First, I wish to heartily thank the Speaker of the Gauteng Branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association for nominating me, and the Saint Lucia Branch of the Caribbean Region for seconding my nomination, when I stood for election as Chairperson of the Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians during the Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference in Nairobi, Kenya, in September. I shall be eternally grateful to the Members of these two Branches for considering me worthy of this very important position.

I am a mother of three and grandmother of five (so far). I was born on the tiny Caribbean island of Dominica where the current population is about 71,000 people. I have passed more than 60 summers on this Earth. I have not only absorbed and learned from the many, many experiences that have come my way, but I have also created quite a few experiences of my own.  I have learned well and I continue to learn as I go along.

I have sat in Parliament as Speaker of the House for the past 10 and a half years. I have had the great fortune to have interacted with many internationally known women in the forefront of the “women’s movement”, as it used to be known. I have addressed two Inter-Parliamentary Union Speakers’ Conferences at the United Nations; and for two successive years, I have attended the Women Parliamentarians and Women Speakers Conferences at the United Nations.  I have been a facilitator or attendee at many workshops and seminars locally, regionally and internationally covering a range of women’s issues, all with the intention of empowering and uplifting women.

I have spent the greater part of my life as a hands-on advocate of women’s and children’s rights, working with and defending the rights of abused women and children. I have come to be known as the “battered women’s lawyer”, a label which, in spite of the pejorative intent, I proudly wear.  I work in the trenches and know at firsthand how domestic violence destroys families.  I fully recognize this is a plague from which we must deliver families once and for all.

In 1998, while not yet a Parliamentarian, I assisted in the passage of the Sexual Offences Act in my country and, after I was in Parliament, I assisted in the preparation of the Domestic Violence Bill.  I have also been instrumental in making progressive amendments to the Maintenance Act of my country.


Changing cultures

There are as many issues confronting women of the Commonwealth as there are cultural differences. But as has been said so many times before, it is these cultural differences that make the Commonwealth grouping as unique as it is strong. However, we need as a group to sensitize ourselves not only to the issues facing the women and children of our cultures but of other cultures as well. The saying “who feels it, knows it” therefore has to become “who knows of it must deal with it”. Issues such as HIV and AIDS, poverty and the low wages of women, genital mutilation, human trafficking, child labour, domestic violence, child abuse and better education for children especially girl children are just a few of the issues to be tackled. These and other such issues affecting mainly women and girls are usually presented to Parliaments mainly by women!

We all know that the most effective way of ensuring that these issues come to Parliament at all and receive the level of attention they deserve is to encourage more women all over the Commonwealth to become more involved in the political process in their country. But it is also clear that that this is easier said than done.

It may well be then, that the biggest challenge facing Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians is to persuade more women of the Commonwealth to stand for elections in spite of the barriers – real and imagined – that may stand in their way.  We have already overcome these barriers.


Effective strategies

In recognition of this need, the CPA Caribbean, Americas and Atlantic Region is currently preparing a module for “Strategies for Attracting more Women into Politics” along the following lines:

  • Mentoring,
  • Motivating and
  • Mobilizing.

All women Parliamentarians have probably had a role model, a mentor who inspired us to arrive at the point we are at today.  I have the honour to claim as my mentor Dame Mary Eugenia Charles, first female Prime Minister of Dominica, the Caribbean and the western hemisphere. She became Prime Minister in 1980 and was Prime Minister for 15 years. Now, just as we were inspired and whether we recognize it or not, the young women – and the older ones too – watch us and take their cue from us.

As women leaders we have a duty to build on that situation and become advocates for these women. That duty consists of speaking to young persons, both boys and girls, not just whenever the opportunity permits, but also creating opportunities to do so.  I say girls because we desire to motivate them, and boys because we need to encourage them to rethink the traditional mindset.

Mobilizing involves: persuading political parties to adopt targets for gender  representation; getting women’s groups and other non-governmental organizations to hold leadership workshops with the objective of preparing women to become part of the political process; persuading male parliamentary colleagues to accept more women in Parliament and doing whatever is necessary to accommodate women to get into Parliament; preparing society at large to accept women in politics more readily, and developing the idea that it is the norm.


Realizing a dream

Like the world-famous American civil rights leader, Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, I have a dream:

  • My dream is to see every woman in the Commonwealth and the world being sufficiently empowered to achieve her maximum potential;
  • I have a dream that girls all over the world will have the same educational opportunities as boys;
  • I have a dream that girl babies would have as great a chance of survival as boy babies;
  • I have a dream that no longer will women have to work twice as hard to get half as far;
  • I have a dream that women will earn the same wages as men for doing the same job;
  • I have a dream that every Parliament in the world will be made up of 50 per cent women and 50 per cent men;
  • I have a dream that by the year 2015 women will be truly equal to men in every sense of the word, and
  • I have a dream that the Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians will be the chief catalyst for the realization of these dreams.

Our previous Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians Chairpersons have held our hands and brought us thus far with their charismatic leadership and hard work. I will endeavour to take Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians to the next level and beyond. I pledge to work closely with my sister women Parliamentarians, with the CPA Executive Committee and Regional Executive Committees as well as with all Branches to prepare and execute projects and programmes to accomplish the targets set by the CWP under my leadership, targets well in keeping with the Millennium Development Goals.