By Ingrid Fernandez
Out of 88 candidates who ran for elections on November 4th, only 11 were women.
The low number of female representation in goverment is a global trend, which is slow in changing. Yet Belizean women continue to fight for fair representation in government, facing considerable struggles and obstacles along the way.
Women’s representation is a right that has taken decades to evolve. The struggle for women to claim an equal place in society and government marked most of the Twentieth Century.
After many movements and much dialogue, women may have won the right to be recognized but that social recognition did not translate into equal participation in government.
While the modern era has seen more women in leadership roles, the reality is that men still dominate the political arena. This is so, despite the fact that more females are becoming educated, with graduation numbers raking in a two to one ratio to their male counterparts.
Although an unprecedented number of Belizean women ran for general elections this year, the participation of women in politics is still strikingly low. This has been a concern of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) for more than 10 years.
In 2001 the UNDP emphasized the need to meet the Millennium Development Goals for 2015, to reach a 30 percent female representation in government.
Belize’s participation percentage is under-achieved at 12.5 percent. The already low percentage is diminished even further after the election as only two women won at the polls – marking a 6.4 representation percentage.
The recent Organization of American States (OAS) Electoral Observer Mission (EOM) also noted “the continued high levels of participation by women in most areas” of the political process. However, despite an increase in the number of female candidates, there remained, a significantly low ratio of female to male candidates, it said.
The Mission recommended that efforts be made by all political parties and the government to continue promoting the participation of women in electoral competition and to create avenues that will encourage the participation of women at all levels of the political process, providing training programs and mentorship.
Why is it important to have women in government?
The study: Toward Equality of Opportunity for Equality of Results, A Situation Analysis of Gender and Politics in Belize, published by the National Women’s Commission with the support of the UNDP, cites “the right to take part in government as a key manifestation of human rights.”
Therefore, the more equal gender representation there is in government, the more it will enhance the human rights of both genders.
Executive Director of the National Women’s Commission (NWC), Ann-Marie Williams states that having women in government is important because “no society will ever prosper by leaving 50 percent of its population behind.” She believes that “everything would change” if women were in government because when women thrive, it has a domino effect, ensuring that all of society thrives.
Reporter took the opportunity to interview 4 of the 11 political aspirants for a local perspective on the matter – Tracy Teagar Panton, a United Democratic Party (UDP) candidate; Edna Diaz, a Belize Progressive Party (BPP) candidate; Yasmin Shoman, a People’s United Party (PUP) candidate; and Samantha Carlos, an independent candidate.
Panton and Diaz shared Williams’ opinion, that it is essential to have women in government, in order for it to be representative of its population.
Shoman elaborated, that “[women] understand the needs and the problems of other women,” and are best suited to define governance policies and laws that would best protect and progress women and families by extention.
As a case in point, Diaz and Carlos note that discrimination, especially against, single parent mothers, is a great concern in their constituencies today.
Carlos and Panton outlined certain female characteristics that they view as essential to progressive governance.
“Imagine a woman, who is kind hearted by nature, running the country, she would have the best interest of the people at heart”, said Carlos. Panton agreed, stating that women bring a sense of compassion and motherly instinct to the table.
What hinders women from political involvement?
The second objective of the UNDP analysis was “to study the economic, cultural and political context that hinder women participation in politics.”
In speaking with these women, a number of hurdles were identified, including time, finances, double standards and archaic mentalities.
Ann Marie Williams, explained that for women to have the time and mental state to perform well in a field as demanding as politics, men must accept the shared responsibility of the home.
She believes a cultural shift in male roles must take place, if women are to have a fair chance at excelling.
“It is important that men get educated in regard to the fundamental part they play in supporting their spouses. We have to raise men who are confident”, she explains, adding that in our society, men still have a superiority complex that relegates women to the spectator gallery.
Women today multi-task, playing triple roles as mother, homemakers, and employees, says Williams. Shoman and Diaz both agree, noting that the responsibility of the home mostly falls on the woman, limiting her capabilities in the work force. Shoman explained that, “Many times women are the head of the household and they have to be concerned about who will take care of their children, and who will provide an income.”
Of note, Kim Simplis Barrow, Prime Minister’s wife, recently acknowledged her husband’s support in the creation of the New Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) and Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at the Karl Huesner Memorial Hospital.
She affirmed that without his support in the home, her achievement would not have been possible. She cited his commitment in taking time take their daughter to school and check her homework, as instrumental for her to have the peace of mind to carry out her work.
In terms of finances, Williams states that the political field is uneven for women because “political rules are not [women] friendly.” Male campaigns are better funded than female campaigns and stand a better chance of reaching their constituents.
Panton and Diaz agree that a lack of finances and resources were a hindrance during their campaigns. “Mobilizing your campaign . . . the lack of funding/finance,” is a challenge said Panton. “Especially if you come from a rural area and are not of a wealthy family”, Diaz added.
These women believe the boy’s club mentality must be broken. Simply because it is a male-dominated arena, many women still believe that politics is for men, says Carlos. This and the fact that personal attacks originating from the male camp have become common at official meetings and gatherings, discourage women from offering themselves as candidates.
“Not many women can stand being slandered, or have their names dragged through mud”, said Carlos. Williams however, is not convinced and offered that the political field is not as traitorous as it is made out to be and that “women are not afraid” of slander and personal attacks.
Belizean politics is also immersed in double standards, say the women. Female candidates are called to a higher standard of education and etiquette. Often times female candidates are expected to be well educated and abide by higher moral standards. Yet the unspoken expectations are lowered for men – rewarding those who take moral liberties and have limited education – with multiple terms in office.
Panton believes that women are judged harsher in their behavior. “There are certain things men candidates can get away with that women will never be able to get away with.” Shoman agrees, “Our society can be very cruel sometimes. Your private life, if you’ve made a mistake in the past, they splash it all over the media.”
What can the society do to encourage women to become involved in politics?
The UNDP report aims “to foster a national dialogue to create a better environment that will encourage women to participate in politics.”
Along those lines, the NWC, Women In Politics (WIP) movement, has seen success. Out of the three cohorts that the WIP has conducted, five participants have endeavored into a political career at the municipal level and WIP saw its first participant, from its third cohort, Tracy Teagar Panton, undertake the candidacy of area representative for the Albert Division.
Panton attributed the WIP in giving her, “an opportunity to network with women from all over the country who have a vested interest in terms of seeking political office. It created a support network, to share ideas, to hear some of the unique concerns that women are facing in their lives and it really helped me to consider the opportunity to run for politics in a serious way.”
Williams believes that the program has directly influenced a change in the political landscape in the seven years of its operation. “The commission is doing foundation work. If the Commission would have been doing the work 20 years ago, we would have already seen more changes”, said Williams.
Out of 11 female candidates, seven were from the Belize District, while only four were from other districts – showing a disparity between female political involvement across the country. In Williams’ view, there needs to be an environment of exposure and awareness into leadership. Although most districts have women groups, most focus on income-generating objectives and other issues related to the home and not on leadership and governance.
So what advice do these women give? Panton and Shoman believe that more bi-partisan dialogue to educate women and girls about the importance of politics would encourage females to consider a political career. Diaz takes it one step further, as she believes that engendering a mentality of equality from as early as preschool will change the political landscape of the country.
In ending, Reporter asked when Belize would see its first female Prime Minister.
Panton is hopeful that it will be in her lifetime. Shoman and Diaz believe that the next two or three terms could see a woman as the face of Belize.
Samantha Carlos, however, confidently stated that she would be the country’s first female Prime Minister!