Published as:

“Gender in Caribbean Development Thought and State Policies 1940-1995.”

Global Development Studies 2 (1-2) Winter 1999/Spring 2000.

Gender in Caribbean Development Thought and State Policies 1940-1995[1]


This article looks at how gender has been considered in the development thinking and policies of Commonwealth Caribbean countries from 1940 to 1996.[2]


The paper first looks at other studies of gender and development policy, including Caribbean-specific works. It then examines the extent to which one might consider Caribbean societies gender inequitable. The discussion concludes that while Caribbean women are productively employed and are heads of household, they do not enjoy the same status and life opportunities as men, nor do they have the necessary access to power and decision-making to change this.


Finally, a comprehensive analysis of Caribbean development thought and policy is carried out, from the Moyne Commission (West India Royal Commission) Report of 1945, up to state development policies of 1995. The analysis finds that in each phase of Caribbean development thought gender has been a significant factor, both explicitly and implicitly. However, except for a brief period in the late seventies and early eighties, gender equity as an objective of development policy has not been a serious priority of development policy or thinking, and the 1990s phase of neoliberal economic policy holds contradictory implications for feminist developmental objectives. 

Development has been looked at from a feminist or gender perspective since the 1970s with the advent of the international Women in Development (WID) movement marked by the first UN Decade for Women 1975 – 1985, and the parallel NGO movement. It is only since the late eighties however that gender has become to be considered in what we may describe as the mainstream of development policy studies and thinking. A major factor in the consideration of gender in development is the development framework known as Gender and Development, which claims to pursue gender equity through development initiatives. This field has developed over the past 20 years, out of the concerns over the absence of  women in the development discourse, and the troubling nature of developmentalism. Gender as an issue, gender as a tool of analysis, and Gender and Development as an entire framework of development theory and practice, are increasingly part of the mainstream discourse on development, though efforts to address gender equity remain in the realm of “alternative development strategies” in general.


The term gender, in its current usage, refers to the complex social construction of men’s and women’s identities. One’s gender reflects not one’s fixed biological characteristics, but culturally specific notions of men’s and women’s behaviour, particularly in relation to each other. Inherent in the discourse on gender is the notion of power, and the power dynamics between genders.  Joan Wallach Scott, a leading feminist theorist defines gender as a “constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes” (1988). 


Where development is about rectifying exploitative power structures and relationships, and where gender constitutes a significant medium through which exploitative power relationships are transmitted, understanding development necessitates understanding gender and how it works in a particular context. The aim of this study is to analyse to what extent development policies in the Caribbean reflect the aim to transform gendered structures and systems towards equity between men and women.

Measuring Gender Equity in the Caribbean

The UNDP defines development as the enlargement of the range of people’s choices—an extension, enlargement and deepening of the basic needs approach. The UNDP Human Development Index (HDI) then, measures development according to, among other factors, people’s access to clean water, to education, and to other resources which enable one to live a “respectable” life. Rather than the standard measure of human development, such as per capita income, GDP and GNP, the Human Development Index (HDI) measures the average achievement of a country in basic human capabilities. The HDI indicates whether people lead a long and healthy life, are educated and knowledgeable and enjoy a decent standard of living. The Gender Development Index (GDI) and the Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM) are new indicators formulated by the UNDP for its annual Human Development Report.


The GDI measures achievement in the same basic capabilities as the HDI, but takes note of inequality in achievement between women and men. Where there exists disparity between women and men in a certain measure of development, for example, access to safe water, the GDI falls. The greater the gender disparity in basic capabilities, the lower a country’s GDI compared to its HDI. As such, subtracting the GDI rank from the HDI rank, provides a comparative measure of the extent to which the two differ. The GEM examines whether women and men are able to actively participate in economic and political life, and take part in decision-making. By looking at the numbers and percentages of women in decision-making positions, the attempt is made to discern to what extent women have “a say” in the decisions that most affect them and the dynamics of gender in their country.


The GDI and the GEM are used here for two main reasons. The first is that they constitute, so far, the most comprehensive and most widely cited measures of gender equity in the literature. Second, the UNDP itself, particularly through its annual Human Development Report, represents an international governmental organisation which aims to arrive at “alternative” conceptualisations of development that do not necessarily equate development with economic growth and westernisation. The UNDP and its measures have, of course, come under critique. Roy McCree, for example, has found serious methodological shortcomings in its Human Poverty Index, which may compromise the accuracy of its data sets.[3] Nevertheless, others such as Paul Streeten (1993) and Boer and Koekkoek (1993) join the general consensus that “while inevitably limited and incomplete, the [HDI] has great value, in particular for showing up the inadequacies of more simple-minded indices like GNP” (Streeten 1993, 67).[4] The report has become a key document for development policy planners and analysts, as well as academics in the field, for its comprehensive data sets and its measuring of areas of people’s lives that were previously not measured.


The GDI and the GEM have also come under critique. Saskia Wieringa (1997) finds three major points of critique on the GDI and the GEM. Citing other critics of the GDI, Wieringa posits that it measures general welfare rather than gender inequality itself, and is “more concerned about the human resources needed to sustain economic growth rather than challenge the workings of the global economy and its structural inequalities,” and ignores vital issues such as human rights, ecology, care, compassion and love. Wieringa goes on to problematize the selection of indicators which constitute the GEM. She argues that the GEM is not concerned with issues related to the body and sexuality, religious, cultural, ethical or legal issues, or women’s human rights. The measure of political participation she faults because it does not look at participation in NGOs or women’s organisations, in which many women are often actively involved. Moreover, in countries where parliaments do not have much power, whether or not women are present in parliament tells us little about who controls decision-making there. Wieringa’s points are salient and will hopefully inform future statistical work aiming to measure women’s status, or measure to what extent development is gendered. Nevertheless, as Wieringa herself says, “this is the first major attempt to link human development with women’s empowerment and economic growth.”


Table one gives the data for the GDI in the six CARICOM countries included in the UNDP’s 1995 Human Development Report. In all countries, the GDI is lower than the HDI, meaning that, for example in the case of Barbados, women enjoy .878 (out of 1) of the level of human development to men’s level of human development. In other words, men enjoy a higher level of human development than do women in Barbados. Barbados, however, has achieved a much higher rating than Guyana, which ranks the lowest out of the six countries presented. What this important index shows is that nowhere in the Caribbean do women enjoy the same level of human development as men do, which prompts feminist questions of why women are at a disadvantage to men in the Caribbean.


The second and third columns, “Share of earned income” show how much, out of all earned income in a country, is earned by women and how much by men. The figures here are even more assymetrical favouring men than the GDI. In no country do women, who make up at least half (if not more) of the population, and have the largest financial responsibility for children, earn half of the total income earned by the population. These figures imply that men earn more money than women. Again the question must be asked, ‘why?’, particularly when Caribbean women have always been productive workers, as well as the primary reproductive workers and caregivers.


The fifth and sixth columns, “Adult literacy rate”, shows up the more idiosyncratic features of Caribbean gender imbalances. In the Caribbean, females’ literacy and educational achievement rates are on par with that of males. In Jamaica females enjoy higher literacy than males. In the Bahamas, as in Suriname, more women than men were enrolled in schools. The numbers in this table also show that, except in Suriname, women enjoy more or less the same literacy rates as men. In Jamaica, however, 88% of women are literate, while 80% of men are literate. Numbers such as these have prompted the debate on “male marginalisation” and the emergence of a fledgling discourse on Caribbean masculinity. So far, however, despite alarm bells sounding the decline of males’ participation in education and subsequent skilled manpower output, in terms of the numbers of qualified persons entering the labour market (Miller 1991, 1994), these have not yet become more than slight disparities.

Table 1:Gender-related development index (GDI) for selected CARICOM countries



Share of  earned income

(%) f

Share of earned income  (%) m


expectancy (years)




expectancy (years)





rate (%) 1990




rate (%)





ratio (%) 1992


gross enrolment

ratio (%) 1992





























Trinidad & Tobago












































Source: UNDP 1995 Human Development Report. New York: United Nations Development Programme.

Tables two and three (from Jamaica, often heralded as the Caribbean’s “worst case scenario”) show that while females “outperform” males in some areas, (that is, more females are enrolled in school than males, and though not shown by the tables here, are having higher success rates,) and more females are earning qualifications than are men, there are also many areas in which males continue to outperform females—yet these are not called to attention. Mark Figueroa (1996) makes the point that when men’s enrolment levels at UWI were higher than those of women, the imbalance was never called to attention nor seen as problematic. Neither is the overwhelming imbalance among academic staff of many more men than women called to attention in the debate on the gender imbalance at UWI. Small scale studies of corporate Jamaica suggest gender bias in the predominance of men at the top of companies, and a general lumping of qualified women in lower hierarchical levels, greater than that of equally qualified men who are generally in higher levels (JEF 1995). It is undeniable, however, that women predominate in middle management positions.

Table 2: Enrolment in Selected Public Educational Institutions by Sex 1994/95 (Jamaica)

School Type




Ratio M:F

Primary level (1-6)





All Age School (7-9)





Primary and Junior High





New Secondary





Technical High





Comprehensive High










University of Technology










UWI (higher degrees)





Source: Economic and Social Survey Jamaica 1995. Kingston: Planning Institute of Jamaica.

Table 3: Output of Professional, Technical, Managerial and Related Manpower 1995 (Jamaica)





Ratio M:F






Vocational Instructors





Medical Doctors










Diagnostic Radiographers





Food & Nutrition





Medical Technologists





Lab Technicians















Other medical professions




















Engineering Technicians










Social Scientists




















Land Surveyors





Planning & Construction




















Computer Operator/Technician










Maritime Engineer/Officer





Source: Economic and Social Survey Jamaica 1995 Kingston: Planning Institute of Jamaica.


Table four, the Gender Empowerment Measure, gives data for six Caribbean countries. These numbers represent the gender balance in positions of decision making and resource allocation. The figures presented show what percentage of parliamentary seats are held by women, what percent of administrators and managers are women, and what percent of professional and technical workers are women. Again these numbers point to an imbalance in favour of men, where, across the Caribbean, men are much more represented in decision-making positions than women. Table five, using a different measure, of how many of all loans taken out are taken out by women, shows that men are borrowing more money than women, thus, presumably, they have greater access to creating further capital with that initial borrowed capital.

Table 4: Gender empowerment measure (GEM) for selected CARICOM countries

GEM Rank


Seats held

in parliament

(% women)



and managers

(% women)


Professional and technical workers

(% women) 1992

Earned income


(% women)

12 Barbados






14 Bahamas






15 Trinidad

& Tobago






25 Guyana






55 Belize






64 Suriname






Source: Source: UNDP 1995 Human Development Report. New York: United Nations Development Programme.


Table 5: Access to Productive Resources in selected CARICOM countries: Public loans, by gender (1993)[5]


Male %

Female %

Male & Female %

























St. Kitts-Nevis




Source: Mondesire and Dunn (1995) Towards Equity in Development:

A Report on the Status of Women in Sixteen Commonwealth Caribbean Countries.

Georgetown: CARICOM Secretariat. Mimeo.


The data in table six supports these trends. This data shows the percentage of women in state-level decision making positions—again in parliamentary assemblies, in government, in foreign affairs, and in local representative bodies such as local government. While the number of women have increased since 1980, there is still much less than 50% women in these positions. The percentage of women approaches 50% only in governmental positions, where women constitute 44.5% of all public sector employees. However, this may simply signify the declining earning potential in government service which has caused many men to opt out of such positions, opening them up to women who are willing to work for lower salaries.

