September 26, 2016

Women, Intersectionality and Inequality

There was a most interesting forum held earlier this month at the British High Commission to commemorate “International Women’s Day” under the theme “Pledge for parity”. For most persons thinking of “women and parity”, they would assume what is under consideration is for women to realise “parity” with men in all the spheres of life – but especially economically.
A week after IWD, for instance, the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), the principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women, focused on creating a conducive environment for gender-responsive implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which was adopted unanimously last September by all UN Member States.
The chief guest at the Georgetown event did in fact make this assumption. Her presentation focused on her early experience in the corporate world with men making sexist comments and even women assuming that her role as “a wife and a mother” might be neglected. Her recommendations summarised the proposals that have been touted for the last half century in the struggle for “women’s rights”: equal pay for equal work, equal opportunities in all forms of employment and not just the stereotyped “female” ones, etc.
The World Economic Forum (WEF) has released statistics that indicate if the gap between the two genders continues narrowing at the same rate over the previous century, it will take another 117 years to close. The year before WEF had predicted it would occur 22 years before. In the US just 5 per cent of the CEO’s of the Fortune 500 companies are women, and in Guyana, while there are no official statistics, the optics suggest the situation is even more skewed. After all, in the realm of politics it was considered a mark of progress that legislation was enacted demanding just one-third of MP’s from the several political parties must be women. There has been no talk to amend this target towards “parity”. In the appointment of the Cabinet, voices had to be raised in protest when even the 30 per cent goal was not reached for ministers.
The function at the British High Commission was graced by Minister of Social Protection Volda Lawrence, and was hosted in collaboration with “Guyana Trans United” and the “Society Against Sexual Orientation and Discrimination” (SASOD). And this circumstance brought to the fore in Guyana a position that had gained great traction in other jurisdictions but somehow was elided here: that “women” is not a monolithic category and in fact it subsumes several sub-groups the interests of each which need to be addressed on their own merits.
While Minister Lawrence acknowledged the existence of women who were gay or Trans, for instance, she unfortunately focused on society’s need to “change its attitude” towards them, rather than the removal of structural factors that permit or even encourage discrimination against them other than just being “women”. But one cannot fight what is not named. This challenge was faced three decades ago in the US and created a vocabulary centred around the word “intersectionality” to deal with it.
One writer put it succinctly: “Intersectionality was coined in the late 1980s to explain how different markers of identity coalesce to yield unique forms of discrimination. A black woman, for example, might experience not only racism and sexism in her daily life, but could also confront additional barriers that white women and black men do not. It became a way of making visible the experience of individuals that had previously been caught between the feminist and civil-rights movements. It’s tremendously important for new frames to enter our political lexicon to deal with old problems. They mark a space and set of realities that might otherwise slip through the cracks.”
And this is the reality that must be faced in Guyana for women who may be gay, Trans, poor, ethnic, etc, and who face quotidian discriminations from these facets of identity other than being “ ‘just’ women”.

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