WOMEN’S LEVEL OF PARTICIPATION IN JAMAICAN PUBLIC LIFE QUESTIONED BY ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE

26 January 2001
WOM/1257

WOMEN’S LEVEL OF PARTICIPATION IN JAMAICAN PUBLIC LIFE QUESTIONED BY ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE

26/01/2001
Press ReleaseWOM/1257

Committee on the Elimination of

Discrimination against Women

502nd & 503rd Meetings (AM & PM)

WOMEN’S LEVEL OF PARTICIPATION IN JAMAICAN PUBLIC LIFE

QUESTIONED BY ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE

Despite women’s great academic achievements, they occupied few positions in Jamaica of real power and influence, the head of that country’s delegation told the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women today as it began consideration of Jamaica’s combined second, third and fourth periodic reports. 

At its current session, the Committee –- the monitoring body of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women -- has before it reports of eight States parties.  Today, it devoted two meetings to the situation of women in Jamaica.  The Convention requires that State parties submit reports on the implementation of the Convention within one year after its entry into force and at least every four years thereafter. 

Jamaica ratified the Convention in 1981, with two reservations -- both since withdrawn.  Its initial report was considered by the Committee during the forty-third session of the General Assembly.

Introducing her country’s reports and addressing the questions raised by the Committee’s pre-session working group, Executive Director of the Bureau of Women’s Affairs of Jamaica, Glenda Simms, said that despite the fact that some of the important positions held by women included the Speaker of the House and President of the Senate, equitable representation of women in politics continued to be a challenge.  

She went on to say that in order to overcome existing stereotypes and harmonize national laws with international norms and standards, Jamaica had started reviewing its impressive legislation protecting the rights of women.  She described her Government’s programmes to address such problems as poverty, violence against women, prostitution and the spread of HIV/AIDS, pointing out particular progress in the areas of education and health.  However, all those efforts were affected by overriding issues of structural adjustment, globalization and a growing burden of debt.

In the discussion that followed the presentation, it was pointed out that Jamaica had been one of the first countries in its region to establish a mechanism to deal with women’s issues.  There was consistent political will to improve conditions for women and to fulfil international commitments.  As

development and financial problems had forced Jamaica to tighten its belt, women had suffered the most, an expert said.

Speaking about women’s participation in public life, an expert stressed the need to change the political culture within Jamaica.  The political situation in most countries was determined by men, and a change to that system did not come naturally.  As many women as men should be able to decide on a society’s future.

Other points raised in the debate included the issues of the slow pace of the legal reform; legislative measures against sexual and domestic violence against women, including rape and incest; marital status of women; the situation of rural women; and women’s employment and wages.

The Committee will begin its consideration of Mongolia’s reports at

10.30 a.m. Monday, 29 January.

Committee Work Programme

This morning, the Committee on Elimination of Discrimination against Women was expected to consider Jamaica's second, third and fourth periodic reports submitted in accordance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

The reports before the Committee (document CEDAW/C/JAM/2-4) cover the period from 1985 to 1997.  According to them, over the last decade, the status of women in Jamaica has been affected by globalization, the debt crisis and structural adjustment policies administered by the International Monetary Fund.  These factors have led to a reduction in the country's standard of living and in government spending on social services.  The burden of adjustment to the recent changes has been effectively placed on low-income earners, among whom women are over-represented.

The document states that Jamaica ratified the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women in 1981.  To promote the advancement of women, the National Policy Statement on Women was formulated by the Bureau of Women's Affairs in 1987.  Now formally adopted by the Cabinet, the Statement stresses that all Government policies must reflect full recognition of the equal and complementary partnership of women and men and provide for equality of access to resources.  The document recognizes high levels of unemployment and poor working conditions among women and stresses the importance of appropriate child-care arrangements and the need for further reforms to achieve adequate protection and treatment of women.

According to the report before the Committee, women have never held positions of Governor-General or Prime Minister since political independence in 1962, acting in both capacities only when the incumbents were away from the island.  The number of women elected to Parliament has moved from 1 out of 35 in 1944 to 7 out of 60 in 1993, and 8 out of 60 in 1997. 

