| Dame Ruth Nita Barrow, GCMG, DA
Former Governor General of Barbados
Dame Ruth Nita Barrow was awarded the honour of being appointed Governor General of Barbados on 6 June 1990. Dame Nita served as Head of State until her eventual death on 19 December 1995.
Dame Nita is regarded as one of the Caribbean’s most outstanding leaders, admired for her indomitable spirit and her ability to empower others. Her diverse career path spanned many years of service as a nurse, an adult educator and a diplomat, both in the Caribbean and internationally. Her accomplishments and contribution were particularly remarkable considering that she was born in an era when it was neither common nor easy for women to attain influential positions in society.
Early life and education
Born on 15 November 1916, Ruth Nita Barrow was an ambitious woman born to a family of political activists.
Her father, an Anglican priest, was removed from his posting on the island of St. Croix for his controversial sermons preaching against racism and social stratification.
Her uncle, Dr. Charles Duncan O'Neal, was founder of the Democratic League of Barbados and one of the island's 10 National Heros.
While her younger brother, Errol Barrow fought for independence of the nation. With independence, Errol become Prime Minister of Barbados (1966 - 1976 and 1986-1987).
An activist and leading humanitarian herself, Nita paralleled her family's achievements.
Nita Barrow studied nursing in Barbados, continuing her studies at the University of Toronto, Edinburgh and Columbia Universities. She began her career as a trained nurse, midwife, and health care administer, holding a number of positions in Barbados and Jamaica.
In 1954, she became the first West Indian Matron of the University College Hospital (UCH), Jamaica and the first Principal Nursing Officer of Jamaica in 1956. She also served as Nursing Adviser for the Caribbean Area to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) for five years, and a health consultant to the World Health Organization (WHO) for 15 years. She directed an extensive research project on nursing education in the Commonwealth Caribbean that resulted in the re-organisation and upgrading of the training of nurses in the region. It also led to the introduction of the Advanced Nursing Education Programme at The University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona. She published numerous papers on public health and health education, and was considered an authority in these fields.
As Director of the Christian Medical Commission (CMC) of the World Council of Churches (WCC), she promoted primary health care and encouraged her colleagues from developed countries to value traditional medicine and its practitioners. In her roles as World President of the YWCA, President of the International Council of Adult Education (ICAE), and UN Director of the Global Forum for Women, she was also actively involved in improving the status of all peoples, but especially of women. Her seminal speech at a UNESCO adult education event was turned into the “Right to Learn Declaration”, a model statement on adult education. Her intolerance of injustice led to her membership on the team of the Commonwealth Group of Eminent Persons who were sent to South Africa negotiate the release of Nelson Mandela. She was the only woman on this team.
Like her brother Errol, Nita Barrow was known for her outspoken nature and commitment to development. A founder and member of the Global Fund for Women's Board of Directors, Dame Nita was especially concerned with women's rights vis-à-vis health care.
In 1985, Dame Nita presided at the International Women's Conference in Nairobi, Kenya. The next year, Barrow was appointed as Barbadian Ambassador to the United Nations (UN), a post which she held until 1990. Nita Barrow was the only woman named to the Eminent Persons Group. The group was responsible for investigating racism in South Africa.
In 1988, Dame Nita ran against then foreign minister of Argentina Dante Caputo for the position of President of the UN General Assembly. A fiery campaign led to the first secret ballot Assembly President election since 1983. One of the most contested and heated campaigns in the history of the United Nations, Dame Nita lost the election.
On 6 June 1990, Dame Nita was appointed Barbados' first female Governor-General.
Honours and awards
Nita Barrow was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1980 as Dame of St. Andrew and Dame Grand Cross of the Most Distinguished Order of St. Michael and St. George. Thereafter, she became known as Dame Ruth Nita Barrow.
In 1990, she became the second recipient of the CARICOM Triennial Award for Women. She was also the first woman to receive the Order of the Caribbean Community.
Death and legacy
Dame Ruth Nita Barrow died of a stroke on 19 December 1995, after collapsing the previous night at a police officers' party. She was 79 years old. Hundreds of residents attended the official State Funeral at the James St. Methodist Church or watched the ceremony on closed circuit television at St. Mary's Anglican Church. Dame Nita's body is interred in Section G of the Westbury Cemetery in Bridgetown, Barbados.
Dame Nita is honoured by a number of national and international initiatives and awards, including:
- The University of Toronto's Dame Nita Barrow Distinguished Visitorship,
- The Dame Nita Barrow Award sponsored by the International Council for Adult Education (ICAE),
- Caribbean Women Catalysts for Change - a lecture series dedicated in the memory of Nita Barrow
- The Nita Barrow Unit of the Institute of Gender and Development Studies, University of the West Indies