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The first and only female governor-general of Barbados

Dame Ruth Nita Barrow

Dame Nita Barrow 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.

She began her career as a nurse practitioner in Barbados and rose to the top of her field in the region through her leadership and professional skills. 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-organization and upgrading of the training of nurses in the region. It also led to the introduction of the Advanced Nursing Education Program 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.

After retirement, she was called on by the Government of Barbados to serve as its Ambassador and Permanent Representative at the United Nations. In 1990, four years later, she was appointed Governor-General. Also in that year, 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.

Born on 15th November 1916 in St Lucy, Barbados, Ruth Nita Barrow was the second of five children, one of whom was Errol Barrow, a former Prime Minister of Barbados. Motivated by the humanitarian values of her family, and a sense of commitment to development and public service, she chose to pursue nursing, which was among the limited careers available to women at the time. This choice led to opportunities for her to study at some of the top foreign universities, and provided the platform on which she rose, from a vocation in midwifery to a range of leadership positions in nursing administration, governance, and international affairs. Famously outspoken, she was known as “the people’s Governor-General” for her warmth, wisdom and kindness. Dame Barrow died on 19th December, 1995.