There is great buzz about St. Vincent and the Grenadines’ first ever Women’s Congress to take place in March. SVG made international headlines last year for its high levels of intimate partner violence, violence against women and femicides–the highest in the OECS. The launch of the Women’s Congress was much needed good news.
The Women’s Congress is convened under the theme “Women Rising, Crisis and Response-Women as Agents of Change.” The theme suggests that women are coming together to find solutions to the problems they face as women but also to the issues faced by their communities and country. And why shouldn’t they? After all they make up the majority of the population! The Women’s Congress also expressly set out to be inclusive, naming rural women, people with disabilities, indigenous women and Rastafari women and young people among their key constituents and change-agents.
The Women’s Congress planners held a recent press conference where they were forced to defend their focus on women before a room full of journalists who were all male. They were asked to explain why rather than focus on broad gender issues, they were focusing on worn-out women’s issues. For about the last 20 years or so in the Caribbean “gender” has been used to invalidate a focus on women. It is pointless to clarify how feminists use the term since this is not a semantic battle at all. It is a simple belief held by many that women ought to know their place. And that place is definitely not organising congresses to discuss women’s issues. It is not parliament either where women in St. Vincent and the Grenadines are a mere 3 of 22 representatives.
The organisers defended themselves by saying that there could be a men’s congress if men demanded it, that they recognise that they have to work with men in order to achieve gender equality, that there is a project in the works to create a resource centre for men and boys.
The OAS representative at the launch stated that:
the Caribbean lacks a critical mass of women political leaders committed to promoting gender equality in areas such as women’s economic empowerment and security, ending gender-based violence, advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights, equal pay for work of equal value and shared family responsibilities.
Beyond women as political leaders, she failed to mention women as a political constituency. The fact that we’re not one. States respond to men. Often in very, very problematic ways, but respond they do with a range of institutions and policies. But they do not respond to women as women. (They respond to women as mothers, again in problematic ways.) If the Women’s Congress can move towards the creating women as a political constituency they will have achieved tremendous success.
The other point to be addressed is the assumption that addressing women’s issues means negative outcomes for men. The Women in the Caribbean Project was the longest ever regional research project on Caribbean women. It took place from 1979-1983. One of the objectives of the project was to influence policy in ways that would improve women’s lives. One of the guidelines the researchers set for themselves was that any policy recommendation should benefit both women and men. Recognising the human rights of women and the specific gendered harms which many women face does not mean that men’s issues are ignored or men’s human rights are denied.
Men as partners for gender equality cannot be invoked to invalidate a focus on women. That is not only absurd but goes contrary to any feminist notion of gender equality.
Wishing the women of St. Vincent and the Grenadines a successful Women’s Congress!