Women have long been suppressed and prevented to hold higher office or positions since the ancient times. There were suppositions that women are not politically savvy or capable of handling responsibility outside the home, let alone have a voice in society. Some societies even restricted women from becoming educated to suppress their desire to fight for their rights. However, as the years progressed, societies around the globe slowly became divided in how they treat their female constituents. Jamaica, for instance, had been open to women empowerment but they still held certain reservations on allowing to dominate in the political arena. However, despite the reservations and prejudice on women in power, women such as Portia Simpson-Miller did not falter and rose through the ranks as the first female Prime Minister of Jamaica. Simpson-Miller can be considered an excellent role model for both women and political leaders as she became an avatar for change and equality aiming for a fully independent and nationalistic Jamaica and a Jamaica that would allow equal opportunity for all its people regardless of their gender, age and socio-economic status.
Portia Simpson-Miller or Portia Simpson (also known as Sista P) was born on December 12, 1945 in the rural town of Wood Hall in St. Catherine’s Parish, the country’s most densely populated parish. Simpson-Miller was one of eight siblings of a small working class family who originally hailed from Clarendon. Skard (2014) stated that while the Simpson family was poor, Simpson-Miller stressed that she and her seven siblings were well-taken care of by their mother and father. Simpson-Miller recounted that her parents were a source of inspiration considering that her mother was very strong both physically and spiritually while her father was hardworking and determined. She was even seen as her father’s favorite considering her very optimistic and vocal position on having her rights in the family and in the community. Their family were also open when it comes to the issues of the public and the People’s National Party have often conducted meetings in the Simpson home . Later on, the young Simpson-Miller studied at Marlie Hill Primary School in Manchester and then to St. Martin’s High School in Kingston which also paved the way for her political career. She took on jobs as a secretary for social service organizations before the larger world of politics knocked on her door .
Simpson-Miller first entered representational politics in 1974 as the official representative of Trench Town for the People’s National Party. According to her official profile in the Jamaican government, she was asked to represent the PNP and become the Councilor of the Kingston and St. Andrew Corporation (KSAC) Her victory for the municipal elections prompted people to nominate her as a member of Parliament to represent Southwest St. Andrew in 1976 and later on, becoming the Parliamentary Secretary in the Office of Prime Minister in 1977 . Many had been skeptical as to Simpson-Miller’s rise to fame considering Jamaica’s history and its perception on women. Since the end of the slave revolts and the beginnings of Jamaica’s quest for independence, Jamaican women slowly strove hard to gain their independence and gained the right to vote in 1944 . Aside from universal suffrage, Jamaica also ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 1981 to permit active participation for women in the country. However, Jamaica’s Bureau of Women’s Affairs reported to the United Nations that while women are indeed permitted to vote and participate in public life, there is still a lack of legislation and education to highlight the importance of women’s rights. There were still existing stereotypes when it comes to the role women should do in the community and the national laws remain in conflict with the international standards on women’s rights. While the government is already working on ways to improve Jamaica’s position on women, the political culture of Jamaica still restricts women from fully becoming involved as men still determine which changes should be applied to the political system. Legal reform also is slow when it comes to the provisions on domestic and sexual violence and the situation of rural women .
While serving as the municipal council representative for KSA, Jamaica was already embroiled between the political violence between the PNP and the Jamaica Labor Party (JLP) as there were efforts to destabilize the current leading party under Michael Manley, who wished to connect with Communist-led Cuba. The political violence between both parties almost caused the elections to be delayed and placed Jamaica in a state of emergency. Simpson-Miller managed to win once more as a minister of parliament and by 1978, she became the vice president of the PNP. However, by the next parliamentary elections in 1980, Jamaica was under a series of declines from unemployment, government financial instability and political violence that had placed Jamaicans at risk. This period had traumatized Simpson-Miller because her office was also attacked due to the ongoing violence. Many were killed around her and once the battle was over, she adopted a child whose parents were killed in the crossfire. While no one was entirely blamed for the violence, it was said that the JLP had something to do with it due to their landslide victory in that election. While Simpson-Miller won, she and her fellow members did not acknowledge the current government and boycotted the parliament. Simpson-Miller was then appointed as the spokesperson of the PNP who would discuss all aspects of social issues – from women’s rights to social security.
While she held the position, many praised Simpson-Miller as she embodied charisma, and determination which made her appealing to all Jamaicans. By 1987, the PNP managed to gain momentum once more in the Jamaican political environment and many Jamaicans saw Simpson-Miller was already likely to become the leader for the PNP should anything happen to current head Manley . Throughout this period, she had also been the minister of local government, community development and sport . By the end of the 1990s, she was already seen as a very dominant power in Jamaican politics as she is seen as the likely candidate to replace Patterson as the next Prime Minister. She was appointed as the minister of sports and tourism due to her known love to sports, which was met positively by businessmen and the JLP. Despite the ministry’s problems on funding, Simpson-Miller managed to improve the tourism sector of Jamaica by opening opportunities for investors to improve tourist spots around the country. As far as sports are concerned, she would often support Jamaicans personally in all competitions .
