Friday, July 6, 2012

...the theme of this year’s Independence Celebrations is - “The Bahamas: United in Love and Service” ...with emphasis to be placed on the struggles and achievements of the Bahamian woman on the 50th anniversary of the women’s suffrage movement

Celebrating independence and the Bahamian woman

By Arinthia S. Komolafe

This year The Bahamas will mark its 39th anniversary of independence.  There is no doubt that we as a people have made notable progress socially, economically, politically and culturally since July 10, 1973.

The annual Independence Celebrations Committee recently announced the theme of this year’s celebration as “The Bahamas: United in Love and Service” with emphasis to be placed on the struggles and achievements of the Bahamian woman on the 50th anniversary of the women’s suffrage movement.

The accomplishments of the Bahamian woman over the years are undeniable and significant to say the least.  Bahamian women have made and continue to make their mark in every sphere of society with recorded success in education, politics, religion, the corporate world, law enforcement, media and civic society.  However, the Bahamian woman remains a recipient of discrimination and inequality — some of which are enshrined in the supreme law of our land.

The women’s suffrage movement

Women’s suffrage refers simply to the right of women to vote and run for office.  It was a movement that embodied the struggle by women to gain the same rights as their male counterparts, particularly in politics.  It is fair to say that with a few exceptions, women around the world today have the same voting rights as men.  This no doubt constitutes considerable progress from the colonial days when voting was limited to adult males who owned property.  The flawed rationale at that time seemed to be that property owners had the strongest interest in good government and therefore were best qualified to make decisions.

A brief review of history will show that changing social conditions and the idea of equality in the early nineteenth century led to the beginning of the suffrage movement.  This period was characterized by more educated women and increased participation of women in reform movements and politics.  It was therefore only a matter of time before individuals (referred to as suffragists) began to question why women were not allowed to vote and led the drive to advance the cause for a woman’s right to vote.

The Bahamian struggle

The first petition for women’s suffrage in The Bahamas was presented in 1952 by the Great Improved, Benevolent, and Protective Order of Elks of the World under the leadership Mary Ingraham, who also served as the leader of the Bahamian women’s suffrage movement.  The Elks was an organization that possessed a membership of thousands of women throughout The Bahamas at that time and enjoyed considerable support for its cause.  The records show that during this period, even though women represented more than one half of the total Bahamian population, they were disenfranchised.

After multiple failed petitions in 1958 and 1959, victory finally came on January 10, 1960.  The governor at the time assented to an act to enable women to register and vote on July 31, 1961.  However, the act never came into force until 1962 and during the general election held in November, 1962, women voted for the first time in Bahamian history.

Discrimination against the Bahamian woman

Arguably women’s suffrage and consequently universal suffrage acted as springboards among other events to the attainment of majority rule in 1967 and independence from Great Britain in 1973.  The Bahamas Independence Order was made on June 20, 1973, laid before Parliament on June 26, 1973 and came into force on July 10, 1973.  While the document is hailed as being one of the best written constitutions, there are a few articles within the constitution that clearly discriminate against Bahamian women.

On September 18, 1979, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which is sometimes referred to as the International Bill of Rights for women.  The convention, which came into force in 1981, describes the discrimination against women as, “Any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field”.

The Bahamas ratified this convention on October 6, 1993, joining 186 other countries that have done so.  In ratifying the CEDAW, The Bahamas made an expressed undertaking to end discrimination against women in all forms.  However, The Bahamas has maintained reservations to three of the 30 articles of the CEDAW, and specifically Article 2(a) which embodies the principle of equality of men and women in their national constitutions or other appropriate legislation and Article 9(2) which states that women shall be granted equal rights with men with respect to the nationality of their children.

Addressing the discrepancies

The referendum held by the Free National Movement government on February 27, 2002 sought among other things to rectify the discrepancies regarding gender discrimination within the constitution.  However, more than two-thirds, or 66 percent, of some 87,961 persons voted against the proposed constitutional amendments.

On December 23, 2002, the less than one-year-old Progressive Liberal Party government led by Perry G. Christie appointed a constitutional review commission headed by Paul Adderley to propose recommendations for the amendment of the constitution.

In its preliminary report and provisional recommendations, the commission accepted the proposal to eliminate discrimination against women regarding the passage of citizenship to their children. The committee, however, expressed reservations regarding the granting of citizenship instantaneously upon marriage to non-Bahamian nationals who married Bahamians and recommended a period of five years before such grant regardless of gender.

The Christie administration from 2002 to 2007 further committed to holding a referendum on the aforesaid matters; however, 20 years later, the findings and recommendations of the committee have not been discussed or brought to a referendum.  Hence, the status quo which perpetuates discrimination against the Bahamian woman remains to date.

Celebrating the Bahamian woman

The current administration has not articulated its plans in relation to the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women in The Bahamas.  Addressing this half a century status quo will pave the way for the withdrawal of reservations to Articles 2(a) and 9(2) of CEDAW.

True celebration and appreciation of the Bahamian woman is ensuring gender equality in The Bahamas and removing any elements that make her feel like a second-class citizen and/or inferior to her male counterpart.

The women’s suffrage movement in The Bahamas formed a part of the progressive era.  Our ancestors saw the need to be progressive minded to their benefit, but more importantly for the benefit of generations to come.

While we note the progress made in our country regarding women, there is much ground to be covered.  Meanwhile the African proverb states that “if we stand tall it is because we stand on the shoulders of many ancestors”.  Today we praise the efforts of those who have gone before us; women who fought for what they believed in.

• Arinthia S. Komolafe is an attorney-at-law.  Comments can be directed at:

Jul 05, 2012