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Dame Billie Miller retired from active politics in 2008 after more than three decades as a member of the Barbados Labour Party (BLP) representing the City of Bridgetown. She held various portfolios, serving as Minister of Education, Minister of Health, Minister of Foreign Affairs for close to 14 years, Deputy Prime Minister and also Senior Minister. Though retired, she continues to be active in local and international non-governmental organisations. In this edited Big Interview, Dame Billie candidly discusses with reporter Gercine Carter her very busy life after retirement and also reflects on her political career. Q: What have you been doing in retirement? Dame Billie: I am so busy, some days I think I work more than when I was a working woman, so to speak. I work with a number of NGOs [non-governmental organisations] both at home and abroad and I sit on a few boards. At home, I sit on the board of the Barbados Association of Retired Persons (BARP) and I am the deputy chair of the Barbados Electoral and Boundaries Commission (EBC). In the Commonwealth, we have a very excellent reputation for the way in which we manage our electoral and, by extension, boundary affairs . . . . As soon as I retired towards the end of 2008, I was invited by the Governor of Bermuda to chair their Boundaries Commission. I have chaired the [Organisation of American States] electoral observation team to the last general election in Antigua and Barbuda. Subsequent to that, I was invited to be deputy head of mission to the CARICOM Secretariat mission to the Trinidad and Tobago elections. Then earlier this year, I was invited to be Chief of Mission for the Commonwealth Secretariat’s electoral observation team (of 19) to Uganda . . . . I have gone back to my old NGO roots in the areas of reproductive health and safe motherhood. There is a group which focuses on safe motherhood – Women Deliver, based in New York. I continue that work because I have United Nations (UN) expert status there. Right after I retired, I was selected the UN Laureate, United Nations Population Fund 2008, so I continue to do a lot of work with quite a few of the UN agencies, [including] with UN Women [an agency dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women]. I am patron of the Caribbean Institute for Women in Leadership and that deals almost exclusively with trying to get more women to come to the parliamentary process, to run for Parliament, and that is work mostly in the [Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States]. I have chosen to be a hands-on kind of patron. Our concern is women. More women need to come to the parliamentary process. If you are going to hope for greater gender justice and greater gender equity, then more women have to come to the place where laws are made. Q: Are you satisfied with the number of women coming forward for political office in Barbados? Dame Billie: No. I have just come back from London where the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. It turns out that in the 100 years, I am the only woman who has ever chaired its executive committee. They produced a wonderful book chronicling the 100 years and I was invited to write a chapter on women and politics. In that chapter, I had to make the point that women coming to Parliament is very much on the decline in the Caribbean. Several years ago, that was not the case but in recent years that has happened. Q: Why do you think it has happened? Dame Billie: One reason is the economics of it. That often is a challenge and an obstacle for women. Sometimes, people who make donations to campaign funds will earmark them for specific candidates who tend to be men. The selection process is also very challenging for women. Generally speaking, the political process is dominated by men and they bring their norms, their own perspectives, their own ways of doing business to that process and it is not easy for women to break through. Women will tend to be offered the seats that are less winnable, for instance… There are all kinds of other obstacles, and I am looking at the whole thing across the globe. There are religious [and] there are ethnic difficulties which stand in the way of women presenting themselves to run for Parliament… And then, there is the whole concept of dirty politics. There are a lot of very successful, very bright women who own their own businesses, who are heading businesses, but when you approach them they often say to you: ‘Look, I am very well respected in my profession, in my job. I know that I do a good job, I enjoy what I am doing; why should I have to put myself through this rite of passage so that I now have to be exposed to ridicule, ill-speaking or what is generally known as dirty politics?’ Q: How did you deal with ‘dirty politics’ during your career? Dame Billie: The whole business of character assasination . . . I made it clear from the very first at the by-election this would not be allowed on my platform and if you do it, I will never invite you back to speak again. I stuck to my word. One man on the first night out did it and I told him afterwards: ‘You will never speak on that platform again.’ So you can lay down your own ground rules. You have to have the strength and purpose of character to stay with what you decide on. Q: Does it bother you that there are still serious pockets of poverty in Bridgetown? Dame Billie: Yes. There is a part of New Orleans where work has to be done too, and that has to do with the sewering. It was a wrong thing – a very, very wrong thing – that when Barbados signed off on the Bridgetown Sewerage Project, that the sewering of Bridgetown did not include the residential areas of Chapman Lane and New Orleans and Cat’s Castle, and there was nothing I could do. By the time I came, it had been signed . . . and it was patently unfair. I said these are the people, many of whom had to be relocated to accommodate the sewerage project, and the ones who remained, you mean they are never to have the advantage of it? Q: Tell me about your work with HIV/AIDS. Dame Billie: I do things with UN/AIDS. This year, at the invitation of the UN AIDS High Level Commission on Prevention, I was invited to a meeting in Cape Town, South Africa. As you know, South Africa came late to a proper appreciation of HIV /AIDS. It was a good eye-opener. So that recently in Barbados, when we were looking at certain aspects of HIV/AIDS, it was good that I had been there and had seen how other people were attacking some of the problems. We have similar problems, stigma and discrimination, but we need to spread our net wider. There is more bisexuality in Barbados than Barbadians want to admit or recognise. The focus here now is on sex workers and men who have sex with men. I have done some work with sex workers under the aegis of UN Women. People from those two groupings are going home to partners and to spouses and that is where the HIV/AIDS Commission here and the various other bodies here in Barbados and in the rest of the Caribbean need to be looking more closely. I also have very strong feelings about the matter because I started my NGO life in the Barbados Family Planning Association going way back to the early ’70s. HIV/AIDS is just another sexually transmitted disease. The difference is that in the early years it was a death sentence. Not so much now in Barbados, because we give the anti-retroviral therapy to anyone who presents HIV-positive. But more and more new cases are presenting every day, so you mustn’t run away with the idea that because people are living longer that it means that there is less AIDS. They are alive because the therapy is keeping them alive. But it means that the education programme is not working . . . . There is a lot of work to be done. Q: Are you satisfied that Barbados is doing enough to build trading links with its Latin and Central American neighbours? Dame Billie: Barbados by itself can’t do it. Barbados [has] a population of less than 300 000. Trade would be miniscule and that is why the [CARICOM Single Market and Economy] is the only way that we can go. It has to be a regional thrust. The Asociation of Caribbean States (ACS) was meant to help to take this forward, but it has not at all reached its potential. We have allowed differences in language to separate us and the truth is the goverments were overborne with other costs. They are footing the bill for the University of the West Indies, they are footing the bill for LIAT, they are footing the bill for a host of other regional entities and they just have not been able to put the resources that are needed into the secretariat of the ACS. I was tempted to say it may have to do with the narrowness or the width of vision of the leaders of the Caribbean, but then we thought that way when we were trying to build a Federation. I think more often than not, the people are ahead of their leaders and in the end, it is where the people are taking us that we may not have any choice but to go.