The opportunity to enter into a higher political office presented itself to Simpson-Miller when Prime Minister Percival Patterson resigned from his post in 2006. Prior to this resignation, her position as the minister for local government and sports had enabled her to gain the favor of Jamaicans because she argued that the government should only not under-fund its projects. She also abstained in the PNP-controlled Parliament meetings on the funding controversy as she believed the fire-fighting sector should be given all possible aid. While some of her party members saw it negatively, her integrity was undeniable . However, before she could even succeed in the vacated position, she had to control one of the country’s most influential political parties: the People’s National Party. She would also need to contend against Peter Philips, then minister of national security, who was seen as another possible contender for PNP leadership and as the standard bearer of the party.
Of course, not all were approving of Simpson-Miller’s desire to run as the President of the PNP. Her detractors, according to Jackson (2009), called her a “serial kisser” at rallies or a person who has different political ally every election . Others expressed concern over her intellectual capability because her rivals were graduates from top institutions. However, this did not stop Simpson-Miller from reaching her goal especially with the people supporting her run. She had taken additional studies from the Union Institute of Miami for Public Administration, University of California – Berkeley for Advanced Management and the Institute of Management and Production for Public Relations and Advanced Management. In her campaign, she advocated the rights of the poor, dispossessed, women and the LGBT communities. She also promised to stop crime – especially drug trade – to help the economy recover from the ordeal. She also vowed to end drug-related killings alongside world record holder sprinter Asafa Powell, due to the onset of killings in the slums of Kingston. With her campaign highlighting the important issues the public wishes to resolve, she managed to win as the Prime Minister on February 25, 2006 and sworn into office in March 2006 as the first female Prime Minister of Jamaica . Her victory triggered national celebration, especially for women, as they saw Simpson-Miller as their beloved mother and sister (calling her as Momma, Auntie Portia or Sista P).
When she swore oath upon her victory in 2006 as the new Jamaican Prime Minister, Simpson-Miller pledged that she would try to “recapture the nation’s cultural roots in terms of traditional courtesy, decency and good manners as well as break the power of criminals and restore power to the communities .” Furthermore, Simpson-Miller had promised to establish a comprehensive policy and legislative framework to address public safety and establish a criminal statistical data system to organize law enforcement. She had also promised to design a strengthening plan that would improve law enforcement officials and fund them accordingly. In terms of the economy, she promised to put more focus on human and social capital by providing opportunities for jobs. She also stressed more capital for new industries and jobs, allowing Jamaicans to compete with their counterparts around the globe. She also fought for higher budget and transparency . Her pledges was seen positively by the people considering the currently negative position of Jamaica in the world scene. According to studies, the Jamaican government was considered one of the world’s corrupted, inefficient and outdated political systems. The country is also ranked 64 out of 158 countries in the 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index of Transparency International.
Almost immediately, Simpson-Miller’s administration had moved immediately to stop corruption and promote good governance aided by the Corruption Prevention Act . She had also began with the negotiations with Chile, Venezuela and the United States – including the World Bank – to discuss continuous investment for the country. She also started a $9.8 million job-creation plan and reached out with the JLP to find the solution against election violence. However, while there were indeed proposals that aided Jamaica to improve its development, Simpson-Miller found herself besieged by a couple of controversies. Detractors also remained against her because of her speech at the Rehoboth Apostolic Church as she stressed that when she was appointed as Prime Minister, she said it was God who appointed her to the position and Christians should support her as part of their responsibility . Some also criticized her in the first few months of her tenure because of her lacking leadership capabilities and “governmental sleaze” as the PNP’s 2006 annual conference mostly showed a lack of clear policies on reform. JLP leader Bruce Golding also accused Simpson-Miller and the PNP for accepting a $467,000 cash bond from Trafigura Beheer, a Dutch-based oil company as part of their kickback. These controversies had also prompted many citizens to stress that they wish that the JLP replaces the PNP in the next elections .
Unfortunately, the desire of the public and the predictions of skeptics have come true as Simpson-Miller found herself on another roadblock for the 2007 general elections as Bruce Golding of the JLP was voted after winning 33 seat victories against the PNP and Simpson-Miller. She conceded defeat on September 5, 2007 . Despite her loss in 2007, Simpson-Miller did not let her loss get to her and actively participated in several regional and international organizations. She became a member of the Council of Women World Leaders, an international organization for current and former women presidents and prime ministers to tackle issues on women’s rights. She also became the vice president of the Organization of American States’ High-level Inter-American Network on Decentralization, Local Government and Citizen Participation, and the Chairperson of the Caribbean Forum of Ministers responsible for decentralization, local government, community development and citizen participation throughout the Caribbean. She had also been appointed in 2011 as a board member of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) and the CARICOM Committee on External Trade .
