Earlier this year an AlJazeera news story cited the World Bank’s report on gender and business which revealed that “husbands still hold the power to prevent their wives from working in at least 15 countries, and laws in 79 nations still restrict the kind of work women can do.”
In Jamaica, the 1942 act governing the employment of women states that no woman shall be employed in night work except in limited circumstances which include, inter alia, care of the sick, pharmacy and employment in the hospitality sector. At least since last year, discussions have began about amending the act to align with the reality that many woman already work at night, already work flexible hours, often in precarious employment.
Jamaican culture critic, Carolyn Cooper, pointed out that though the 1942 act is sexist, discriminatory, classist and patronizing toward women, the motivations for amending it have less to do with gender justice and more to do with making women’s labour hyper-exploitable.
During parliamentary debate on the Flexible Work Arrangements Bill Senator Marlene Malahoo Forte drew attention to the fact that considerations for women’s safety at work ought to be factored in, noting, “you know we also have high incidence of rape at nights; we have abduction of children and women.” One of her colleagues, Leader of Government Business in the Senate, Senator AJ Nicholson, interjected with, “What you want flexi-rape?” His comments were met with laughter from the majority-male parliament. When asked to withdraw his sexist, inappropriate rape joke, Senator Nicholson, invoked his patriarchal privilege to make a joke of whatever he felt like, “Man caah run a joke again?”
No, Senator. Man can’t make rape jokes and expect them to go unchallenged. Most of your colleagues may have laughed with you but not everyone is laughing. Rape is no joke. Neither is the exploitation of women’s labour in poorly paid, precarious and potentially dangerous employment. While women don’t need patronizing laws that restrict the kinds of work they can do, they do need decent working conditions and wages that permit them to take care of their families. They need governments that take rape and sexual assault seriously. Women (and men) in other Caribbean countries have taken to the streets to hold states accountable for their response to rape.
When elected and selected leaders debate these issues on behalf of women who are 51% of the citizenry they ought to do so in a manner that recognizes women’s humanity and citizenship. Women’s lives are not punch lines.
Petchary’s Blog offers a great overview, analysis and responses.
Check out the Top 10 (hetero)sexist moments in Caribbean politics to see other regional leaders behaving badly.
EDITED TO ADD: It has been reported that AJ Nicholson subsequently sent threatening emails to Malahoo Forte, warning that “the big pay back is coming!“