‘Gender Equality in Politics in Jamaica: How Far Have We Come?’ – Full Text of Hon Olivia Grange’s Speech at the 2018 Rose Leon Memorial Lecture

On Monday, March 5, 2018, the Annual Memorial Lecture in honour of Rose Agatha Leon (1911-1999) was held at the PCJ Auditorim in New Kingston. The event was put on by Jamaica Women’s Political Caucus and Rose Leon Memorial Trust, with the topic, ‘Gender Equality in Politics in Jamaica: How Far Have We Come?’. Fittingly, the guest speaker was Jamaica’s Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sports, Olivia Grange. Find below the full text of the prepared speech for the event, noting that she deviated from the text at points to expound on issues and give anecdotes.


Presentation for the Honourable Minister Olivia Grange, CD, MP:  Guest Lecturer at the Women’s Political Caucus Annual Lecture, March 5, 2018 at Petroleum Corporation of Jamaica


I am proud to be this year’s Guest Lecturer at the Women’s Political Caucus’s Annual Madam Rose Leon Lecture on gender equality for women in politics.

Why am I happy? Because this represents expression of gratitude and the paying of respect to the many women of both political parties, who took on the rigours of politics and stayed true to the cause.

Your activism has been at the heart and soul of Jamaican politics and governance. I say thank you for sustaining our democracy in this way.

We recall with much pride and we honour Madame Rose Leon the first female minister of government in Jamaica, the only Jamaican to have served in both a JLP and PNP Cabinet and the first female Chairperson of a political party in the Caribbean.

Today, we are here to discuss gender equality in politics in Jamaica and where we are at present.  The issue of gender equality in Jamaican politics is a basic human right. The denial of equal opportunities in politics poses serious problems to democracy, governance and the dreams little girls are allowed to conceptualize.

Women’s political empowerment and equal access to leadership positions at all levels are fundamental to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and a more equitable world.

Slow growth in women’s representation, means gender equality is compromised and achieving these key targets of the SDGs remain at stake.

On a personal level, I highly regard my position in politics. I see myself as being very fortunate to have been born in pre-independent Jamaica, but managed to make myself relevant in an ever-changing political climate. As a woman who entered political activism through the trenches and the belly of the working class people in Luke Lane, West Kingston.

I grew up in politics, I was a victim of political violence, which is now termed violence against women in politics, I have seen and experienced racism and saw first hand the multiple oppressions that black people are forced to exist in on an international scene.

I have experienced and seen how people from a lower socio-economic background are institutionally treated. I remain vocal to date about this unnecessary aspect of living in Jamaica.

On a professional level, as Member of Parliament since 1997, grassroots activist, campaigner, Deputy Leader of a Political Party, Chairperson for key committees in my political party, as well as the Cabinet, among other titles, I am well acquainted with the challenges women face when entering this male-dominated field of politics.

I must say the personal is political, better yet, the private is political, and so please understand my commitment in politics as a woman from humble beginnings to stay with the ground. So, I believe I have a unique standpoint on this touchy issue of gender equality in politics in Jamaica.  Therefore, understand that I speak to you this evening in my capacity as ‘Babsy Grange’ the politician.

I am usually asked about gender equality and politics. My answers are usually the following:

  • Jamaican Women being militant for a cause, go back to the days of, Nanny of the Maroons, who used her skills, military tactics and exceptional leadership qualities to lead approximately 800 maroons in approximately 50 years;
  • Our first female mayor, Mrs. Iris King was selected in 1958;
  • Jamaican women had the right to vote and seek office, even before some European Women and all of our CARICOM countries had the right to vote.
  • Jamaican women united as a constituency to place women in leadership in the earlier days.
  • Jamaica as a country had a national women’s machinery long before many countries in the world.
  • We have already had a female Prime Minister, Attorney General, Speaker of the House, Female Heads of Political Parties, female President of the Senate, female Party Chairpersons and a male Minister of Women’s Affairs.
  • We have a female Political Ombudsman
  • We are now at the point in history, where we try to tackle institutionalized gender equality in politics.

Women bring a different angle to politics. As former Head of the then Women’s Bureau and Gender Expert, Glenda Simms phrased this unique understanding us women have in politics: “we have a nose for the issues that men ignore.”

Some say they are the everyday issues, but I call them the “soul and pulse issues”. They are easily forgotten in a post Washington Consensus reality, but hurt the soul and conscience of the nation when forgotten. For example, several studies have shown that poverty is experienced differentially by the sexes.

