Her Excellency Paula Mae-Weekes: A Transformational Event

Footage courtesy CCNTV6

Eleven (11) days after International Women’s Day, the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago inaugurated its sixth President; Her Excellency Paula Mae-Weekes.

Her Excellency Paula Mae-Weekes is Trinidad and Tobago’s first female Head of State.

“When her name was submitted as a nominee, Ms. Weekes held the position of judge of the Turks and Caicos Islands Court of Appeal. Ms. Weekes is a former pupil of the Bishop Anstey High School, Port-of-Spain. In 1980 she attained a Bachelor of Laws Degree (Honours) at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, Barbados, and in 1982 Ms. Weekes received a Legal Education Certificate from the Hugh Wooding Law School. She was called to the bar in 1982.
 Ms. Weekes was employed as a State Counsel I — Senior State Counsel in the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions from 1982 to 1993, after which she entered private practice engaged chiefly in criminal trial and appellate work.
 In September of 1996 Ms. Weekes was appointed a Puisne Judge of the Supreme Court of Trinidad and Tobago (Criminal Jurisdiction). Ms. Weekes was the fifth woman to be appointed a Judge of the High Court in Trinidad and Tobago. She held this post until 2005 when she was elevated to a Justice of Appeal, retiring in 2016.
 Ms. Weekes is a trained and experienced judicial educator having become a fellow of the Commonwealth Judicial Education Institute in 2000. She has designed and delivered programmes extensively in Trinidad and Tobago and also in the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) and Jamaica over the years.”

The National Flag of Trinidad and Tobago

Trinidad and Tobago’s Firsts’

· 1932 Gladys Ramsaran: first woman to be admitted to the Bar in Trinidad and Tobago
· 1936 Audrey Jeffers: first woman to be elected to Port of Spain’s City Council
· 1937 First female to record a calypso, Thelma Lane, Lady Trinidad
· 1946 First elections where all or most adults were allowed to vote
· 1948 Isabella Cabral: first female to obtain a pilot’s licence
· 1950 Beryl Archibald-Crichlow: first woman Mayor (San Fernando)
· 1955 First set of women drafted into the Police Force
· 1956 Edna Thomas, Lady Iere: first Calypso Competition “Queen”
· 1961 Isabel Teshea: first woman elected to House of Representatives
· 1963–67 Isabel Teshea: first woman to serve as a Cabinet Minister
· 1966–1971 Lilas Wight: first woman to be elected to the legislature in Trinidad and Tobago
· 1972 Marie Elizabeth Bourne: first female judge (TT Post Stamp 1980)
· 1977 Calypso Rose: first woman to win Road March
· 1978 Calypso Rose: first woman to win Calypso Monarch
· 1989 Morean Phillip: first woman to hold the position of President of the Law Association of Trinidad and Tobago.
· 1991 Morean Phillip: first woman to hold the position of President of Tennis Association of Trinidad and Tobago
· 1995 Pamela Nicholson: first female MP from Tobago
· 1995 Kamla Persad-Bissessar: first female Attorney General
· 1999 Wendy Yawching: first female captain of the Trinidad and Tobago National Airline
· 2010 Marcia Ayers-Caesar: first female Chief Magistrate
· 2010 Kamla Persad-Bissessar: first female Prime Minister
· 2011 Kamla Persad-Bissessar: Commonwealth’s first female Chairperson-in-Office
· 2012 Sherry-ann Edwards: first female fleet chief petty officer in the Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard
· 2015 Jennifer Baptiste Primus: first female Minister of Labour
· 2017 Calypso Rose: first person (who happens to be female) to win Victoire de la Musique in France for World Music Album of the Year
· 2018 Paula Mae-Weekes: first female President of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago
· 2018 Paula Mae-Weekes: first female Head of State in the Caribbean region.

Why so few women?

Pertinent Issues: Feminization of Poverty and Gender Inequity

“More than one billion people in the world today, the great majority of whom are women, live in unacceptable conditions of poverty…. Women’s poverty is directly related to the absence of economic opportunities and autonomy, lack of access to economic resources … lack of access to education and support services and their minimal participation in the decision-making process….”— Beijing Platform for Action

The feminization of poverty is the phenomenon in which women experience poverty at rates that are disproportionately high in comparison to men. 70% of the world’s poor are women. Furthermore, women make up the majority of the 1.5 billion people living on $1 a day or less (Abbate 2010).

When women are poor, their rights are not protected. They face obstacles that are difficult to overcome. Indeed both men and women suffer as a result of poverty but gender discrimination means that women have fewer resources to deal with their situations. “They are likely to be the last to eat, the ones least likely to access healthcare and routinely trapped in time-consuming, unpaid domestic tasks. They have more limited options to work or build businesses. Adequate education may lie out of reach. Some end up forced into sexual exploitation as part of a basic struggle to survive (UN Women 2014).”

Gender inequality: Fact Check

1. Low wages- Worldwide women are paid the lowest. Globally, we earn 23 percent less than men and at the current rate of progress; it will take 170 years to close the gap.

2. Lack of decent work- 75 percent of women in developing regions are in the informal economy where we are less likely to have employment contracts, legal rights or social protection, and are often not paid enough to escape poverty.

3. Unpaid care work- Women do twice as much unpaid care work, such as childcare and housework. The global value of this work each year is estimated at $10 trillion — which is equivalent to one-eighth of the world’s entire GDP.

