Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s pitch to her Australian counterpart, Julia Gillard to put a woman’s touch on the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) sets a new tone to these meetings. For the first time, the Commonwealth has a woman as its chair-in office who will transfer the baton to another woman. The ‘chair-in-office’ is assigned to the host country of the previous CHOGM. Persad-Bissessar inherited the post when Patrick Manning was moved from the office of Prime Minister, given that Trinidad and Tobago hosted the 2009 CHOGM; and it will pass to the Australian Prime Minister which hosts the 2011 CHOGM.
It changes the tone of CHOGM meeting because these have historically been male dominated. In fact, in this period in which Persad-Bisessar and Julia Gillard are on the scene, they are among only three women of the fifty-four political leaders of the Commonwealth. The third female political leader in the Commonwealth is Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed of Bangladesh.
The PM’s call is the kind of woman-to-woman conversation that new development thinkers are encouraging and believe is essential if there is to be progress in the UN’s Millennium Development Goal towards more balanced global development.
It is anticipated that it will also change the tone and impact of women in local politics where the track record has not been altogether encouraging.
A review on interventions in support of women’s participation in electoral processes in the Caribbean between 2007-2008, released by UNIFEM last year, tells that women in politics have not had the impact on their societies as expected.
In the first instance, the review which initially targeted examination of interventions in Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago and either St. Lucia or Guyana, had to curb its ambitions and focus only on Trinidad & Tobago and the Put a Woman project of the Network of NGOs of Trinidad and Tobago for the Advancement of Women because it was the only one that “provided a substantial enough base for making an assessment.”
To its key question on “whether the significant increase in the number of women Members of Parliament (MPs) in Trinidad & Tobago in 2007 had led to an increase in the representation of women’s interests in Parliament,” the simple answer was, “No”.
It describes the aim of Put a Woman to transform the culture of politics in Trinidad & Tobago by making it more inclusive, beginning with women. This was to be achieved through:
Training women across party lines to understand government at both local and national levels and in gender mainstreaming government decision-making;
Encouraging more young people to take part in the electoral process;
Documenting and publishing information on women in local government in Trinidad and Tobago;
Making the environment conducive for women to effectively participate in the highest levels of decision-making; and
Creating a critical mass of gender-sensitive elected or appointed women representatives who would influence policy in national political bodies.
This translated into actions involving political skills training; revitalization of the Women’s Political Platform; documentation of women in local government; and the establishment of a Women’s Political Participation Fund.
The review identified Put a Woman’s major successes as the reach of the training it provided and the significant increase in the number of women elected to Parliament following the training. With local government elections postponed in 2007 and 2008, the Political Skills Training concentrated on training for the national elections of 2007. It used various approaches to working with women who were potential nominees or candidates along with women working to support them and reached more than 500 women. It updated the Women’s Manifesto; prepared a document on women’s contribution to local government and the establishment of a small Women’s Political Participation Fund which distributed nominal sums as expressions of support to 13 women candidates.
Among the weakness it review identified was the project’s inability to establish a Women’s Political Caucus.
But, it concluded, “more critically, “the project did not lead to increased representation of women’s interests by women Members of Parliament in spite the increase in their numbers and the exposure to ideas and tools which the project had provided.”
It found that women MPs were in the main not raising issues of concern to women, and cited reasons as their failure to work across party lines and with women’s organisations. the problem was one of the quality, not the quantity of women MPs.
But there are other broader underlying factors. These, the review identified as:
The nature of the political party culture in the region;
The sometimes antagonistic differences among women and how this impacts on the aim of creating a critical mass of women in Parliament;
The diminishing space that national governments have for decision-making; and
The possibilities and limits of national and local government.
This was discovered of the political environment in Trinidad and Tobago, but it is also a reflection of the political environment globally. And these are the areas that Persad-Bissessar and Gillard will have to transform in their party systems and in their local and national politics, if they are to make substantive impact on the policies and directions and affect a ripple effect across the Commonwealth.