Of Presidents and Precedents

How do you go about getting a female President appointed?

~You take charge for setting the agenda.~

Those fighting for women’s human rights are challenging deeply embedded social norms and whole institutional systems that perpetuate discrimination against women and threats to their personal safety.  While many women’s organisations are working to provide services and support to women, others are also working to educate and change mindsets about roles, rights, entitlements and inclusion of women in girls in all aspects of society.

But many women’s organisations and movements soon realise that to significantly improve women’s status and create an enabling environment for women to thrive, they must also engage in some way with the state and contribute to changes to larger policy and governance issues. One of the ways they do this is by agenda setting.

Agenda Setting

In order for an issue to be addressed by the state, there needs to be a recognition of the need for the issue to be discussed. Very often it is the grassroots organisations and NGOs working with women and communities that are able to identify situations and circumstances that impact the well-being and status of women in society. By making these issues public; generating public discussion and winning supporters, civil society organisations are able to bring an important issue to attention of government and thus set the agenda for policy-level discussions.

Justice Paula Mae Weekes – President-elect of Trinidad and Tobago

One such recent example of agenda setting is the campaign by the Caribbean Association for Feminist Action and Research (CAFRA) to appoint a woman as President of Trinidad and Tobago. CAFRA took advantage of the opportunity presented by the national discussions around nominations for a new President to advance the idea of appointing woman President, noting that all previous Presidents have been male. They asserted that Such an appointment would be a significant indicator of gender equality and an expression of the democratic value of inclusion.” They also suggested a list of women they thought suitable for the position, thereby generating discussion in the public domain about what qualities and qualifications would be necessary for such an appointment. Soon after CAFRA’s declaration was circulated in the media, the government nominated Justice Paula-Mae Weekes for President. 

Research and Data Collection

Agenda setting is often preceded by the work of research and data collection. Before you can bring an issue into the public discourse, you need to be able to clearly articulate the problem and provide evidence about how this affects a specific community or group of people. NGO’s and grassroots organisations are often the ones who become aware of particular problems experienced by their members, clients or community and are thus best placed to speak about the underlying causes and impacts on their lives.  An organisation focused on rural women may have information regarding the lack of extension services to women farmers, or an NGO focussed on women in business may be getting a number of requests for help in dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace.

Organisations can use various means to collect data (internal records, stories, complaints, phone logs) or establish larger research endeavours in order to gather vital information on the issue, as well as possible avenues to address these.

Since 2011, the Hindu Women’s Organisation began advocating for the changes to the Trinidad and Tobago Marriage Act that would make the legal age of marriage 18 years old. While many in the general public were not aware that there were provisions in law that allowed different religions to marry children, the Hindu Women’s Organisation, because of the constituency they represented were very much aware of how early marriage negatively impacted the health and well-being of women in their communities.

From HWO

Using facts which became available from the International Planned Parenthood Federation and the Centre for Research on Women, the HWO produced a booklet booklet entitled Hinduism—An overview and rejecting violence against women (HWO 2011) in which they addressed the issue of the Marriage Act. They then used this as the basis for engaging leaders in the Hindu, Muslim, Orisha and Christian faiths to discuss the issue and determine a way to bring the issue to Parliament.

In 2016, a coalition of women’s organisations, building upon the work initiated by the HWO, successfully lobbied for government to increase the legal age of marriage to 18. In June 2017, The Miscellaneous Provision (Marriage) Act was proclaimed.

What are some of the ways your organisation is working to put an important issue on government’s agenda?

References

  1. An Ongoing Journey in the Pursuit of Agency: The Hindu Women’s Organisation of Trinidad &Tobago https://sta.uwi.edu/crgs/december2012/journals/Gopeesingh.pdf
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