ST. VINCENT AND THE GRENADINES
St. Vincent and the Grenadines,1 an archipelago of islands in the Caribbean, was the last of the Windward Islands to gain independence in 1979. The country has a long history of multiparty democracy.2 Since 1984 politics have been dominated by the New Democratic Party (NDP), credited with the modest economic expansion the country experienced during the late 1980s. Prime Minister James F. Mitchell of the NDP was reelected to an unprecedented third term in February 1994. During the elections, however, the two opposition parties united to challenge the NDP and won three out of fifteen parliamentary seats - the NDP held all fifteen prior to the election.3
St. Vincent has a market-based economy. Bananas are the leading export product and major source of foreign exchange earnings and account for roughly sixty per cent of employment. Throughout the Windward Islands the banana industry continues to suffer from low prices on the world banana market. The Government maintains what its supporters consider to be a sensible economic development policy, attempting to diversify agricultural production and attract outside investment for joint ventures in manufacturing and agriculture. Tourism is a small but growing business, with cruise ship visitors drawn to the remote and unspoiled Grenadine Islands. Live volcanos have visited disaster several times in this century, as well as hurricanes, which destroyed most of the banana and coconut plantations twice in the 1980s.4
There is a small island elite, owners of import-export companies, banks, plantations and large-scale businesses, as well as a middle class of shopowners, some farmers, skilled craftsmen and professionals.5
St. Vincent, like other small states that depend upon primary products, is in danger of becoming increasingly marginalized. The country's efforts at promoting a Free Trade Zone, for the time being, have not succeeded, and there have been closures of factories at the industrial park which employed mostly women.
Unemployment, especially among women and the young, is a serious problem. Many people are only seasonally employed. Temporary migration within the Caribbean and to industrial countries brings in remittances which are essential to many families. As the 1994 Government report indicates, female emigration increased in the 1980's and is currently almost forty per cent higher than male emigration.
With extremely high unemployment and underemployment, population growth is a major problem. According to the National Report of St. Vincent to the Beijing Conference, teenage pregnancy is an undisputed disadvantage to Vincentian women and to the society as a whole. Although girls in St Vincent have equal access to education, statistics show that there are almost double the number of unemployed females with secondary education as males.6
VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN
Criminality and violence is increasing in the Caribbean as it is every where else, and the increase in violence against women, particularly domestic violence, is one aspect of this. As stated in the 1994 St.Vincent Government report to CEDAW, a study conducted in 1986-89 revealed that seventy-five per cent of the perpetrators of violence against women were male partners in common law relationships, fifteen per cent were husbands and ten per cent some other male relative. Victims were usually single women between the ages of thirteen and thirty-four and unemployed.
One activist attorney said that incest was the worst problem facing women and girls in St. Vincent. She felt that lack of assertiveness and self-esteem among women was a root cause. Many women give up their legal, social and moral rights to be with a man, who often has many other women. She added that most women know about the incest that is taking place, but many do nothing, or even condone it in order to appease the perpetrator. This source believes that both legal and spiritual education is necessary for women to challenge this problem.
Other sources agree that sexual abuse in the context of step-father/step-daughter relationships is a particular concern. Serial monagamy, common in St. Vincent, can lead to abuse or neglect of the children from previous marriages, particularly by the male in the current relationship, who may feel little or no responsibility toward children he has not fathered. Vincentian society is said to be both very religious and very family-oriented, so for many people incest is a very difficult subject to confront.
In 1994, the National Committee Against Violence was formed. Its purpose has been to raise awareness about domestic violence, particularly incest, spousal abuse, and abuse of step-daughters. The Committee has formed groups of three and four who visit schools to lead discussion groups and put on drama productions dealing with domestic violence. The Committee also broadcasts ten minute radio spots dealing with these issues.
1995 Domestic Violence Act
The Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act of 1984 was followed by the 1995 Domestic Violence Act. Both married and unmarried women (and men, where applicable) now have the right to legal protection and redress for domestic violence. Remedies include eviction from the home, a restraining order and maintenance payments. Because these are both civil acts, perpetrators cannot be jailed.
Women are represented by attorneys in court only if they can afford it - there are no legal aid organizations. However, individual attorneys do pro bono work at their own discretion.
Police sometimes do not report abuse to the authorities, or they return the victims to their partners. One attorney said that women themselves must take some of the responsibility for this, because the officers become apathetic when so often women do not follow through and the cases are dismissed. However, this attorney added that women often do not show up for court due to fear of physical or economic consequences, or for religious reasons. Some religious groups pressure women to remain with their partners and not to disturb the union. Nonetheless, because most police officers are men, there is a tendency to be lenient toward the mostly male perpetrators of violence against women.
