All Woman

Progress - Journey of the Jamaican woman over 50 years

Petre Williams-Raynor

Monday, August 06, 2012    

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AS Jamaica celebrates 50 years of Indepenendence, All Woman turns to one of the island's foremost academics, Professor Verene Shephered for her insight into the strides local women have made over the past five decades.

The professor is the university director of the Institute of Gender and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona.

She holds her PhD from the University of Cambridge and has, according to information from the UWI, Mona website, research interests in, among other things, African enslavement and its legacies in the Caribbean, as well as Caribbean women's history.

She is the author of four books, including Transients to Settlers: The Experience of Indians in Jamaica, 1845-1950, and has co-authored and edited others.

AW: Through the use of examples, note, as far as you see it, the progress of Jamaica's women over the past 50 years.

VS: Women have had mixed fortunes since 1962. Many have used education to achieve upward social mobility and are now in many sectors of society. Some of the positions they hold are quite influential: prime minister, solicitor general, head of the Registrar General's Department, Director of Public Prosecutions, ambassadors and high commissioners, chief justice, members of Parliament, professors, etc.

They won the right to vote later than men, but they now represent over 50 per cent of the voting population. They, therefore, have the ability to influence elections in women's favour if they so chose. But women do not necessarily vote gender.

Women have entered professions that were traditionally thought of as male preserve, such as law, medicine, politics, the diplomatic arena, and the church, and really recognise no obstacle to their upward social mobility. In fact, they reject the concept of hegemonic masculinity even though that concept is still very strong in Jamaica.

They are heads of households, they are breadwinners, they care for and educate their children, and they are effective entrepreneurs at home and abroad.

They are artistes, film-makers, actresses, business women, bankers, media personalities, journalists, and so much more.

They have made use of gender-specific legislation in their favour and have contributed greatly to the building of the Jamaican society.

AW: What have been some of the impediments to the progress of Jamaica's women over the past five decades?

VS: The educational system is class discriminatory and so many poor girls and boys cannot access quality education. This traps them, then, as adults, in low-paying jobs and affects their social mobility. Our colour hierarchy also discriminates against black-skinned people and this again prevents some of them from making strides in certain fields. But happily, this is not as prominent now as 30-40 years ago.

Some of our women lack the support of their male partners, especially those who are fathers of their children and this overwhelming childcare responsibility often prevents them from achieving all they hope to achieve.

The patriarchal system and the belief in hegemonic masculinity affect women. This is manifested in the low representation of women in the upper and lower houses. The society still accepts the idea that political power should reside in men, and there are those who even resent the fact that a women is the prime minister. The ideology is also evident in the low percentage of women as heads of boards or even as board members, and many educational institutions are top-heavy in terms of the gender that holds the reins of power in administration.

So women are impeded by structural discrimination, patriarchal ideology and economic poverty. Resentment against the upward social mobility of many women, however, at times results in gender-based violence.

AW: How do we safeguard and build on the gains of Jamaican women over the next 50 years?

VS: We have to work on our educational system so that both men and women who are economically disadvantaged will still have access to quality education [as] educated men and women have a better chance at economic empowerment. We have to work to change the perception still held by many men, even those who are educated/certified, that one gender is inferior and the other superior.

We have to create the environment in which women will want to enter representational politics and reverse the dismal trend of under-representation. We have to live the belief that a women's place is in the House — the House of Representatives!

We must instill self-confidence in our girls so that they recognise no obstacles in their way. We must address issues of sexual harassment, gender-based violence and implement the National Policy for Gender Equality. We must teach our boys that they are not superior to girls and build the basis of gender equality in our society.

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