Patricia Mohammad in her book, Rethinking Caribbean Difference looked at the role of the women’s political groups in the Caribbean and showed that the 1970s was a period of unprecedented social justice in Jamaica.

She pointed to policies and laws enacted to protect women. It was the political women’s group that eventually got the Government of the day to reconsider its agreement with the International Monetary Fund.

Mohammad also cited the Maternity Leave Act that saw women of both political parties coming together with other interest groups in 1978 to discuss the limitations of the maternity leave. They pointed out the clause which significantly discriminated against unmarried mothers –the majority of mothers in this period.

Thus, it was the political consciousness of women for this period that brought real life changes to women.

This was achieved not by the middle class women in Jamaica, but the collective effort of politically active women from the various socio-economic divides in Jamaica who were not elected representatives, just politically conscious women.

This period reminds me that we are always stronger together.

In the words of Evelyn Smart, founding member of the Jamaica Women’s Political Caucus, some causes defended by female politicians over the years, include:

  • Mass weddings as a means of uplifting and giving dignity to the homes in lower socio-economic spaces in a post-slavery society;
  • Defending the poor and needy through Paupers’ Allowance;
  • Loans to Banana Growers;
  • Female dress code in the House of Parliament
  • Married women’s income being assessed separately from their husbands’ for income tax assessment.

Let me state categorically that where women in politics is concerned, we must not look at it as a ‘win all’ or ‘lose all’ situation. Leadership, notably politics is deemed, culturally to be a male construct, and so, there are still psychological and institutional hurdles to overcome.

These constructs must be overcome for us to have significant change.

In a regional context, Jamaica has long had a history of being ahead of other Caribbean states. Professor Barriteau used Mondesire and Dunn’s study in 1995 to show that, in terms of numbers, Jamaica was second in female participation in Parliamentary Assembly.

Ahead of us were Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana, who jointly had nine females in their House of Assembly, while Jamaica had five.

Within the global context, UN Women has reported that the Americas has the highest percentage of women ministers at 22.9 per cent, followed by Africa (20.4 per cent), Europe (18.2 per cent, though the Nordic countries have 48.9 per cent), Pacific (12.4 per cent), Asia (8.7 per cent) and Arabic region (8.3 per cent).

According to the World Economic Forum’s gender equality measurement study, the Global Gender Gap 2016 Report, Jamaica is ranked #10 in the Latin America and Caribbean region.

Regionally, Jamaica outperformed St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Barbados, St. Kitts and the Nevis, Antigua and Barbuda, and even bigger developing economies such as China.

In terms of the females in Parliament however, the same 2017 study ranked Jamaica at 113 out of 193 countries. Here, we are ahead of regional countries such as: Barbados, the Bahamas, St. Kitts & Nevis, St. Vincent and Grenadines and Haiti.

Currently, females represent 19 per cent of the Lower House, and 18 per cent of the Cabinet. Jamaica had its first female Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade appointed on 7th March 2016.

Caribbean Elections, a digital repository of Caribbean democracy and governance, shows that Jamaica sits among the eleven Caribbean countries that have had a female Head of State.

Jamaica was also ranked 42nd among 144 countries in the Global Gender Gap Report and has recorded a comparative increase since its previous ranking in 2015 of 65th.

Moves to increase the number of Jamaican women participating in politics include:

Jamaica  became a signatory to the  CEDAW in 1980, the Committee for the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, The United Nations Decade for Women, The Nairobi World Conference on the Forward Looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women, Cairo Programme of Action,  Beijing Declaration & Platform for Action, Millennium Development Goals, the Sustainable Development Goals, Ten Year Review of the Beijing Platform for Action (Beijing+10), Commonwealth Plan of Action for Gender Equality, CARICOM Plan of Action (2005) and the Convention of Belem do Para;

  • Jamaica has implemented national projects geared towards reducing gender inequality, through the national gender machinery, the Bureau of Gender affairs (BGA) and other key partners.