The report states that an inter-ministerial committee was set up in

1987 to ensure and monitor implementation of the Convention.  In response to the CEDAW document, the Government of Jamaica has also made a number of important legislative changes to enhance the status of women.  They relate to the family, child maintenance, inheritance, citizenship and matrimony.  Provisions have been made under the law to address the working conditions of both men and women.  The establishment of the Family Court system and a sexual offences unit in the police force have also aided in the establishment of a better framework for handling families in crisis.

The country continues to meet requirements for access to education, training and employment, the report says.  The Bureau of Women's Affairs attaches particular attention to young and elderly women and domestic workers.  Its priorities include education and training in non-traditional skills and gender sensitivity training.  Jamaica's national five-year development plan for 1990-1995 also included a component on women.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have played a complementary role to the governmental programmes, including those directed at parents' education, establishment of shelters and providing counselling for battered and abused women.  Several projects address the problems of adolescent girls and teenage mothers.  Jamaican NGOs also promote programmes to provide housing for women; mobilize them around relevant issues and increase their involvement in representative politics.

Regarding maternity protection, the report states that the Maternity Leave Act protects to some extent the employment rights of pregnant women.  In addition, an amendment to the Education Act procures maternity leave for teachers.  Since 1979, a national insurance maternity allowance provides financial assistance for domestic workers.  Breast-feeding women are eligible for financial assistance under the national food stamp programme.  The Government also provides comprehensive maternal and child health services through an island-wide network of health centres.

Health and family planning services are also available to the population.  However, a 1994 study showed that some family planning methods were not readily available at affordable prices to rural consumers.  It also indicated that long-term and permanent methods were concentrated in urban areas and offered primarily by private physicians.  On the basis of the study, the National Family Planning Board is making efforts to strengthen the capability of the private sector to offer family-planning services.

On the subject of education, the document indicates that although school enrollment levels for girls and boys are comparable at the primary level, more girls than boys are enrolled in secondary education.  Enrollment at the University of the West Indies has been predominantly female since early 1980s. The same opportunities exist for men and women to access programmes of continuing education, including adult and functional literacy programmes.

As for the women's contribution to family income, the report states that among the rural households, those headed by women are among the most vulnerable.  Women's unequal access to resources and benefits of current policies and programmes within the agricultural sector usually cannot be attributed to outright discrimination from a legal, regulatory or institutional standpoint.  Rather, they are largely related to cultural traditions and stereotypes, as well as the lack of awareness of the part of women themselves. 

To address this situation, the Women's Task Force, which was created by the Bureau of Women's Affairs, outlined the five-year development plan for women for 1990-1995.  Among the measures envisioned by the plan are appropriate systems of training; improved access to credit, marketing and support services; and mobilization of farmers and unemployed women in the development of small community-based farm projects to improve domestic food crop production.

      Introduction of Report

Introducing her country’s combined second, third and fourth periodic  reports and addressing the questions raised by the pre-session working group, GLENDA SIMMS, Executive Director, Bureau of Women’s Affairs of Jamaica, said her country had an impressive body of laws protecting the rights of women, but those laws functioned against the background of traditional attitudes to women.  To overcome existing stereotypes and harmonize its laws with international norms and standards, the country had commissioned a comprehensive legislative review.

She went on to say that one of the great contradictions of Jamaican society was that despite women’s great academic achievements, they occupied few positions of real power and influence.  Some of the important positions held by women included Speaker of the House and President of the Senate, but equitable representation of women in politics continued to be a challenge.  To implement its new policies, the Government needed support of the civil society, and she noted that an increased number of NGOs participated in public life, including the national women’s political caucus. 

Poverty continued to affect all aspects of women’s lives, and several programmes had been initiated to address that problem, she continued.  Rural and city women and domestic workers received priority attention.  The strategy for wider integration of women in the tourist sector of the economy enjoyed the Government’s support.  However, sex tourism, prostitution and sexual exploitation of young girls still presented a challenge. 

Regarding education, she said that in reversing the traditional stereotyping concerning gender roles, Jamaica had made some significant inroads, especially as far as retention of girls in the education sector was concerned.  Today, women outnumbered men at the tertiary level of education, as well as in the faculties of law and medicine.  However, women still encountered difficulties in securing jobs commensurate with their level of qualifications.

