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International Women’s Day is next Monday, March 8. The theme set by UN Women is “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world.” This theme is meant to align with that of the upcoming 65th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW)—“Women’s full and effective participation and decision-making in public life, as well as the elimination of violence, for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls.” Both themes are important and need more than one to 12 days of discussion, analysis, and action planning. We can see that quite clearly in the national context, particularly as we are in the midst of election season.

Political parties continue to announce the ratification of candidates and are far from gender parity. Not even 30 percent of the slates are women. This is no surprise considering the fact the two major parties had four and six women on their slates of candidates. We currently have five women in Parliament — 12.8 percent. It stands to reason that if both political parties had more women as candidates, women would comprise a higher proportion of Parliament and we may have actually had better representation.

It is important that, even as we advocate for a political quota, we emphasise the need for quality candidates. We do not need more women in Parliament who will not only fail to represent women in all our diversity and work to address issues that directly and disproportionately affect us, but embarrass us repeatedly and help to set us back.

We do not need women who simply want to be a part of the “boys club” or want to set themselves apart by distancing themselves from women’s rights issues or “feminine” characteristics.

We do not need more people who simply want to occupy a seat. We need women who are well-equipped to represent their geographic constituencies and the larger constituency of women.

It has been particularly interesting to watch the hypocritical response to the resignation of Lanisha Rolle from the Ministry of Youth, Sports, and Culture. All of a sudden, people and organisations are concerned about the absence of women in Cabinet.

Over the past four years, very little was said about there being only one woman in Cabinet, and that one women being among the worst of Cabinet Ministers. Her earlier appointment to the Ministry of Social Services and Urban Development was cause for great concern. Those who were paying attention knew that it would not go well. Giving Rolle oversight of the ministry with departments responsible for serving people in need and meeting international obligations such as CEDAW made no sense. The Department of Gender and Family Affairs was suffocated by her refusal to recognise the necessity of its work. It was devastatingly stagnated, despite the work of some of the most dedicated, qualified staff – and it has yet to recover.

Rolle, when asked for her position on marital rape, said marital rape was a private matter. Are other forms of violence within the home also private matters? The personal is political. This is not just a saying. It is a truth we need to understand. The decisions we make as individuals and the structures of our relationships and institutions, including families and businesses, are directly impacted by and directly impact the economic and political spheres.

We can look at the state of households during the COVID-19 pandemic (though the same dynamics existed before this exacerbation). We continued to work, whether on-site or from home, and took on the additional work of supervising virtual learning and the tasks that could no longer be done by others due to restrictions. Most of the added labour fell to women who had to continue their regular work, help children with virtual learning, look after elderly family members and keep the house clean and prepare meals on a more frequent basis. Before this, women and men were working and, in most cases, women came home to the second shift, handling domestic tasks and care work. Some may say this is a personal matter.

The way people divide their household work is up to them, right? Well, how do they come to these decisions? Are they actual choices, made consciously, or predetermined due to circumstance or the (often unspoken) gender division of labour?

The way tasks are divided are home depend heavily on the ways women and men see themselves, not only on a personal level, but culturally, politically, religiously. If only one person in the household can work overtime in order to ensure household matters are dealt with, it is likely to be the person who is making the most money. This is directly impacted by the gender wage gap and the difference in opportunities available to and accessed by men and women.

A woman does not truly choose to spend less time on paid work and take care of the children if the issues are that no one else is available to do it and/or the man is able to make more money in less time. This “private matter” is affected by public issues of education, employment, and social security, among others.

Returning to the absurd idea that marital rape is a private matter, we have to look at the factors that affect and are affected by dynamics within the home. When we create this kind of divide between private and public, we leave people defenceless. Rolle’s comment communicated to the public that what happens to any woman at home is her own problem. The government is not concerned about such matters and sees no need to interfere.

Miriam Emmanuel, no better than Rolle, saw fit to share a disturbing anecdote about her father’s victim-blaming regarding intimate partner violence. Comments like these send the message that women are disposable, unprotected, and complicit in their own harm while men are excused or even revered for their brutality, creating the environment for violence in the home to proliferate. It is important to understand that the effects are not limited to the individual, but affect public health and the economy. Hospital visits and sick days do not affect just one person.