Table 6: Participation in Decision Making Bodies by Sex in selected Caribbean countries by percentage of body that is male or female.[6]



Parliamentary Assemblies




Local Representative Bodies

Female % 1980





Male %   1980





Female % 1992





Male %   1992





Source: Mondesire and Dunn (1995) Towards Equity in Development: A Report on the Status of Women in Sixteen Commonwealth Caribbean Countries. Georgetown: CARICOM Secretariat. Mimeo.


These tables suggest that while Caribbean women are productively employed and are heads of household, which in western eyes may signify their equality with men, they do not enjoy the same status and life opportunities as men, nor do they have the necessary access to power and decision-making to change this. A parallel consideration is that, in some Caribbean countries, gender and class oppression intersect procuring a situation where the ‘status’ of men and boys has come to be in need of serious analysis and action for change. Poor educational achievement, and an apparent non-participation by men in child-rearing comprise two of the main issues of current debate.


A final point in considering women’s status and the characteristics of gender relations in the Caribbean is the situation of violence against women, which “has increased over the past decade and has become a feature of the lives of women of all social classes and ages” (UNICEF/PIOJ 1995). A basic concept of women’s inequality with men is the simple fact that all over the world many women cannot and/or do not consider themselves safe from physical violence carried out by men against their person, whether in the public or the private sphere.


In the Caribbean in particular, the phenomena of violence against women is tied up in at least two primary issues: the rise in economic insecurity as a result of economic crises and structural adjustment, and the nature of the power relations inherent in gender relations between men and women.[7] Women’s economic insecurity is inextricably linked to that of children, particularly in the Caribbean context where female-headed single parent homes predominate.  In the face of economic insecurity, women face a double burden: the rise in the labour and stress they bear as they attempt to keep pace with rising costs and social, economic and family deterioration; and the continued repercussions of gender discrimination.  Yet women’s attempts at survival have disastrous repercussions for their personal security: in Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados recent research has shown that reported cases of domestic violence against women have risen in tandem with, and have been related to, women’s increasing economic independence (Gopaul and Morgan 1997; Barriteau 1994).  In Jamaica, 24 cases of domestic violence were reported in 1985; in 1993, that number multiplied more than tenfold to 268 (UNICEF/PIOJ 1995). This is in accordance with trends across the Caribbean linking rising levels of male violence against women to frustration over lower spending levels during economic downturns (Gopaul 1997, 11). These figures could be interpreted as rising along with inflation, unemployment and the cost of living, giving credence to the assertion that violence against women increases in times of economic hardship.


It has also been suggested that the increase in violence against women is a “backlash” by men in response to the perceived gains of the feminist movement. This is only a suggested hypothesis, however,  because the rise in figures could also be interpreted as a rise in women’s reporting these incidents, and not a rise in domestic violence itself. Nevertheless, there can be no “underreporting” of domestic violence against women which results in murder, and the increases in such incidents which have been recorded. For example, in Trinidad and Tobago, in the period 1990-1996 there were three years with alarming peaks in spousal murders (Reddock 1997, 12). Also disconcerting is the numbers of children killed along with their mothers. (See Table seven.)

Table 7: Number of murders committed by way of domestic violence (Trinidad and Tobago)


No of murders committed

Number solved














































Source: Ministry of National Security. Cited in Reddock (1997).

A society where women’s physical and psychological safety is under constant threat from men, is in itself—regardless of numbers here or there—a society in need of serious attention and action for change.


Other Studies on Gender in Development Policy

Development studies in the Caribbean have generally been done from a Political Economy approach. This approach works from the premise that economic and political processes, at international and national levels, intersect and interact to produce the various phenomena which constitute everyday reality. Ironically, while Caribbean political economy has consistently identified class, race and ethnicity as driving forces behind developmentalist movements, gender has not yet been included in a major way. Caribbean political economy scholars have also recognised the unequal and inequitable international division of labour, but its gendered dimensions have largely escaped mention or attention so far, save for an analysis by Cecilia Green on Caribbean women and global restructuring in a recent collection of articles in the The Caribbean in the Global Political Economy (1994).


So far it has mainly been feminist and pro-feminist theorists, in the women’s studies and feminist literature, who have described the capitalist system as being based on and maintained by the subordination of women and their waged and unwaged labour. These analyses have entered the international arena—albeit in less radical language—under the heading of “Gender and Development”, or as it was first known (and is sometimes still called), “Women in Development” (WID). WID and its successor Gender and Development (GAD) have been the primary influences in bringing gender to bear on this international relations priority for third world states. More recently, feminist work in international political economy has moved beyond the spheres of both micro WID/GAD concerns and international feminism to look more at globalisation and its gender dimensions.  While the gender specific effects of global restructuring were revealed as early as 1987 in the landmark publication, Adjustment With a Human Face, and followed more in depth with Engendering Adjustment (1991), these analyses have generally not been considered beyond WID/GAD arenas. 


Examinations of gender in state policy in the Caribbean have been carried out by Joycelin Massiah (1993) and Judith-Ann Walker (1995). Massiah’s examination of ten Barbados development plans, from 1946-1989, found that, except for the mention of a “Women’s Work Bureau” (also seen in the Colonial Welfare & Development Act of 1940) which never materialised, there was no mention of women’s affairs apart from maternal welfare, until the 1983-1988 plan (98). Massiah also found that, in her analysis of Barbados’ and St. Vincent and the Grenadines’ development plans, no reference was made to women in various sector plans. She also found that in sections devoted to women, neither male-female nor female-female differentials were mentioned. Massiah further found that despite women’s groups’ advocacy for the inclusion of women’s and gender concerns in development plans, and despite the availability of disaggregated data, gender concerns have not materialised in policies. She attributes this to the public administration system in which the planning process is embedded. A feminist perspective of the state holds that this system is Western, patriarchal and gendered toward male dominance over women and economically powerless men (Staudt 1990; Anderson-Manley 1994).


