Monday, March 21, 2016

Challenging times for Jamaica’s women leaders

Jamaica Observer column published 14 March 2016 by Jean Lowrie-Chin

PM Andrew Holness and his wife MP Juliet Holness arrive at Gordon House - Observer photo by Byan Cummings

The women of Jamaica stood strong last week, as our largest numbers to date were sworn in as members of the Cabinet and the two houses of Parliament were sworn in, and there were several International Women’s Day celebrations.  The greeting exchanged by Leader of the Opposition Portia Simpson Miller and Prime Minister Andrew Holness set a great tone.  I am appalled by the disrespectful comments that have been posted on social media about our former Prime Minister – let us show respect, and thank Mrs Simpson Miller for stepping up to serve.  Politics is a tough career, especially for women.
Prosperity is the current buzzword, but when our shop was asked to come up with a slogan for the Productivity Council, we suggested “Productivity for Prosperity”.  Our women have helped their families to prosperity, as they understand that only hard work can take you there: they have used their sweat and ingenuity to stretch every dollar to its furthest limit.  Hopefully, they will be allowed to help our new government to do the same.
Mrs Rose Leon - First Chairman of the JLP, served in Cabinets of both the JLP and PNP
It was fortuitous that Professor Verene Shepherd had been confirmed many weeks before the General Election was called, to be the Guest Speaker at the annual Rose Leon Memorial Lecture last Monday evening. And so, we were able to remember the brave Rose Leon, who was a founding member of the Jamaica Labour Party in 1944 and was elected its first Chairman in 1948. She was appointed as Minister of Health and Housing in 1953, and worked ardently to combat the regional poliomyelitis epidemic. After her departure from the JLP in 1960, she was invited by PNP Leader Norman Manley to join his party in 1967, and having successfully campaigned in Local Government and later General Elections, was appointed to the Cabinet of the PNP Government in 1972, as Minister of Local Government.
Professor Verene Shepherd
Professor Verene Shepherd, UWI Director of the Institute for Gender & Development Studies and Professor of Social History at the Mona Campus, and recently appointed United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), made a special call to our newly elected and appointed women leaders, as she reminded her audience of the unspeakable horrors of the slave trade. She reminded her audience of a bi-partisan supported motion by Minister Mike Henry to claim reparation last year but commented, “Indeed, the bi-partisan decision in Parliament is perhaps one of the best kept secrets in Jamaica. It has created no buzz whatsoever in the media or among civil society and apart from Mike Henry, hardly any politician is talking about it.” 

Prof Shepherd said that Caricom member states should be educating their people about the 2013 “Ten Point Action Plan for Reparatory Justice”.  “But there is another reason why I am calling on women in Parliament to use their position and influence to lead this charge for reparatory justice,” she noted. “The reason is that the burden of enslavement fell on the backs of our female ancestors and we have a moral obligation to seek for the appeasement of their torture and the redemption of their souls. If you are in any doubt, just consult the works of Lucille Mathurin Mair, Linnette Vassell, Hilary Beckles, Barry Higman, Douglas Hall, Barbara Bush and others …. All show that field and domestic work fell disproportionately on the backs of women whether they were on sugar plantations or some other type of property. They were the majority in all field gangs and the brutality of their punishment would make you weep… Women, the backbone of the labour force were worked to death, whipped, raped, suffered the pain of seeing their children taken away from them, were hardly allowed the luxury of a family life, were imprisoned, placed in the stocks, hanged and subjected to any kind of pain of which your mind can conceive.” 

Prof Shepherd went to great lengths, calculating the amounts that would be allocated to the parishes in which the constituencies of our women representatives are located, and this came to a sum of £4,042,739 - which would be £3,210,000,000.00 or USD$4,568,953,500.00 using 2014 conversion rates.  That’s great seed money for prosperity! She reminded her audience that “46,000 British enslavers were awarded £20 million pounds by the British State as compensation for the loss of “property”, a figure representing a staggering 40 per cent of the British Treasury's annual spending budget and, in today's terms, calculated as wage values, equates to around £16.5 billion or US$23 billion.”

As I read Prof Shepherd’s speech, I remembered an interview I did with Madame Rose Leon, when she described her walks through Kingston, her queries about large unused spaces and being told that they belonged to “Missis Queen”.  She said she demanded that these lands be used to house her fellow Jamaicans and was able to create new, thriving communities. 
This is the trailblazing spirit which we are looking for in our promising women leaders. Prof. Shepherd has drawn up a proposed “Women’s Manifesto for Reparatory Justice for Historical Injustices”, which I am sure she would be happy to share with our representatives. 

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