IT'S a small institute charged with the huge responsibility of improving the relationship between the sexes and giving voice to their differing issues. But this is a challenge the Institute for Gender and Development Studies (IGDS) gladly tackles through its focus on research, training and outreach.
The institute, which is based at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, has not only shaped policies in Jamaica, but its reach extends to other sections of the region where its published works and oral presentations have helped to shape people's concept of gender.
Director of the unit, Dr Leith Dunn, is pleased with the impact the unit has been making since being established in September 1993.
"The idea of starting this unit was really to give a lot of visibility to issues affecting women initially, but also then gender relations, because we realise that, for example, there were several areas in which there was inequality," she said.
And the IGDS has been addressing these areas of inequalities one by one with the aim of empowering not only women, but also men. For them, men are just as important in gender studies.
"We have courses on masculinity (and) we do research on masculinities, because issues affecting men are equally important, not only in terms of their own needs, but also how they impact on the development of women," Dunn told All Woman recently during an interview at the institute located at the Sir Alister McIntyre building on the university's campus.
The institute is supervised by a Regional Co-ordinating Unit headed by Professor Verene Shepherd, who also has responsibility for the IGDS based on the University's Cave Hill and St Augustine campuses in Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago respectively.
"What we are trying to do is to ensure that we are relevant to the Caribbean society," said Shepherd. "We not only help to sensitise agencies and institutions and offices and the corporate world and schools about gender issues, but we have become a resource for information and data on gender," she said.
The institute has worked with several organisations, including the Jamaica Constabulary Force, the Planning Institute of Jamaica, the Ministry of Health, the National AIDS Committee, the Bureau of Women's Affairs, the Women's Resource and Outreach Centre, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, the Caribbean Examinations Council and Caricom, among others, to formulate policies that affect gender.
Most importantly though, the group has graduated a number of gender specialists over the years.
Students are given the opportunity to pursue bachelor's masters or doctorates in various areas relating to gender and development. With an offering of 13 courses, students in other fields on campus can lift more than their GPA (grade point average) by choosing one as an elective, as they also get a deeper understanding of gender issues.
"There are many careers in gender, so one of the things that we have been doing is to try to highlight different ways in which you can use your gender skills for jobs in psychology, in medicine (and) in media," said Shepherd, who pointed out that their Bachelor in Gender and Development programme which was introduced last year, has already attracted 27 students.
Both her and Dunn are of the view that a gendered perspective is needed in most institutions and for most situations. It is upon this premise that individuals from the institute have been led to debate issues in Parliament such as sexual harassment, abortion and the passing of the Offences Against the Person's Act.
Apart from looking at the general issues of domestic violence and the under representation of women in areas of governance, the institute has been carving out new areas of studies to challenge the old ways of thinking. Just recently it partnered with an international organisation to look at climate change and gender.
"We have done training for disaster managers across the region, and out of that we have presented papers at conferences. We continue to be involved in that kind of outreach work to bring awareness of the importance of gender when you are talking about climate change and disaster risk management," said Dunn, who explained that even how men and women are made to cohabit in shelters during natural disasters is something of concern.
But the group does have challenges in carrying out their core duties, and the primary one is funding. To overcome this, they partner with organisations such as the Caribbean Development Bank, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, the United Nations Population Fund, the United Nations Development Fund, among others, to carry out some of their projects.
Despite the strides they have made over the years, Shepherd admits that the institute is still challenged to break the misconception that gender studies is for females and cannot lead to successful career.
"I still detect a tendency on the campus and a kind of uncertainty among the student population about whether they should do courses on gender; because we still very much live in a patriarchal society where there is a view about hierarchy and about the value of certain subjects over other subjects," she said.
Still, the group presses on in the pursuit of achieving equality for all.
"We want both men and women to have equality, whether it is at the leadership level in the home, parenting and all of those things," said the professor.