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Spotlight on Memory of the World Heritage: Empowerment for women

© University of the West Indies
Dame Nita and Javier Perez de Cuellar

8 March commemorates International Women's Day and UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register lists records relating to women's issues such as the historic 1893 decision by New Zealand to give women the right to vote.  It also includes archives of outstanding women such as those documenting the life and times of Dame Ruth Nita Barrow of Barbados, one of the 20th century’s most extraordinary women.

The 1893 Women's Suffrage Petition

© Archives New Zealand
1893 suffrage petition, first sheet

Quick facts:

  • Year of submission: 1997
  • Year of inscription: 1997
  • Country: New Zealand
  • Heritage item: Link

In 1893, New Zealand became the first self-governing country in the world to give women the right to vote.  The decision was seen as a major victory for suffragists everywhere. Yet, 21 years later at the start of World War I, only three other nations had granted women suffrage: Australia in 1902, Finland in 1906 and Norway in 1913.

In New Zealand, the right to stand for Parliament would take women another 26 years to achieve, but in 1893, despite the fact that the new Electoral Bill had been passed some 10 weeks before the poll, an estimated 75 per cent of women exercised their right to cast a vote.

Their victory came after years of intense campaigning and petitions to the New Zealand parliament, the first being in 1891. Several attempts were made to pass bills giving women the right to vote, but each time they were foiled. It was not until a third petition was presented that had gathered 30,000 signatories, nearly one quarter of the female adult population, that the mood and political and personal forces present in parliament resulted in the bill being passed.

This historic petition is made up of 546 sheets of paper from all over the country that are glued together to form a continuous roll 274 metres long. It is inscribed in UNESCO’s Memory of the World register as an item transcending national borders and a shining example for women’s rights campaigners across the world.

The Nita Barrow Collection

© University of the West Indies
Dame Nita Barrow

Quick facts:

  • Year of submission: 2008
  • Year of inscription: 2009
  • Country: Barbados
  • Heritage item: Link

On the subject of shining examples, someone truly worthy of this description is the late Dame Ruth Nita Barrow, often described as one of the most distinguished women of the 20th century. Born in 1916 on the Caribbean island of Barbados, Barrow began her working life as a nurse, one of the few professions available to women in those days.

After holding various posts in nursing and public health in the Caribbean region, she was appointed as nursing advisor to the World Health Organisation in 1964. She was to hold several top international positions including those of President of the World Council of Churches, the Young Women’s Christian Association and the International Council for Adult Education. These presidencies were of particular significance because no women, let alone a Black woman, had ever held the posts.

Described variously as a nurse, public health official, diplomat and gender activist, to name but a few, Dame Nita was committed to the advancement of women’s rights, particularly the right to adequate health care. But she was also an outspoken critic of social injustice and in 1986, was the only woman appointed to the Commonwealth Group of Eminent Persons that was sent to South Africa in a bid to encourage dialogue between the apartheid government and leaders of the African majority. That same year, Barrow was appointed the Permanent Representative of Barbados to the United Nations.  That ended in 1990, when she became the first ever woman Governor-General of Barbados, a post she held till her death in 1995.

Barrow’s life has been described as an outstanding example of one person’s dedication and service to others. Her work as an advocate of gender and racial equality, and commitment to the alleviation of poverty and improvement of health care and education has made her a role model for many others.

An extensive collection of speeches, manuscripts and correspondence belonging to Barrow, documenting the life and times of this extraordinary woman, is included in UNESCO’s Memory of the World register.

Memory of the World Register

Listing of items such as these on the Memory of the World Register is intended to generate interest and help with the conservation of documentary heritage which helps us to understand our society in all its complexities.

However war, social upheaval, looting, illegal trading, destruction, inadequate conservation and lack of funding have all had a disastrous effect on the conservation of our documentary heritage.

A growing awareness of this, together with UNESCO’s belief that the world's documentary heritage belongs to all and should be preserved and protected, led to the establishment of its Memory of the World programme in 1992.

The programme works to identify and facilitate the preservation of valuable archive holdings and library collections worldwide, and assists with their dissemination. Inscription of a collection in the Memory of the World register, created in 1995, is part of the process.

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