Battered women's shelters
There are no battered women's shelters in St. Vincent, per se. The Marion House deals with issues relating to domestic violence and sometimes takes in victims, but by no means could respond to the general needs of domestic abuse victims. There are no half-way houses, and victims usually rely on family members to help them escape an abusive situation.
POLITICAL PARTICIPATION AND PUBLIC LIFE
According to the National Report for Beijing, women in St. Vincent have been able to attain top administrative positions, but they find that they are still not involved actively in policy and decision-making within their organizations. This is particularly true of women who are administrators within the public service. Their positions entitle them to implement rather than influence directly the formulation of policies and decisions.
The low visibility of women continues to be characteristic of Vincentian political life. In the history of electoral politics in St. Vincent, only nine women have participated in national elections, all of them candidates of the ruling party. In the most recent national election in February 1994, there were 3 women out of a total of 33 candidates. St. Vincent is among those Caribbean nations showing the lowest proportion of women electoral candidates, despite the fact that, in the last elections, women outnumbered men at the polls.
Currently two of the fifteen members of Parliament are women. The same two women hold ministerial portfolios in the current government.7
Sixty-five percent of all students are lost in the transition from primary to secondary school. It is generally agreed among IWRAW sources that there are no disproportionate educational disadvantages for girls. In fact, girls usually do better than boys throughout their schooling. Currently half of the graduates from law school, for example, are women, compared with twenty per cent two decades ago.
Nonetheless, despite the higher rate of secondary level education among females, there are almost double the number of unemployed females with secondary education as males.
Roughly half of all households in the country are female-headed. The domestic system that has evolved in St. Vincent, and in the Caribbean generally, gives very high status to the maternal role. Although a legal marriage in St. Vincent provides higher status still, bearing a child when unmarried does not necessarily make a young woman less valued. Parentage is a means of forming a household, and the process often begins for a young woman in the home of her parents. In fact, most forms of male - female relationships lead to women- headed households.
Though St. Vincent retains its traditional family system, and family influences remain very strong, youthful pregnancy in traditional Vincentian society is no longer regarded as a positive adaptation to circumstances. The resulting population increases are overtaxing the island's resources and potential for economic growth, and the interruption of education for young pregnant women negatively affects the whole society.8
According to the National Report for Beijing, the fifteen to nineteen year old age group showed a moderate decline in pregnancies when the Report was being written, but pregnancies in the ten to fourteen year old group were increasing. The Report emphasizes that teen pregnancy usually means the end of education and the beginning of forced adulthood with limited resources, which in turn tends to establish a scenario of multiple births out of wedlock with different partners, dependency and poverty.
One source says that only in rare instances is a teenage mother allowed to return to school after giving birth. (No source has mentioned the policy schools have with regard to the father of the child.) The girls can continue their education informally, for example by taking evening classes. However, sources say that most opportunities for evening studies are only available in the Kingstown area, and lack of transportation and tuition prevents many young women from attending.
Another source mentioned that the Ministry of Education is experimenting with sending girls back to school once they have given birth, although this is not widely known. It is also not known how many girls have been allowed to return to school through this programme.
Various NGOs provide a number of social service programmes, such as day care, counselling, and continuing education classes for young mothers who have dropped out of school. However, many of the skills training courses are in traditional subjects such as sewing, cake decorating, tye-dying and crochet. Sources say that more recently some NGOs are trying to provide non-traditional training as well in subjects such as electronics and welding.
The National Report for Beijing says that vocational training is lacking in too many schools in St. Vincent and that it is still too often assigned a second place in academics. School officials say that only two schools really encourage females to enter non-traditional occupations. Despite having equal access to education and being in the majority in secondary schools, girls are not sufficiently exposed to non-traditional vocational training. The two subject areas of greatest disparity in vocational schools are agriculture and industry - the two areas of greatest importance in terms of future employment.
Women dominate in the traditionally female occupations such as nursing, teaching and domestic work, all of which fall into the low-paying service sector. Despite women's dominance in the teaching profession, the majority of primary and secondary school principals are men. However, one source said that women with the requisite education are well represented in upper-level positions. (As an example she said that one out of the two High Court Judges is a woman, and one out of four of the Magistrates. At least in the judiciary, women's position is improving perceptibly.)
St. Vincent is a rural nation, and women constitute fifty-four percent of the agricultural labour force. They are mainly involved in field crop maintenance, production for home consumption, post-harvesting and marketing of cash crops. "Despite this pivotal role in agricultural production, women have comparatively little or no involvement in the policy development of agricultural organizations."9 These organizations comprise the bargaining force in the agricultural industry.