We need true representation for women in Parliament and Cabinet. We need women who are aware of the issues affecting women, care about about addressing them, and are prepared to do the work with minimal support. Rolle is not a loss. She was a liability the entire time she was a Cabinet Minister and remains a liability as a Member of Parliament.

This month, as we advocate for women to be in positions of political leadership, it is critical that we are clear in the demand for feminist leadership and true representation. We do not simply need women, but women who believe in equality. Women who understand and explicitly state that marital rape is rape. Women who advocate for comprehensive sexuality education in all schools. Women who have studied and have mastery of international mechanisms and declarations such as CEDAW and the Beijing Platform for Action and have fresh ideas and plans of action for legislative reform and implementation. Women who are engaged with civil society organisations that are engaging in women’s rights work.

The Prime Minister said he wants to see a woman be Prime Minister one day, but he has done nothing to move us in that direction. Look at the 2017 slate of candidates and look at the ratified candidates to date. Is there representation? Are the candidates equipped for the task at hand?

Taking notice of the lack of gender parity now could be a sign of opportunism because it is election season or because it is a global priority. Better late than never when the latecomers are ready to go the whole way. Let us not lament the resignation of Rolle as though we have suffered some great loss. We have not. Focus the discontent on the actual tragedy — the continued lack of representation for women and all indications that the next term, no matter the administration, will be quite similar to this one. While all parties still have room on their slates, pressure them to ratify qualified women who believe in and will advocate for human rights. Pay attention to what The Bahamas says in international spaces. Hold the government to the commitments it makes. Call it to a higher standard.

Published in my weekly column in The Tribune on March 3, 2021.

Last week, when questioned about the lack of representation of women in parliament, Leader of the Opposition Philip “Brave” Davis said 30 to 40 percent of the Progressive Liberal Party’s 2022 slate of candidates will be women. He noted the best proportion could be higher, but it depends on who makes themselves available. Both the Progressive Liberal Party and the Free National Movement both had outrageously low numbers of female candidates in the 2017 general election. It is clear political parties in The Bahamas are not paying enough attention to issues of gender, how they contribute to them, or the ways they can bring transformation.

Public sentiment about political quotas has been negative over the past few years. The topic draws commentary from people who are not only annoyed by conversations about gender equality, but do not understand how quotas work. Political quotas are not about arbitrarily putting women in seats. They are about creating environments in which women have the opportunity to receive the necessary training, education and experience, present themselves as candidates, receive party and public support to run for winnable seats and represent their constituencies well. Quotas encourage political parties to make adjustments that result in increased access for women. If every political party has to ensure 30 percent of its slate is women, they will have to invest in better recruitment and training practices because they want to win. Their wins are inextricably tied to the performance of individual candidates and women should be included.

It is important to dispel the most widespread myth about political quotas. We do not advocate for a political quota only to see a high number of women candidates in a general election. We want great representation. Our support will go to exceptional candidates who show understanding of issues of national concern, critical thinking skills, ability to develop solutions and other characteristics and relationships that ensure they will be effective (such as the full support of the political party and its leadership). Today, we are not convinced candidates with the greatest potential truly have access.

Can they engage in the process to become candidates? Do they have the support they need, especially if they are not already well-known? How can they compete with people who embody what so many believe a leader to be, just by being men?

Women, feminists and women’s rights advocates want true representation and are as concerned about the quality of candidates as everyone else, if not more. We have seen what appointing a woman just because she is a woman can do. We want excellent candidates. A political quota would help us to ensure such candidates are able to participate and not blocked because it is more politically expedient to run someone who is more readily seen as capable because he is a man. We have to intentionally make space for women and, by doing so, change the way we see women, leadership and women in positions of leadership.