Turning to women’s health, she noted a significant reduction in the rates of maternal and infant mortality.  The Government’s efforts had resulted in improved cancer prevention.  Prevention of sexually-transmitted diseases had been integrated with family planning services, and a help line had been instituted to provide counseling and support.  The question of HIV/AIDS demanded urgent attention, however, for women were contracting that disease at a faster rate than men.  Some of the factors contributing to the spread of the disease were women failing to protect themselves and having multiple sex partners, as well as women’s inability to control their economic independence.

The Government was also addressing the issue of domestic violence and violence against women in general, she said.  Numerous measures instituted in the country included rape investigation units, a dispute resolution foundation and victim support programmes.  The Government also granted financial subventions to a number of NGOs, which provided services in that respect.  An inter-agency campaign against violence directed at women and girls and an education campaign on incest had been launched in the country.  To address various aspects of gender-based violence, the domestic violence act, the act on offences against persons, the incest punishment act and sexual harassment bill were being reviewed.

However, all those efforts were affected by the overriding issues of structural adjustment, globalization and a growing debt burden, she said.  The country was also affected by unemployment, lack of growth and the feminization of poverty.  Jamaica was now in a transitional period, trying to find new strategic means to overcome those problems. 

In conclusion, she reaffirmed her Government’s commitment to live up to its obligations under CEDAW and informed the Committee that plans were now in place to prepare for the ratification of the Optional Protocol.

Comments by Experts

The Chairperson, CHARLOTTE ABAKA of Ghana, said the oral presentation had been encouraging in many areas.  She was sure that experts would have many questions on issues that had not been addressed.

An expert said the political will of the country was clear.  The Government had always participated actively in the region with all conferences that had to do with the advancement of women.  The challenges that the Government had before it were enormous.  The debt crisis and the structural readjustment programmes had caused employment to go down, and women had suffered the effects of this crisis very keenly.

The report provided a full and comprehensive analysis of the implementation of the Convention, an expert said.  The report said that 60 per cent of women had benefited from the project to eradicate poverty, but there were other programmes that lacked statistics.  She asked for more information on the national mechanisms dealing with the advancement of women, and urged that a gender perspective be streamlined into all Government programmes. 

An expert said that Jamaica had been one of the original signatory parties to the Convention and one of the first Latin American countries to ratify it. Initially, the Government expressed reservations on two articles, but one was subsequently withdrawn.  This was encouraging. 

She said that Jamaica was also one of the first countries in the region to establish a mechanism to deal with women’s issues.  There was consistent political will to make progress and to strengthen the programmes to improve conditions for women and to fulfil international commitments.  As the years had gone by, development and financial problems had forced Jamaica to tighten its belt.  Women, as heads of the family, had suffered the most from this.

There was need for a greater balance between Government and civil society, an expert said.  She suggested strengthening Government activities, particularly in the area of sexual violence and domestic violence.  Sexual tourism had been used to attract tourists, but it had led to criminal activities.  She was also concerned about the health of women in Jamaica.

Regarding laws that discriminated against women, an expert said that the women’s employment act of 1942 was particularly disturbing.  She mentioned others that were in need of review, such as the equal pay act and the maternity act.  What was the Government doing to have many of these acts repealed or amended? she asked.

Another expert asked what the difference was between maternity leave and the maternity allowance given under the national insurance scheme.  Also, she was aware of the free zone areas that existed within Jamaica and wondered what the condition of female workers were within that zone.  She asked if there was a social security system and how domestic workers would be covered under such a system.

There was an impression that NGOs were doing a lot of work, but there was also the impression that the Government was not doing enough, an expert said.  To what extent were these NGOs being financed by the Government?  Was it on an institutional basis or a programme basis or not at all?  There should be some provision in the State budget for this.

Although a lot had been achieved in the area of health, the report states that fewer women were visiting the post-natal facilities, an expert said.  She wondered if there were financial reasons for this.  HIV/AIDS remained a serious concern.  Perhaps prices for female condoms needed to be subsidized by the Government so as to keep the price in line with male condoms.  The problem with the connection between tourism and prostitution had to be addressed, and one of the most important ways to reduce this phenomenon was through education.

