WLC 2024 - Keynote Address
Her Excellency Christine Carla Kangaloo ORTT, President of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago

Good morning.

Permit me to begin by thanking AMCHAM-TT for its kind invitation to address this 10th Women’s Leadership Conference. 

For the last decade, AMCHAM-TT has, by means of Conferences like this one, provided an important platform for discussion on women’s issues. One of the things that I particularly admire is that these discussions lead to meaningful action, sometimes with AMCHAM-TT itself serving as a model of the very progress to which such discussions call us. For example, from aspiration to actualisation, AMCHAM-TT achieved in 2020, the laudable strategic goal of gender-parity in its own boardroom, with a board consisting of eight men and eight women.

It seems to me that the theme of this year’s Conference - “Inspire Inclusion” – is an invitation for us all to consider how far we have come, from aspiration to actualisation, in the struggle for gender equity. 

I believe that we have certainly moved a long way from merely ‘aspiring’ to gender equity. In many areas of endeavour, statistics do give the appearance  that women are not only closing the gap on gender inequity, but that in some cases, are even doing disproportionately better than men.  

Education is one such area. Not only are girls outperforming their male counterparts academically, but there are more females than boys writing examinations, and therefore accessing an education, in the first place. For example, of the 100 pupils who were awarded scholarships for the 2022 Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examinations (CAPE), over 70 per cent were girls. In 2022, more girls than boys were registered to sit the CAPE Unit One and Unit Two examinations – just over 4,600 females, as opposed to just below 3,000 males. In the 2022 Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) examinations, roughly 11,500 girls wrote the exams, as compared to just over 9,000 boys. At the 2021 and 2022 President’s Medal Presentation Ceremony (which took place in 2024) 10 of the 13 awardees were girls.  A female student topped the 2023 SEA exams. 

The statistics paint a broadly similar picture with respect to women’s involvement in the professions. In the legal profession, for example, there were more female Magistrates than male Magistrates in 2023; more female Masters than male Masters; and more female Judges than male Judges. 

In many other spheres of national life - including in politics, business, higher learning and culture - we also see women gaining major ground in the struggle for gender equity. We have had two women Presidents of the Republic and one female Prime Minister. Women have served as President of the Senate, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Leader of the Opposition and as Policitcal Leaders and Chairpersons of two major political parties. Women’s representation in the Parliament has surpassed the 30% ‘critical mass’ benchmark set by the United Nations Economic and Social Council Resolution 1990/15. At present, women comprise 34.2% of our entire Parliament. In the Senate, they comprise 41.9% of the membership. In the House of Representatives, they comprise 28.5% of the membership. The membership figures in both the House and the Senate exceed the 26.2% global average of women representation in national parliaments worldwide. In business, we have female CEOs of two major banks. The University of the West Indies, St Augustine Campus has a female Principal; the Hugh Wooding Law School has had female Principals for quite some time now. UWI St. Augustine also recently appointed its first female Professor of Science – Dr Judith Gobin; and in 2021 AMCHAM-TT welcomed its third female President.  Recently, Pan Trinbago elected its first female President.

All of these statistics would seem to suggest that women are today at the cusp of gender equity. They might well give the impression that the goal of gender equity is closer to actualisation, than it is to mere aspiration.

The fact is, however, that despite all of the progress that has been made, and despite all of these very encouraging statistics, there remain serious barriers to the actualisation of gender equity in Trinidad and Tobago. ‘Gender equity’ has been defined to mean respecting all people without discrimination, regardless of their gender. It also has been defined to mean eliminating inequalities in access to health, education and economic opportunity based on their gender. And, it is in relation to these two definitions of gender equity, that I fear that our country has been encountering difficulty in moving out of the stage of mere aspiration. 

Dealing, first, with ‘respect regardless of gender’ - I do not think it can be said that we are where we need to be. To the contrary, it is both lamentable and unforgiveable that, even today - in the 21st century - decades after they have cemented themselves as a permanent part of the national landscape, women continue to be subjected to gender-based ridicule and contempt in their fields of endeavour and that they continue to be objectified and demeaned on the basis of their sex. 

I can point to unsavoury experiences in my own life in the public space, as examples. 
When I was President of the Senate, the Speaker of the House - also a female - and I, were made the subjects of a particularly vile and offensive gender-based attack, by way of a meme that was circulated on social media. I won’t get into the unpleasant details this morning. But, suffice it to say that what stood out in that attack, was that the attack never once condescended to any particulars about our ability. The attack was based solely on our gender.  The saddest thing about that experience was that Madame Speaker and I were not unique. A recent European study has found that women are 27 times more likely to face harassment online than men. Another analysis has found that 92 per cent of women reported that online violence negatively influences their wellbeing. Unsurprisingly, that analysis also found that online violence has the tendency to cause women to suppress their inclination to work in the public eye. 

Being President of the country affords one no insulation from being disrespected by reason of one’s gender. I have had male commentators disparagingly refer to parts of my anatomy, in describing actions that I have taken as President as having been caused by persons “literally or figuratively” being “in my bosom”. My husband has had it suggested to him by a male member of the media that decisions which I have taken as President are “because of him” – as if I have no mind of my own, but am dominated by or beholden to a male spouse in my decision-making. 

