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.

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.

And, thanks in part to affirmative-action laws requiring a greater percentage of female political candidates, more women are attaining other high governmental offices in the region. In Argentina, women hold 39 percent of congressional seats. And Ms. Bachelet in Chile has named women to half her Cabinet posts, including such traditional male bastions as the economic and defense ministries.

But even in this larger context, Jamaicans claim they stand out, tracing the strong position of women in their society back to the traditional African matrilineal societies from whence they came, as well as to the institution of slavery, which forced women to head households on their own.

Modern-day Jamaica, it is argued, further fostered this role of women. "Our country is a turbulent and violent one in which you need assertiveness to survive," says sociologist Hermione McKenzie, president of the Association of Women's Organizations in Jamaica. "Faced with that environment, women here developed strong skills. And then, in large numbers, they began seeking out higher education because they knew they needed impeccable qualifications - better than those of their male counterparts - to get a foot in the door."

With a larger pool of qualified, educated women to choose from, says Glenda Simms, an adviser to Simpson Miller on gender issues, it was only a matter of time before women began taking on leadership roles. "Portia symbolizes possibility to every girl and boy. She is proof that you can, in fact, move up in Jamaica and right into the big house."

The new prime minister, continues Ms. Simms, intends to further encourage female participation in government and decisionmaking. "We are going to see a new way - we are going to mainstream gender into development and take women's needs into account when planning," she says.

But as women move up the ranks here, many question whether men are being marginalized. "Quite possibly," says McKenzie, "... and that's not good either." Brian Meeks, a professor of social and political change at the University of the West Indies, Mona, agrees. Many Jamaican males, he says, complain of being held back within a system of "domineering" women at home, in the primary education system, and increasingly in higher education and the workplace. "We need to look at how men are performing in our society," Mr. Meeks says, "and figure out a way to address that, even as we continue to encourage women."

Theodore Thompson, a student at UTECH, admits that the women in his class intimidated him at first. "But then, afterward, maturity came on," he says, explaining that he has realized that "some women are just very good at recalling, and other women are very good at calculating." The problem with men, he continues, "is that our memory is not that good.... And maybe our discipline is a little lacking too."

Having a woman as the country's new leader, he concludes, means "another male dominated area is gone." But that too, he says "we can get used to."

Ms. Harman is Latin America correspondent for the Monitor and USA Today.

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