International Women’s Day is a marker in our calendars to cause us to pause and recognise the accomplishments of women and girls.

This year I felt it was important to salute the political trailblazer who stood up in 1971 to pave the way for 30 of us to follow in her footsteps. Millicent Mercer, also known as “Ms. Milli,” showed courage and fortitude in an era when stereotypes and discrimination were widespread against a woman’s involvement in the Virgin Islands’ political landscape. Fifty years later, gender stereotypes have been challenged, but we need to continue to break the biases.

I encourage both men and women to keep working towards a society that is diverse, equitable and inclusive, and that supports our young women in making their contribution in our families, economy, government, religion, education, media and the arts.


Progress made

It is also a time to reflect on progress that has been made and where more is needed. For us to have a gender-equal world, it is important to first say that the rise of women is not about the fall of men. Women and girls represent half of the world’s population, and therefore half of its potential. But gender inequality persists everywhere and stagnates social progress. According to the organisation United Nations Women, the largest global gender gap is in all levels of political leadership, with 26.1 percent of 35,500 parliament seats filled by women.

Other biases that exist are that women and girls are expected to do most of the domestic work in the home, and in some countries women and girls are deprived of health care or proper nutrition, leading to high mortality rates.


VI gender baps

Locally, we have several gender gaps. Politically, less than 25 percent of the House of Assembly representatives are women. Since 1950, when the Legislative Council was reinstated, eight women have been elected as representatives, and three served as ministers.

Economically, one gap is that single-parent households are disproportionately led by women. Another is that men are paid more than women for equal work. This difference is especially significant in the lower income brackets, which could lead to more families falling into poverty with current unemployment levels.

A national census is overdue for us to get a true picture of what we are dealing with, and what countermeasures are needed to promote gender equality and mitigate against poverty in the short- and long-term. Also, it is important that we collect statistics consistently in between censuses so we can monitor trends and identify problems early. We cannot solve a problem that we do not know exists.


‘In the meantime’

What can we do in the meantime? Firstly, we as women need to raise our awareness and call out gender stereotypes and discrimination. We must learn to give each other room to live, and teach our girls to do the same. We should promote being our sister’s keeper and celebrate one another’s successes.

Most importantly, remember we are not competitors but collaborators with our men. To our brothers, we ask that you educate one another on how you can support the women and girls in your lives to realise their full potential.

Let us work to have a gender-equal mindset and break the cycles of sexism and double standards that treat women as an afterthought. There is room for all of us at the table.

A generation ago, domestic violence and child abuse were sadly tolerated by a silent majority because of narrow-minded beliefs that men could dominate and control women and girls. Uncomfortable but necessary conversations are crucial to solve these social ills if we want a healthy and balanced society.

Let us unite for “gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow” and embrace women and girls becoming change-makers in our beautiful Virgin Islands!