THE national gender policy has been on the shelf for years. It was first drafted more than a decade ago, and last updated in 2018. Despite consistent calls for its update and implementation, very little has been done over the years to bring the draft in alignment with international human rights standards, engage technical experts across sectors, and plan for its implementation. Gender equality has been little more than a buzzword for successive government administrations which have all failed to take decisive action to move The Bahamas toward it.
Gender inequality is a reality that many continue to deny. There are those who believe women and girls have equal access to opportunities, and there are those who believe women and girls have greater access than men and boys. Sometimes overlapping with one those two groups is the group of people who are opposed to gender equality and believe that women and girls are inferior and should be subservient to men. Some of those, frankly, are the people whose quotes we read in newspapers and whose voices we hear on the news calling for intervention on some issues, such as violence against women, but failing to make the connection to the human rights we all inherently have, but do not freely access. They are a part of the problem, confusing the general public and cavorting with anti-rights actors.
While it is frustrating, it is not surprising that people are confused, opting out of the conversation, or completely opposed to human rights for women, especially when they realize that women includes people — like LBTQ+ women and migrant women — whose humanity they would prefer to deny. Interestingly, there are crises that change our environments and personal circumstances so much that we can begin to have experiences that can compare to those of the people whose realities seem far away from our own. This is a truth exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic that many still refuse to acknowledge.
In the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the time it will take to close the gender gap increased by 36 years. The gender gap is not only the differences in attitudes in and toward people of different genders in various sectors of society, but the reflection of those differences in social, political, cultural, and economic attainment.
The 2021 Global Gender Gap Report by World Economic Forum stated that it would take 135.6 years to reach parity. The 2023 Report, looking at the four dimensions of Economic Participation and Opportunity, Educational Attainment, Health and Survival, and Political Empowerment, reviewing 146 countries, stated that at the current rate of progress, it would take 131 years to reach gender parity. Countries that have closed 80% of the gap or more include Sweden, New Zealand, Nicaragua, and Namibia.
The gender gap is a direct result of gender-based violence, and to address it we have to understand that gender-based violence is not limited to interpersonal violence. It includes structural violence. The ways our laws and policies discriminate against people on the basis of gender is both violent and the perpetuation of violence. Addressing gender-based violence, including discrimination, requires legal reform and feminist policymaking, ensuring that we are anticipating and responding to the needs of the people experiencing and most likely to experience the greatest vulnerabilities.
International mechanisms have been helpful for international non-governmental organizations, national non-governmental organizations, governments, and advocates, setting human rights standards, monitoring and reviewing State progress, and making clear, specific recommendations to States. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) are examples of mechanisms through which The Bahamas has received concrete recommendations the include the development and implementation of a gender policy.
A meeting, framed as a consultation on the gender policy, was cobbled together by the Department of Gender and Family Affairs and held last week. The scheduling of the meeting was consistent with previous meetings hosted by the department which not only consistently lacks technical expertise on human rights issues, but does not seem to have anyone adept at managing technological aspects of hybrid or virtual meetings and has a complete lack of respect for the people it claims to want to engage and their schedules. In the first instance, an email invitation was sent on a Friday for a meeting scheduled for Monday, only one business day in advance. It was later postponed and said to be a virtual meeting.
When the meeting began, it was clear that some representatives of non-governmental organizations were in the room, raising questions about the supposed hybrid format and the ability of some to breach boundaries set by the department itself. There seemed to be technical difficulties as those of us online were not able to hear the representatives of the Department of Gender and Family Affairs and everyone in the room had to use the screen and microphone of one computer rather than a proper video conferencing system to interact with those of us who were online.
The Bahamas is fortunate to have experts with international human rights experience who can lead these processes, and the government should ensure that they are engaged and provided with all of the necessary support to efficiently undertake their work. It is nearly impossible to work on a project of this magnitude without true partnership with the relevant government departments. It did not appear, at the meeting, as though the department was prepared to meaningfully participate. Even when invited to speak, to answer questions, and to provide clarification, the representative of the department refused and it was baffling.
The consultant engaged (by an institution that is not the Government of The Bahamas) to produce the gender policy made it clear that she wanted to engage with non-governmental organizations and receive recommendations on strategies that need to be included in the policy. The participants in the meeting, however, were not all non-governmental organization representatives. It quickly became clear that the invitation had somehow been shared with people who have no interest in gender equality or human rights, much less a consultative meeting on the development of a gender policy. Their sole aim was to disrupt the meeting with poorly articulated questions (which were largely hostile toward trans and intersex people), offensive outbursts, personal attacks, and religious fundamentalist rhetoric. The Department of Gender and Family Affairs obviously had no IT specialist or even an administrative assistant in the room to manage the meeting by monitoring the chat and muting microphones as was desperately needed.
When attendees were invited to share their recommendations, the ridiculous questions poured in. One of the first was, “What is the [categories] of boys?” The person noted that the consultant said the gender policy would address issues affecting women and girls and men and boys, and said this led him to question who is included in these groups. Following his refusal to articulate exactly what he was unsure of and what he wanted explained, other people starting asking similar questions until someone finally made a disgusting statement, misgendering transgender people, and it was understood that these people wanted to exclude transgender and intersex people. To be clear, this is not about saying that they do not like or approve of transgender or intersex people — which is a serious problem and irrelevant to the government’s obligation to protect, promote, and ensure access to human rights for those people — but about their assertion that transgender people and intersex people should be denied human rights, including equal protection under the law and, by extension, policy.
Throughout the meeting, people refused to offer recommendations, choosing to proselytize with misinformation and inaccuracies about the constitution, The Bible, and the relationship between the two. They also hyper-focused on the timeline for the project and the reason — a loan to the government that has a gender policy as requisite — that it is now being prioritized. At no point did anyone from the Department of Gender and Family Affairs intervene in order to refocus the meeting or state the position of the government which, at the very least, must be that is obligated to guarantee access to human rights for everyone and that gender is an identity marker that has been and continues to be used to discriminate and to curtail access to and the enjoyment of rights and this is the basis upon which a gender policy is deemed necessary.
The day after the meeting, an inflammatory text message and voice note was circulated on WhatsApp by a religious misleader who made absurd claims about the meeting. He outright lied about both the purpose of the gender policy and the purpose of the loan. He sent this message, as though a warming, to be shared widely, inciting hate with LGBTQI+ people as the target. Just as disturbing as the religious misleader’s determination to upset people with his deception is the ease with which people believe and share absolute nonsense, seeking no verification.
The meeting held last week was doomed due to poor management of the Department of Gender and Family Affairs. The most recent draft of the gender policy was not provided to everyone who was invited to attend the meeting. The invitation itself obviously went to more than just nongovernmental organizations, turning it into a chaotic town hall meeting which is not the same as consultation. People were allowed into the meeting when they should have been a part of separate meetings, such as a meeting for the religious misleaders. There can be no productive consultation with scores of people, especially without guidelines for participation and at least one person dedicated to moderation. Those who were repetitively disruptive should have been warned and subsequently removed from the meeting.
Equality Bahamas has, for years, called for the development a national gender machinery, and highlighted that it is required to be at the highest level of government—not a department. The Department of Gender and Family Affairs has yet to be properly resourced with the human and financial resources required to lead the country on issues of gender. The Government of The Bahamas has yet to acknowledge its obligations to the people of The Bahamas the way it has in international spaces such as the United Nations. It continues to use gender, in particular, when it is convenient, and refuse to even use the word when it fears it could lose votes in the next election. As the young people say, this government is very unserious. If only we, the people, could demonstrate our seriousness, especially when it comes to human rights for everyone, without distinction.