One expert was dismayed at the slow pace of legal reform.  The Convention, which Jamaica ratified in 1984, obliged State parties to bring national legislation in line with its provisions.  She realized that there had been economic difficulties, but legal reform did not cost that much.  What were the obstacles?  Could a provision be included in the Constitution obligating the State to promote equality on the basis of sex and race?  A number of countries had included such a provision, and this made it easy for them to include temporary special measures under article 4.1.

She added that there needed to be some discussion within Jamaica on article 4.1, an expert said.  Temporary special measures were used to accelerate progress towards equality between men and women.  Programmes to encourage gender sensitizing and gender mainstreaming should be permanent.  Temporary measures should be used to overcome past discrimination against women where the consequences were still evident today.

State Response

Ms. SIMMS said that as soon as the Government obtained the funding for legal reform, it had undertaken a review of all legislation.  It was determined that the review would not be at a lawyer’s desk but out in the field with the women that were most affected.  The Government was very proud of its work in this area and was setting up a model that was sustainable.  She hoped that the changes would be evident by the next report. 

She was very proud of the relationship between the Government and NGOs.  Those organizations were not always called to the table but when specific statistics were needed, the Government did not hesitate to consult them.

Jamaica, she said, was distinguished in the region for its disaggregated sex data.  All bilateral and and multilateral programmes reflected gender mainstreaming.  In this area, the country was on a path that Committee experts could be proud of.

There was a bedrock of resistance to equality within Jamaican society, and not unlike many coutries, Jamaica struggled with the traditional definition of the role of women, she said.  In spite of a women’s education, she still was asked to do the dishes, and if she did not do the dishes herself, she hired another woman to do it.

Regarding the issue of the free zone, she pointed out that the number of jobs was shrinking, even though such a zone existed.  Many companies were withdrawing from the area. 

She agreed with the experts that gender mainstreaming could not be a temporary issue.  Significant amounts had been spent on gender workshops, and focal points had been created within the Ministries, but those measures were non-sustainable.  For that reason, the Government had adopted a different approach, incorporating gender issues in various activities.  There had been a change in attitudes in the country, and now many more women were working in traditionally male spheres of employment.  Non-governmental organizations were involved in all Governmental activities.  They were also mobilizing people throughout the country. 

Responding to a question regarding the number of women in the public centre (30 per cent), she said that she believed in the concept of critical mass, and the more women were involved in that sector, the closer the country was to the critical mass, which would bring about changes in attitudes.

Tourism was the largest foreign exchange earner of the country, and the Government valued it highly.  However, it was also necessary to ensure that the population did not suffer as a result of that industry, she said.  For that reason, measures were being implemented against sex tourism, which was also considered a gender issue.  The terms “quotas” and “affirmative action” were not used in the country, and the Government resorted to other means, promoting a sustainable aspect of gender equity policies.

Comments by Experts

An expert then said that legal provisions alone could not change society.  She appreciated the emphasis of the Government on field work and change of attitudes.  However, she believed that the legal machinery in Jamaica was not achieving its full potential.  She was concerned about delays in the legal amendments and introduction of important provisions in the country’s legislation. 

There was a high level of violence against women and adolescents, and the measures undertaken to combat it were welcome, she said.  She wanted to know, however, what legal measures were being taken against the offenders and how many cases had been brought before the courts.  According to her information, a girl over 12 could be held liable in cases of incest, and she proposed that measures should be directed against the men.  Also, even if the victim did not want to place a complaint against a rapist, the society should not condone such behaviour. 

Regarding women in employment, an expert asked what indicators of women’s economic advancement were being used in the country and what measures were being taken under the equal pay act.  She asked when legal measures could be taken against sexual harassment in the workplace and requested statistics regarding the number of women in managerial positions and in various sectors of economy.

She noted the pressure by the Church regarding patriarchal attitudes towards women and asked about the measures to promote the new family laws.  As for the life imprisonment for abortion, she said that such severe measures could contribute to the high maternal death rate. 

Questions were also asked about plans to provide free telephone lines for women, so victims of violence could place complaints to the police and request legal and medical assistance.

On the subject of structural adjustment, an expert congratulated the Government on its efforts to overcome the obstacles before it.  Special attention should be devoted to the problems of rural women to improve their living standards.  How many women had access to credit?  What actions were being considered in that respect?

