The Inaugural Gender Equality Forum: A Landmark Event at SIDS4

By Dr. Jan Yves Remy

The inaugural Gender Equality Forum (GEF) held on May 25-26 in Antigua and Barbuda was a monumental event organized by the UN Women Multi-country Office (Caribbean) and the Caribbean Development Bank as a prelude to the SIDS4 Conference. It brought together women and men representing each region of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) – from the Asia-Pacific, Africa and the Caribbean – and included representatives from government, parliamentarians, the private sector, academia and civil society.  The aim was to provide space for those often marginalized, such as indigenous women, youth, persons living with disabilities and older persons to contribute to solutions on critical issues that contribute to indebtedness and insecurity such as violence against women and girls, unpaid care work, inclusive access to finance and gender responsive climate resilience and disaster response.

Given my various roles intersecting trade and gender – as a Co-lead of the Remaking Trade Project that focuses on more inclusive trade policies, Co-Chair of the Women in Trade T20 Task Force at the G20, founding and Board Member of Caribbean Women in Trade (CWIT), and editor of a book on Trade Policy and Gender Equality – I felt deeply honored to participate in this groundbreaking Forum, which I saw as an opportunity to bridge gaps and promote gender parity.

Highlights of the Forum

This first GEF was a remarkable experience, despite the unfortunate rain on the second day, which led to the postponement of some activities. One of the highlights for me was the presence of the President of the Commonwealth of Dominica, Honourable Sylvanie Burton, a woman of indigenous origin from the Kalinago Territory and the first to hold that office in the country’s history. Dominica’s strides towards gender parity in politics were evident, especially post-Hurricane Maria, showing that political commitment can lead to significant policy advancements. The country seems to be ahead in achieving the Beijing Declaration’s goal of hitting 30% representation of women in elective and appointive positions, aiming instead for 50% to match the population’s gender distribution. (The country currently leads the English-speaking Caribbean region with almost 40% of parliamentary seats being held by women)

The Forum underscored the necessity of integrating women into all aspects of peacekeeping and security operations, with a focus on Haiti. By doing so, peacekeeping missions can be more inclusive, responsive, and effective. The harsh reality is that women are underrepresented on the Transition Council in Haiti, highlighting a significant gap and missed opportunity. This exclusion undermines the effectiveness of peacekeeping efforts, as women’s perspectives and needs are crucial for sustainable peace and security.

The words of a participant resonated strongly with me: “Leadership is passion, not biological.” This sentiment was reflected in the discussions around the need for women in key positions at all levels. Leaders like Dr. Dessima Williams (President of the Senate of Grenada), Honourable Professor Emerita Eudine Barriteau (former UWI Cavehill Campus Principal), and Elizabeth Riley (Head of CDEMA), along with the incoming Chair of AOSIS, exemplify this type of leadership that we all celebrated.

A recurring theme was the crucial role of data. Collecting data is not just for the sake of having it, but as a basis for advocacy. The demand for data is evident, and work with countries like the Maldives, which invested $7 million in data collection, shows the importance of having accurate data to inform policy and advocacy efforts. Financial inclusion data is particularly vital, as seen in initiatives by Bermuda and the Bahamas to provide collateral to women who often use their personal savings to underwrite risks.

I was particularly happy to see an impromptu invitation provided to young women volunteers from the University of the West Indies (UWI) to contribute their thoughts and perspectives about the Forum. Additionally, women from the Pacific and Caribbean who had been invited to showcase their products at the Forum were invited to share their views and experiences, highlighting the importance of all women in shaping the GEF Agenda. This inclusive approach ensured that the voices of those directly impacted by gender and trade policies were heard and valued and exemplified another one of the resonant messages of the Forum, attributed to President Burton: “Nothing for us, without us.”

Revitalizing SIDS Economies with a Focus on Gender

Two areas that were notably absent from the Forum, but which I care deeply about, are trade and the importance of academic work. Empowerment is incomplete without trade, and academic work translates into necessary research and training, both areas that are lacking in the region. Tonni Brodber, Head of UN Women Caribbean and organizer of the Forum, co-authored with me a chapter in our Gender Equality and Trade Policy publication highlighting the Caribbean’s underperformance compared to other regions that have integrated gender considerations into their trade policies and international agreements.

The trade agenda of the Caribbean is increasingly driven by sustainability, focusing on knowledge-based services, digitalization, and green goods. Women play an important part in advancing this agenda and still require inclusive policies to ensure their participation, and in turn make CARICOM SIDS more resilient. Work done by UNCTAD exemplifies how integrating gender considerations can lead to significant economic and environmental benefits. Women in the Caribbean have been pioneering efforts in seaweed farming, which not only provides a sustainable livelihood but also contributes to climate resilience. Seaweed farming offers multiple benefits: it requires minimal land use, helps mitigate coastal erosion, and acts as a carbon sink. Women leading these initiatives are not only enhancing their economic status but are also contributing to broader environmental goals. The seaweed sector thus serves as a model for how gender and trade can intersect to drive sustainable development.

Key Takeaways and Future Goals

One of the outcomes of the GEF is that we actually invest in gender-based research, data collection, and transformative initiatives that recognize where women sit in the spectrum of trade policies, obtain greater access to finance, and network more among themselves to increase their confidence and opportunities in overseas markets. We at the SRC are working to provide more training and obtain grants for research to conduct this work, and members of CWIT, a cross-regional NGO for all CARICOM women, are dedicated to advancing and empowering women through trade.

Despite some claims that the Draft Communique that will be transmitted for the consideration of the SIDS4 was not strong enough, I was encouraged by the undeniable show of camaraderie among and across my fellow sisters in SIDS. It is my hope that the discussions and actions from this Forum will continue to drive progress towards gender equality in the Caribbean and beyond.

Jan Yves Remy, PhD is the Director of the Shridath Ramphal Centre for International Trade Law, Policy and Services, UWI, Cave Hill Campus.