C V Mitcham International Women’s Day Speech
First of all I wish to thank the Department of Gender Affairs for their kind invitation to give the Keynote address at this International Women’s Day Award Ceremony, and to thank all of you in attendance today . I also wish in particular to congratulate the Honorees who will be receiving their well deserved awards and to whom this ceremony is dedicated.
I was extremely pleased to note that there is a special Prime Minister’s award to be distributed to commemorate this special occasion, for on this Day when we examine the status of women with a view to improvement, it is important to know that the Head of our government is fully on board.
You will note that this would be the first platform appearance that I am making in several years. I have been resisting the request for making presentations for sometime because I am of the view that there are many more women out there who are capable and willing to share their experiences and expertise with the rest of us. You may even find some of themamong today’s awardees, so we hope to see them sharing their experiences in the future. It occurred to me however, that since I retired from Government in 1995, due to travels or other activities, I have always been unavailable to accept an invitation from the Department of Gender Affairs, so I am very happy that I was able to accept this one.
Today 8th of March is the annual day on which we focus on gender parity and celebrate the achievements of womenworldwide. It gives us the opportunity to reflect on how far we have come and how much further we need to go.
The international theme for 2022 is Breaking the Bias, while our local focus is “Equality today for a Sustainable Tomorrow‘. I use the word “celebrate “ cautiously, for when the movement for women’s equality started over a century ago, there was very little, if anything at all, to celebrate.
The first international mobilization for equality is reputed to have formally started in 1911 with the Suffragettes who marched in several countries, mainly in Europe, with the issue of the day being the right to vote. So you can say that from the start, the issue of equality for women was recognized as a question of human rights, and as you know, wherever there is injustice, people will eventually protest.
Although the movement started over a century ago, it was only officially recognized by the United Nations when itdeclared January 1st 1995 to December 31st 1995 as International Women’s Year , and the 8th of March as International Women’s Day. Of course the issues in relation to the inequalities faced by women could not be adequatelydealt with in one year. As momentum gathered, the United Nations extended the activities over a 10 year period, and named the period 1975 to 1985 as the Decade of Women.
Having joined the Government in 1984, I was fortunate to represent St. Kitts and Nevis at the United Nations End of the Decade Conference in Nairobi, Kenya in 1985. As you could imagine, I took the opportunity to do some networking and learnt from colleagues worldwide about the challenges women were facing everywhere, and shared information on how we could overcome them.
You may ask, why is an International Women’s Day needed? It must be recognized that the disadvantages for women were so grave, that equality could not be achieved overnight. It is a work in progress, and each year women worldwide carry out various activities to advance the status of women.
Here in St. Kitts and Nevis, like many other countries in the region and elsewhere around the world, we had our discriminatory issues to be dealt with. Some of them originated from colonial days, but we now had an opportunityto correct them. During the Decade of Women various women’s groups carried out a number of activities to mark the occasion. For most of the Decade I was a private citizen since I didn’t join the government until 1984, but the inequalities that women faced was a subject that piqued my interest since the early days.
I was invited to the various conferences in Washington as Country Vice President of the International Federation of Women Lawyers, where I first met other young lawyers and various participants, some of whom I have kept in touch with to this day. At these conferences we had an opportunity to compare notes of what was happening in our various countries. So when I joined the government in 1984 as the first woman elected to Parliament in the Federation, I knew exactly where my focus would be.
Even before I was elected to Parliament, I was invited to form part of the 7 person delegation from St. Kitts to negotiate our 1983 Constitution at Lancaster House in London with the British government. Nevis also had its own team. The next time you look at a copy of our Constitution, look at Chapter llthat deals with the fundamental rights and freedoms. InSection 3 and in particular Section 15, you will see referenced, for the first time, protection from discrimination on the grounds of “sex”, and “being born out of wedlock”. Those were not in our 1967 Statehood Constitution in St. Kitts and Nevis, but they solidified some of the matters that were introduced by the government such as the Status of Children’s Act that allowed children born out of wedlock to have their father’s name on their birth certificate and inherit from their father if he didn’t leave a Will.
The creation of a full Ministry of Women’s Affairs was the first in the Caribbean. To my knowledge at the time the only other country with a full Ministry of Women’s Affairs was New Zealand. However, when I raised the Matter of establishing the Ministry with my colleagues minutes before Cabinet Portfolios were announced, the Prime Minister Sir Kennedy Simmonds and all of my colleagues were very receptive. I was pleasantly surprised because I had envisioned something like pulling teeth to get that done, but I got the independence needed to tackle the various issues from the start.
The main problem facing our women at the time was theireconomic situation. There was a large number of households, approximately half, that were headed by single women, with one income. Many of the women had small children that they had to provide for, so something had to be done to bring them some relief. Very often women who wanted to work could not do so, since there were not enough places to leave the children to be cared for. We prepared a 5 year plan which was used as a kind of blue print to guide us. We had the corporation of government, and a number of affordable and subsidized Day Care Centers and other child care facilities were built or established.