The sad fact is, that for all of the advancements that have been made in the march towards gender equity, women, in all spheres of national endeavour, are routinely subjected to disrespect based on their gender only. The cynic might say that the statistics do nothing but act as a cover for deeply-entrenched, negative attitudes and perceptions about women, that surface, over and over again, in the ways I have described, and in other ways. Far too-often, whenever someone disagrees with an action taken or a decision made by a female authority-figure, recourse is had to negative, subterranean beliefs and attitudes about women. On occasions like these, time-worn, ugly insinuations and implications about women and their gender, borne of this primitive and obsolete worldview, erupt and spill over into our thinking and our actions towards women. 

Dealing next, with the second definition of gender equity – eliminating inequalities in access to health, education and economic opportunity based on their gender – as I have said, the statistics show considerable improvement in the area of access to education. But what about inequalities in access to health? What about the health risks that are faced by women on the sole basis of their gender, in the first place? Here, the statistics reveal a chilling picture. 

According to the Crime and Problem Analysis Branch of the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS), there were over 15,000 reports of domestic violence between 2010 and 2016. Approximately 72 percent of these reports were of violence against women. According to the recently launched National Strategic Action Plan on Gender-based Violence and Sexual Violence in Trinidad and Tobago, the data suggests that 44% of women have experienced Intimate Partner Violence, a figure that surpasses the global average of 1 in 3 women. The Plan also cites data which shows that between 2018 and 2022, there were 4,667 reports of women and girls who were victims of Sexual Violence. 92% of those reports related to women and girls who were under the age of 35.

In 2023, the Ministry of Social Development and Family Services reported that between 2020 and 2021, Trinidad and Tobago recorded a 62 per cent increase in sexual violence against girls under the age of 15, and that up until September 2023, females accounted for 75 per cent of the reports of domestic violence made to the TTPS. For the period January to September 2023, the Ministry reported that 972 calls were made to the domestic violence hotline with women being 95 per cent of the callers seeking help. In 2017, the National Women’s Health Survey for Trinidad and Tobago showed that 13 percent of women experienced sexual harassment at work, in public transport and public spaces. The data suggests that those numbers have been on the rise.

The fact remains that, despite all of the attempts that have been made to “Inspire Inclusion’, women are routinely excluded from matters having to do with the general health of the population. Women are often excluded from healthcare research and in clinical studies. According to Forbes Magazine, “because women are unfairly represented in clinical studies, general disease treatments may be less effective for women or have high side effects.” Medical research today is still male-led. For example, ‘The 1982 Physician’s Health Study’ examined the effect of aspirin on cardiovascular disease involving 22,000 patients. None of the patients was female.

The result is that, at the same time that they are disproportionately under-represented in health-care research, women find themselves disproportionately represented in terms of the health risks that they face on the sole basis of their gender.

Viewed through the lenses of ‘respect regardless of gender’, and of ‘inequalities in access to health, based on gender’, one can be forgiven for thinking that the goal of gender equity is still mere aspiration, and is miles away from actualisation.

The power of the theme of this year’s Conference - “Inspire Inclusion” – lies, I think, in its call to us all, as a country, to identify the root causes of the gender inequities that still persist in our society, and to find solutions to them.

My experience tells me that one root cause of these stubborn inequities is our antiquated attitudes and perceptions about women – attitudes and perceptions that either denigrate them because of their sex, or diminish them because of their gender. My experience tells me that for all of the advancements made at the surface of the statistics,  outmoded attitudes and perceptions about women lie deeply entrenched in the Trinbagonian psyche. My experience also tells me that, if we are to complete the march towards gender equity, we have to confront these attitudes and perceptions and change them. 

I believe that it is critical for us to work on changing negative attitudes and perceptions about women, by doing everything that we can to engender healthy attitudes and perceptions about women, among our nation’s children. 

Part of the focus of my Presidency is young people. Consistent with this focus, on International Women’s Day, President’s House held a story-time session for primary school boys and girls. The short stories recounted the exploits of some marvellous women throughout history. There were several common threads throughout the stories about the qualities of these amazing women – about their courage, their confidence in the face of the doubts of others; about them knowing that they were meant for greatness; and about their parents who encouraged them never to give up. In planning the event, we made the conscious and the deliberate decision to invite both girls and boys to the event. We did this because we believe that our nation’s boys need to hear about and to experience – even if only vicariously - the strength and the resilience and the giftedness of their female counterparts. 

After the stories were read, we invited the young girls, as well as the young boys, to share their views and their impressions of the material. We did this because we wanted to create a space for young boys and young girls to engage with one another in conversations around the empowerment of women. 

Of course, this is not the only model that there is for exchanging views among young children. There are as many models and ways as there are hearts and minds to conceive of them. Today, I encourage all of civil society to explore ways by which safe spaces can be created for this kind of interaction between our young boys and girls. I do so because I firmly believe that it is in heathy and respectful interactions among our young people that we will find our efforts as a society the most likely to “Inspire Inclusion”.

And so, I end where I started, by thanking AMCHAM TT for this opportunity to be with you and to address you at this year’s Conference. I congratulate AMCHAM TT on the invaluable work that it has been doing to “Inspire Inclusion". And I end with the challenge that, although we have certainly moved a long way from mere 'aspiration’ to gender equity, there is infinitely more work to be done. I believe in Trinidad and Tobago. I believe in our country’s ability to do the work. And I am convinced, beyond peradventure, that were we to do it, we will in our lifetimes live in a world in which gender equity is not a mere aspiration, but an actualised reality.

I thank you.

WLC 2024 - Sponsor Remarks
Gillian Chevrotiere | Senior Manager, People, Leadership and Culture (NGC)