In some countries, there are political parties that have instituted quotas. Voluntary quotas have been adopted by political parties in Argentina, Australia, Botswana, Canada, Germany, Kenya and Malta among others. If the Progressive Liberal Party is serious about ensuring women are given equal opportunity to participate in frontline politics by responding by the inequalities in systems and practices, it has the opportunity to set a precedent. It can be the first political party in The Bahamas to reserve a proportion of its slate for women and develop a process for recruitment, training and campaign management that accounts for gender relations. This needs to happen and it is imperative it is not a one-time deal, but is embedded in the party’s constitution, pushing others to do the same. The political quota is not the only need, but will prompt the systemic changes we need in order to move toward gender equality more broadly and proper representation in frontline politics in particular.

When we begin to see women as leaders and as effective representatives, we will no longer need a political quota. For now, it can only help us to move further along with people in parliament who look like us, live like us, understand us and can advocate for our specific needs as a constituency.

Published by The Tribune on June 12, 2019.

We need to talk about consent. Most of us understand it to mean permission. Parents and guardians signing forms to allow children to participate in extracurricular activities probably comes to mind. We don’t think about consent as a way of controlling and protecting our own bodies. Instead, we view the bodies of women and girls as public property.

When we force children to show affection to family members and friends without prejudice, we teach them they do not own their bodies. When we tell teenaged girls, “Dress the way you want to be addressed”, we are telling them other people’s perceptions of them are the most important thing. We have many ways of making each other less than human, stripping away rights and dignity. We find ways to blame one another for any violation experienced, conditioned by and continuing the perpetuation of rape culture.

Rape culture is prevalent in our environment and allows people to believe there is something women and girls can do to prevent sexual assault. We can dress differently, travel in groups, ensure we are always accompanied by men, refrain from consuming alcohol, get home before dark and ignore our own sexuality. Even further, we can purchase a number of products like special underwear that only we can remove and nail polish that detects date rape drugs in our drinks. The onus is continuously put on us, women and girls to protect ourselves by being less visible and investing in products specifically designed for us. As if this is not enough to bear, our law does not recognise us as full people after we marry.

According to the Sexual Offences Act, once married, women are no longer entitled to (not) give consent to their husbands and are expected to engage in sexual activity whether we would like to or not. The Act says we cannot be raped and, by marrying us, men have unlimited rights to access our bodies.

What if this were the case for murder? If a man owns his wife’s body to the extent he can penetrate her vagina without her consent, what is to keep him from thinking he can kill her without consequence? If we stick to the “two become one” argument, we set ourselves down a slippery slope. Married women can vote, but not say “no” to sex and have the right to press charges if her husband rapes her. Married women are human beings in some ways, but property in others.

There is no reason for women to be denied the right to choose what to do with their bodies, in marriage or otherwise. The narrative of false accusations is completely baseless at best and foolish at worst. If we create legislation and policies based on potential for misuse, we would likely be forced to go without. Anarchy, anyone?

People talk about the great fear of the lying woman. Won’t married women lie on their husbands, just because?

People sometimes lie — not women; people. Cases sometimes go to court and the defendants are innocent. Sometimes it is difficult to prove the crime. We see this happen every day. This is the reason for courts, judges and juries. It is the reason evidence is required. The justice system has its issues, but so do society, the church and the institution of marriage. Are we really satisfied to doom married women to live as the property of their husbands, able to be lawfully violated? Are we happy to have even ten women suffer in silence, with no legal recourse, because one might lie on her husband? Do we really believe men are entitled to sex on demand when they marry a woman?

To be clear, rape is not sex. Sex can only occur with clear, continuous consent from all parties involved. When anyone is forced to participate in sexual activity, it is assault — a violation. If a person is underage, they are not able to give consent. If a person is intoxicated, they are not able to give consent. If a person is unconscious or asleep, they are not able to give consent. Consent must exist for a sexual act to be lawful. It must be explicit and cannot be coerced. There is no such thing as sex without consent; that is rape. It does not matter whether or not the people involved are married. Consent is not granted in perpetuity, regardless of licences and vows. We have the right to say yes or no.

