*** THE ROLE OF WOMEN IN COMMERCE IN THE CARIBBEAN ---------------------------------------------------- Statement to the Fourth Regional Conference on the integration of women into the economic and social development of Latin America and the Caribbean sponsored by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) Agenda item 4: Review and critical evaluation of some aspects of the status of women in the region, including their incorporation in the labor market, women heads of household and the role of women in commerce in the Caribbean Guatemala City, Guatemala 27-30 September 1988 * * * * * It is common knowledge that systematic discrimination against women has not only made women the main victims of a spreading poverty, but has promoted unhealthy attitudes in men. Denied education and technical training, constrained by family, work, and social structures which give preference to men, and excluded from decision-making at all levels, women must often work in the non-formal sector of the economy as traders and walking food vendors, unprotected by legislation and not benefiting from general improvements in working conditions. Meanwhile, men develop attitudes of superiority and habits of oppression that they carry from the family, to the workplace, to political life and ultimately to international relations. Studies conducted during the UN Decade for Women have shown, however, that the integration of women into existing development projects does not necessarily improve their living conditions. If the projects themselves do not take into account the real needs of women, participation may not be of much help. Indeed, effective solutions to local problems, while often requiring resources from governments and outside agencies, need to be found in consultation with those to be served -- men and women. Women, therefore, must be included not only as implementers and beneficiaries of development projects, but as designers and planners. As full partners, women and men should jointly identify the community's needs and respond creatively with appropriate solutions. Such a redefined social and economic development process would promote not only the material but the spiritual welfare of that community. In the view of the Baha'i International Community, women can bring to the solution of problems special qualities of particular value in economic planning, including those qualities which accrue to their capacities as peacemakers and the wisdom derived from their familiarity with domestic and certain other fundamental social issues. This more integrated human approach would naturally take into account the crucial roles women play as mothers, educators, nutritionists, promoters of health care, and providers of emotional support to the family. The importance of education cannot be overstated. The education of women of all ages is particularly important because it is one of the most effective means for diffusing the benefits of knowledge throughout society, since women are the first educators of children. Moreover, education raises the status of women, allowing them greater participation in the affairs of their communities. Ultimately, the development of talents and skills will enable women to contribute their special insights and sensibilities to every field of human endeavor. Improvement in the status of women will also require a change in the attitudes of men. This attitudinal change should be one goal of education. Boys and girls must be raised with the principle of the equality of the sexes, and must learn from an early age to develop qualities of cooperation. The media can help promote attitudes of equality and present positive role models for both men and women. Folk theater, puppets and other creative strategies can engage the community in open forums to examine and change attitudes that do not promote the health and well-being of society. The Baha'i International Community believes that the well being of humanity, the realization of social and economic development and the establishment of world peace require the recognition of the equality of men and women as a spiritual principle, and the consequent participation of women with men in all fields of human endeavor. Thousands of local Baha'i communities in Latin America and the Caribbean are currently engaged in such a process of integrating women into all aspects of community life and decision-making. We would like to share from our own experience some of what we have found valuable. - In Baha'i communities, both men and women, as an act of faith, are committed to implementing the principle of equality. Both are engaged in developing attitudes that are appropriate to equal status for women. Men, in fact, through membership in Baha'i communities, are learning from experience that when women become fully incorporated into the life of the community, everyone benefits. - From the beginning of the Baha'i community, women have been involved in the electoral process of its institutions. The elected local councils which guide Baha'i community affairs have done a great deal to encourage the participation of women and nurture respect for diverse views. These grassroots organizations involve the community in identifying needs, devising plans, and carrying them out. Among their concerns are the education of children and the implementation of service projects that benefit the whole community. Baha'i women all over the world are increasingly being elected to these local councils, exercising the responsibilities of membership and thus gaining experience in decision-making. - Regular participation by Baha'i men and women in the consultative process accustoms them to solving problems collaboratively. Consultation requires that each person offer his or her views freely to the group in the search for an answer that will provide for the well-being of the entire community. Once offered, however, these views no longer belong to the person, but are regarded as being the property of the group. The decision reached through this process is, likewise, accepted as the product of the group and not of any individual. - One step in the direction of greater participation for women has been the formation of women's consultative groups. In these groups, women, who have often been isolated from one another, can share experiences, practice consultation, encourage each other and develop plans. This experience prepares them for service on local elected councils and encourages them to express their views. The groups also provide a place for literacy training, spiritual and intellectual growth, and for the dissemination of information on health, nutrition, child care and other practical information. - Encouragement from the community is essential. Plans generated by these consultative groups are submitted to the elected council for consultation, approval and subsequent recommendation to the community for action. The development of a community spirit in support of their initiatives gives the women courage and creates the moral and psychological climate for dynamic and harmonious change, which is the goal of all Baha'i development projects. The Baha'i International Community takes pleasure in offering these brief comments and suggestions toward a framework for the full integration of women into all aspects of development and society. We are ready to extend to the ECLAC (Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean), in the spirit of warm cooperation, the experience and assistance of Baha'i communities throughout Latin America and the Caribbean in achieving a better quality of life for the peoples in the region. * * * * *