Men's and women's roles must be re-examined - Dr Barnett

Stabroek News
March 8, 2000

Women must stop seeing themselves in the historical role as care givers and men as the providers. The economic and social realities require that both men and women be providers and caregivers, CARICOM Deputy Secretary-General, Dr Carla Barnett, says.

Men and women must view their individual roles and that of each other differently, she stated, while declaring open a three-day women's conference under the theme 'Empowering Women in this Millennium' at Le Meridien Pegasus on Monday.

The conference, sponsored by the Central Assemblies of God Church, attracted women from some 92 churches and women's organisations countrywide.

The valuation of unwaged work, the need for a fundamental change in attitudes and political empowerment are issues to be addressed. However, she contended that transformation will not take place unless political empowerment is addressed.

For many, the political arena is still the domain of men and there are far too few women holding positions of authority and responsibility in government, the corporate world, political organisations and the church, Dr Barnett noted.

As women face the challenges and opportunities of the new century it is important that they seek a broad understanding of the barriers to fulfilling their potential and maximising their contributions at all levels of society.

The guest speaker, Bahamian radio and television journalist and businesswoman, Deborah Bartlett, delivered a presentation on 'Women in Business'.

Bartlett, owner of a gift shop and chief executive officer of a television network, addressed the ten principles of establishing a business and gave insights into her own experience.

Dr Barnett defined empowering women to mean the removal of institutional barriers such as the law; administrative policies and practices and, or cultural norms which discriminate against women; the enactment of legislation that guarantees equal access to opportunities and resources and equal protection under the law; and women's access to education, knowledge and skills which are critical to improving the ability of women to achieve their potential for themselves, their families and their communities.

Empowerment as defined, Dr Barnett argued, implies improving the status of women, giving them a range of personal choices and creating conditions which promote economic independence. Economic independence in turn, she said, is a core objective of empowerment and a critical element in the fight against poverty and social disintegration.

Studies in the Caribbean, she said, have shown that although poverty is not peculiar to women, the burden is heavier. As the main provider in an increasing number of households, women have to carry the financial burden in addition to providing emotional and psychological support. This she described as a double burden which makes it difficult for women to free themselves from the grasp of poverty.

The CARICOM Post-Beijing Regional Plan of Action has identified a number of gender-related issues that are linked to poverty--they include the fact that poverty is particularly high among female single heads of households, teenage mothers, rural and indigenous women, elderly women and women with disabilities; gender segregation exists in the labour market; there is a lack of social support for child and family care and sexual harassment of women workers continues with workers in isolated, non-unionised jobs being particularly vulnerable.

The Caribbean Sub-regional Review and Appraisal Report on the Implementation of the Beijing Report finds that women's caregiving obligations at home in conjunction with the obligations of the work place, reinforces poverty in two ways, Dr Barnett said.

First they leave women exhausted without self-development activities which would be important in improving capacity and secondly the obligations of caregiving also force women to select employment which is poorly paid but which offers conditions compatible with child care and household obligations.

In other words, she said, the barriers which stand in the way of women improving themselves are barriers to social and economic progress of the society as a whole.

Dr Barnett noted that while the Caribbean people have accepted the importance of focusing on the improvement of the status of women, the quality of educational experience differs according to gender. The question is no longer whether enrolment rates for girl children are the same as for boys but the concern now relates to whether the nature and content of the education which is provided for girls is free from gender bias and whether it provides equal access to the job market for men and women.

It is a fact that girls continue to opt or be streamed for the arts and humanities while the boys are streamed for the sciences. This approach to educating boys and girls, she said, means that women eventually find themselves qualified for the less technical, lower status, lower paying jobs.

It is also still the case that even when women achieve the same type and level of education and experience as men they are generally paid less for the same work.

This analysis, she said, is saying that poverty alleviation strategies must include leadership training for women, legal reform and gender mainstreaming and there is a need to review the system of education to remove the gender stereotyping which still exists. (Miranda La Rose)