The BGA in partnership with the Dispute Resolution Foundation implemented Jamaican Women’s Economic and Political Empowerment, “The Way Out Project”, which   focused on increasing the economic and political power of women and girls in Jamaica by promoting and supporting the institutionalisation of gender mainstreaming; increasing opportunities for and the capacities of women to be more involved in political decision making, and increasing the political and economic influence of women in public and private sector organizations by implementing a sustainable National Policy on Gender Equality

  • In May 2014, a Private Member’s Motion was approved for a Joint Select Committee to consider and make recommendations to address women’s under-representation in Parliament, local authorities and other positions of leadership. The Committee is expected to identify specific practical measures to correct the systematic gender inequalities, which result in women’s under-representation in Parliament and local authorities, in the organs of political parties and on public boards; actions taken include the use of “temporary special measures” that work effectively in the Jamaican political culture, considering the objectives of gender equality in political leadership and decision making recommended by the Convention of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW);
  • While Jamaica currently does not have a Political Quota System, the NPGE recommends a desired target of 30 per cent of women in decision-making positions. The GoJ is committed to employing temporary special measures to achieve the recommendations made by the CEDAW and the National Policy for Gender Equality. Jamaica has achieved a remarkable level of representation by women in legislative bodies, and in senior and middle management positions in government service.
  • Through the BGA, work is done across ministries, departments and agencies to ensure that gender equality is a chief focus on the government’s agenda. Therefore, key to doing this are conducting research on women in politics and decision making as well as hosting trainings, conferences and symposia to increase women participation in politics.  Recently, I led a team to host the ParlAmericas Regional Conference that brought politicians and women from across the region to discuss best practices on how to improve women’s participation in politics.

Where are we today?

Men continue to dominate all spheres of politics, despite the achievements of our local women in other areas of leadership.

A 2013 study done by UNDP found that there were no female heads of any committees in the Lower and Upper House of Parliament. For the said year, in terms of a breakdown of membership, the highest occupied amount of women on a single committee was 36.4% on the Human Resources and Social Development Committee.

The Public Accounts Committee had one female sitting member. In the Upper House however, the highest amount of women stood on the Privileges Committee, that is, a 42.9% female membership.

Currently, according to data received from the Houses of Parliament for 2016, while women sit on most committees, no committee is headed by a female. These committees include, but are not limited to the Constituency Development Fund, Public Administration and Appropriation,  Public Accounts, Privileges,   Economy and Production,  etc.

At present, at the Cabinet level, I chair the Human Resources Committee (HRC) while Senator the Hon. Kamina Johnson-Smith chairs the International Relations Committee.

Currently, we have a female Minister of State in the Ministry of Finance, a female Leader of Government Business in the Senate, a female Minister for Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, a female Minister of Labour and Social Security, a female Attorney General and of course, yours truly, as Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport.  In fact, in the last four administrations, women have overseen portfolios for Youth, Education, Information, Culture, Defence, Development, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade, Labour and Social Security and Sports.

Findings from a recently conducted UNDP study, “Where Are The Women?” showed that there are more Jamaican women in leadership in local government. For example, in 2003, we had 17% of female councillors. In 2007, we had 18% female councillors, while in 2012, we had 19%. Currently, we have 19% female councillors. So, in two election cycles, the female councillors consistently stood at 19%. In terms of female Mayorship, statistics received from the Ministry of Local Government and Community Development show that between 1998 and 2012, we consistently had 7% of female mayors.  However, in 2012, we had a 22% increase, which saw us having 29% of female mayors across Jamaica.

Causes for Low Numbers

Caribbean Feminist and Writer, Professor Eudine Barriteau has correctly captured the terrain of politics. According to her:

Women seeking elected public office are in a position unlike that of women in any other area of endeavour. Direct public competition between men and women take place only in electoral office … Electoral office is about the only place where there is direct competition between men and women in a public forum…. One has to work much harder to achieve success”

Several studies have pointed to the complex nature of understanding the gender gap in politics. These include institutional, historical, socio-economic as well as cultural factors. But there are also others. In explaining the gender parity in Jamaican politics, former Prime Minister and first female Prime Minister of Jamaica, the Most Honourable Portia Simpson Miller stated during a panel discussion on: ‘Women’s empowerment post-2015’, during day one of the European Development Days forum in Brussels, Belgium, on November 26, 2013:

“I think part of the challenge for more women not getting involved in politics, is lack of financing. The men will have their friends that will do fundraising for elections and for them to carry their (political) organisations, while the women will not have those with the money who will be able to assist…” 

Pereira (2012) used empirical analysis from his study, Gender and Community Participation in Latin America and the Caribbean” to show that gender roles are integral to understanding the gap in participation between the sexes.

