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History This Week No.23/2006

Viola Burnham


Marilee Karl (1995) in her work 'Women and Empowerment: Participation and Decision Making' declared:

"There can be no true democracy, no true people's participation in governance and development without the equal participation of women and men in all spheres of life and levels of decision making".

While the section of the platform on Women in Power and Decision Making includes in the beginning the following:

"... Without the active participation of women's perspective at all levels of decision making the goals of equality, development and peace cannot be achieved."

Janet Jagan

Guyana has begun her forty-first year amidst the now familiar tensions and uncertainties of an election year exacerbated by the other tensions and insecurities now plaguing our society. Our country continues its journey into middle age in an environment that is anything but peaceful and where our fragile democracy is on the verge of being shattered. It is therefore pertinent to examine where we would have been if there had been equal participation of women and the inclusion of women's perspective in "all spheres of life and levels of decision-making".

In the next few articles, the reality of Guyanese women's participation in politics, economic and social decision-making will be examined.

Guyana became an independent nation nine years before the celebration of International Women's Year in 1975 and the beginning of the decade for women. We proclaimed a new constitution in which it is stated that women and men have equal rights and the same legal status in all spheres of political, economic and social life and that all forms of discrimination, against women on the basis of their sex are illegal, one year (1979) after CEDAW and, the same year (1980) as the Mid Decade Plan of Action.

Guyana has also ratified the Beijing Platform for Action (1995) in which 12 critical areas of concern, including Women in Power and Decision-Making, were identified. However, the Beijing plus 5 and Beijing plus 10 reviews have indicated little evidence of implementation of the well-defined policy and plan that had been laid out. This failure is one of the reasons why in June 2000 during the five-year review of Beijing, WEDO launched the global campaign 50/50 by 2005 Get the Balance Right. This target of course has not been achieved.

A review of the situation of Guyanese women in political power and decision-making since independence is instructive. The records show that in the PNC during its 26 years in office after independence, women tended to make up about 1/6 of its Central Executive Committee (CEC), the party's highest decision-making forum.

The highest position held by a woman in the top five positions was that of Treasurer and Assistant General Secretary even though for one year, 1967, a woman, Mrs. Urmia Johnson) was Chairman; she also held the position of Treasurer for ten years 1969 - 1979, and the position of Assistant General Secretary for fourteen years 1979-1994.

It must be noted that since the PNC lost the 1992 elections, the number of women in its CEC has increased. In 1998, the CEC was made up of 11 women and 32 men; in 2002 the number was 27 men and 11 women.

This was the situation despite the fact that more women than men attend the party's Biennial Congress. Clearly women do not use their superior voting strength to increase the number of women in the CEC.

There seems to be a similar trend in respect of the present party in government, the PPP/C. During its years in opposition, its female members were also not rewarded with significant numbers on the Party's Central Executive Committee. The only woman who has been consistently elected to that body over the past half a century plus years has been the wife of the co-founder and herself a co-founder of the PPP, Mrs. Janet Jagan. In 1998 and 2000 the composition of its CEC was 15 men and 5 women. That decreased to 2 women and 15 men in 2002. However, in the WPA, the principle of co-leadership tended towards greater decision making power for women.

Women who become Members of Parliament are usually selected from the list of candidates put up by the party. The lists of candidates for the PNC in 1968, 1973, 1992, 1997 and 2001 general elections reveal that the number of women on their list was 6 (11%), 9(17%), 15(23.1%), 17(26.2%) and 29 respectively. It's female Members of Parliament after the last three elections were 6, 6, and 11.

In the case of the PPP, later the PPP/C, the numbers of women on the list were 5(11%), 1(1.81%) 8(12.3%), 13(20%) and 19(29.2%). Their Members of Parliament were 5 after the 1992 and 1997 elections and 8 after the 2001 elections. However, the WPA, which supposedly has a more egalitarian decision-making structure, had one (100%) male representation after the 1992 and 1997 elections and 2(100%) female representatives after the 2001 elections (in association with GAP). While acknowledging the ability of the women who were chosen to represent GAP-WPA in parliament, given the trend, one must wonder whether the party's decision would have been the same had it won six or seven seats and was in a position to hold the balance between the two major political parties. After the enactment of the 1980 constitution there was an overall increase in the number of women in parliament.

However, it is posited that the increase had more to do with the changing international climate, specifically the impact of the United Nations Decade for Women and the later conventions associated with it rather than a deliberate desire to increase the numbers of women in Parliament.

A perusal of the numbers has indicated some correlation between the number of women in the Cabinet and the number of women representing the ruling party in Parliament. The 1985 elections resulted in both the largest percentage (21.4%) of women representing the PNC in Parliament and the highest female participation in Cabinet. One of the four Vice-Presidents was. Mrs. Viola Burnham the wife of the late Executive President, Forbes Burnham. Three of the Ministers and two Parliamentary Secretaries were women, both of whom were later appointed Ministers. After the 1992 and 1997 elections, 2, approximately 15%, of the total number of Ministers in the PPP/C cabinet were women. This number increased to four of 15 after the 2001 elections and remains the same presently. However, in both administrations women have been appointed to Cabinet positions which can be regarded as the logical extensions of their nurturing and caring roles - health, education, culture, consumer affairs, and sports, mobilization, and Women's Affairs.

The most frequent appointment was the Education portfolio. In neither administration has there been a woman as Minister of Finance, Agriculture or Foreign Affairs. However, recently there has been a significant qualitative change in this respect, the appointment of Ms. Gail Teixeira as Minister of Home Affairs. Undoubtedly her appointment was as much to do with her ability vis-a-vis that of the majority of her male counterparts as her fierce loyalty in support and defence of policies of her party in government.

In both administrations there has been a tendency to appoint women as Ministers within a Ministry. This position has marginalized women ministers for the ultimate decision-making power for the allocation of resources rested with the male Ministers and therefore placed limits on the women's ability to influence policy or garner resources to implement programmes to improve the status of women. In fact, even when a woman, Mrs. Janet Jagan succeeded to the highest position in government, as Executive President (1997) and who had played such a pivotal role in helping to raise the political consciousness of the Guyanese woman more than fifty years earlier, it did not translate into increased participation of women in the several levels of power and decision making. This also demonstrates the contention that even when women succeed in occupying high positions in the government, it does not necessarily mean a commitment to improve the lot of women since they have to follow the agenda set by men, the primary decision makers. These men often show little sensitivity for or inclination to understand gender issues and often have little interest in improving either the qualitative or quantitative power of women in power and decision making.

In the next article, other areas of political decision-making - local government, Trade Unions, Public Service, Law, and the Judiciary will be examined and an assessment of the implications of these trends will be made.

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