It appears to me that International Women’s Day is not given the kind of treatment that it had in the past, certainly in the period after 1975. The United Nations had declared 1975 International Women’s Year and in 1977 marked March 8 as the UN Day for Women’s Rights and World Peace.
March 8, 1857, had seen female textile workers struggling/protesting against unsafe working conditions, unfair wages and general inequality. Women had for long been fighting for the right to vote and against sex discrimination in the workplace. 1975 became an important year because of the World Conference on the status of women held in Mexico City under UN Sponsorship.
1976- 1985 was then declared as the Decade for Women. Today some of the gains which had been achieved are now being taken away. The issue of abortion rights has become a serious one in the United States. Women in Afghanistan and Iran have been struggling as their regimes try to restrict any movement forward, including even the right to an education.
In our sphere of the woods, women had largely been invisible in our history. They were the majority of field slaves in St. Vincent. They often were the ones at the forefront of protests and struggles. I had stated in my book on the 1935 Riots that among the early crowd in the Court Yard were “about fifteen women, reportedly armed with small sticks. The crowd grew to an estimated three hundred, the majority being women, some of whom according to reports had stones, sledge hammers, cutlasses and knives.” Four women had sentences of from four to five years.
They included Beryl Ollivierre, Lydia Laidlow, Hermina Oliver and Beatrice George.
Despite the advances women have made over the years they are still grounded by stereotypes and dated expectations. When I headed the University of the West Indies Open Campus I was struck by the large discrepancies in enrolment between males and females. During our local graduation ceremonies, it was usual to see about 95 percent of the graduates being women. In 1918/19, of the total enrolment at our regional University, 68.6 percent, were females while males were about 31 percent. Engineering at the St. Augustine campus retained its masculine identity with 71 percent male enrolment and 29 percent female. Science and Technology at Cave Hill showed some change with 51 percent male enrolment and 49 percent females. That field of study was at one time heavily male dominated.
There appears at the level of the secondary schools to be a large male drop out between enrolment and CSEC. I don’t know to what extent these figures are monitored. They should, however be. Are the dropouts helping to fuel the increase in crimes? To blame the increase in crime on persons hooked on cocaine begs the further question of what led them to that path or that lifestyle? Men are no longer the breadwinners, for the women who are more educated are commanding the better paying jobs and becoming more independent than they had ever been. The man as the traditional head of the family comes up against these developments. To what extent does all of this lead to domestic violence? When one looks back at the record number of homicides this country had last year, the point has to be made that much more than police boots on the ground are needed. There are deeper forces that must be looked at and dealt with as early as possible.
On March 8 there is need not only to reflect on the gains women have made over the years but also to look at the distance they still have to go. Women are still not as heavily involved in front end politics as they should be. Traditionally they were the forces in the background, but they now need to be on the front line. One is seeing signs of women beginning to move to the front, recognizing that they have the right to be where decisions are made. I remember Maraika Baptiste, a native daughter from Fancy who won the US Embassy’s fourth annual Black History Month Secondary School Speech Competition that was open to the Eastern Caribbean and Barbados. Interestingly she spoke on gender equality and diversity as they related to women’s involvement as elected parliamentary representatives. Let us have our young women looking in this direction. There is certainly room there!
Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian