FULL CSW59 SPEECH: “I Stand Unequivocally and Unapologetically for Equality”

Noelle Khalila Nicolls Gender Equality 0 Comments

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Prepared remarks for CSW 59/Beijing+20, Parallel Event “Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights”. 

The Bahamas has been locked in a campaign for constitutional equality for over 14 years. Citizens for Constitutional Equality (CCE) is an association of civil society individuals and organizations who stand unequivocally for gender equality and are committed to public education and advocacy to ensure the affirmative passage of a referendum in the Bahamas that will formalize constitutional equality. We are a non-partisan, non-sectarian, non-governmental organisation that is directed by a volunteer Steering Committee. 

The CCE is committed to strengthening women’s collective action by building a strong network of advocates who recognize, for the equality referendum to pass it requires those of us who support equality to stand unequivocally and unapologetically for what we believe.

We formed out of a training workshop last year covering the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). This happened to coincide with the government’s tabling of a new constitutional referendum bill that intends to make discrimination on the basis of sex unlawful in the Bahamas. The activists who were involved in this training felt inspired to organize and build a common strategy to assist in public education and advocacy.

We mobilized around the following shared beliefs:

  1. Civil society had to be mobilized to combat the spread of fear, doubt and confusion that would inevitably be brought about by doubters, detractors, religious fanatics, and misogynists.
  2. There needed to be strength in unity. A civil society alliance would be an effective structure to pull together all of the mutually invested groups.
  3. We felt very strongly that equality should not be a partisan political victory. It should be a victory for the Bahamas. To mitigate the risks posed by partisan politics, there needed to be a strong civil society voice involved in advocacy around the referendum.

The vision is that once we are successful with the referendum initiative we would have developed a strong alliance that can mobilize collection action for future activities and campaigns of mutual interest.

The law in the Bahamas as it relates to citizenship is a web of irregularity. Children born outside of the Bahamas can only obtain Bahamian citizenship if the father is Bahamian; if the mother is Bahamian, she must be unmarried. Bear in mind, only 27 countries worldwide prevent mothers from passing nationality to their children on an equal basis with fathers. Bahamian men on the other hand must be married if they wish to transfer citizenship to their children. When it comes to foreign spouses, Bahamian women simply have no right to transfer their citizenship.

If it all sounds confusing and doesn’t make any sense to you, I promise, it’s not because you weren’t keeping up. It is because there is disorder to the rhyme and a lack of reason in the reasoning. Our nationality laws straight up discriminate on the basis of sex.

The constitutional referendum is set up to amend the discrimination clause to make it unlawful to discriminate on the basis of sex, and to address those specific areas in the constitution that do discriminate on this basis, namely the sections related to nationality rights. Equal tights is the exclusive issue being tackled in the current reform.

This is our second attempt and I must tell you, the jaws of defeat are fighting even harder this time to deny women this advancement. The Bahamas is assumed to be a liberal democracy, but we are actually very socially conservative. The referendum has brought out every doubter, detractor, religious fanatic and misogynist that you can think of.

I will spare you the oppressive details, because I am sure you know all of the arguments as to why women are a lesser sex. But I want to touch on the fact that since the referendum has come into the public domain, it has not adequately rallied those who say they support equality; those who profess to be women’s rights defenders. This is a major challenge. We expect to be confronted by those who do not support equality, but we also facing a disengaged civil society, public apathy and cynicism, and distrust of government and the referendum process. A major part of our advocacy is to try to inspire and engage those persons who do believe in equality but are withdrawn from the process for other tangential reasons.

What we hear from a lot of supporters is a lot of “buts”: Of course I support equal rights, BUT… BUT is this the right time? BUT I still think the referendum is not going to pass! BUT what about the process? BUT what about the and what the pastor says? BUT is this really a priority?

We have far too many men and women who say they support equality and are filled with apology. It is one of the things that is costing the movement, because until the voices of women are united, until the voices of women’s rights defenders and equal rights advocates are strengthened, the agenda will be set by those men and women who do not support equality. People who do not support equality and are not willing to stand up for equality are shaping public opinion and public policy.  

We call on everyone who supports equality to overcome their public apathy; to put aside their cynicism and distrust and get engaged so that we can shape a future built on a foundation of mutual respect and inclusion of women and men.

Equal Rights is a matter of social justice, and we are all familiar with the saying that justice delayed is justice denied. So while we take refuge behind the perceived inconvenience of the moment, our detractors are diligently working to stop and even reverse the progress that our foremothers and forefather fought so hard and sacrificed so much to achieve.

For example, we actually have public advocates for revoking constitutional rights on the issue of passing one’s nationality to a spouse. These detractors detest the idea of equality so much they prefer to revoke the rights currently granted to men. This, they say, will bring about equality, never mind that it is an equal state of disenfranchisement. I say this to emphasize that forces are working not only to block the progress, but also to reverse the gains that have been made over generations to expand our blank of rights.

We must not be pacified by our sense of progress and prosperity.  Equality is the calling of our time, and we must act with stridency.

