Post 385.

For three decades, there have been calls for more equal representation of women in Parliament, our nation’s highest decision-making body. This has never been taken seriously despite ritual lip service to women’s rights and gender equality.

Most citizens just want a leader, regardless of sex, who is committed to fairness and who won’t become corrupt. There’s also significant public scepticism about whether women improve the policies and legislation that are introduced.

We haven’t seen most elected women make transformational differences across the Caribbean. Some have. Billie Miller in Barbados and Gail Teixeira in Guyana fearlessly legalised women’s right to safe termination. Joan Yuille-Williams uniquely championed the draft National Gender Policy, before it was crushed by Patrick Manning, and left without approval to this day.

Often, people also want elected women to exercise greater independence in the face of their political leaders, other men, and the kinds of sexist and homophobic political culture they blithely entrench. Yet, from childhood, women are deeply socialised to conform to and uphold male power and patriarchal standards. They are demonised, stereotyped, discredited and sidelined when they don’t. This operates in Cabinet and Parliament just as much as it does every day in our families, workplaces, places of worship and communities.

Women and men are socialised by and often share the same beliefs, but face different and unequal risks for challenging them. Simply being a woman in public life is a risk, and given the authoritarian style of party leaders, women are much more likely to tow the party line and to prove their loyalty, a quality long associated with femininity.

Last week, I highlighted victim-blaming by the PNM Women’s League, and their defence of violent masculinity. As Colin Robinson pointed out on Sunday, such loyalty may also extend to being a “respectable” mouthpiece for sexist and homophobic politics on the hustings, rather than opting to “go high” as women across party divides.

Women are also likely to prioritise respectability that other powerful men, such as those controlling religious constituencies, will accept. For to do otherwise is peril. My deep disappointments about Kamla Persad-Bissessar were, among others, that she failed to end legal child marriage, approve a national gender policy, and create a Children’s Act that wasn’t discriminatory, all to keep patriarchal religious leadership on side the UNC.

Will this election bring any change? What do voter trends and predictions regarding “marginal” constituencies mean for women’s leadership and gender equality?

The PNM is fielding 14 women candidates. With expected wins in Arima, Arouca/Maloney, St Ann’s East, Tobago West and D’Abadie/O’Meara, they can count on five women on the PNM side. Tobago East is being contested by Watson Duke so Ayana Webster-Roy may or may not make the sixth.

None of these are Indian women, which speaks to this group’s lower inclusion in the party as well as the fact that five of them are being fielded in constituencies they can’t win: Siparia, Oropouche West, Fyzabad, St Augustine, Couva North, Chaguanas West, and Princes Town.

Of the 14 women candidates, eight are sacrificial lambs. Indeed, one can argue that women candidates were primarily placed in losing seats. This is typical globally, and is also one of the reasons for women’s lower levels of public office.

The UNC is fielding 12 women candidates. Of these, four are likely wins: Chaguanas East, Siparia, St Augustine and Tabaquite. Three are not clear: La Horquetta/Talparo, Moruga/Tableland, and Toco/Sangre Grande. There’s ethnic mix among those who can win. The five put in unwinnable seats are mainly non-Indian.

If these numbers hold, nine women will be in the Lower House, with possibly four more. Together, at the most, that makes 13 of 41, or 32 per cent. Of these, two will be Indian women, far fewer than either their numbers or qualifications deserve, suggesting a complex mix of racialised and gendered push-and-pull factors at play.

Increasing the numbers of women in politics remains a symbolic and substantive goal. Women, who are half of the population, deserve to be more than one-third of decision-makers, particularly in a country where they have dominated tertiary education for the last 20 years, and are certifiably more qualified by the thousands. If men historically hit this glass ceiling up to today, there would be a national outcry about entrenched male marginalisation.

For women to advance greater gender equality and social justice in policy, law and society, as we hope they will, Caribbean scholarship shows they need a critical mass of much more than 30 per cent, they need the freedom to vote by conscience rather than in ways beholden to a political leader, and they need a groundswell of citizens and male political allies, for whom equality, inclusion, non-discrimination and human rights matter, to be the wind beneath their wings. This election will not achieve that, illuminating the limits of our democracy.

Post 345.

With Monday’s “election budget” delivering promises to increase CEPEP and URP wages by 15%, ethnographic look at some of these workers shows the realpolitik of expenditures and elections.

The workers appearing here are members of a neighbourhood of squatters who often petition their political representatives for basic amenities. They also participate as women and men whose area of residence carries social stigma. They participate in general and local-level election campaigns and voting. Yet, they do not do so out of civic virtue or for an imagined greater good.

Through informal actions such as talking to a party activist or formal actions such as registering for a party group, these low-income workers-voters establish personal and reciprocal networks with higher-level party loyalists woven into government offices and practices.

Indeed, contacts with a party activist is key to employment. Leroy explained that an extended family member was “expecting PNM to be back in power and told me I could get a CEPEP work because he knew people and was in the campaigning thing”.

As Baby Girl described, “The URP was passing around to get names, they was using a voting list and asking people if they were voting or not. I say why vote if I not getting work and just before the election I get a ‘10 days’. I took it and then for the election helped them campaign by going around with a list asking people to vote and organising a car for them. They gave us breakfast, lunch and even dinner. All campaigning people got a promise for a ‘10 days’. I got mine and they told me I would get one every other fortnight. We had to wait to see who won the election…UNC and PNM wasn’t giving jobs to who was seen in a PNM or UNC rally or t-shirt or with a flag”.

Baby Girl had secured successive URP jobs through campaigning for the UNC, but could not turn around and openly support the PNM. She, therefore, had no contacts to turn to when the UNC lost power. However, she felt she secured a URP job under the PNM because she declared she would vote for the party.

The elision between squatters, voters, party activists and workers also plays out in CEPEP and URP work teams. As Leroy reflected, “I feel working CEPEP, if a person want to say he belong to a different party, he will keep that to himself. Either belong or keep silent. You supposed to hush your mouth if you are a UNC on the job”.

Renegade agreed, “you have to act like you belong to one party, that is how de contractor puts it to you. He tells you “is PNM gave you this work and if you don’t support them, your job could be jeopardized”. He tells us we have to go to rallies. He told us we had to join the party, but that was nice to now have a card and number”. Josanne added that workers are “mainly PNM, but half the workers are UNC playing PNM to get a work. If they a UNC we run them out”.

After getting a CEPEP or URP job, joining a party and helping campaign is common practice. Usually, the work involves sticking posters, handing out fliers, bringing in people, going to rallies, helping to set up tents, and being “up and down night and day” with the party. The Constituency Executive also encourages workers that are members of or join party groups to see themselves as “agents of the party” and as “PNM representatives there every day in the wider community”.

In a context of high unemployment, economic discontent, scarcity, and difficulty accessing social resources, governing parties rely on these patron-client relations to win elections, control dissidence, and secure loyalty and dependence.

Giving high visibility and higher wages to CEPEP and URP is not simply about assuaging poverty and destitution, distributing income and providing social security. Deployment of state funds between those in authority and those that need their help is a means to electoral ends. Formal state channels are merely structure for extending political influence through informal contacts, especially in marginal constituencies.

Partisan allocation, however, creates the threat of resentment among those excluded, and fears of loss of power among those who benefit, fueling the election battle as citizens are mobilized into voters. Taxpayers will fund Colm’s campaign strategy. If they get their politics right, at least some workers in insecure communities gain a better chance of making ends meet.