Speech by the Prime Minister

International Women’s Day Luncheon

The Most Hon. Andrew Holness, ON, MP
at the
International Women’s Day Luncheon
Jamaica House, March 13, 2017

I’m very pleased that you’ve accepted my invitation to join me for lunch today on International Women’s Day; the day when we not just recognize but celebrate the great role that women play in our society and the value that they add to society.

I’ve learnt many things today in conversation at my table; very profound statements have been made. Women are the biggest peacemakers. Agreed? Of course, if you empower women, you build stronger communities.

But we went into deeper discussions on what we need to do to improve our society through improving the conditions and circumstances of women in the society. The discussion at my table centered around independence. Now independence is a big thing for me. You would’ve heard my wife say she’s an independent woman; she does her own thing but the conversation was about greater financial literacy for women and supporting women in taking charge of their own financial affairs.

People might think it’s to deal with poverty – “sir you are talking about women who are poor” but women who are also fairly well to do would have that challenge. They would have relied on their husbands for a long time and in the absence of their husbands they would fall on really difficult times having to manage their own financial affairs. Therefore there needs to be greater support but definitely for poor households the management of financial affairs is absolutely important.  The discussion also centered around education, that if we educate women about the management of financial affairs which by and large with the experience growing up my mother I think I can say publicly that my mother is the most frugal person that I know and it is because of her frugality I am able to stand here today. She knows how to manage financial matters and of course I need say nothing about my wife in that regard.

It is clear that empowering women to manage financial affairs would empower households which empower communities which empower the nation so financial literacy and financial management is a key strategy that government should pursue.  But we also centered on violence – a deep discussion which brought into focus the cultural issues that underpin domestic violence and violence generally.

The point was made that our culture does not give enough respect to the sanctity of life; that’s number one, then building from that is the respect for the physical person. The physical being – and that is especially a problem for women because men believe they can touch as they like. The respect for the physical being and space is something that we have to start to teach to our young boys before they become young men and then believe that they are entitled to touch as they please.

We discussed the general issues of violence but I placed on the table the question whether or not government policy as it stands now is sufficient. Mixed reviews – the view was shared that we have good policies, we have good intentions in the policies but the real challenge is that they are not mainstream meaning. Government has the women’s crisis center or we may have a ministry that will deal with gender issues but should it be that gender matters and matters to do with domestic violence are treated in this silo kind of way just here and not spread right through the entire government because the question was raised that often times the first responder to a domestic violence issue, that first responder is actually the police and is gender mainstreaming?

Are the issues that have to do with gender- the protection of women and dealing with domestic violence and sexual abuse? Are the police really trained sufficiently to address these issues and my take away obviously and we know this that the police definitely need more training. This is not to say we are blaming the police; this is something that has been for decades in our culture and the police reflect our culture in many respects so we have to in a deliberate way, in an instrumental way have this conversation with our law officers that your job is not just to go and warn.

I received a WhatsApp message couple weeks ago from a lady who reached out to me because we announced right in this room the preventative detention policy which we intend to implement.  She said to me that her friend was just sitting at the police station because her husband attacked her and he has done this many times. She had reported it to the police and all she could do is just go back to the police for her own protection at the time because there was nowhere else for her to go. All the police said to her is that, “well you know it’s man and woman business, we’ll just go to the home and warn him.” So it was about her eighth time and all that happened was a warning and it could happen again and again and again and again and so she thought that the policy of preventative detention was one that was needed and could work.

Clearly there are many risks with such a policy which is why we’re taking the time to make sure that it is properly devised before it is implemented. But I raised this issue because we often times overlook it because for many of us this society is guilty of the same thing that we accuse the police of because the neighbors hear it and say it’s not my business; it’s man and woman business and therefore we give a space in the society where domestic violence can happen without any kind of intervention.

What we really want to do is to confront a deeper culture. There is a culture in the society that says- and I hate to bring these things up in polite company but I’m certain we’re here to send a stronger message that things like grooming is ok- that a man can take up a thirteen year old/ a fourteen year old and say I’m doing a service man, I’m sending her to school and all that I get from her is a little sex. That is a permissible culture that even some parents know about and encouraged not to talk up against. It is in our culture; in some parts of Jamaica it is regular practice. There is such a thing that I know the Ministry of Education has to deal with as the own account students.

Many of them are young girls. They don’t live with parents; they’re in school and they live with man and we can’t close our eyes to that. That should be dealt with under grooming and any such situation the state should intervene and the man be brought before the courts. He’s not doing the country a favor or the family a favor.

Then there is the situation of incest which is still very much prevalent in many of our communities across Jamaica where some fathers believe that they must initiate their daughters. That must be spoken out against in the strongest way and our courts. You know I don’t like to speak about it but our courts must take stronger action when these things are brought before them.

Then there is the common issue as I said before men just feel that they can violate the person of a woman without impunity. You’re on the bus; you are free to dress as attractively as you want. No man has any right to touch you and that has to be said clearly.

I have two boys and my wife can tell you, I tell them no means no. It doesn’t mean maybe or… No means no and we have to say this to our boys. You have to respect a woman’s right to express herself whether it is in dress or in any way she feels and you have no more right over her body than she does.

I just thought I would share these things with you.

We’re trying to build a new Jamaica. A Jamaica in which we will have to challenge these long held cultural norms and say that they are not right and they are holding us back and they are literally the basis of the normalization of violence and I think this is a good platform to say it.

I hope I haven’t spoilt your lunch but it was great being with you and thanks for coming.