Walker investigated the effects of education policy on women’s and men’s social mobility in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago. She found that women in both countries benefited from greater upward social mobility than men, which she partly attributed to females’ increased access to education and schooling. Other writers (Gordon 1989; Miller 1990, 1994) have analysed and presented data on education and social mobility, which while not necessarily furthering Walker’s position, support the main tenet of women’s upward mobility.


Two other Caribbean studies in the area of gender and development policy include Kathy McAfee’s Storm Signals: Structural Adjustment and Development Alternatives in the Caribbean (1991) and Carmen Diana Deere’s In the Shadows of the Sun (1992). McAfee looked at the micro effects of structural adjustment policies which mandate, in general, a fall in the value of local currency, the opening up of trade barriers, a thrust toward export-oriented production, and the removal of state subsidies on social and welfare services. Deere’s examination of US foreign policy in the Caribbean yielded similar results—that that which passes itself off as “high-level politics” has striking impacts on the lives of people already struggling to survive. These two works made links between foreign policy, international organisation, trade negotiations and diplomatic strategies, and the day to day suffering and anguish of the majority of the people in the Caribbean. Importantly, both works also placed specific emphasis on women, spotlighting their particular challenges, and the larger impact of their difficulties on the communities and societies in which they were situated.


Cecilia Green’s aforementioned analysis offers a detailed account of the direct impact which the international economic system had (and has) on the patterns and decisions of Caribbean women, and on gender relations; at the same time, those patterns and decisions influence global processes albeit in subtle and hitherto unacknowledged ways.  Green traces women’s relative independence during slavery, where women slaves were purely seen as labour, and subsequent parallel patterns of autonomy and dependence on male partners after abolition and emancipation, through to migration and farming patterns.  It is these factors and influences that today manifest themselves in the lives of Caribbean women and the gender system presently at work.  Green describes the nature of the current global system as similarly gendered, though in a different way. She summarizes: 

As the globalization of high-technology production restructures technology, investment, employment, and labor, it shifts certain types of low-technology jobs in electornics and garment assembly activities to the Caribbean and elsewhere in the Third World.  Women tend to be concentrated in these jobs because capital has defined them as women’s work. This has been happening at the same time as traditional exports have contracted, thereby putting many men out of work, combined with the impact of structural adjustment programs on wages and empolyment, this process exacerbates problems for women in the Caribbean, especially heads of households who must now support their families and a growing number of unemployed males.  (Green 1994: 171)


Away from Caribbean specific studies, two recent works in the field of gender and development policy are Naila Kabeer’s Reversed Realities: Gender Hierarchies in Development Thought (1994), and the collection The Strategic Silence: Gender and Economic Policy, edited by Isabella Bakker (1994). Kabeer interrogates developmentalist thought to uncover the gendered subtexts which inform development theories, subtexts which operate primarily around the sexual division of labour and the capitalistic exploitation of  women’s household and reproductive work. She then examines development institutions for their capacity to address these gendered structures with the view to changing them, and empowering women through development policies and programmes. She concludes that it is indeed possible to work for change from within these institutions, given the necessary allocations of space, resources and time.


Isabella Bakker’s collection of essays contributes to the growing collection of work on globalisation and gender, focusing on the macro economic policy reforms that are taking place and the ways in which women impact on these policies and the policies impact on women. The articles identify the interdependence between women’s productive and reproductive work, and the ways in which this interdependence is exploited to women’s disadvantage, but to capitalist advantage.  While these two works, among many others, provide important insight into the gendered effects of globalisation and the world market economy, the texts remain in women’s studies and gender studies curricula.


A response to this acknowledged problem, of gender analysis not moving outside of the gender studies field, has been from Marianne Marchand (1996). Marchand attempts to integrate GAD analyses of economic restructuring and globalisation with more mainstream International Political Economy/International Relations (IPE/IR) discourses. Having identified the gap between GAD work and political economy work, Marchand examines GAD propositions on global restructuring.  She aims to “provide interesting and significant insights into processes of global restructuring, inform critical IPE/IR scholarship in this area, and bring feminist IPE/IR insights into processes and practices of global restructuring to inform GAD scholarship” (Marchand 1996, 597).  Marchand critiques GAD’s emphasis on the adverse effects of globalisation on women, and the focus on neo-classical economics as the paradigm within which all economic processes take place.  She argues that these two tendencies maintain women’s position as victim, and do not challenge the universalistic claims of liberalism.  These tendencies in turn result in a void of propositions for the empowerment of women and for the development of strategies to counter or to influence ongoing processes of global restructuring. Marchand’s rejection of woman as victim is a step in the right direction, and her suggestion for the creation of alternatives in which women can empower themselves is apt; but we have not yet reached a stage where we can begin to construct paradigms within which this might be effected at the expense of ignoring the structures which do continue to place women as a gender in disadvantaged positions. In any case, Marchand’s contribution to the literature and the school of thought is appropriate and timely.


Examining Development Policy

When one undertakes an examination of ‘policy’, one sees on paper grand, well-sounding ideas, with clear plans to implement them. But by and large, many of these policies, if they are implemented, are carried out in ways that are difficult to pinpoint, and the results are not easily defined. Further, many important actions or sets of actions have been carried out due to no specific policy as such, but to a general trend in social, economic and political forces.