In the rural areas women also work as domestics, and many remain at home with children. Some women own their own land with their husband, but it is quite rare for an unmarried woman to own her own land. Most women work on rented land, crop-sharing, or for other landowners.
The Equal Pay Act of 1994
The Equal Pay Act of 1994 has been fairly effective, according to one source. It mainly addresses the inequities in pay between men and women in agriculture, which is where the problem of wage discrimination was most significant.
Women agricultural traders
Female agricultural traders play a major role in sustaining the non-banana agricultural export trade. A 1990 ECLAC/CDCC research project found that eighty percent of traders were women, and nearly seventy percent of them were solely dependent on income from their trading activities. The conditions of their trade are difficult and dangerous. The National Report for Beijing suggests that government could make their lives much easier at customs points and in the provision of basic facilities.
HEALTH AND FAMILY PLANNING
According to one source, the Ministry of Health is attempting to reduce youthful childbearing through public education and public health measures. Radio messages, newspaper cartoons and articles, directed to men as well as women, attempt to educate the public on the modern view of teenage pregnancy. Health clinics are equipped to distribute several types of contraceptives for women, but traditional attitudes hamper the promotion of contraceptives. Clinic nurses are directed to supply contraceptives to any girl or woman who asks for them and to advise them about birth control, but the attitude that it is not appropriate for schoolgirls to be sexually active prompts nurses either to refuse to give them contraceptives or to inform their mothers, or other persons, about their sexual activity.10
Abortion is illegal in St. Vincent, yet sources say that many clandestine abortions occur every year. A proper medical procedure is extremely expensive, so it is not an option for many women. Abortion generally receives little attention unless a woman becomes ill or dies. Doctors who perform the procedure do so in private clinics and are well known. They are not prosecuted for performing abortions.
MARRIAGE AND FAMILY LAW
The Government established the much-heralded Family Court in 1995. This Court handles all domestic cases, including incest, domestic violence and child support payments. Some men have already been jailed after convictions for incest, rape and non-payment of child support. There is a trained counsellor assigned to the Family Court who offers counselling to victims at the request of the President of the Court. Sources are optimistic, stating that the Court has been fairly successful at forcing men to take responsibility for their actions.
The Family Court currently has only one branch, located in Kingstown. Matters outside the jurisdiction of the Family Court are referred to the High Court.
The enforcement mechanisms for child support are weak. When the law is enforced, some fathers opt to pay a prescribed penalty rather than pay maintenance.
Recipient mothers must travel from rural areas to the Welfare Office in Kingstown to collect maintenance payments, which are quite low. Because there are no legal aid services in St. Vincent, only those mothers who can afford to hire an attorney, or who can obtain an attorney's services pro bono , have recourse against fathers who fail to pay maintenance.
In May, 1995, the legislature amended the child support law to allow the Court to order payments while awaiting an appeal of the court's decision.11 Previously, fathers who had been ordered to pay child support could appeal decisions, delaying payment of child support until after the appeal was heard and affirmed. This resulted in a huge backlog of appeal cases and effectively reduced the number of mothers and children receiving support payments.12
The success of the Family Court has been limited by its inability to enforce the payment of maintenance. Sources say the problem involves lack of staffing support, with only one bailiff responsible for hundreds of arrears summons. Activists are urging the government to provide at least two more bailiffs immediately, in order to carry out court orders for child support payments.13
2 United States Department of State Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1995. back
3 US Department of State back
4 United States Department of State Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1994 states that most Vincentians are the descendants of African slaves brought to the island to work on the plantations. There are also a few white descendants of English colonialists, as well as some East Indians, Carib Indians, and a sizeable minority of mixed race. The official language is English. SVG is 340 square kilometres, comprising one main island, thirty--two smaller islands and cays, with a total population in 1994 of under 120,000. back
5 Virginia H. Young, "Household Structure In A West Indian Society," Social and Economic Studies, 39:3 (1990), USA. back
6 National Report of St. Vincent and the Grenadines for the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, draft No. 3, March 1994, Kingstown, St. Vincent [hereafter National Report for Beijing]. back
7 US State Department back
8 Virginia H. Young, Becoming West Indian: Culture, Self and Nation in St. Vincent, (Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington and London, 1993), p. 155. back
9 According to the National Report for Beijing this can be attributed to women's limited access to land. For example, to qualify for membership on the executive of the St. Vincent Banana Growers Association, a farmer must sell 56.8 metric tonnes of bananas annually, the equivalent yield from 8 acres of land. To be a voting member a farmer must sell the equivalent yield from 4 acres of land. back
10 Virginia H. Young back
11 United States Department of State Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1995. back
12 US Department of State. back
13 Victor Cuffy, "Family Court in Crisis," Vincy Rights August 1996: 1-2 back
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