By Loretta Butler Turner (photo above), Shadow Minister of Labour and Social Development of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas, and member of Parliament, in her address during the CIM Round-Table Discussion “Political Violence against Women: A Hemispheric Challenge”, February 25th, Washington, DC 20006
I speak to you today as a Caribbean parliamentarian, though not officially on behalf of the region.
Additionally, though a member of the Official Opposition, the Government of The Bahamas has been fully supportive of my attendance at this meeting.
I thank my country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Hon. Fred Mitchell for his assistance as well as our embassy here in WashingtonD.C.
What I say today are my own views, though I do believe that they represent the views of many throughout the Caribbean and in The Bahamas, both male and female.
The Bahamas has made considerable progress in terms of the involvement of women in the political process, progress of which I am immensely proud as a citizen and as a woman. By example, in The Bahamas there is considerable involvement by women in the civil service, on government boards and in other areas of public life.
But as a citizen and a woman, my task is to ask what else needs to be done to ensure greater equality for women in political parties generally and in the political process at every level of government.
There is still a long way to go in terms of the number of women in the elected lower chamber of our Parliament and the number of women as cabinet members. These two areas are where ultimate political power resides, and where women are vastly underrepresented.
A well-known nursery rhyme reads: “Sticks and stones will break my bones/But words will never harm (or hurt) me.”
The rhyme was an admonition to children not to use physical means to retaliate against being taunted or teased. However, in the context of today’s meeting we might take exception to the premise of the nursery rhyme.
Stick and stones and fists and even more lethal instruments are used to intimidate, maim and kill women. But there are other forms of violence against women.
In the political process, such violence may be in the form of words as well as in how systems are rigged against the fuller participation of women in leadership in political parties. One does not have to be physically harmed to be intimidated or to feel that one is being marginalized.
On a range of issues important to women, as well as issues related to gender equality, females in the political process often feel intimidated and afraid to speak for fear of not being a member of the political club, or marginalized if one does speak out on various issues.
There are subtle and not so subtle forms of women being intimidated and sidelined. When one is the only, or among the few women in the room when important discussions are taking place, there is often the pressure to conform or to remain silent.
Silence is sometimes golden. Yet as often, throughout history, marginalized groups have had to remain silent out of fear.
As political office or power is often seen as the preserve and prerogative of men, women often tread lightly and minimize their voices.
The way to change this equation is to have more women at the seat of political power at every level, especially in national legislatures.
Toward this end political parties may wish to devise targets in terms of numbers and deadlines for the inclusion of women as candidates for political office.
Correspondingly there will need to be vigorous recruitment efforts and training programs for women, especially as women have typically been more reticent in running for office for a variety of reasons.
Whereas men often feel naturally suited and are more inclined to run for office, there is the need for urgent and greater efforts by political parties to create the climate and conditions for more women to feel empowered and inclined to seek elected office.
In addition to political parties fostering gender equality within its own ranks, they must help to foster a climate of inclusion and tolerance at the local and national levels.
More women will run for office if there is a greater sense of equality within the national culture and women feel less intimidated and marginalized.
In this regard political parties must be more robust in challenging the offensive and abusive language directed toward women in public discourse.
Remaining silent sends a message. A non-response is so often a thunderous response. Moreover, it cannot mostly be women in public life addressing violence against women and gender equality.
We urgently need the voices of men generally and men in politics and public life in the promotion of a greater culture of respect for women within political parties and throughout national life.
Political parties must also be at the forefront of refashioning and constructing the architecture of equality, i.e. promoting laws, programs, systems, and opportunities for women to be more involved in decision-making at the highest level and to better address political violence against women