Sunday, March 13, 2011

Celebrating Women, recognising gender

Given the Centenary of International Women's Day the focus this week has been on women, but also gender. The topic promotes active and animated discussions in this country in which gender roles are so clearly defined and yet so complicated. It was a week in which I had little time at the Youth Programme as three of the five days were spent at workshops and one day was a holiday - Ash Wednesday but at the end of the week we did receive significant news from the Ministry of Education - the cheque is waiting to be picked up!

International Women's Day was celebrated with recognitions and music, stories of sadness and remarkable achievements. I started the day at the Violence Prevention Alliance Jamaica which chose to dedicate its monthly meeting to the recognition of eight women who have had remarkable impact on their communities. Each was given the opportunity to tell her story and each story was a testiment to strength, determination, quiet leadership, and the unflinching will to defeat the violence surrounding her. These are not women who have joined the traditional ranks of power and influence, they are not women whose experience is the privilege of class, the best schools and uptown connections. They are women whose life circumstances could have defeated them but didn't, who chose to respond to adversities and violence with courage and conviction often risking their own lives. Women who have clearly stated that the violence cannot continue and have committed their lives to changing their communities. I cannot do justice to their stories and lives but honour them and thank them for who they are, how they live and what I can learn from them.

The day ended at a more formal event organised by the Bureau of Women's Affairs and the team that is responsible for the most recent project at DRF - The Way Out. It was truly a celebration of women, with greetings and speeches from many, performances from community theatre groups and dancers, and supported by many incredible Jamaican artists recognising the role strong women have played in their lives. It was energising and uplifting and brought the crowd to its feet many times.

The three days spent at the CUSO-VSO Gender Workshop was time well spent. With other volunteers, representatives from CUSO-VSO Latin America and the Caribbean, and representatives from the partner organisations with which we work, the days were spent examining the effectiveness of the training and support given to deployed volunteers, the policies and practices of CUSO-VSO and the other oganisations and the balance between promoting gender equity as a visiting worker and respecting the predominant culture of the countries and organisations in which we work. The discussions were informative and challenging and the days included much laughter and learning.
The dichotomies of Jamaica are clearly evident in the gender discussion. Within the institutional power structures men are unquestionably dominant in a society whose government and attitudes illustrate an irrefutably patriarchal and paternalistic approach, however in the family no-one wields more power and influence than Granny or Mummy! It is a country in which girls are outshining boys academically at every level, leading to a tertiary distribution of gender that is 85% female to 15% male. Middle management is fast becoming dominated by women but upper management remains the domain of men. And yet in the lower socio-economic spheres women still have children in the belief that the obligations of fatherhood will ensure they, as mothers, will be economically supported despite consistent evidence to the contrary. Regardless of socio-ecomomic level many women still define themselves within the context of their relationship to a man, the absence of a consistent and ecomonically supportive male figure being seen as a failure of the woman.
It is complicated and discussions are fraught with cultural and social pitfalls but this did not seem to deter the discussions within the safety of the workshop and it was as stimulating few days.
Ash Wednesday offered an opportnity to head to the beach mid-week and spend a lovely and relaxing day with friends. We were not the only ones who felt a day at the beach was a good way to spend a holiday and it was fun to run into other friends, be entertained by music from the local community festival at an adjacent beach and watch the universality of children's play in the sand and sea!

At the end of the week we received extremely encouraging news. The Ministry of Education has prepared the cheque to support the School Suspension Intervention Programme until the end of the school year and asked to meet to develop a plan for continued partnership. At many levels this suggests good reason for optimism. The students will continue to have a safe and respectful place to go to when suspended from school and the continued opportunity to develop different strategies to resolve conflicts, the schools will continue to benefit from the approaches promoted by the Peace and Justice Centres which will contribute to institutional change in the schools, and the Youth Peace Facilitators will continue to be remunerated for their dedication to learning, teaching and supporting. The major focus of my placement here has been to institutionalise the youth programme through sustained funding, refinining the programme and broader access across the island, and the news at the end of the week suggests this has the potential to be achieved.
So I approach next week with that note of optimism and will focus on the work with the Ministry of Education and spending moretime with the Burgher Gully Project.

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