KINGSTON, Jamaica – Jamaica's first woman prime minister takes office Thursday, pledging to tackle a crime rate that has made the Caribbean island one of the most dangerous places in the world.
Portia Simpson Miller, a longtime parliament member who represented some of Jamaica's poorest neighborhoods, faces high expectations for change as she succeeds P.J. Patterson, who stepped down as prime minister after 14 years on the job.
"Because she's a woman from the grass roots the expectation is higher and it's going to be tough," said Rupert Lewis, a political science professor at the University of the West Indies in Kingston.
Simpson Miller, known as Sista P., beat three opponents to take over leadership of the ruling People's National Party last month. Patterson had led his party to three consecutive election victories, the most recent in 2002. But his administration was dogged by corruption allegations, a lagging economy and a homicide rate 10 times that of the United States.
Last year, a record 1,671 homicides occurred on the island of 2.6 million people.
"We have to mobilize every sector of the society against this encroaching evil and wickedness," Simpson Miller said earlier this month at a funeral for six slain members of one family.
Jamaica's crime mostly afflicts impoverished neighborhoods around the capital of Kingston, far from the popular tourist resorts on the north and west coasts.
The violence has its roots in the 1970s, when political factions used armed gangs to intimidate opponents. Politicians have since lost control of the gangs, who fight bloody turf wars for control of drug and money laundering rings.
Simpson Miller, 60, represented South East St. Andrew Parish, one of Jamaica's crime-ridden slums that she says can be transformed with better schools and more economic opportunity. But her supporters have cautioned people not to have overly high expectations, especially in the early stages of her term.
"People think that come Monday morning they'll have a job and good schools and everything will be all right," said Joan Browne, spokeswoman of the Jamaica Women's Political Caucus. "These expectations are really dangerous because there's no way she can do all that."
Simpson Miller has pledged to work with the opposition, but leaders of the Jamaica Labor Party said she so far has offered nothing new for the country. Simpson Miller's party has held power since 1989, and the next elections are constitutionally due by 2007.
"It's just the same car with a different driver," said Karl Samuda, general secretary of the Labor Party.
Simpson Miller's supporters say they hope her rise to power will inspire others in a country where about 12 percent of political posts are held by women.
"The fact that she is a woman does have a symbolic and motivating effect for other women to get involved in politics," Browne said. "Already it has galvanized women who never thought they would enter politics."