WOMEN: The issues we face locally!

Poverty, AIDS, Crime, the issues women still face

With all the strides being made worldwide with issues pertaining to women, one can’t help but wonder where St Lucia stands in that regard. Particularly in March, a month celebrated in some continents as International Women’s History Month, and as the world gets set to observe International Women’s Day on Tuesday, March 8.
Life has changed for the better for women around the world in so many ways since the 1900s. This year will be the 100th time International Women’s Day will be celebrated. But in some places like the Caribbean, there is much work to be done.
When talking about anything to do with Women’s Day there’s one name that can’t be forgotten; Clara Zetkin, leader of a political women’s office in Germany in 1910. She’s the one who proposed at an International Conference of Working Women held in Copenhagen that every year, in countries all over the world women celebrate ‘Women’s Day,’ originally called International Working Women’s Day on the same day in order to press for their demands collectively.
Women and men all over the world campaigned for women’s rights to work, vote, be trained, hold public office and end discrimination. For the purposes of this article, I contacted the Division of Gender Relations to find out what they felt were some of the major issues facing women in St Lucia today. Some of the major concerns, according to the Director of the Gender Relations Division, Charms Gaspard, had to do with poverty, crime, violence against women, health issues and overall equality for women.
On the equality topic, focusing on the political realm, St Lucia has yet to see a female prime minister and for the most part there are rarely ever more than two female representatives in any political party. Domestic violence against women has become such a common occurrence here in that is doesn’t even seem to be taken seriously anymore, until its too late.
When rape incidences occur here, far too often the issue is seen as something that should be swept beneath the carpet, most times because women actually fear being looked down on by society, for something that wasn’t their fault in the first place. The common argument is that it was the woman or young girl’s fault because “she looked for it,” perhaps because of her choice of attire.
“Rape has always been a problem,” Gaspard said in an interview with the STAR. “What we know, and this is unofficial, there seems to be a trend where these cases are not reported as they should be. Sometimes, even when those cases are reported the cases that are brought to trial are very few. Persons don’t feel a sense that they will get justice with the existing justice system, and that is an issue we’ve been trying to work on in terms of increasing the capacity within the police force to address more effectively cases of rape and respond more effectively so investigations will bring to a trial and eventually victims get justice.”
Young women cannot be forgotten in the month that celebrates women. Just this week a 13-year-old girl was sent to Bordelais after facing the Family Court in St Lucia. This 30 years into the island’s independence and the decision to place her in ‘correctional facility’ had to do with the fact that there just wasn’t anywhere else to put her! Family members expressed their anger and frustration at the magistrate’s decision through the media, and said upon hearing the decision the young girl had attempted to flee the courthouse. Family members also revealed she’d previously been held at the Wellness Centre, and had run away three times. It’s hard to believe that in this day and age, after so much talking there still isn’t an established residence for young women who found themselves in trouble, or were delinquent. Shouldn’t that issue be one of top priority?
Amid a tough world economy, things are even harder in St Lucia as the island doesn’t even have a standing minimum wage. Some women, and men on the island get paid as little as EC$30 per month in various sectors, according to the St Lucia Employers Federation. When you really think about it, with some people getting paid so little, its not surprising at all that some are prepared to do whatever it takes to survive.
During an interview with the STAR Gaspard said one of the many issues facing women had to do with the present state of the economy. Poverty was a major issue and she said an increasing number of women were becoming part of the working poor.
“Their inability to access, or the lack of social safety nets to be able to cushion them, especially people who have been affected by layoffs or job cuts in the service sector. It’s a big issue and it started quite a few years ago with the down turn in the banana industry when a lot of women were hired as casual labourers. These individuals have not been successfully retrained to allow them to get gainful employment. So the issue of poverty among women is a major factor.”
There’s also the health aspect and the increasing concern of HIV and AIDS. Gaspard said women were particularly vulnerable because of their economic situation and other issues.
Charms Gaspard said violence against women remained a priority area of concern, especially violence within the family, domestic violence and the link to economic dependence on the male partner, and also the link between violence and HIV/ AIDS. She said the direct link existed because people in relationships were in some cases more vulnerable to health issues.
The issue of crime can’t be left out of the mix, and barely three months into the New Year 18 people have already been killed. The Gender Relations representative felt the situation was taking a huge emotional toll on women, even if they were not directly involved, or didn’t know the victims or perpetrators.
“The fact that women have to work late hours in the service sector and have to get home late at night has a lot to do with it,” she said. “The hotel industry no longer provides transportation for women to get them to their doorstep so they have to leave at about 11pm or midnight and be at various junctions trying to find their way home, and they have to work because they have to support themselves, and they may also have children to support. There’s the issue of the risk to them personally, the lack of security they feel just traversing to do their daily business and also the impact to those who are directly affected by the crime. You have a lot of women now who are left to take care of children on their own because their fathers have been killed, or are in prison.”
It’s easy to focus on all the negatives, but what were some of the strides that had been made to address some of the issues facing women in St Lucia 30 years into the island’s Independence? Was the country even heading in the right direction?
“Recently we had the passage of the Labour Code, which we were promised would be looking at creating a working environment that is non discriminatory, where people can get equal work for equal pay. That is a positive area,” Gaspard said.                 “Recently government established a Minimum Wage Commission, through the St Lucia Employers Federation to look at the situation of minimum wage with a view of ensuring nobody gets a salary that effectively classifies them as poor. We’ve had successes in the area of health, with reductions in the number of cases of HIV/ AIDS, and we have support agencies continuing to work to address issues of violence against women. There has been some progress. Individually women continue to make strides academically and professionally and they continue to excel in the various work areas. More and more women are entering non-traditional work areas and that augers well for the future in that women can become self sufficient and look after themselves.

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