By Ingrid Fernandez/ for The Reporter Press
Out of the 87 candidates running for elections on November 4 2015, only 11 are women. Women in politics across the country, indiscriminate of political parties face similar issues and struggles that determine their success in the political field, as is evident by the separate, yet overlapping responses by women candidates.
The Current Situation
While women in leadership positions has become more common over the past ten years with women comprising the majority of public servants and educators, and females graduating from university at a two to one ratio to their male counterparts, when it comes to the political field, women still sit at the back.
The number of women running for general elections is unprecedented. Yet the participation of women in politics is still strikingly low and has been a concern of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) for more than ten years. In 2001 the UNDP emphasized the necessity of meeting the Millennium Goals for 2015 of reaching a 30 percent female representation in government. However, in this election the percentage is underachieved at 11.5 percent. This is just the percentage of women that are running. There is no guarantee of actual representation.
A release from the UNDP states “Thirty years after independence, the majority of women in Belize continue to face significant challenges in moving towards parity with men at almost every level of political leadership and decision-making.” The Global Gender Gap reports of 2010 place Belize in joint last place (131st) on the Gender Gap Index for the empowerment of women, along countries like Saudi Arabia.
Four women Yasmin Showman, Dolores Balderamos, Dorla Vaughn and Dr. Leslie Guerra are running with the People’s United Party (PUP). Four women, Beverly Castillo, Dr. Carla Barrett, Tracy Teagar Panton and Guadalupe Magana-Dyck are running with the United Democratic Party (UDP). Two women, Edna Diaz and Elizabeth Dina are running with the Belize Progressive Party (BPP). One woman, Samantha Carlos, is running as the only independent candidate in the general elections.
Women’s representation is a right that has taken decades and continuous struggle to manifest. The struggle for women to claim an equal place in society and government marked most of the Twentieth Century. After many movements and dialogues, ‘the second gender’ may have claim it won the rights to be recognized. It did not take long to realize that social recognition did not translate into equal participation in government.
Women’s movements that started in the early part of the Twentieth Century focused its efforts on giving suffragettes the right to vote. In the latter part of the century, leaders realized that without women taking part in political governance, the glass ceiling was impenetrable. It means that as long as men are making the decisions, that directly affect how and where women develop their lives, women do not achieving much by having the right to vote men into power.
Why is it important to have women in government?
Entering politics for a woman is an undertaking that resonates much deeper than it seems. 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.
Ann-Marie Williams, in her capacity as Executive Director of the National Women’s Commission, comments that having women in government is important because “no society will ever prosper by leaving 50 percent of its population behind” said Williams. She assures that “everything would change” if women were in government because “when women thrive, all the society thrives” said Williams.
Teagar Panton and Diaz share Williams opinion that it is essential to have women in government because “Our government has to be representative of its population” said Teagar Panton. “Only then will we have representation of the whole population” said Diaz.
Carlos and Teagar Panton believe that with women in government the kind of governance will change and that kind of governance will better benefit the country. “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. “Women bring a sense of compassion; we have a motherly instinct by nature. There’s a certain level of compassion and empathy that women bring to the table” said Teagar Panton
Shoman believes that men do not understand problems specifically hindering women as women do. She states “They [women] understand the needs and the problems of other women and they can bring forward the solutions.” Diaz and Carlos believe that discrimination, especially against, single parent mothers is something affecting women in their constituencies.
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.” They felt that by understanding the problems the solutions can be derived.
Williams, explains 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 advocates the importance that men get educated in regards to the fundamental part they play in supporting their spouses. “We have to raise men who are confident” she explains stating that in our society men still have a superiority complex.
She states that “a great hindrance for women is their triple roles as mother, homemakers, and employees.” Showman and Diaz, agree that the responsibility of the home falls on the woman alone limiting her capabilities in the work force. Diaz believes that “it is more difficult for a woman to get the support of her spouse and family, to travel and be away from her home to represent her division nationally.” Showman explains “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.”
Speeches, by political leaders encouraging women to join their parties are common. Showman stated that her party’s leader continuously mentions that “he would like to see more women join the party.” At a conference held by the BPP, party leader Patrick Rogers commended the two women running in the party and made similar encouragements.
