Jamaica's women rising
Portia Simpson Miller will soon become Jamaica's first female prime minister.
As the noonday sun streams down, students of the applied science department at Kingston's University of Technology (UTECH) perch on picnic tables outside. They flip open laptops, unwrap jerk-chicken sandwiches, argue over enterprise computing - and reapply lipstick.Skip to next paragraph
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A full 70 percent of university students in Jamaica are female. In law schools, the percentage is much higher - between 80 and 90, according to Jamaica's Bureau of Women's affairs.
And academics is not the only arena where women are shining in this Caribbean island nation. Women here have long made up close to 50 percent of the labor force and, over the past two decades, have increasingly moved into many of the senior and middle-management positions across society. But there are still few women in the highest positions, particularly in the male- dominated area of politics.
That will change in the next few weeks, however, when Portia Simpson Miller becomes Jamaica's first female prime minister. The newly elected leader of the ruling People's National Party (PNP) will succeed long-serving Prime Minister P.J. Patterson when he steps down before the next legislative term begins on April 1.
"The Jamaican matriarch is the center of our society," says Mercedes Deane, UTECH's assistant registrar. "Women here have long been leaders in their homes, churches, and communities - and now they are becoming the engineers, computer programmers, architects and, yes, prime ministers of our future. It is the natural next step."
A longtime politician who represents some of the poorest citizens in this country of deep economic disparities, Ms. Simpson Miller narrowly beat National Security Minister Peter Phillips in the internal elections for the ruling party last month, automatically becoming prime minister-elect. The reggae tunes "The Strength of a Woman," and "Thank You Momma" opened almost every one of Simpson Miller's rallies, and "It's Woman Time Now," became her unofficial motto.
"The groundswell of support for Simpson Miller has cut across gender, says Jean Lowrie-Chin, a columnist for the Jamaica Observer newspaper. "You hear as many men as women saying that 'It's woman time now - give her a chance.' We hear people saying that women are more resistant to corruption, more inclusive, more connected and sympathetic to the people."
There is still a glass ceiling here, and too few women in the very top positions, says Faith Webster, director of Jamaica's Bureau of Women's affairs, but change is apparent, with Simpson's Miller's election the best indication. "Portia has gone crashing through that ceiling. It is yet to be seen how this will play out for women in general, but we are optimistic," Ms. Webster says.
Simpson Miller is not the first female leader in the region - Barbados, Dominica, Haiti, and Guyana have all had women presidents in the past. In Chile, Michele Bachelet was sworn in as president Saturday, the first female leader in that country's history. And in Peru, Lourdes Flores is favored to make similar history in upcoming April elections.