(By Gaulbert Sutherland) There was a female Presidential candidate, a female Prime Ministerial candidate and other women in prominent positions campaigning for their parties in the hard-fought battle that was the May 11, 2015 General and Regional elections.
The issues highlighted were many: unequal pay, domestic violence, poverty, security, abuse. Speaker after speaker at one rally in April lamented that women have been continuously sidelined and suppressed even though they are the backbone of the country.
Other headline-grabbing incidents include then Health Minister Bheri Ramsaran’s verbal abuse and threatening of rights activist Sherlina Nageer, and PPP/C PM candidate Elisabeth Harper who was not allowed to speak at a press conference at which her candidacy was announced. The APNU+AFC coalition in addition, initially did not have the required one-third women candidates on its list of representatives.
In the end, just like the 10th Parliament, 21 of the 65 seats in the National Assembly were allocated to women. 32 percent in 2011 and 32 percent in 2015. Two women were selected for ‘senior’ Ministerial posts in the administration of President David Granger compared to five in the previous administration.
Fifty years after Guyana’s independence, women, who comprise more than 50% of the electorate, are arguably more visible in the rough-and-tumble of Guyanese politics. But after Guyana’s first female president – the late Mrs. Janet Jagan who was elected in 1997 for a three-year term – no woman has been seriously considered to compete for the highest office in the land and parliamentary representation has remained static.
Women in politics remain a topic that elicits mixed feelings but there is a common view that achieving equality is some distance away.
“We have a long way to go in really seriously tackling the problems faced by women in our society,” social justice advocate Nadia Sagar told Insight. She said that these issues were not dealt with seriously on the campaign trail and women were seen but not truly heard. Guyanese society still has a long way to go before it can be said that women are truly heard in many aspects of public and private life, she added.
Notwithstanding, the attorney emphasised the pivotal role of women in the May 11 elections. Sagar explained that there was an unrelenting desire to be involved which translated into the type of action that ultimately led to the change in government. “Aside from the work of female politicians, women galvanised into action on social media and in peaceful protests. This, more than anything had a profound impact on the outcome of the elections,” she said.
Sagar added that while there were women in leading roles in the political parties, the numbers do not reflect a true balance. “There can never be enough women in leadership positions and we do not have enough women in leadership positions in our society,” she said.
“There is a greater need to really enhance women’s participation,” rights activist Laura George told Insight. “I did see women being given spaces to make statements on the campaign trail but it was always a man who was speaker for the night,” she added. George believes that the campaign rhetoric sought to make the parties look good and issues were not addressed meaningfully.
She said that while there has been a general effort to enhance women’s leadership roles, there is still a lot more way to go. She also pointed to the abuse of women by officials of the former PPP/C administration while pointing out too that few women were selected for top posts in the new administration. “We are yet to see what focus is going to be given to women in areas of enhancing their participation…in the general society…it would be too soon to declare women as winners because we are trying to see what practical strategic plans they are putting in place for women,” George declared. She added that women should demand more positions of authority, be vocal and proactive and it must be recognized that women can be great leaders too.
Gender equality is a complex issue, rights activist Vidyaratha Kissoon said. He believes that in Guyana, party loyalty is the most important requirement of any candidate rather than any commitment to social justice. Kissoon also argued that women’s participation is not always an indicator of a commitment to women’s rights and safety. He said that the retention of Ramsaran and former Attorney-General Anil Nandlall indicated that the PPP has no real concern about violence against women. He pointed out that both men and women would have supported this decision and voted for them.
Women’s participation in the National Assembly has occasioned comment from international observers. “Although many women were actively involved in this election in many capacities within GECOM and political parties, the absence of a mandatory quota for women in the National Assembly is an ongoing cause for concern,” the Carter Center said.
Sagar said that Guyanese society is still very patriarchal. “Until we make a concerted effort to do away with that system, women will continue to play supporting roles rather than realising their potential as leaders,” she declared.