Portia Simpson Miller

Keynote Speech at the Annual Summit of the Women in Parliaments Global Forum - Nov. 27, 2013

Portia Simpson Miller
November 27, 2013— Brussels, Belgium
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Madam Chairperson
The chair of the African Union
My sister, honourable Zuma
Heads of government
Members of government
Ladies and gentlemen
Organizers of this wonderful conference

It is a distinct honor for me to have been invited to address you at this important forum. The work of the European Union has demonstrated leadership in the advocacy for gender equality. The adoption last year of three major reports on gender and governance by the European Parliament demonstrates that the EU remains committed to the empowerment of women.

Whether by coincidence or by design, your event follows on Monday's International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. I take this opportunity to recognize the 16 Days of Activism for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and share my delight that this global forum falls most appropriately in the middle of their commemoration.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Madame Navi Pillay, reminded us recently that violence against women remains one of the greatest scourges of our time, lurking around virtually every street corner. Abuse, poverty, domination, and lack of opportunity often causes many of our sisters worldwide to believe that they cannot raise their heads, voices, or aspirations to political expectations.

As we deliberate, we must examine the issue of female leadership style that addresses policies that are geared towards increasing awareness about combating and ultimately eliminating all gender-based violence.

Ladies and gentlemen, today, we, as women leaders, converge to reassess our understanding of leadership and to consider how female leadership can reshape our contemporary societies with their attendant development challenges.

In this forum there will be some deliberation on the lamentably low levels of participation of women in representational politics globally.You will also no doubt explore the differences that can and have been made by female leadership.

Great strides have been made towards increasing the numbers of female leaders globally and validating female leadership as authentic. Across the world over time, women like Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, Margaret Thatcher, legendary female leaders of Sri Lanka, Philippines, and Portugal paved the way for female world leaders. In the Caribbean, as young aspiring leaders we also held in high regard the first woman prime minister of a Caricom nation, the late Dame Eugenia Charles of Dominica.

I use this platform to honor the women who blazed trails, often at great personal cost, to create a world in which female political leadership would not continue to be an exception but a valid expectation.

These women refused to be defined by the constraints that sought to confine them, particularly in the realm of politics. The constraints associated with gender, class, and racial conventions of their time succeeded in keeping many below the proverbial glass ceiling through which they were free to look but few could transcend.

I took a decision that no matter what, in Jamaica, I was going to smash that glass ceiling. I felt that the time was right that a woman should rise to the challenge and not only talk about issues affecting women, children and men, but to be able to do something about it. Ladies and gentlemen, thirty years on, our small Caricom group has benefited from the efforts of at least 30 women, serving either as heads of government or heads of state. We currently have two female heads of government and three heads of state in our region. Not enough, but we are working at it.

In Jamaica, significant strides have since been made in improving the status and involvement of women in all spheres, including economic and political empowerment. Through successive policies over decades, many injustices and inequities faced by women have also been addressed.

As Jamaica’s first female prime minister, I see myself as opening a door, smashing that proverbial glass ceiling in order to let many of my younger sisters through. I often point to the song sung by Jamaican reggae artist, Tony Rebel, who sings: “Be careful what you teach the little children. Make sure it is not something to hurt them. Mind what you say to my daughter, she could become your doctor. Mind what you say to my sister, she could become the next prime minister.” And this was done before I became prime minister.

Jamaica can proudly showcase women in key leadership positions such as the chief justice of Jamaica, appointed when I became prime minister the first time. And we now have the director of public prosecutions, woman. Also in education. In the education system, most of the educators are women and in health, the health sectors, primarily, as well as several successful businesswomen and professionals.

Colleagues, each of us came to the position of leadership through different journeys. Some have come consequent to a radical feminist standpoint. Some became involved through participation in grassroots movements. Others may have simply felt like Eugenia Charles did; that women had the right to do what they wanted to do. Despite this, there are still six parliamentary chambers in the world today having absolutely no women members.

Globally, there's an insufficiency of women political leaders. A more careful examination of the statistics certainly lists its cause for concern. As of January 31, 2013, globally the average share of women in parliament stood at only 20.4 percent. This was an increase from 19.6 in January 2012 due to, in many instances, the introduction of systems of quota. And those quotas are serving, in some countries.

Colleagues, 20.4 percent is still a far cry from the 40 percent ideal advocated by the millennium development goals; calls for women's roles and rights to be considered as decision makers in the formal economy and development. Consequently, we must establish a template which overcomes the subtle and diverse structural barriers to create governance and development agendas that are sustainable. Lead to a visible change in gender equality, have an impact on the political context, represents an innovative approach and can be replicated.

