Is the sudden loss of the word ‘gender’, in any Ministry title under the Rowley government, a sign of gender equality’s oncoming policy demise?
This new invisibility, which reverses decades of state practice and Caribbean advocacy, isn’t a matter of letterhead. It shows lack of familiarity with Caribbean history, misunderstanding of why ‘gender’ was made independently visible, and a step out of time with the UN Sustainable Development Goals for 2015 to 2030, to be adopted at the General Assembly meeting in New York in just two weeks.
Some have argued that, under the last administration, ‘gender’ was in a Ministry title, but “nothing” effective was tried or achieved, so why keep it in? But, “nothing” achieved, or more to achieve, is more, not less, reason for gender equality’s visibility while following through on the budgetary allocations, and cross-ministerial policies and programmes that its inclusion signals.
Others have argued that disappearance of a Ministry, with visible leadership for integrating women’s empowerment and gender equality across all planning, is a message that the government is serving all. But this “serving all” defense assumes that women and gender represent special interests. Not true.
Everyone’s entire lives, including how we access power, are shaped by ideals of masculinity and femininity, across everything from the economy to schooling. And women are not a special interest group, for what happens to women similarly affects everything from the economy to schooling. To fix the problem of boy’s educational underachievement, end women’s subordination and the low status of femininity. Same for sex inequality in the labour market which affects the health and wealth also of men and families.
Except where efforts are well integrated, a single Ministry still needs to push technical recommendations and expertise across other parts of government, which might be adopting agendas based on inaccurate analyses, personal biases or unfamiliarity with global conventions.
There are also major problems with subordinating gender equality to ‘social development’ or ‘family services’; a move that regresses to pre-1975. Gender equality and women’s empowerment are their own goals, whether or not they advance a state’s ‘development’ or ‘family’ agenda. What if the development plan includes an ‘Export Processing Zone’ where goods are made, but unions are forbidden, and what if the majority of workers are women? Here their right to organize as women workers, for everything from day care to decent conditions, will be at odds with a development plan.
Gender equality may also be at odds with ‘family services’, particularly where women’s resistance to all forms of male domination in religion or violence in the family, or the right of LGBT citizens to equally choose who they love, or the justice of providing safe and legal access to pregnancy termination as a public health policy, is cast as a threat to the ideal of ‘family’. Women’s rights are human rights to be pursued regardless. They are not reducible to service provision, nor justified by women being “half our resources”, nor legitimate only for heterosexuals, wives or mothers.
Caribbean feminists fought since at least the 1970s to get gender visible at a ministerial level. Jamaica led the world with a Women’s Desk in 1973 and decade after decade of regional struggle and advocacy won a Bureau, then a Division and finally a Ministry. There was data and logic backing this, for Caribbean states are historically patriarchal and the Ministry of Gender was to be the radically transformative site for internal reform that had inched past the glass ceiling right to the top, to struggle there for change.
How will a Ministry of Social Development and Family Services fill the mandate of a Ministry of Gender Affairs to challenge patriarchal beliefs, values and organization of power, as they create sexism and homophobia, in and out of the state? Can we expect the ministry to stop ungendered priorities flinging wrong resources in wrong directions, costing the treasury? Will the Minister lobby within Cabinet for gender equality, as if that is a headline mission of her Ministry, not simply a division under the manners of social welfare and family?
What’s in a name? At minimum, a public commitment to women’s rights and gender equality. What has been lost? Disappointingly, Cabinet-level representation, leadership and accountability.