  were held  by women. And in the Caribbean, “women have higher participation rates in the economy than women in some regions, such as Latin America and North America”. Sadly, however, this greater share of women’s wage employment in the non-agricultural sector, as a whole, has not improved their status in the labour market which remains significantly inferior to that of men”. Trinidad and Tobago is the only country to recognize women’s unwaged work since 1996, according to an (ECLAC Report, 2009).

This brief diversion,  just a “glimpse”,  was really intended to provide a backdrop to the ongoing global struggle to achieve human development. It was also intended to give context to our own women’s role in bringing change to this Caribbean space and who, in so doing, laid and continue to lay strong foundations for the principles of equality and justice and the development of our region, in all spheres of life. In the process, their advocacy has contributed to the development of model legislation; addressing discrimination through law reform as it relates to domestic violence and other aspects of family law; minimum wage legislation, which removes sex-based occupational distinctions in the determination of wage levels, among other endeavours.

In the words of CARICOM Secretary General Irwin La Roque, in his special message on the occasion of International Women’s Day 2014, “The women of our Community have shown great courage and strength as catalysts for change in the pursuit of justice, equality and peace…”

The CARICOM Triennial Award for Women

Improving the status of women has been and continues to be the focus of national and regional development initiatives. Recognition of women’s role in, and impact on, the Region’s development led the Meeting of Ministers of Women’s Affairs, in 1983, to propose an award for an outstanding woman who had made a significant contribution to the socio-economic development of the Caribbean. The CARICOM Secretariat introduced the CARICOM Triennial Award for Women to acknowledge the landmark contributions of inspiring and distinguished Caribbean women.

Ms. Nesta Patrick, a national of Trinidad and Tobago, holds the distinction of receiving the first award, which was conferred in 1984. Since then, nine awards have  been conferred, these are:  the late Dame Nita Barrow, national of Barbados in 1987; Dr. Peggy Antrobus, national of Grenada and citizen of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, 1990; Ms. Magda Pollard, national of Guyana, 1993; Dr. Lucille Mair, national of Jamaica, 1996; Professor Joycelin Massiah, national of Guyana and citizen of Barbados, 1999; Professor Rhoda Reddock, national of Trinidad and Tobago, 2002; Justice Desiree Bernard, national of Guyana in 2005; Prof. Barbara Bailey, national of Jamaica, 2008; and Prof. Violet Eudine Barriteau, Ph.D, national of Barbados, 2011.

The narratives of these trailblazers inspire. Their individual stories are simply described as lifetimes of selfless and dedicated service. Their composite story is of  unstinting public service, not only at the national, regional  and international levels, but also at the community level. It is a story of integrating women into the mainstream of development; of raising national and international consciousness to a greater appreciation and acceptance of the integral role of women in the process of development. It is also a story of  inspiration and mentorship to younger generations of Caribbean feminists; pioneering research work on women in the Caribbean; of positioning the region on global agenda issues through astute leadership; “of charting ways rooted in Caribbean culture, enabling us to make our way with dignity and self esteem”; of innovative work which has informed programming and policy at the national level; of  raising the profile of  gender and development in academia; and of breaking glass ceilings.

The essence of their narrative is a determination to broaden the parameters of existence for women and girls and to improve their economic, social, political, cultural and legal status; a resolution to tackle the vexed question of underperformance of our Caribbean boys at every level of the education system. Their’s have been the story of gender and development; Caribbean development.

The narrative continues

The narrative continues as Ms. Marion Bethel, a strong advocate for gender equality and human rights for almost three decades, joins this select “army”. Ms. Bethel has made phenomenal contributions to the advancement of women; including providing a forum for Bahamian women to articulate and to actualize their needs and aspirations, through the 1986 established women’s association, Developing Alternatives for Women Now (DAWN), for which she is  Founder and Convener.

As an advocate for human rights, she has served as Co-Founder and Chairperson of The Bahamas Committee on South Africa (1978) and, in 1997, was a delegate to the Caribbean Regional Judicial Colloquium for Senior Judges on the Promotion of Human Rights for Women through the Judiciary.

An acclaimed writer and poet, Ms. Bethel published her first body of work, “Guanahani, My Love,” (1994) a bilingual edition (Spanish/English) which won the Casa de Las Americas Prize in 1995. Her second collection of poems was published in August 2009, by Peepal Tree Press, Leeds, England and she is working on a third collection as well as a novel.  Such are some of her achievements, even as she finds the time and energy to be a  guest writer and performer at several notable international and regional meetings for writers and poets.

Innovatively, Ms. Bethel marries her creative genius to her  advocacy for human rights and her endeavours to correctly record history. In her recent work, a documentary film entitled “Woman Ways: Freedom, Human Rights & Democracy, The Women’s Suffrage Movement in The Bahamas -1948 – 1962,”; which she wrote, directed and produced; she chronicles the journey to the enfranchisement of women in 1962. “Since its debut in November 2012, the documentary has become a source of inspiration and great pride for Bahamians and the women of the Suffrage Movement have become new found `Sheroes’ for young women”.  According to her, “the documentary celebrates and honours the narrative of the Suffragettes and ensures that they were not just footnotes in our Bahamian history”.

Like Ms Bethel, the Community is pleased to celebrate and to honour her narrative and to formally record her footprints in the annals of Caribbean integration.

Volderine Hackett, Communications Unit.

 



[1] Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against women (CEDAW)

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