In July 2009, then MP for Long Island Loretta Butler-Turner tabled the marital rape bill which would have amended the Sexual Offences Act to omit “who is not his spouse” so that marital status does not enter the definition of rape or impede access to justice. Eight years later, we are having the same conversation on the same level, seemingly with no better understanding of or appreciation for women’s rights as human rights. We listen to political and religious leaders and allow them to guide our thoughts on opinions far too often. We forget Members of Parliament and Cabinet Ministers work for us and should be acting in the best interest of the Bahamian people. Laws and policies should be made to protect the most vulnerable among us; not putting them at higher risk or further marginalizing them from the rest of society. Religious leaders should not be interfering in governance of the country, or imposing themselves and their views on the citizenry. They should be rebuking the consistent, dangerous misuse of biblical text to support misogyny.

Those who support men who rape their wives often use biblical text, mostly in fragments, to compel others to do the same. A favourite is Ephesians 5:22 which implores women to submit themselves to their husbands. Those quoting this scripture conveniently neglect to mention verses 23 and 28 which call on men to love their wives as Christ loved the church and “as their own bodies”. A true, practising Christian would surely look at the full scripture and, upon seeing “love,” refer to I Corinthians 13 for its definition and characteristics. According to Paul, love is patient, kind and protective and is not self-seeking. If a man loves his wife, would he not be patient, kind and protective, and willing to put his own desires aside instead of being self-seeking? If a man loves his wife as Christ loved the church — for which He gave His life — what limit would there be to what he would give up for her? Why aren’t we holding men to the same standards we demand women meet?

A married woman is still a woman, and a human being. Married women, like unmarried women, have human rights. These include being equal in dignity and rights, the right to security of person, freedom from slavery or servitude and recognition everywhere as a person before the law. In addition to being protected from sexual assault and understood to be human beings, women deserve to have access to justice. We need to look at the Sexual Offences Act and its definition of rape. We need to look at the way we view marriage and, in particular, the privileges of men within the institution. We need to understand that rape is rape, no matter who is involved. Perhaps more than that, we need to look at the positions we take and the arguments we use and ask ourselves who we are trying to protect – and why?

Published in Culture Clash — a weekly column in The Tribune — on December 20, 2017

Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis announced last week the current administration will amend legislation in order to allow Bahamian women to automatically transfer citizenship to their children at birth in the same way Bahamian men already do. At present, children born to Bahamian women and non-Bahamian men outside of The Bahamas must apply for Bahamian citizenship between the ages of 18 and 21, and registration as a Bahamian citizen is at the discretion of the Minister.

The Bahamas Nationality Act — not the Immigration Act — speaks to the acquisition of Bahamian citizenship which, in many cases, must be granted by the Minister. By use of the word “automatically” in his statement, it appears Minnis means to amend the Bahamas Nationality Act so there is no application or, at the very least, no interference by the Minister. It is not clear how he intends to do this or the form the new process will take, but it is not “overturning” the referendum vote. Minnis has proposed a completely different action which will not have the same effect as a constitutional amendment.

Recall the conversation about the constitutional referendum of 2016. The Constitutional Commission repeatedly made the distinction between the right to automatic citizenship and the right to apply for citizenship. While bill one — specific to Bahamian women married to non-Bahamian men being able to transfer citizenship to children born outside of The Bahamas — would have made citizenship automatic if it had passed, bill two — specific to Bahamian women transferring citizenship to their non-Bahamian husbands — would have allowed for an application process that would not have guaranteed citizenship. This is an important distinction to make and understand: the right to apply for citizenship is not the same as the right to acquire citizenship.

Constitution vs. legislation

Since 2014 when the constitutional referendum was announced, some insisted the same goal — equal rights to transfer citizenship to spouses and children — could be achieved through legislation. They insisted the PLP administration, if it was serious about gender equality in citizenship, should just use the Bahamas Nationality Act to get the same results as a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum. They did not, however, acknowledge the difference between the constitution and legislation.

