Dame Nita Barrow

With the appointment in September, 1986, of Dame Nita Barrow as its Permanent Representative the government of Barbados chose one of the most distinguished women of the Caribbean to oversee the country's interests at the United Nations.


Dame Nita, an outspoken and articulate foe of social injustice, had but recently returned from South Africa as the lone female on a seven-member team of Commonwealth dignitaries assigned to take a first-hand look at the system of apartheid. The team, known as the Commonwealth Group of Eminent Persons, had as its mandate the reduction of the rapidly rising levels of tension in the strife-ridden country and the initiation of fruitful dialogue between the Botha government and leaders of the African majority. Dame Nita's membership of the Group was proposed by the Prime Minister of the Bahamas in recognition of the Barbadian's outstanding leadership in the International Council for Adult Education, the World Council of Churches and the World YWCA.

Her extensive interviews with leaders on both sides of the South African confrontation left an inspired impression upon Dame Nita, who singled out Nelson Mandela as "a man whose vision would transform South Africa from the pariah which it is to a state which could be a paragon of multi-racial harmony." Committed to the elimination of apartheid, she spent much of her spare time lecturing and raising public awareness of the bizarre intricacies of Pretoria's racial formula.

Ambassador Barrow was born into a family of civic activists. Her father, an Anglican priest, was removed from his pulpit in the Caribbean island of St. Croix after his ministry was considered too socially progressive for the island's local leaders. Despite warnings from the establishment and less courageous colleagues, he refused to temper the tone of the blistering sermons he delivered against the island's racially delineated social system.

Her maternal uncle, Dr. Charles Duncan O'Neal, sacrificed a successful medical practice to take up the cause of the underprivileged masses of Barbados. In 1924 he founded the Democratic League of Barbados and set in motion the social forces which would wrest political control of the island from the planter class and transform Barbados into a modern democracy.

Her younger brother, Errol, donned the mantle of his uncle, and in 1966 led Barbados to full political independence. As Barbados' first Prime Minister, Errol Barrow introduced a program of reforms which gave Barbados one of the most stable economic systems in the developing world.

Dame Nita was a practicing adult educator throughout a long professional career that spanned half a century. She worked or resided in almost every territory of the Caribbean. Her family had its roots in three Caribbean territories: St. Vincent-and-the-Grenadines, Tobago, and St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Motivated in her early years by the humanitarian values of her father and uncle, Dame Nita chose nursing as a profession from among the limited number of careers then available to women. She completed her basic training at the Barbados General Hospital and immediately after undertook training in midwifery at the Port-of-Spain General Hospital in neighboring Trinidad. A graduate in nursing from Columbia University, New York, Dame Nita was also a Rockefeller Foundation Fellow, holding graduate degrees from the University of Toronto, Canada and the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.

In 1964 her career took a significant turn when she became Nursing Adviser for the Caribbean Area with the Pan American Health Organization. In this capacity she served as principal adviser to sixteen Caribbean governments. She initiated and coordinated an extensive research program on nursing education, which culminated in a comprehensive revision of nursing education in the region.

In 1975, Dame Nita became Director of the Christian Medical Commission of the World Council of Churches. She was considered one of the world's leading authorities on public health and health education, and published numerous papers on subjects related to those fields. Dame Nita regarded health care as more than a medical concern. She considered it a political force intended to free individuals from the liabilities of nature and direct their energies toward social and economic development. She recognized that all development depends, finally, on the efforts of those persons whose physical well-being is crucial to any concern for material improvements or any vision of the future.

Dame Nita was a strong advocate of the coordinating function of the United Nations and the part to be played by that organization in awakening an interest in improving the human condition. She believed, however, that unless the principles and priorities of the United Nations were reflected at every level of society, the Organization would be nothing more than a united governments organization whose focus and performance would, inevitably, be irrelevant to the needs and aspirations of humankind.

Ambassador Barrow believed that if the United Nations were to succeed in the preservation of peace it must always be a people-oriented organization, working to eradicate those conditions which give rise to the frustrations and anxieties from which armed conflict is spawned. Thus, she consistently promoted the active engagement of non-governmental organizations--"grass-roots," people's organizations--in the work of the United Nations and in all spheres of international relations.

From the Canadian Arctic to the South Seas; from Tashkent to Harare, Dame Nita visited more than 80 destinations in Africa, Asia, Europe and North, South and Central America. She traveled by river and other means to the interior of every continent, working and studying the social organization and customs of indigenous communities. She was equally familiar with the Inuit of the Canadian North and Amazon villagers of the Brazilian forests.

Dame Nita was president of the International Council of Adult Education (ICAE) from 1982 until 1990. In 1983, she traveled to six provinces of the People's Republic of China, with a team from the ICAE, seeking to evaluate Chinese approaches to workers' education. During this visit she co-chaired, with Chinese officials, a series of seminars on adult education.

As with most people of international stature, Dame Nita was a study in superlatives and contradictions. A woman, whose career though rooted in compassion, is described by associates as "a powerful manager who has the combative spirit of a freedom fighter."

With the presidencies of three major international bodies to her credit she recalled with special satisfaction, her challenging appointment in 1983 as Convenor of the Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Forum for the Decade of Women in Nairobi, Kenya. Her management of 17,500 delegates from 177 organizations and almost every known culture earned her international acclaim.

After an international career poised equally between ideas and action, Dame Nita--the adult educator/diplomat--remained convinced that neither ideas nor action can be beneficial if disjoined from the other.

It is not sufficient for us to be able to speak each other's language or visit each other's capitals. It is far more crucial to understand how we think and why. A clear understanding of every culture's pressures, its history and the way its people view themselves and the world is essential to the maintenance of peace. Every conflict has its deepest roots in a people's view of themselves and their neighbors.

Dame Nita was recipient of many honors and awards. In 1980 she was invested with the Order of Dame of St. Andrew in recognition of outstanding service to the people of the Caribbean and the Commonwealth. In 1987 she was awarded the CARICOM Women's Award for her personal accomplishments and the stature she brought to women of the Caribbean.

In her honor, the ICAE created the prestigious Dame Nita Barrow Award which recognizes and supports regional or national adult education organizations that have made a significant contribution towards the empowerment of women. Dame Nita Barrow brought great wisdom and experience to the field of adult education, her legacy informed by a lifelong commitment to people's struggle for learning, justice, and democracy.

Dame Nita Barrow died in Barbados on December 18, 1995.