4. Longer work days- Women work longer days than men when paid and unpaid work is summed up. So globally, a young woman will work on average the equivalent of four years more than a man over her lifetime.

“A life of dignity is every person’s human right.” — The People’s Movement for Human Rights Learning

Changes to be made…

TED, “Why we have too few women leaders” Sheryl Sandberg (2010)

A Local Context: Women in Politics

Women have viewed the ascension of a woman as the President of Trinidad and Tobago as inspirational.

“As of 2013, women hold high positions in the three main political parties in Trinidad and Tobago. Besides Persad-Bissessar, in October 2012 Seepersad-Bachan was elected chairman and former senator Nicole Dyer-Griffith was elected deputy chairman of the COP and; former senator Penelope Beckles-Robinson was elected female vice chairman of the PNM.” — Ranjitsingh 2014

The progressive movements of women into predominantly male “territory” is awe-inspiring and motivational but women’s political power comes with different experiences and expectations that are highly gendered and must be carefully navigated and negotiated to finally be challenged. Women holding the highest office in the political life of Trinidad and Tobago are important and relevant for the discourse on political leadership as it relates to the role of sex and gender in governance and by extension understanding the larger implications of having women in positions of power and the possibility of progress toward gender justice.

When Mrs. Persad-Bissessar became the first female Prime Minister, her term in government did not trickle down to the political parties and the politics itself and it was alleged that the former PM was no more than the puppet for bigger more corrupt groups running the government. However, she herself had shut down these naysayers by stating, during the UNC’s Monday night forum at the Tulsa Trace Hindu School in Penal that, “…They thought that as a woman, I would have succumbed to the challenges of leading this country.”

Her statement on the matter is key to understanding the mentality of this twin island nation and many cultures around the world where women and men are held to different standards and expectations. Women have clawed their way from traditional feminine roles to more modern traditionally male dominated fields and still continue to face greater challenges than that of men because of the pervasive misogynistic mentality that permeates all industries. Despite the efforts over time to decrease discrimination across various institutions in society via anti-discriminatory laws and new practices that involve equal consideration; society’s norms, belief system and roles instruct and encourage men to devalue women specifically in the workplace. In every situation where women step out of line with tradition or expectation, they are subjected to subtle or out-right discrimination based on their biological make up and traditional domestic role as wife and mother which has been used to suppress the potential and further contribution of women.

The work-space may have changed overtime and a “critical mass of women in politics is necessary” but it is not sufficient enough to achieve a gender-just society (Barriteau 1997). What this means is that, “ a system of governance must develop that not only responds to the needs of women, but also allows them to better experience and articulate power. In this way, women will understand that not only is access to political power important, but this access empowers one to change political systems and cultures which have created a power vacuum for women and which have left women out of policy (Ranjitsingh 2014).” When Mrs. Kamala Persad-Bissessar held the position of Prime Minister there was a positive increase in the number of “women running in campaigns and holding political sears but the ideological shift concerning women, politics and power” remains slow (Ranjitsingh 2014).

Thus, while Trinidad has had positive female leaders in the highest echelons of governance, challenges to the social structures must occur for change to take place. According to Rao and Kelleher (2005), negotiations and challenges have to start “at the personal and social levels as well as within formal and informal relations before any changes to ‘inequitable social systems and institutions’ can take place (Ranjitsingh 2014).” Such a shift may be slow to happen for Trinidad — a society with deep religious and cultural ideals about the gender roles of men and women that underscore social and economic contexts. Therefore as women reach new heights and break new ground and continue to inspire and motivate — they cannot initiate change alone.

The election of our first female Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago in 2010 and now in 2018, the inauguration of Her Excellency Paula Mae Weekes as the President of Trinidad and Tobago are positive steps forward. Therefore, we may see a concerted effort within our twin island state in achieving gender justice, as women begin to realise that political life is an option to affect and achieve change. Our task now is to continue to support women already in power so that they can be transformational leaders and act to change the structures that left women’s rights and gender equality on the back burner.

“Here’s the truth: the harvest is upon us, the time is now, we lack nothing, our success is greater than our failures, we are here and we are ready to determine our own destinies, we must reap the seeds that were planted by our fore-mothers… workers are needed to till the soil of our greatness that rests in the bosom of our youth, gather and distribute the fruit of our legacy. The youth need to see their greatness reflected in our eyes — Go forth let them know we are real…” — Danai Gurira


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“Engendering Local Government in the Commonwealth Caribbean.” Regional Background Paper for the Commonwealth Caribbean Regional Symposium on Engendering Local Government. St. Lucia. June 30 — July 1, 1997.

CCNTV6. 2018. TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO’s FIRST FEMALE PRESIDENT. Video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5LLe1HKZfNE.

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Rao, Aruna and David Kelleher. 2005. “Is There Life After Gender Mainstreaming?” Gender and Development, (13) 2: 57–69

Ranjitsingh, Aleah N. 2014. “Women’S Political Leadership In Trinidad And Tobago: Understandings, Experiences, And Negotiations”. In Politics, Power And Gender Justice In The Anglophone Caribbean: Women’S Understandings Of Politics, Experiences Of Political Contestation And The Possibilities For Gender Transformation. Ottawa, Canada: International Development Research Centre. https://sta.uwi.edu/igds/ppgj/documents/IDL-53629.pdf.

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“Why The Majority Of The World’S Poor Are Women | Oxfam International”. 2018. Oxfam.Org. https://www.oxfam.org/en/even-it/why-majority-worlds-poor-are-women.