The constitution is supreme law. Article two states, “This Constitution is the supreme law of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas and, subject to the provisions of this Constitution, if any other law is inconsistent with this Constitution, this Constitution shall prevail and the other law shall, to the extent of the inconsistency, be void.” Legislation, such as the Bahamas Nationality Act, fits the “other law” category. This means what is written in the constitution overrides any legislation. That is why it was important to go through the referendum process, making an effort to change the constitution so gender equality in the right to transfer citizenship would exist in supreme law rather than in the Bahamas Nationality Act (which is superseded by the constitution).

What if the Bahamas Nationality Act is amended to allow children born outside of The Bahamas to Bahamian women married to non-Bahamian men to automatically access Bahamian citizenship? In theory, it would be great.

There would be no need for applications to the Minister, more paperwork going through Cabinet, or waiting for the age of 18. What if, however, there is a legal challenge? What if someone, or a group, decides it is not constitutional? If taken to court, based on Article two of the constitution, we know supreme law holds. This means Article nine — which says those “born legitimately outside The Bahamas after 9th July 1973 whose mother is a citizen of The Bahamas shall entitled, upon making application on his attaining the age of eighteen years and before he attains the age if twenty-one years… to be registered as a citizen of The Bahamas” — would carry more weight than any allowance made in the Bahamas Nationality Act.

No change the current administration makes to legislation is the final word. This is the reason the previous administration spent money and other resources on the constitutional referendum of 2016. Is it a step? Maybe. Is it a cure-all? Not at all.

Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)

Many Bahamians were first introduced to CEDAW after the 2014 announcement of the constitutional referendum. CEDAW was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1979 and ratified by The Bahamas in 1993. Though we have signed the convention, The Bahamas has made reservations on some Articles including 2(a) on the elimination of discrimination against women in “national constitutions or other appropriate legislation”.

This reservation exists because while Article 26 of the constitution is on protection from discrimination, it does not list sex as a prohibited ground for discrimination and cannot be changed without a simple majority vote by Bahamian citizens.

Article 54 of the constitution states changes to Article 26 — along with many others including 8, 10, and 14 which relate to transfer of citizenship and were included in the 2016 referendum — can only be made following a vote of at least three-quarters of both Houses and a simple majority of eligible Bahamian citizens.

The Bahamas also reserved on Article 9 of CEDAW on equal nationality rights including the ability to acquire, change, or retain nationality and the same rights with respect to their children’s nationality.

Both CEDAW and The Government of The Bahamas recognise the constitution as supreme law and understand the process of changing it. This is at least a part of the reason for The Bahamas’ reservation on the two Articles mentioned here, the decision to go to referendum in 2016, and the response from the Constitutional Commission to the argument that legislation would get the good done just as well.

Power of the Houses

It is critical we understand democracy, governance, law, and power. It is difficult to participate in national discussions without an understanding of the constitution, legislation and how they can be changed. Legislation is being tabled and amended on a regular basis, largely without the public’s attention, much less understanding or agreement. We need to pay more attention to what our Members of Parliament are doing, especially if they are looking to increase their own salaries.

“The People’s Time” can’t just be a snappy slogan; it needs to be a way of life. The people need to set the agenda, supervise our employees, and actively participate in democracy.

It is easy to see Minnis’ announcement as a victory for those of us who wanted a ‘yes’ vote in 2016. It is easy to become distracted by seemingly benevolent actions and to be assuaged by convincing rhetoric. We need to ask questions. What difference will legislative amendments make?

How is this administration acting to shift culture? Does the current composition of Parliament or the Senate reflect an interest in gender parity? How can we learn more about our constitution and existing legislation?

Who is the government, and who is responsible for protecting democracy? Where does the power really sit, and it is being used effectively? How have we contributed to the current political environment? Are we ready to change it?

Published in Culture Clash — a weekly column in The Tribune — on November 9, 2017

The Gender Equality panel kickstarted Equality Bahamas’ Women’s Wednesdays series, inviting participants to define gender equality, comment on the importance of constitutional equality, and the impact of religious institutions and leaders.

Panelists:
Alexus D’Marco, Human Rights Defender
Carol Misiewicz, Supreme Court Registrar
Natalie Willis, Cultural Practitioner

For more information on the Women’s Wednesdays event series, like Equality Bahamas on Facebook.