Development policies, in their broadest sense, are virtually all state policies whose intended end is economic development and a better standard of living for a country’s citizens. Theoretically, a development policy recognises the factors inhibiting progress in this regard, and seeks to address these by way of legislation, mobilisation of resources, or pecuniary measures, such as fiscal penalties. The factors recognised as barriers to progress, however, depend entirely on the vision of progress itself, which largely rests on ideological, economic, political and other cultural forces in general. The dominant vision is that of the policy maker, be he (or she) politician, technocrat, government official or representative of a development organisation or entity. The suggestion here is that the vision of development espoused in policy is not necessarily—indeed it is unlikely that it is—that which has been arrived at through a process of critical thinking and analysis, nor through democratic and participatory consultation with a country’s citizens. Through the economic and social policies which could be said to comprise development policies, which are multi-sectoral, measures are proposed and supposed to be taken which fulfil visions of progress, or development. Such measures, via various sectors and strategies, have an effect on people’s lives, and on gender dynamics, whether they specifically address gender or not. This argument is even stronger when one considers that state and other societal institutions are inherently gendered. Ideally, any historical assessment of state policies would table the strategies and plans made by colonial and independent Caribbean governments, and detail the outcomes of these efforts. A gender analysis of these would then analyse the differential effects on men and women, and the impact on gender hierarchies. This is important research which remains to be done.


Ascertaining “what actually happened” in Caribbean development, particularly since independence, has not yet gone beyond generalisations, and remains on the research agenda of Caribbean scholars. Clearly, particularly for the purposes of a gender analysis, only on a country by country basis would it be feasible. Not only does each country have its own development record, but the gender dynamics in each country also differ. This study examines development theories for their gendered dimensions, and considers some government plans and policies. The paper reviews the literature typically considered the “canon” of Caribbean development thinking; which represents the main trends. The aim is to arrive at an admittedly broad conclusion of the general trend of considerations of and implications for gender in state development policies since the 1940s.


Since the 1940s, policies which address men and women as separate entities have been proposed and formulated. The Moyne Commission 1939-1940 saw women’s low status as one of three key factors in Caribbean underdevelopment. Nowhere in the Caribbean development literature is this referred to. Mention of the Moyne Commission is usually confined to the proposal that agricultural development be the colonies’ focus, and not industrial development, which is remarkable (for the mainstream) because the development thinkers which followed advocated almost the opposite.


Except for the literature out of the “New World Group”, there have been policies directed at women and men specifically. These however have in general been aimed at maintaining gender hierarchies and the gendered sexual division of labour. Though gender as it is understood today has not been specifically considered until the late 1980s, these policies had negative and positive effects on women’s status in relation to men, and women did experience upward social mobility over the 55 years covered in this paper.


Social Development and The West India Royal Commission Report

Colonial policy was embodied by the Colonial Welfare and Development (CW&D) Acts, first passed in the British Parliament in 1929. The initial motivation behind the Acts was the Crown’s self-interest in broadening a market for its goods. According to a colonial official, Lord Passfield, the intention was: encourage and accelerate the development of the vast underdeveloped territories which lie within [the] Colonies and Protectorates, [and in so doing] expect that their purchases will be increased... distinctly with a view of causing an increase in our export trade in a way which we think to be legitimate and economically justified. (Passfield 1929 [1971])


The 1929 Acts were informed by a philosophy that a colony should have only what it could finance for itself. The focus in the initial Acts was on roads, water supplies, and town planning, with 30% of total expenditure on health and education. (No specific reference was made to women or men in the Acts.) For a majority of the population, less than a century free from slavery, private enterprise development was clearly out of their reach. As a result, the period 1934-1939 was a period of civil and labour unrest in most British West Indian colonies. Men and women expressed social distresses caused by unemployment and poor social conditions by striking and rioting. Women, who had moved into jobs made available by men who had emigrated to work on the Panama Canal, were forced out of their jobs on the men’s return. They did not earn the same wages as men though they did equal work. Where women were employed, their cheap labour was their greatest advantage (MacMillan 1935).


The West India Royal Commission, or the Moyne Commission, was dispatched from the Crown to investigate the disturbances and make recommendations to prevent their recurrence. The 1940 Colonial Welfare and Development Acts were based on the Commission’s recommendations that an alleviation of the low standard of economic and social development was the solution. The Moyne Commission proposed three general steps for the West Indian colonies: strengthening the agricultural economy, expanding social services, and diversifying the economy to create jobs. The Commission also recommended that the colonies be federated so that the region could take control of itself.


Three main factors affected social conditions, according to the Commission: women’s low status, the lack of family life, and the absence of a social welfare programme. The specific measures outlined to address women’s low status envisioned an ideal of a conjugal family, a domesticated and economically dependent woman, and a male breadwinner. Two main measures were proposed to uplift women’s status: education and training for women, and a greater role for women in public life. Women were to be granted the right to vote, be civil servants, sit on juries and sit on certain municipal boards. These measures did result in uplifting some women’s status. While they did not question the gendered sexual division of labour—the underlying ideology of which relegated women to domestic roles, and as such allowed for women to be trained as doctors and admitted as municipal board members—these proposals were nevertheless revolutionary for their time. While a 1990s perspective, informed by years and volumes of feminist scholarly research and analysis, may critique the proposals for not providing for women to be both mother and have a career at the same time, as no recommendation was made for child-care services or family education for men, it must be emphasised that even those measures proposed were quite radical for their time.


The recommendations made manifest this ideology: women’s education and training were concentrated in women-specific health areas, domestic skills and handicrafts. Though the agricultural sector employed the largest number of women wage-earners, there was no recommendation to rectify the unequal wage rates—which are twice detailed in the Report, and recognised as contributing to women’s low status, as such wages were not sufficient to live on. Thus while women’s status may have been uplifted, their institutionalised subordination did not change.


The 1940 Act issued in response to the Moyne Commission recommendations listed only one gender-specific recommendation, for a “Lady Health Officer” in Guyana. Among the proposals was a “Women’s Work Bureau” in Barbados, a recommendation which was carried forward, and which appeared in that country’s development plan for the period 1946-56, but was apparently not implemented.