These facilities were scheduled to open early enough for children to be taken before work, and late enough for children to be picked up after work. This activity enabled many mothers to take up employment.
Several discriminatory practices against women were dealt with. Nurses who had to work 12 hour daily shifts, had their hours reduced to 8 hours a day by creating 3 shifts instead of 2. Pregnant single women in the civil service could no longer be terminated. This practice was particularly discriminatorysince the fathers were not terminated. One of the big steps taken during this period was the introduction of thirteen weeks maternity leave, with pay, for which there was much rejoicing. Young girls who were unfortunate enough to become pregnant and attending school, could no longer be expelled at this critical time when they needed their education most.
Another issue facing women was the fact that many of the employment opportunities open to them were low paying jobswhere they were paid less than men and promoted less. In addition to agitating for equal pay for equal work, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs commenced a series of classes teaching women a number of traditional and non traditionalskills which they were able to use to increase their income. These included such subjects as sewing, cake decorating, hair styling, make-up, ham curing, plumbing, tiling, masonry, carpentry and small equipment repairs. Women were able to save or earn money making their children’s dress clothes and school uniforms or decorating wedding cakes. They were also able to earn more money by doing so called men’s work where the pay was much higher.
Teaching nontraditional skills to women was not without its challenges. We were attacked by one newspaper for having women doing so called men’s work, but we ignored the noise and continued our mission as the women were very happy to learn the new skills. I remember one lady in the carpentry class said she was so proud of herself as she had a brokendown back step that she could not afford to fix, and after attending the classes she fixed it herself. Some reported saving money by tiling their own floor, and fixing their smallappliances such as toasters and irons. Years of feeling downtrodden had taken a toll on some women so we introduced a series of self-esteem classes to help women feel good about themselves.
In terms of the way forward, women and men could make 2022 and beyond a time when they actively continue to promote such issues as equal pay for equal work, wherever such inequality still exist. We must strive to put an end to thegame of calling the work that women do by one name in order to pay them less, while labeling with another name the same work that men do, in order to pay them more.Companies should start taking a proactive step to bring about gender parity in their organizations, since as the local theme suggests, equality today will help to maintain a sustainable tomorrow. Women can help in this endeavor by looking atwhat is happening in their own workplaces. How much are women earning as compared to men? What are the pay gradesof women and men who are doing the same work? How often are men promoted as compared to women?
Some matters may require women to have a seat at the decision-making table, in government or in the private sector,where they can make their voices heard. There are other things that can be done, including networking with other women’s groups to exchange ideas, and prepare a plan of action. If you need to affect legislation you may consider getting into politics. We had classes in political education and organizing, which were open to all women.
You must have a vision of the society you would like to seeunfold. Don’t expect everything to be a bed of roses. There will be objection from those who would wish to impede your progress and remember there are some women who will be among your detractors, but you must be prepared to carry on doing what you think is right or best for the society as a whole.
You must develop a plan that would help you to focus. Our plan included forming what we called an Inter MinisterialCouncil, made up of a point person we identified in each Ministry, to advise us on issues in their ministries that would adversely affect women. I remember on one occasion our point person at the Central Housing Authority advised us that the Authority had prepared drawings for the construction of some low income houses that we needed to examine. We looked at the drawings and realized that the layout of the house and of the kitchen in particular, was not in keeping with how women work and use the facilities. We were able to suggest a different layout and the necessary changes were made. It was beneficial for us to have eyes and ears everywhere.
It is not enough for women alone to try to deal with all the issues. I would like to send a special message to the men in our society.
Gender equality is good for you and your families too. Promoting a rise in the status of women is not about bringing down the status of men. It is about lifting the status of both. It is an appreciation of that fact that has prompted a number of men to join in the call for equality. They now understand that equality of the sexes is good for everyone. It is not that men are uncaring about injustices to women, often it is because they do not understand where women are coming from, since they have not walked in their shoes.
As the United Nations suggested, the make up of the Parliament should reflect the makeup of the population, which is approximately 50/50. You are aware of course that worldwide and locally, we are nowhere close. That is therefore an area of gender diversity where there is muchwork to be done. In the private sector also, building a more diverse work place makes good business sense.
There was one other item on the Ministry’s agenda that was not completed by the time I retired from politics in 1995, and I have passed on the information to others. It is not something that Government alone can do. It is something that private citizens can do with help from government and the private sector. I refer to a home or shelter for women and children needing to escape from physical abuse. It should not be expected that government can do everything, especially in a country where the general population do not pay personal income tax. But some common ground can be gleaned fromother public facilities such as the concepts of the Daycare Centers, assisted Child Care Facilities, and the Nursing Homes. Looking at the various models can lend some insight on a suitable model for such facilities. I am aware that a private citizen has taken up the challenge and I am happy that I was able to contribute in some small way, but much moreneeds to be done.
With those words, I have given some food for thought that can occupy your minds for some time to come.
Finally, I wish you all a Happy International Women’s Day and pray that the Department of Gender Affairs and the various Women’s Groups and individuals, will continue to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women, especially here at home.
Good day, and thank you for having me.