Former president of Chile Bachelet, who also headed UN Women, asserts that when one woman is a leader it changes her, when more women are leaders, it changes policies and politics. In a New York times bestseller, writer Dee Dee Meyers, former White House press secretary, challenged her readers with a provocative and bold book entitled “Why Women Should Rule The World.”

Miss Meyers argues that when the contribution of women to politics is taken into account, it becomes clear that they bring a different perspective to their jobs. They also pay attention to a broader set of issues. They acknowledge that women, she acknowledged that women leaders do not focus exclusively on traditional women's issues nor do they necessarily define themselves as womanist or feminist. Generally and fundamentally, women leaders initiate and fight for bills that champion social justice, environmental protection, and fight for families.

Their perspective have great bearing on the economy, international relationships, and all the issues that affect the citizens of their country on a daily basis. Women life experiences are essentially and enduring different from men.

In the here and now, as women leaders in the midst of global financial crisis, we must avoid some of the traditional mistakes of political leadership. We have to be mindful of while balancing the books, we balance people's lives. If women are not at the decision-making table, their long-term impact is negligible. The first task, therefore, is to get more women to the table.

We must also recognize the valuable input that many male leaders have made in the empowerment and advancement of both men and women in societies.

I’ll never forget when I was called by former prime minister Michael Manley, now deceased, as a young parliamentarian, and appointed me minister of labor, social security, women's affairs, and sports. The critics said she couldn't manage, she did not have the experience. And I demonstrated to the country that I took the Ministry of Labor at a time when every day there was strikes here and there, and when I left the Ministry of Labor, no more strikes, created a stable industrial relations environment in Jamaica that is lasting up to now.

I was then assigned by P.J. Patterson to the Ministry of Tourism, Entertainment, Sport and Women's Affairs and then to Local Government, Community Development, Sport and Women's Affairs.

And so I'll never forget that while I am in the position I am in my country, that I am to take other women along the journey with me and I am doing just that. I have one young female in the—I have two young women in the office of the prime minister as ministers. I assigned her the responsibility for sport. Will you stand, Natalie? And the other two, information and women's affairs. Because of press week she could not join us, she could not be here and we asked Natalie to be here instead.

And so, as female leaders we have a responsibility, not only to talk about the issues affecting women, but to influence the change that we would like to see. Better seek to forge a new path in the arena of leadership that is inclusive of our gendered reality.

Perhaps the time has come for women leaders, especially those of us who lead developing and post-colonial societies, to make concerted efforts to recapture the essence of the lives of our courageous foremothers. We must never forget their struggles and their work. And today we are standing on their shoulders. We must be woman and courageous woman. And we need not apologize that we are women.

We should be proud. Every man on this earth are here because of a combination of partnership man and woman, together. Women of our time and women for all time. And we must also bear in mind, as it is said, women hold up half the sky. I say no, women hold up all the sky. I hope that all of us can find the courage to do the things that must be done to have a lasting impact on a world that should be prosperous, peaceful, and just to all our citizens.

Every time they take a board to cabinet meetings, and I look at it and I ask, “So where are the women?” Take it back to me when I can see some women represented on the board.

And so I stand before you, a girl from a deep rural community in Woodhall, Saint Catherine in Jamaica, who walked through the fire to become prime minister of Jamaica. Because when a woman stands for leadership, she's always treated differently from the men and face much more criticism. But you know what—I never looked back. I always look up and look forward and try to move forward.

And I encourage female leaders, never listen too much to the critics. Constructive criticisms, yes, we must pay attention to, but we must never pay too much attention to the critics or we might begin to think negatively ourselves. Always remain focused and positive about what we are doing and what we are about. It has not been an easy road. We have come a long way. And we still have a long way to go.

I urge women of our world to bring your womanhood to leadership. Do not be ambivalent about it. That is your strength, it is who you are and who you must be for your people. I give you strength from a Jamaican poet, Jean Wilson, pleads with us to stop smalling up ourselves in her poem “No More Smalling Above Me.” For those without fluency in the Jamaican patois, that means stop acting as if you are less than who you are. Start showcasing your talents. How? She says, no more living in this person barricaded by my fears, no more turning and retreating in the face of new frontiers.

And so, I say to you, onward and upward, women in parliaments, as we seek to be the best women leaders we can be for our nations and our people. One love. And if we all unite and work together in one love, I am sure everything will be all right.

Thank you, blessings.

Women Political Leaders. “Speech by Portia Simpson Miller at the WIP Annual Summit.” YouTube video, 21:03. Dec. 5, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qQVhMx8rUg4