In relation to gender, many of the Moyne Commission’s recommendations, particularly in education, did result in the upliftment of women’s status. An ideological class bias was however inherent in the gender patterns the recommendations proposed, as seen by the proposals: women’s status was uplifted once West Indian women became more like British women, domestically trained and concentrated in nurturing roles.


Caribbean Industrialisation and Sir Arthur Lewis

Sir Arthur Lewis’ writings of the 1950s and 1960s are generally seen as representative of the policies and thinking of that period. That they considered women and gender to a great extent may be considered rather unusual for that period, however. Lewis saw industrialisation as “freeing [women] from being beasts of burden and allowing them to be human beings” (1955, 422). This is unusual considering that no concern for women was made in the Caribbean development discourse until the mid-1970s era of Marxist-inspired thinkers.


The Puerto Rican model of modernisation and industrialisation, which Lewis wrote on, is said to have informed Caribbean strategies toward the same. These strategies saw the state as the initiator of industrial investment. Industries, once established, would be sold to foreign and local investors. The state was to act as a development agency--prospect the market, decide on viable industries, establish attractive fiscal frameworks, and solicit capital. The industrialisation that took place was more import-substituting rather than export-oriented, however.


Regional integration was key to successful and vigorous industrialisation, according to Lewis. Free movement of goods and people, the expansion of the market, and eventually a federated West Indian government featured prominently in Lewis’ vision. In 1958 the West Indies Federation was formed, but ended after four unsuccessful years.


Lewis’ interpretation and advocacy of industrialisation counted the “wives and daughters of the household” in the “unlimited supplies of labour” (1954, 143). He envisioned industrialisation as creating employment for “the many young women without productive jobs” particularly in the manufacturing of intricate products with the need for “nimble fingers”. Lewis had in other works paid tribute to his mother, whom he greatly respected. His regard for women is unquestionable. However, Lewis’ vision of development saw women being able to return to the home once “development” was achieved. This, he said, reflected “progress”, and was “healthy and desirable” (1950, 3). Further, Lewis saw that women’s lower (than men’s) wages was beneficial to industrialisation strategy because net output of those industries which employed women would be higher, thus advocating women’s unequal remuneration (1950, 20). There was no mention of women’s domestic responsibilities while they were “productively” employed.


Between 1949 and 1951 Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados each passed a version of a Pioneer Industries Encouragement Act, which offered the entrepreneur certain material concessions in the form of income tax and import duty concessions. While some of these Acts predated Lewis’ main writings on industrialisation, Jamaica’s development plans of the early 1960s reflect Lewis’ concerns. Jamaica’s national development policy of 1963 sought to address “waste caused by high unemployment levels among women” by programmes for rural women to provide employment in handicrafts, and for training in “leadership, literacy, home economics, art and craft” for girls (126; 196). Skill training youth camps were for men only, however, in Jamaica (196) and St. Lucia (1965, 94).


Ralph Henry’s analysis of the gender implications of Caribbean development strategies makes the point that this industrialisation thrust created an “inherent selectivity in the distribution of employment by gender” (1988, 187). In 1985 women comprised 80% of Caribbean factory workers (Senior 1991, 121); they do not benefit from support services, though women make up a large segment of women-headed households.


In defence of Lewis, he was remarkable for his era in that he actually considered women at all, at the same time as he was a product of it, in his ideological vision (of women.) He, like the Moyne Commission, saw a need for women’s status to be uplifted; again like the Commission, he did not question the gendered sexual division of labour at the root of women’s subordination. The ensuing “backlash” against industrialisation strategies did no more than count women in their labour figures. The failure of “industrialisation by invitation” to deliver economic growth and development by the 1960s prompted other West Indian economists to think for themselves about Caribbean economic development. Two groups of “radicals” are looked to here for their notions of development, of women and of gender.


Nationalism and The New World Group

The classification of certain writers as part of the “New World Group” is done tentatively. Little research has been carried out on the group as a movement in itself. This study looks at the collection of writings in Girvan and Jefferson (1971) as representative of that discourse. The main characteristic of this movement was its claim to “Caribbean-ness” and its identification with “the historical struggles of Caribbean people”. The theories advocated by the New World Group, as with the ensuing Marxist-like movement, were not directly made into policy, though they are seen to have influenced policy thinking in the Caribbean toward more socialist and nationalist ideals.


The New World Group’s (“the Radicals”) prescriptions for economic development centred around two main tenets: governmental control of resource allocation in the nation-building process, and regional integration (Levitt and Best 1975, 58). They pointed to foreign domination as the root cause of the region’s problems. The Radicals did not address the gendered sexual division of labour, central as it is to the social relations of production. Their vision of social transformation did not specifically include any reform of gendered hierarchical structures. A feminist reading of the Girvan and Jefferson collection notes the predominance of mention of men as if they alone made up society. Girvan counted women in the labour force (1967). Selwyn Ryan described their earning half the average monthly income of men in Trinidad and Tobago, but he did not problematize this (1968).


Specific reference to men is made twice. Lloyd Best (1967) speaks of damage done by Caribbean men who have not mastered their own environment, and argues that social change can only begin in the minds of Caribbean men. Orlando Patterson writes on the sugar regime’s demoralisation of men, and the “deplorable effect on family life” effected by the inadequacy of young men’s wages and their inability to support their families (1969). Like Lewis and the Moyne Commission, Patterson does not question the sexual division of labour, but appears to hold the conjugal male breadwinner model as the standard for comparison. That this group of intellectuals was unaware of the gendered dimensions of oppressive socio-economic structures is not acceptable. That they took them for granted, and in so doing perpetuated inequitable gender ideologies in their thinking, seems more the case.