Much of our advocacy is about communicating this message to our leaders: political, civic and youth leaders. If they support equality, as they say they do, then we call on them to demonstrate that political and public will. Collectively, we cannot be swayed by detractors who advocate for some undefined, non-existent time in the future to take up the mantle of women’s rights, to demand equal rights.

Equality deals with the dismantling of systems of unfair advantage that have been institutionalized over time, and taking on entrenched cultural attitudes; it is a dogged fight, as is any fight to reshape power structures. The Bahamas, being a country with a majority of African descended people, should appreciate this, and we know that as a people we have been successful in overcoming before.

When the leaders of the Women’s Suffrage movement in the Bahamas fought for the vote, there were many women and men who did not support them. They were content with women being voiceless. However, the suffragettes banded together those who were courageous enough to believe and they fought. They built a movement that eventually enfranchised women, and also led to the dismantling of a major power structure that was upholding racial discrimination in the Bahamas against women and men.

The Bahamas in fact has many success stories to draw from. Bahamians have been involved in consensus building regionally and internationally from 1975, when we celebrated the International Year of the Woman. We were one of the first countries in the region to pass sexual harassment legislation for the workplace; we have an “equal pay for equal work” clause in the Employment Act; we define rape in a gender neutral way. The Bahamas Crisis Centre, one of our members, is one of the oldest regional institutions providing support services.

Yes we have come from far, but we have far yet to go. And we are called to act because power concedes nothing without demand.

For our men there is more work to be done. Bahamian men are still trapped in narrow rigid constructs of masculinity; young boys believe men have a right to discipline their girlfriends and wives; grown men believe that being the head of their household means they are also the head of my household and every other woman’s household, and that their wives have no right to a voice.

For our women there is more work to be done. We may have female members of parliament; more girls in schools; and some women in leadership in public and private sectors, but these are only formal markers of equality.

They say, what more do women want? As per the Beijing Declaration and Plan of Action, we want substantive equality: complete freedom to fulfill our destinies without being discriminated against because we are women.

  • –          Have we mainstreamed gender as the Beijing Declaration compels us to do?
  • –          Have we made the sexual harassment laws work for women in the workplace?
  • –          Have we changed the perceptions, attitudes and behaviours that condone and justify violence against women and girls?
  • –          Have we provided adequate security and support services for women and girls who are victims of violence…for women and girls in poverty?
  • –          Have we addressed the issues faced by rural women in the country?
  • –          Have we challenged the systems that police women’s bodies?
  • –          Have we advanced women’s reproductive rights?
  • –          Are women allowed to divorce their husbands if they have irreconcilable differences?
  • –          Have we promoted equal decision-making in households?
  • –          Have we strengthened women’s collective action?
  • –          Have we eliminated spousal rape?
  • –          Have we defended the human rights of migrant women?

These are just some of the indicators of substantive equality.

The reform of our nationality laws will be ONE formal indicator of our advancement along the continuum of progress, but the CCE is very firm that the entire journey, which includes reaching the constitutional equality milestone, is to realise substantive equality.

About Nationality Reform

Currently, there is no date for the constitutional referendum. The government says it supports equality (and when I say government I am referring to the majority party and the opposition collectively), but we have no date and no knowledge of when the date is going to be set. So you can imagine as a civil society organization engaged in public education and advocacy, it is a challenge mobilizing a campaign, mobilizing resources when we don’t know when we are going to vote: whether it is going to be in three months, six months of three years. There is a political context that has to do with the timing of general elections and other political factors that are all impacting the decision around a date.

In our analysis, the government may be hesitating because it is not confident in its ability to succeed at the polls, and it would rather stall than face the local backlash and the international embarrassment of failing twice on equal rights.

The quick history:

  • In February 2002, there was a referendum to remove gender discrimination from the constitution: 66% of the voters said “No”. It was a national travesty. Despite attempts of women and politicians to justify their political no votes, it was inexcusable.
  • In July 2012, the government indicated its intention to bring the matter up for a new vote.
  • In July 2014, the government tabled a bill and announced a date for the constitutional referendum (Nov 6), with a three month period for public education.
  • In September 2014, the government announced a postponement.
  • It has since said a new date will be set once the public education is complete.

We do know the process has been stalled at the political level and uncertainty has kept all stakeholders in limbo. And we do know in the absence of a date, public education has lacked resources, a sense of urgency and strength.

Either way, the CCE is on the ground working.

Although the Bahamas is a small country that appears to be quite wealthy, do not be completely seduced by the paradise we sell as a tourist product. In our beautiful little country that I am proud to say is my home we are fighting like every other country to dismantle patriarchal systems that rob our women and men of equality. We are a country like every other with backward gender perspectives that rob our people of their human rights.

One thing is certain, if those of us who support equal rights do not stand up and DEMAND equality on behalf of ourselves, our children, our community and our children’s children then we can be satisfied that the Bahamas will remain in the company of those 27 countries with nationality laws that discriminate.

We must muster the courage and the sense of responsibility to act to ensure that the government does not wiggle its way out of its commitments to equality; to ensure the constitutional referendum passes; and to ensure we achieve substantive equality in the Bahamas.

The matter is quite simple: Women are not looking for special rights or different rights, just equal rights. Bahamian women and men should have the same rights under the law.

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