Simpson-Miller once again returned to the government after her loss in 2011 and campaigned to regain the slot of Prime Minister for the 2012 general election. In one statement from her campaign manager Easton Douglas, he argued that the 2007 loss of the PNP and Simpson-Miller was highlighting that people wanted change despite the criticisms raised against her. People also preferred her because she made herself approachable for them to reach out and despite the criticisms, Simpson-Miller did not allow herself to be disheartened and been consistent with her desire to help Jamaica. Her campaign was successful as on January 5, 2012, she managed to win as the new Prime Minister, handling the Ministries for Information, Development, Sport, Women’s Affairs and Defense at the same time. Douglas argued that Simpson-Miller would not stop until she fulfills her promises and her victory highlights that she is ready to take the challenges set against her .
It was clear for many Jamaicans that nothing changed in Simpson-Miller’s desire to improve the situation of Jamaica by taking risks in stressing her desire to separate the country from the Commonwealth realm. According to Yang (2014), Simpson-Miller’s 2012 inaugural address highlighted that she would “initiate the process of detachment” from the British monarch as Jamaicans still feel that they are still a colony of Britain despite gaining its independence in 1962. Simpson-Miller had even gone further and blatantly threatening to tone down the Commonwealth celebrations for the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, protesting that she should be replaced as the Head of State of Jamaica by the time the island celebrates its 50th independence anniversary. In one of her statements quoted by The Independent, Simpson-Miller stressed:
“It’s time for us to sever the ties. August coming will be 50 years since we have gained our independence. I really feel it is time now for Jamaica to have its own leadership fully, to take charge it is important to us because it is a part of a journey, a journey that stated when our ancestors were dragged, sold into slavery, and brought here and elsewhere in the Caribbean. There struggles were so that we can be free men and women today .”
She argued that republicanism is the perfect way to improve Jamaica’s government and reform the countries’ justice system to cater to the Jamaican guidelines. Currently, the judicial system of Jamaica remains criticized because of the high murder rates in the country. Debates are also still ongoing between supporters and opposition considering the possibility that Jamaica is still not ready for such shift .
Aside from the issue of breaking away from the British monarchy, Simpson-miller stressed that she is working on her economic plan for the country alongside the Cabinet and the Economic Development Committee. In her 2012 speech for the 74th Annual Conference of the PNP, she stressed that the country needed investments to create all the opportunities needed for the country to prosper. Some of the notable investments she accepted – amounting to almost $825.9 million – was the Dolphin Cove Group to create a new attraction in the country, the West Kingston Power Partners for the creation of a 66-megawatt energy plant and Hinduja Global Solutions to improve the ICT sector of the country. She also pledged the creation of 7,000 jobs from these investments to reduce the poverty level that has increased to 20% under the JLP. She also criticized the JLP’s financial plan as it had only increased the country’s debt to $1.7 trillion, leaving the country to pay 58% of the yearly budget just for debts. She also remarked in the speech that she is going to save $1 billion of the incoming investment for rural Jamaica, for the development of the housing and development programs .
As Simpson-Miller continues on with her second term in office, critics have high hopes that she would be able to cover all the problems of the country with her programs and tackle them consistently in comparison to her first term in office. Experts such as Dr. Damien King of the University of the West Indies called for Simpson-Miller to identify how she will tackle the economic growth issue of the country, especially the fiscal deficit. Others hope that she would be able to reconstruct the economy in her new tenure to ensure that the country can keep up with the rest of the world, adding new industries for the people. For the education sector, various sectors hope that she will be able to encourage the improvement of education institutions and address the economic problems that disable parents from providing their children with education .
The life and struggle of Portia Simpson-Miller highlights that while men are mostly dominant in many societies such as Jamaica, it should not stop women from stepping up and making their voices heard in society. She did not let these prejudice on women and criticisms to her capability to stop her from advocating what she deems is right for the country, successfully rising in the ranks and became the leader of the PNP and later on, the country. Although there have been cases wherein Simpson-Miller found herself at a loss (especially with the violent political environment in Jamaica and her subsequent loss in 2007), she did not let herself be idle and performed even in the international arena to promote equality and change for her country or region. Her victory in Jamaica’s political arena not only stopped the patriarchal political system in the country, but also ignited nationalism and equality for her people. In this regard, Portia Simpson-Miller is a true role model for all people because she managed to conquer all challenges directed against her and focused solely on improving Jamaica for the future.
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