Commemoration of International Women’s Day Address

Address by Her Excellency Reema Carmona, First Lady of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago
Commemoration of International Women’s Day (IWD) by the Trinidad and Unified Teachers’ Association (TTUTA)

9 April 2017, Cascadia Hotel & Conference Centre

A month ago the United Nations declared the theme for International Women’s Day as, Women in the Changing World of Work: Planet 50-50 by 2030″, a bold and ambitious mandate on the road towards gender equality and parity. 2030 may be some years away, but it is imperative that as a society- everyday, in some meaningful way-  we generate the actions and promote and support the advocacy for the change that is required if we are to attain real social justice for our women. It is indeed a delightful honour to participate in and celebrate this Trinidad and Tobago Unified Teachers’ Association initiative, to commemorate International Women’s Day.
International Women’s Day is a true celebration of the audacity and resilience of the women before us, who made it their cause and duty to stand up and soldier on, in the fight to attain adult suffrage, social equality and fundamental human rights for all women. Today, we enjoy those hard fought rights that were once considered privileges.
Over the last few decades however worldwide, there have been advances in education opportunities for women and girls. Indeed, women teachers in Trinidad and Tobago occupy key roles in this profession, sit on important Boards and are on the front-lines of the cause for education in this country.
Allow me this opportunity, at the onset, to break away from the theme for just a moment to say to each teacher, educator and administrator here today- male and female- THANK YOU. Thank you, thank you, thank you for the work you do on a daily basis in educating and empowering our Nation’s children; for the long, selfless hours you put in after a long day of teaching to set out your work schedule for the next day, to mark papers, to set papers, to plan school activities; to be friends, counsellors, therapists and listeners to our school children. Having been around teachers my entire life- my husband and my aunts were teachers- I can attest to the many personal and silent sacrifices that teachers make and we salute you.
We observe International Women’s Day every year, because there exist deep, dark voids of gender inequality and women oppression and suppression in our societies that need to be remedied, all with a view to empowering our women.
Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, said, “There is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women.” The success of a democracy- indeed, any society- depends as much on the positive role and input of men as of women. In his book, ‘Long Walk to Freedom’, the late great Nelson Mandela stated matter of factly, As long as the nation refuses to acknowledge the equal role of more than half of itself, it is doomed to failure.”
Mandela further stated “The way a nation treats its women is the ultimate measure of that nation’s success.” Teachers, the discussion between empowering women and a society’s progressive development and success, are no longer moot.
Be Bold for Change is an exciting theme and motif. It speaks to not only having tea and enjoying fashion but also to the vibrancy of the intellect in us women to be given our just due. Be Bold for Change is a challenge to each and every one of us in this room to stand up and be counted, individually and collectively, not selectively, not occasionally on women’s issues and women empowerment. International Women’s Day has gone four weeks now and this ongoing conversation on Women empowerment must continue. This forum demonstrates that it is a conversation for all seasons. An opportune moment it is, for all teachers this evening, to reflect on what is possible by forging a purposeful philosophy which emanates from the staff room to the student politic. The inevitable question, for each teacher, “What is my philosophy as an individual teacher and what must be the collective philosophy of the teaching staff?” Somehow each sector must have common sustainable strands if, moving forward with a human agenda, is the desired option.
Is that not where women empowerment has to begin, given the collapsing foundation of good parenting and wholesome values that once kept us in good stead. Teachers, you have every right to be peeved, being demanded of by a sometimes uncaring public, being characterized as some roving crusader who has to save the hapless child, from either the irresponsible, uncommitted and sometimes mean-mouthed parent or parents or from a challenging environment. But, somebody has to be the crusader when all else seemingly fails. The choice is yours. Your classroom will either be a hole or a bottomless pit, if negatives are perpetuated through your teaching habits or what you teach, or a Launchpad that gives rise to international benchmark practices of civility, respect and fairness.
Given the estimate that some 70% teachers are women, women are well placed to create a society that respects women, treats women with dignity and allow women the same opportunities allotted to men especially in the workplace. Forging a working value based, must be the core of your teaching dispensation. If we are to judge from the score sheet of excellent graduating students we are producing far more brilliant women in terms of number than men. Where are they? Do they clean the corridors of power? Or are they allowed to walk freely like their male counterparts? Women empowerment ensures that the positive influence women must both be seen and felt. Your classroom must therefore not only set personal goals, but human goals in the face of the daily crises your charges face.
Let us discuss what I have termed the three “E”s of Women Empowerment: Education, Environment (and I speak here of the safety and protection of our women) and Economics.
We can all agree on the proven value of EDUCATION and the tall task with which you, teachers, are burdened, to ensure that children not only have access to education, but make proper use of the education with which they are provided. To put matters into perspective as we celebrate International Women’s Day, it is axiomatic and automatic that when you educate a girl, you empower her. And how we can forget that old African saying, “When you educate a girl, you educate a Nation.”
And what of the pivotal role of teachers in this process of empowerment? As educators, teachers empower by educating. However, educating girls will only result in empowered women, when teachers are themselves skilled and active promoters of gender equality. Just like the family and the community, teachers form the front-line of a child’s development. Teachers act not only as educators, but also as influential conduits of information and change.