Women were not happy with their position in the labour market, an expert pointed out, asking what tools they had to rectify the situation.  How could the bridging of the gap between the number of qualified women and the jobs available to them be addressed?  What measures were being taken to educate the general public about the rights of women? 

She said that the fact that Jamaican women had been fighting for their rights contributed to the creation of ideal conditions for further progress.  She wanted to know what measures could be taken to accelerate that process.

Comments by Experts

Regarding the participation of women in public life, an expert stressed the need to change the political culture within Jamaica.  The political situation in most countries was set up by men and it would not change naturally. The idea of parity meant that there was a need for as many women as men to decide on a society’s future.  Quotas could be used to ensure a sufficient number of women candidates for public office.  Were such measures being envisioned by the Government? she asked.

It was not easy to make changes in a common law system, an expert said. She congratulated the delegation on the efforts that had been made so far, and suggested that the jurisprudence of other countries within the Commonwealth be examined.

An expert said the definition of rape in the penal code was inadequate. She also wondered if they were considering altering the definition of marital rape, which was referred to as carnal intercourse.  The inadequate law on evidence needed to be addressed as it quite often became a serious obstacle to justice.

It had been mentioned in the report that one of the causes of domestic violence was that women were getting more empowered economically, an expert said.  This was a serious issue, and she wondered if there were more statistics. On the subject of nationality, she wondered if it the law categorically stated that a woman could transfer her nationality to her child, as related legal provisions seemed rather circuitous. 

An expert said she was delighted by the strength and conviction of the oral statement by Ms. Simms.  How were men at all levels of society responding to women’s efforts to advance equality?  Men should be incorporated into these efforts at gender equality. 

That expert also asked about the dispute resolution for domestic violence that was mentioned in the report.  As long as domestic violence was seen as a private matter, it would be very hard to eliminate it.  Instead, domestic violence should be seen as a social crime and be punished accordingly.  There had to be a deterrent factor to prevent it.

      State Response

Ms. SIMMS said that a women’s centre foundation had been established recently to help with teenage pregnancy.  Female condoms were available in Jamaica, but they were much more expensive than male condoms.  Public education would be the key to expanding the use of female condoms and ensuring that women took responsibility for their own reproductive health. 

There were no specific laws on sexual harassment, she said, but hopefully one would be drafted in the near future.  Headway had been made in implementing gender analyses in all programmes.

The majority of all rural women eked out their living in subsistence farming, she said.  The Government had addressed the issue of imported goods that cut into the local market, and the impact of globalization was clear. Domestic workers were the most poorly paid workers in the country.  This was a very large group of women who made a living cleaning other people’s floors. Upper class women had to develop a conscience when it came to employing poor women.

Ms. SIMMS said that the struggle for the right to an abortion would be an uphill battle.  The medical profession was now discussing this, but the voice of the Catholic church was strong in this debate.

As one expert had pointed out, the political culture in Jamaica was founded by men, she said.  Women tended to shy away from politics because of its violent nature.  There had to be positive action in this area.  Although she was not in the formal structure of the political parties, she would recommend that there be more women candidates.

Another factor that prevented women from being senators was that these posts were unpaid, she said.  Traditionally, senators were among the gentry and therefore did not need to be paid.  A lot of women were not entering political campaigns because they lacked the funding.  These were all questions being addressed by the Government.

 The age of consent, she said, did contain anomalies.  The ambassador for children was looking at all the laws that affected children.  There was also an initiative to extend the definition of rape and incest to include boys and men.

Now that Jamaican women were staying in school longer, the major theory that dominated the region was that women had marginalized men.  This was being said at all levels of society, and had resulted in a subtle backlash that would have to be addressed.  There were also articles in many newspapers that were negative against women.

In conclusion, she said that experts’ questions were all very relevant to the situation in Jamaica, and the Bureau of Women’s Affairs would be integrating many of the suggestions into its work.

The Chairperson, CHARLOTTE ABAKA of Ghana, said she hoped Jamaica would continue with its legal reform and with the awareness-raising programmes.  It was important to involve men in this process as well.  The issue of male marginalization could divert attention from the advancement of women.  She was surprised that senators were not being paid and suggested that this could be one reason why women were not advancing in this areas.  Perhaps if this could be addressed it would encourage more women to particapte in politics.

* *** *

For information media. Not an official record.