Caribbean versions of Marxism and Socialism

The early 1970s saw a reappraisal of the Radicals’ work, toward a Marxist-like ideology which factored in the dimension of race. This movement claimed itself to be in the interest of working people, and rejected capitalism as a mode of political economy. Jamaica, Guyana and Grenada were the Caribbean countries in which this ideology had the most effect. The “neo-Marxists” were primarily concerned with class relations, and gave in-depth consideration to women and to their upliftment as a goal of social change. Women’s “arms” of political parties were encouraged and formed. They were vocal and active, spurred on by the international feminist climate and black power movement of that period.


In Grenada, the New Jewel Movement stressed the need to improve women’s status (Thorndike 1985). They promoted greater job opportunities, the removal of discrimination and the establishment of pre-school and day centres, and introduced maternity leave legislation. National machineries for women were established, first in Jamaica and then in most other Caribbean countries.[8] In Jamaica legislative changes were made, including a maternity leave law and minimum wage regulations, where women constituted the lowest paid workers (Kaufman 1985).


Feminist critics of then existing socialism have pointed to its sexist and undemocratic practices. Socialism did not adequately address women’s inferior position in the production process, nor the unequal relations between men and women (Reddock 1979). Socialist society, according to Joan French (in Mills 1991), maintained the patriarchal family, the double day of women, the ghettoisation of female labour, differential wage rates and female under-representation in leadership positions. Rhoda Reddock (1992) describes the emergence of the Caribbean socialist-feminist school as a response to women’s concerns of being marginalized within the male-dominated and biased radical and anti-imperialist movements.


Economic strategy consisted of a general movement toward partial withdrawal from the international capitalist system, alignment with socialist countries for trade and raw materials, nationalisation of all industry and land and re-distribution of wealth and income. A democratically chosen government was to control such a system. However, in Grenada and Guyana, democratic elections under their socialist governments were not an option. Regional integration was also key to their vision, once all members were committed to socialism (Thomas 1978).

Economic Crises, Neoliberalism, and Gender Re-oppression

Socialist openings for women’s concerns combined with the 1975 beginnings of the international feminist movement influenced state policies throughout the Caribbean. Though women’s and gender concerns may not have been present in actual plans and policies outside of Grenada, Jamaica and Guyana, in all Caribbean countries a women’s machinery was established.  Commonwealth Caribbean states have, at various points, become signatory to the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). This convention requires changes in different aspects of national legislation or constitution. The CARICOM Secretariat’s Women’s Desk designed model legislation to guide Caribbean governments in this exercise.[9]


Women’s advocates gains at state level, women’s machineries, and the international feminist movement, together, would have been more conducive to the achievement of gender equity in the Caribbean were it not for the economic crises and ensuing “adjustments” undertaken by Caribbean governments. Socialist-type development strategies which benefited men and women were largely abandoned, and an era of structural adjustment began with the intervention of the International Monetary Fund in Jamaica in 1977. It is important to recognize that these crises were as much due to world economic and political forces as to the failure of socialist policies and governance at the national level. Caribbean writers such as Ramsaran (1994) have pointed to economic and political mismanagement, and unsuccessful economic development strategies and policies as contributing to the fallout.  Structural adjustment cannot be blamed entirely on external factors and actors: responsibility for the non-realization of developmental goals must be accepted from within by government, political and intellectual actors and decision-makers.


Structural adjustment, the catch-all term for the range of measures governments have committed to undertake in order to receive financial assistance from international lending agencies to remedy their balance of payments problems, has been criticised by feminists and non-feminists for its “people-unfriendly side effects.” The gendered nature of structural adjustment reforms was first alluded to in the seminal study, Adjustment with a Human Face (Cornia et al 1987), which included a case study of Jamaica. This work linked adjustment measures to significant downturns in child development in Third World countries. The Commonwealth Secretariat (1989) followed up this study with Engendering Adjustment for the 1990s which more clearly articulated the devastating effects that adjustment has had on women in particular, and people in general.


Many other Caribbean-focussed studies have argued, not only from a feminist perspective, that structural adjustment has not worked and cannot work, as it is currently carried out. A notable feature of the literature on structural adjustment in particular, and neoliberal economic strategy in general, is the near-absence of original Caribbean advocates. The prevailing notion is that external actors, primarily the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, design and advocate structural adjustment programmes for other countries.


Neoliberal economic strategy, under which theoretical umbrella structural adjustment falls, has three main characteristics. First it relies on the market, rather than the government, to determine production and allocation of wealth.  This involves removing protections from locally manufactured goods, removing foreign exchange controls to liberalize imports, facilitating private enterprise as a government function, and opening up local markets to the global economy. A second tenet is the importance of efficiency in resource allocation—only spending what is absolutely necessary to keep the government machinery turning. This then translates into a fundamental change in government’s societal and developmental roles. A third important feature is rejection of the notion that the capitalist system has created “backwardness”, or “underdevelopment”—which discards the hypotheses of the Caribbean thinkers of the 1960s and 1970s, and the world-system advocates today.


Peggy Antrobus (1989) was one of the first Caribbean analysts to identify structural adjustment’s impact on women in the Caribbean. Her analysis refers to Jamaica, the first Caribbean country to undergo structural adjustment, and also the “worst-case scenario” for the rest of the Caribbean. Antrobus made four main points: first, the concentration on export-oriented agricultural production has meant that resources previously allocated to domestic food production sectors, which women control, have been diverted. Second, free-zone export-manufacturing operations have provided employment for women, but low wages, job insecurity and little if any long-term skills training accompany these assembly-type industries. Third, the cutback in social services has not only meant that women now have to provide what was previously provided by the state, but where social sectors employ mainly women, they have suffered where their jobs have been made redundant. Lastly, the devaluation of the dollar and the removal of food subsidies have caused food prices to rise. Inflation has meant that the standards of living have fallen all around.