You teachers, are therefore, important catalysts for women empowerment. Your frequent interface with your students, place you in the unenviable position of influence and responsibility for their actions and inactions. And yes, many times our teachers are blamed, if not directly, for the fights among young girls, in school uniforms, demeaning each other. These videos often go viral on social media and the public looks for a scapegoat. Teachers, in a society where “tolerance” is still one of our watchwords, Why this social deviance among our girls? Perhaps they are taking example from the adult women in our society, where there has been a growing phenomenon of insults, denigration and downright disrespect by women towards other women, plastered all over social media and even, in mainstream media.  This tearing down of our fellow women, needs to end and we must return to the days of tolerance and mutual respect. As teachers with the appropriate training in the art of Mediation and Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), you can empower your students to resolve conflict and disputes amicably which can be positively utilized in their adult years.
Teachers, until we realise that building positive self-image for girls needs to be woven into the fabric of our education, we are simply educating and not necessarily empowering our young girls and women to be bold for change. Being bold for change, means equipping our young girls not only with the requisite formal education, but enhancing their confidence and esteem. It will break that cycle of oppression and suppression.
No girl must be allowed to drop out of school whether through poverty, the result of domestic violence and parental divorce or teenage pregnancy if we are serious about women empowerment. If we allow it, that cycle of social violence to that demographic of the uneducated woman will continue. Women empowerment must therefore be about targeting vulnerable segments of the female demographic.
I personally feel a sense of comfort in a particular initiative sweeping the Caribbean, “The Every Caribbean Woman, Every Caribbean Child” forum of First Ladies and spouses of Heads of State are seeking to address issues facing women, children and adolescents. These challenges involve cervical cancer, prevention of mother to child HIV transmission, human trafficking, Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs), violence against women and the anachronism of child marriage. At our last forum in Georgetown, Guyana on 16th February 2017, I stated and I quote, ” As First Ladies, we must not be seen or perceived to be, or metaphorically simply walking behind our husbands remaining silent or reticent when there are challenging social issues impacting negatively on our girls, women and even our men folk. Ours must be seen as a female empowerment agenda that is transformational and progressive.” And with this mind set, I pause to rhetorically ask, if teachers, like the home, are not the immediate cultivators of women empowerment, then who are and who will be?
I turn now to the next ‘E’ of women empowerment- ENVIRONMENT. I am choosing to speak very deliberately, about this because I believe that we have a crisis of crime against women in this country, that needs to be addressed. It is no secret, that recently the reports of disappearances, gruesome murders, possible human trafficking, harassment and domestic abuse cases against our women and girls, have spiralled to the point, where it has become quite obvious that our female population no longer feels safe in our own country. We each have a duty to ensure each other’s safety and well-being. Even beyond that, teachers must be vigilant to spot the young student who may be subject to abuse or is a victim of sexual harassment, assault or psychological denigration in the home or environs. Identify, report and counsel these young girls. Let me advise, in the main, teachers are the ones who initially detect criminal offences against young girls.  We must therefore ensure by our stewardship that our young girls grow up in an environment that is safe, protected, secure and empowering.
Just a few days ago, on 6 April 2017, Phumzile Mlambo- Ngcuka, (Furm-Zile M-Lambo N-Gooka) the UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director, UN Women, said in a statement ahead of the Women’s G-7 Forum held in Rome on 7-8 April 2017:
When social norms teach boys and men to treat girls’ and women’s bodies as public property that can be touched and harmed with impunity, those beliefs both reflect and perpetuate impunity. The drive to build gender equality is a direct way to evolve economic justice, achieve sustainable development, promote peaceful, just and inclusive societies, enhance sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth and productivity, end poverty in all forms everywhere and ensure the well-being of all. This is a shared responsibility, needing action in all sectors and by everyone: private and public sectors, men and women alike.”
This brings me to my third ‘E’ under women empowerment: ECONOMICS, which directly relates to the International Women’s Day theme for 2017- empowerment of women in the workplace. Indeed, empowering women to participate fully in all aspects of economic life is essential for building strong economies and improving the quality of life for women, men, children and families across the board. As an economist myself, I can fully attest to the correlation between economics and quality of life, in a pecuniary and non-pecuniary sense. Add women to the equation, and we will all be better off for it.
Women empowerment, triggers real and progressive social transformation in any society. Take Africa’s Women Empowerment Agenda 2068, for example- it bespeaks of social progress in the context of more women being placed in the corridors of power, positing the ascendency of women in all facets of economic, social and political governance. In the Americas, President Evro Morales of Bolivia, continues to lead that charge for women and the indigenous/ First Peoples, where over 51% of persons, in the public authority and the governance structure, are women. Right here in Trinidad and Tobago, we are effecting our own changes for women empowerment in tangible ways. Since he has taken up Office, His Excellency, has made it his duty to appoint as many competent and efficient women to Commissions and Boards, under his purview, by virtue of their qualifications and experience. For the first time, the Equal Opportunity Commission is chaired and deputy-chaired by competent women; for the first time, a well-respected Howard University Professor is Chair of the Police Service Commission. The Statutory Appeals Board and Public Service Appeals Board are equally chaired by a female Jurist, a former Justice of Appeal. The Ombudsman and the President of the Industrial Court have both been reappointed by His Excellency. We still have a long way to go in Trinidad and Tobago, but I daresay, we are on the road, slowly but surely, to achieving gender equality and parity in the workplace.
In 2010, UN Women and the United Nations Global Compact introduced, for International Women’s Day, the Women’s Empowerment Principles, which were designed to support companies in reviewing existing policies and practices or establishing new ones, to realise female empowerment in the workplace. Those principles hold true today, as they did in 2010, and are as follows:

  1. Establish high-level corporate leadership for gender equality.
  2. Treat all women and men fairly at work- respect and support human rights and non-discrimination.
  3. Ensure the health, safety and well-being of all women and workers alike.
  4. Promote education, training and professional development for women.
  5. Implement enterprise development, supply chain and marketing practices that empower women.
  6. Promote equality through community initiatives and advocacy.
  7. Measure and publicly report on progress to achieve gender equality.

Teachers, these principles affect every aspect of our labour force, from the corporate world to the classroom environment to the public service. In order to achieve gender equality, in and out of the workplace, all stakeholders, need to be fully on board in the fight to change the social and employment policies that oppress or suppress women.
As educators, through your teachings and empowerment strategies, each of the 7 Women Empowerment Principles can be taught to your students from day one, how to treat each other equally and how to break down barriers of inequality and discrimination, wherever they arise.
Female empowerment- whether of the teachers or the learners- begins as much at home as it does in the classroom, in an environment of education that protects and empowers, as well as promotes equality of treatment.  As we celebrate our women today, let us remember that women empowerment has never been about emasculating the influence and power of our men, but rather, is meant to provide in our societies, a supportive, symbiotic relationship between the genders that is equal, just and fair. Men therefore, must not become cowards or be apprehensive in the face of woman power, although I have to admit, Denyse Plummer said it best, in her calypso, ‘Woman is Boss.’
It has been a tough year for teachers. You teach in the hope that your charges will not only listen but hear and pockets of student insurrection can trigger in the committed teacher, a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. What does not help is that we all know that the blame game is alive and well in Trinidad and Tobago. Do not therefore underestimate your ability and capacity to affect and impact positive change on the student fraternity.
To TTUTA and all teachers gathered here today, allow me to feminise, for the purpose of today’s celebration, what Henry Adams said, “A teacher affects eternity; SHE can never tell where her influence stops.” And because a teacher’s influence never really stops, do continue to be bold for change and lead this Nation’s children by your outstanding example as educators and conduits of engagement and empowerment.
I thank you.