Thus, the study concluded that women who start a family tend to get less involved in their communities, while it is the opposite for men. Therefore, the study proposed that to increase women’s participation in communities, considerations must be given to the ways in which gender roles structurally bar women from engaging in politics.

Violence Against Women in Politics on social media is likely to become one more deterrent for women to move over into politics, though not thoroughly understood.

Just last week I participated in a study that looked at violence against women in politics and it had me thinking about my own journey in politics. However, the recent examples of victimization on social media experienced by my female colleagues from both sides of the political divide, shows that social media creates a dual platform for women in politics.


On one hand, it allows us to connect with constituents in ways that Mrs. Iris Collis nor Madam Rose Leon could never have conceived, but then it has opened up a certain type of vulnerability that they never had to deal with.


Given my experience as one of the few females in representational politics, I wish to propose the following recommendations:

  • Politics remains the gate way to representation, and so, any discussion about gender equality in politics must include political parties. The Guyanese case shows that quotas were helpful in increasing the numbers of women in their political system. While our Joint Select Committee continues discussion on this matter of quotas locally, perhaps the political parties may look at incorporating quotas at the party levels, such as the Constituency Management unit and the delegates;
  • The use of quotas to assess the impact of the legislative framework on the participation of women.

It begs the question, Does the legislative framework serve to support/strengthen or deter women from political representation? For example, the Representation of the People’s Act is one way that more women will be taken to the table as it ensures integrity in the electoral process, by tackling campaign financing.

The Representation of the People’s Act and the Campaign Finance Regulations, 2017 which came into effect on March 1, 2018 and provides a clear guidelines for how individuals and businesses can contribute to political parties and candidates.

The Access to Information Act is also one key means for the public to see how public funds are being spent.  Additionally, the new Cybercrimes Act should be of value to female politicians in this age of ‘heavy penetration’ of social media.


  • Political parties must promote equality through recruitment, training and financing;
  • More small scale qualitative studies are needed on female local government representatives to find out what will propel or deter them from seeking higher office;
  • Women in politics ought to provide more mentorship opportunities to younger women in politics, so they get exposure and the confidence gap between the sexes in turn will be reduced;
  • Increased sensitization is needed on gender parity in political participation and decision making. The language also has to be packaged in a way that young females who are in leadership see the essence of this discussion;
  • The rules of politics have to be redefined. That is, the need to always be accessible and to provide financially;
  • Women’s right to leadership must be a discussion beyond the election season.


Our Jamaican reality reflects a complexity in policy and planning. On one side, we have been successful in education and legislations as a vehicle of empowerment for women and to some extent; we have been successful in creating several female leaders in the private and public sector.  However, we see that the right to vote and other legislative protections will not be enough to truly engender change in politics.

Thus, as an institution, Jamaican politics today still reflects women’s ongoing struggle to reorganize gendered identities and roles.

After 55 years of independence and almost 74 years of adult suffrage, we still cannot reach the international benchmark of 30% of female politicians, it thus becomes critical to ask ourselves the following questions:

  • How have I fostered a young girl to develop her leadership skills?
  • In what ways have we deterred a woman from becoming involved in politics?
  • Why should politics be the last realm of power that is transformed by gender when politics is an important driver of development and change overall?

Gender equality overall is a never ending fight. It demands a serious political commitment, because it means that we will win in some regards and lose in another. For example, in the area of education, as a government, our country continues to deliver where passes are concerned for girls and women. Unfortunately, our men and boys are lagging behind.

Though this is not the space to address this, I wish to make a special appeal for us to really cross-examine gender in its truest sense, because I see gender equality as not only as the end, but a very necessary tool of assessment for all parts of development.  The investments made in women and girls are great multipliers of development and progress as seen in the targets met from the MDGs. Now, we have an obligation to meet the ambitious targets set in the SDGs.

This is why the work of groups such as the Jamaica Women’s Political Caucus, which is also another achievement of Jamaica in the region, becomes critical as we strengthen the gender agenda in politics. However, being here tonight to cross-examine this very political issue means that there is hope; our democracy is alive and well.

Let us be clear that we all have to be the chief architects of equality by localizing it in our churches, our schools, our clubs, our families, our communities, etc.

In my closing statement, I reflect up on the acceptance speech of Nobel peace prize winner, President Johnson Sirleaf who called for the women of the world to rise up against patriarchy by clearly stating: “My sisters, my daughters, my friends, find your voice “.