Most if not all development plans and policies for Commonwealth Caribbean countries in the 1990s have discrete sections devoted to women and/or gender. Policies and programmes are articulated that claim plans to uplift women’s status and pursue gender equity. Economic development strategies are based on capital markets and services, and competitively priced labour. All plans state “renewed commitments” to regional integration. At the same time, while social adjustment and impact amelioration programmes are, in the 1990s, being added to macro-economic stabilisation plans, Gita Sen (1993) and Joycelin Massiah (1992) point to the absence of discourse related to gender, despite the “human focus” touted.


Gender and the Caribbean State in a Neoliberal World Economy

This paper has attempted to trace the development of gender as an implicit and/or explicit consideration in Caribbean development policy, from 1940 to the mid-1990s. In economic policy terms, it could be argued that history is repeating itself: Caribbean countries seem to be following the 1929 policy, that a colony should have only that which it is able to finance itself. Today, government spending is concentrated in debt servicing, limited to infrastructural endeavours, and social services are cut back, if not removed entirely. For the economically powerless, little opportunity for advancement exists, just as it did prior to the labour riots of the 1930s, and the Moyne Commission’s subsequent recommendations for investment in social services and employment creation.


The difference from 1929, however, is that today the policies being suggested to address social imbalances are to get boys educated, whereas then it was the opposite. The Moyne Commission and the ensuing Colonial Welfare and Development Acts articulated measures to uplift women’s status; in the 1990s Caribbean decision makers are commissioning policy studies on the upliftment of Caribbean males.


Subsequent development policies based on Sir Arthur Lewis’ economic theories, were concerned with industrialization and the benefits of employing the unlimited supply of female labour. While there is still high female unemployment in the Caribbean, industrialization as a development strategy has given way to trade liberalization and more service-oriented industries, relying more on the Caribbean comparative advantage of cheap labour and proximity to the US, than on dreams of industrial modernity.


The shift to nationalist development policies in the 1960s was more concerned with Caribbeanness and the upliftment of Caribbean people as a whole, and little or no attention was paid to the gender dimensions of development. Where gender was implicitly considered, its treatment was more traditional than transformist.


Socialist-type policies explicitly addressed gender inequality, and may have realised some degree of social and gender change in the 1970s. At the same time, the international women’s movement at the governmental and non-governmental levels brought a wide range of policies and programmes that consolidated the original political movements. The main prescription, women’s machineries, had limited effect at state level. Though part of the state bureaucracy, their concerns were not articulated in macro-economic strategies, nor were the resources allocated to the machineries sufficient to carry out more than small-scale projects. Policies that were accepted and approved at the highest levels were not implemented (Rowan-Campbell 1994). Subsequent national economic crises forced these programmes, in some countries, to either lose steam, or to come to an end completely.


We are left with the result that by the mid-1990s, women’s and gender issues are topical and are included in most of the development discourse. Alongside these are vaguely defined neoliberal economic strategies which are based on women’s unwaged labour, and a capitalist ideology that is philosophically based on patriarchal and hierarchical structures that oppress women and men. Added to this fundamental contradiction is the fact that, to a large extent, these discourses are conducted on separate platforms. Feminist thinkers and advocates maintain the debate on gender and development, but their work and proposals do not reach much beyond those already conscious of the needs and strategies towards gender equity through development policies and strategies. Where gender issues are included in the mainstream development discourse, the treatment tends to be very limited, though it would not be fair to say that this is not without exception.


The growing importance of the non-governmental sector as provider of social services and as a “voice of the people” is not to be neglected, particularly in considerations of gender and development, where women’s organizations have always played a significant role in advocacy for women’s rights and gender equality in the Caribbean . However, NGOs are not profit-making entities, and also require financial resources, which often come from governments, their own or more often from the first world, which become less as governments all over the world tighten their belts. However, as Judith-Ann Walker asserts,

The state and its administrative apparatus shows no inclination to wither away... despite the rise of the non-governmental sector, development goals continue to fall within the purview of the state in both the developed and the developing world. (1995, 214)



The question of the developing state’s role under neoliberalism, particularly vis-à-vis human and social development is a larger issue beyond the scope of this paper. If the state’s role in a neoliberal world economy is facilitator and regulator of the free market, its developmental role, in the traditional sense, is then largely circumscribed. It is nevertheless important to consider the implications of the state’s supposed lack of power, resources and control, in itself, and for objectives of gender equity and equality. Complicating this question is the fact that decades of attempts to pursue gender equity in national development has proven that feminist development strategies require even more than financial or administrative resources: they necessitate a commitment to fundamental societal and personal change. The accompanying shift in power relations implied in such change remains difficult, and in the view of many women and men, uncomfortable and undesirable.



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[1] The research carried out for this article was conducted as a part of a larger study on gender, regionalism and Caribbean development.


[2] ‘Commonwealth Caribbean’ in this article is defined as Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.


[3] Roy McCree, “Up and Down the Poverty Scale.” Trinidad Express, 2 July 1997.


[4] For other reviews—not all as flattering—of the UNDP Human Development Report and its novel indices, see Boer and Koekkoek (1994), Rao (1991), McGillivray (1991), and Hopkins (1991).


[5]This table denotes the percentages of loans taken out by men alone, women alone, and men and women together. The absolute figures to which these percentages relate were not available.

[6]“Selected Caribbean countries” were those for which the data was available for the report from which the figures were taken. The report did not specify which countries these were, nor what totals the percentages relate to.

[7]Peggy Antrobus was perhaps the first to identify the gendered consequences of structural adjustment programmes  in a 1989 paper, “Gender Implications of the Development Crisis”.

[8]Though it may be argued that this was in part due to international forces.

[9] Not all countries have undertaken legislative changes, and none in all areas (ILO/CARICOM 1995).