Constitutional changes at the political party level and a focus on building one’s portfolio of advocacy and support system for family care are among the areas some of the country’s leading female politicians say are crucial to increasing the participation of women in frontline politics in The Bahamas.
For the discussion on the role of women in Bahamian politics, Perspective spoke with political icon Dame Janet Bostwick, Englerston Member of Parliament Glenys Hanna-Martin, Democratic National Alliance (DNA) Leader Arinthia Komolafe and Bahamas Constitution Party (BCP) Leader Ali McIntosh.
Their views were forthright, insightful and keenly relevant to the contemporary factors impacting female participation in Bahamian frontline politics.
Female representation in frontline politics is growing in the region and worldwide. In the Caribbean, women have served as heads of government in Dominica, Haiti, Guyana, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Bermuda, Aruba, the Turks and Caicos Islands and, most recently, in Barbados.
As for representation of women in the legislature, Rwanda tops the world’s list with 61.3 percent of its seats in the lower house occupied by women.
In the Caribbean, Cuba tops that list with women holding 53.2 percent of the seats in the lower house, according to a World Economic Forum (WEF) 2019 report on countries that have the most women in parliament.
The WEF report notes that Asian and Arab countries “lag well below the global average” of female representation in parliament at 19.7 and 18.7 percent respectively, with the worst record in that report going to the Pacific nations with 15.5 percent female representation.
In The Bahamas, the representation is currently lower than the forum’s worst record holder, with women currently holding 13 percent of the seats in the lower house.
According to global advocacy group Women Deliver, whether a legislator is male or female has a distinct impact on their policy priorities based on research findings.
“There is also strong evidence that as more women are elected to office, there is a corollary increase in policy making that emphasizes quality of life and reflects the priorities of families, women, and ethnic and racial minorities,” the group advised in its February 2018 report on the importance of women in politics.
A more representative parliament
Women made up 52 percent of the population of The Bahamas as of the 2010 census, and given that proportion as well as that of female voters in the electorate, Hanna-Martin noted that increased female participation was critical to achieving more representative governance in the country.
That female representation in frontline politics and in governance needs to be improved was a point on which all woman agreed in their discussions with Perspective, with both Hanna-Martin and Komolafe calling for parties to amend their respective constitutions to implement quotas for female candidature in response to our question on whether they supported legislated gender quotas such as exist in countries throughout the world.
“I believe that change can and should start at the party level,” Komolafe offered. “In this sense, I support party quotas.”
“Most nations are run by party politics,” she continued. “Parties can amend their constitutions to accommodate more women. We’ve done this in the DNA. If we demand the change at the party level, we may find that legislating quotas at the national level may be unnecessary.”
McIntosh, meantime, said she supported legislated quotas, indicating her view that legislation would require parties to work toward increasing the level of female representation as opposed to leaving it to the parties to choose whether or not they will cooperate with such a move.
“Men have to be committed to wanting more women in politics,” she argued. “As long as they are not committed they are going to fight us because they will be seeing their seats being taken.
“I would want to see as many women as are capable be at that Cabinet table,” McIntosh maintained, “but if we put, let’s say 50 percent women, then that will result in many men not being able to get that seat, so men will have to be committed to the change.”
Legislated quotas are thought to have had a positive causative impact in Rwanda, where according to the WEF, approximately 18 percent of parliamentary seats were held by women in the 1990s, leading into a constitutional change in 2003 which mandated that 30 percent of elected posts be held by women.
“By 2008 women made up more than half of Rwanda’s parliament, and that proportion rose to nearly two thirds in the 2013 election,” the WEF said.
Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) Leader Philip Brave Davis recently announced that his party will field 30 to 40 percent women candidates in the next general election.
McIntosh said her party intends to run a 50/50 slate of candidates.
Why more women don’t run
“The truth is that still, relatively few women want to be involved in frontline politics and the reasons remain the same over all the years,” according to Dame Janet, the first woman elected to the House of Assembly in The Bahamas.
“They see politics as a dirty business and see it as a man’s world,” she proffered in a point of view also expressed by McIntosh.
“Women are still the primary caregivers of the family and it is no easy task to carry out your duties with regard to the family and also to be involved in politics which demands so very much of you.”
Dame Janet also pointed to what she termed the unfortunate reality that “you live in a glass house if you are in politics”.
“Whereas a wife may accept being in that glass house with her husband, for a woman to ask her husband to be in that glass house with her is not really the same thing,” she said.
To the discussion on a Bahamian woman’s willingness to offer for frontline politics, Komolafe opined that, “There aren’t enough women involved in politics to encourage more women to become active. Oftentimes, it’s hard to see the benefits of pursuing frontline politics.
“This is evidenced by the fact that many women do not have a long lifespan in the field. The numbers are extremely few of the women who have been able to stand the test of time, go the long haul and have longevity in the field.”
She highlighted, meantime, a reality of social consciousness and values wherein women are subjected to enhanced scrutiny when compared to their male counterparts whether it be on their appearance, attitude, demeanor, personal lives, competency or financial standing.
“The challenge is even greater for the single woman,” Komolafe added. “While she may not need the approval of a husband or better half, she has the challenge of ensuring a village strong enough to care for her children in her absence, assuming she has children.
“Nevertheless, the issue of guilt, like the married mother, does not escape the single woman either.”
For Hanna-Martin, the matter of a Bahamian woman’s unwillingness to enter frontline politics rests at the feet of political parties.
“When parties become committed to more female involvement in frontline politics we will see it and we will know it,” she insisted, “and it will encourage more women to want to take part in the political process at that level.”
Increasing female participation
The promotion of female participation in frontline politics must start at the curriculum level in our schools, according to Komolafe, who advanced that student government should be present in schools from the primary to tertiary level.
“This is the earliest opportunity for an organized introduction to politics,” she said. “Young people, in particular girls, will become familiarized with running a full campaign while trying to solicit the support of their peers.”
The DNA leader also recommended the introduction of “at least one or two modules” in the nation’s civics curriculum dedicated to women involved in politics, “to inspire young girls to get involved and to get young boys who will one day become men to be comfortable with the idea of women in politics”.
For Dame Janet, women can enhance their political viability by establishing a pattern of advocacy even before they ultimately decide to offer for political office.
“Women must themselves seek to promote themselves,” she stressed. “I have said to women that the worst thing that a female candidate could do is run for election and the people say, ‘Who is she?’”
She encouraged women desirous of political office to begin to do in private life what one wishes to do in government so as to establish a platform for which one can be recognized.
“It is essential that they become active not only in the constituencies with which they may have an interest, but also in the civic life of the community and be spokespersons to promote the causes that you want to promote whether or not you are elected,” Dame Janet pointed out.
“Be recognized for the stance you have taken and the things you have done so that people look for you to be a representative rather than you looking to the party; the people will say, ‘We want her.’”
To this end, Dame Janet urged female political hopefuls to recognize that success will not be possible without a support system in place that undergirds one’s aspirations.
“If you are interested in politics, try to develop a support base that you will need starting in the family,” she advised, “to ensure that you have a system in the family where you know you can have the support of those persons who are nearest and dearest to you because you cannot go it alone.”
Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis addressed this issue at the Free National Movement’s (FNM) Women Association’s installation luncheon yesterday.
He stated, “A part of your mission is to help our party to continue to grow in order to better serve The Bahamas.”
Minnis added, “I want to especially charge you to help to develop a new generation of female leaders within the party. We especially need more women to run for the House of Assembly and sit in the Cabinet of The Bahamas.
“This is a matter of great urgency. I will work with the women’s association and others to help to identify and to promote more women being in elected office.”