However, Williams explains that by men taking a more active role in the house verses verbal encouragements, which she cites as “lip service” it will provide much more equality to women.
At the inaugural ceremony, of the New Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) and Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at the Karl Huesner Memorial Hospital (KHMH), on October 27 2015, a project spearheaded by Kim Simplis Borrow, wife of the Prime Minister, she acknowledged her husband’s support in her achievement. She affirmed that without his support in the home her achievement would not have been possible. She cited his discipline to make time to drop their daughter at school and check her homework as instrumental for her to have peace of mind to carry out her work.
Williams states that the political field is an uneven field for women because “political rules are not friendly to women.” She explains that when it comes to campaigns men are better funded than women and have better connections. Candidates Teagar Panton and Diaz agree that lack of finance and resources are main hindrances in their campaigns. “We have challenges in terms of fundraising and just having the same resources to mobilize your campaign” said Teagar Panton. “Lack of funding/finance especially if you come from a rural area and are not of a wealthy family” said Diaz.
The harsh ‘man’s world’ of politics
“If you look at the history of Belize, politics has been dominated by men.” States Teagar Panton, she continues, “It’s almost like a boy’s club, and we have to break through those barriers.” Showman, Carlos and Diaz agree with her “Politics is seen as a man’s domain” said Diaz. “I think that women shy away from politics because it is still a male dominated field” said Showman. Carlos believes that women stay away from politics because “it has been embedded in their brain that politics is for men” said Carlos.
Showman believes that politics poses a harsh environment for women. “I think that for most part women, shy away from it for fear of personal attacks.” Carlos agrees with her stating “Not many women can stand being slandered, or have their names dragged through mud” said Carlos. Williams differs in opinion stating that the political field is not as traitorous as it is made out to be and that “women are not afraid” of slanders and personal attacks.
The candidates believe that there is a double standard with which society judges women and men. The expectations from women and men are also different. They believed that women have to prove themselves and are demanded a proficient background to be considered a leader. Teagar 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.” Showman agrees “Our society can be very cruel sometimes, your private life, if you’ve made any mistake in the past they splash it all over the media.”
The mentality that a woman’s career is only in relation to her husband’s status is still alive today and is a hindrance to women’s success.
At the opening ceremony, of the PICU and NICU at the KHMH, many called Kim Simplis Borrow’s achievement “momentous” and even “miraculous”. When asked what he thought about his wife’s achievement Prime Minister Dean Barrow said “if as a consequence of that I will get some additional votes hallelujah.”
What can the society do to encourage women to get involved in politics?
Another of the UNDP analysis’ objectives was “to foster a national dialogue to create a better environment that will encourage women to participate in politics.”
An initiatives launched by The National Women’s Commission (NWC), Women In Politics (WIP), has seen success rates. Out of the three cohorts that the WIP has conducted, five participants have endeavored into a political career at the municipal level. This election the WIP is seeing its first participant, from its third cohort, Tracy Teagar Panton, undertake the candidacy for area representative.
Teagar Panton shares that the WIP is important because it gave 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” Teagar Panton said.
Williams, spearhead of the WIP, believes that the program has directly influence the 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 the 11 women candidates seven are from the Belize District, while only four are from other districts across Belize showing a disparity between women’s political involvement from the Belize district and from other districts. Williams comments that this is due to the environment that is fostered. According to Williams there needs to be an environment of exposure and awareness into leadership. Although most districts have women groups, in some districts, women groups are centered around income generating objectives and other issues related to the home and not around leadership and governance.
Teagar Panton believes that more open dialogues educating women about the importance of politics will encourage women to consider a political career. Showman advocates for bipartisan efforts to help girls take active leadership roles. Diaz believes that engendering a mentality of equality from as early as preschool will change the political landscape of the country. Carlos believes that by women taking a more outspoken approach about their equal position in society they will empower other women.
When will Belize have its first woman Prime Minister?
Teagar panton is hopeful that “It will be in my lifetime.” Shoman assures that “In the next two or three terms we will see a woman as the face of Belize.” Diaz believes that “In reality we are not far from achieving our goal.” Carlos confidently proclaims “I will be the first female Prime Minister.”