Published at LadyClever.com on January 27, 2017

On the heels of the U.S. Presidential Election, The Bahamas is preparing for its general election expected to be held n May 2017. The Bahamas has successfully maintained a voter turnout of over 90% for general elections— one of the highest in the world. A November 2016 report, however, showed that approximately 57,000 people had registered to vote compared to 134,000 at the same point in 2011, ahead of the 2012 general election. Since then, there has been a significant increase in politicians and civic society, through social media posts, radio talk shows, and daily newspapers, urging Bahamians to register to vote. Given this, it was shocking to learn that Bahamian women were being turned away by Parliamentary Registration Department staff, denied the right to register to vote, by reason of dress.

No Cleavage Allowed

On December 30, 2016, The Tribune’s cover story featured a woman who had been turned away from voter registration three times. Deputy Chief Reporter Krishna Virgil asked Parliamentary Commission Sherlyn Hall about voter registration policy, as the Parliamentary Elections Act does not mention a dress code.

Mr. Hall said, “Because you have to take photographs, so if someone comes with half their breasts out and cleavage showing, this isn’t permitted.”

In the same interview, he shared that 75,000 people had registered to vote — less than 50% of registration numbers at the same point in 2011.

While this story was a surprise to some, others had stories of their own to share. Women took to social media to talk about what they were wearing when they were turned away from registering to vote. They ranged from tank tops to sleeveless dresses. Generally, it seemed any woman with their shoulders, upper arms, or breasts visible was denied their right to register.

#TooSexyToVote

Ava Turnquest, Chief Reporter at The Tribune, sprung into action on the day the story was printed. Within hours of her Facebook post and the creation of a secret group, dozens of Bahamian women were in conversation about the suppression of women’s voter rights.While some researched laws and policies regarding dress code, others brainstormed national actions. #TooSexyToVote to vote was born, and the Sexy Voter Registration event was set for January 4, 2017.

Bahamian women were invited to a lunchtime power hour at the Parliamentary Registration Department to register to vote in the attire of their choice. The decision was made not to leave until everyone successfully registered to vote, no matter what they were wearing. The participants included a woman in a crochet top and short, a women in jeggings and a crop top, a women in a fitted dress exposing her cleavage, and a woman in a men’s three-piece suit. All participants were able to register without a problem, though the woman in the crop top was asked to remove some of her earrings. She refused, the photographer consulted a supervisor, and it was decided that her picture could be taken and her registration process completed.

The Fight Continues

The next day, more reports were made on social media of Bahamian women being turned away from voter registration station. It became clear that most of the issues were occurring at two locations. The #TooSexyToVote crew then began plans to respond. While two female Parliament members and the Minister of National Security — who has responsibility for the Parliamentary Registration Department — referenced the issue and Hall’s comments, there were no reports of directives being issued for the Department’s staff to cease its discriminatory practices and register all eligible Bahamians to vote. Hollaback! Bahamas then published an open letter to the Parliamentary Commission, calling on him to do his job in accordance with the Parliamentary Elections Act, or vacate the post.

“It is an affront to Bahamian suffragettes and all Bahamian women that in 2017 — the year we will celebrate 55 years since the first time Bahamian women voted — eligible voters are being turned away because of personal opinions. Hollaback! Bahamas denounces the refusal to view Bahamian women as full citizens, the policing of women’s bodies, and the subsequent perpetuation of violence against women.”

A directive has since been issued, and Hollaback! Bahamas continues to collect #TooSexyToVote stories through its online report form. All data collected through the form will be reported to the media, holding all parties involved accountable.

Next Steps

#TooSexyToVote organizers are closely monitoring social media reports on experiences in registering to vote. It has expanded its scope to include other barriers to registration, like stations not being open during published times. The group is set to launch an interactive flowchart providing Bahamian citizens with comprehensive information on voter registration requirements and procedures to ensure they are prepared when they visit a station. There are also plans to train voter advocates to visit registration stations and assist people who encounter issues with the staff. #TooSexyToVote is committed to encouraging people to register to vote, especially women, who comprise more than 50% of voters.