“Empowerment” is probably a much-overused word. But how do highly marginalized groups in society find that energy, that self-confidence to define themselves and play an active role in society, instead of sitting on the sidelines? You’ve got to feel and embrace that power. You’ve got to own it.
J-FLAG’s Education and Training Manager Latoya Nugent decided to light that spark among twenty-one Jamaican lesbian and bisexual (LB) women through an ambitious, serious and substantial training program,“Facilitating the Empowerment of Lesbians and Bisexual Women to Participate in Public Policy,” with funding from the Swedish organization, Stiftelsen Rights Now (“Stiftelsen” means “Foundation”). Consultant to the project was Researcher and Development Specialist in Gender and the Environment Joan Grant Cummings, supported by Research Assistant Stephanie Grant.
The aim of the training, Nugent explained, was to increase the number of women participating in advocacy. Initially, she said, there was some pushback to the idea that it should be LB women only. What about the men? Latoya feels much of J-FLAG’s work has in fact been male-oriented in the past. Jamaican gay men faced (and continue to face) special challenges and many programs were, understandably, linked to HIV/AIDS, which remains highly prevalent among men who have sex with men. She is seeking to redress the balance. Recent activities had been pointing towards the need for advocacy training – in particular, the review of the Sexual Offences Act, initiated by women. Representatives of a new umbrella lobby group, VERJ (Voices for Equal Rights and Justice) made their views known on issues surrounding the legislation in the local media, and made a submission before a parliamentary committee studying the legislation.
The sub-theme of the training was, significantly, “Blueprint to Reclaiming a Commitment Denied.” It was like pressing the restart button, in a sense. Apart from the formal training, Nugent brought in several players to coordinate additional focused activities, creating a multi-faceted program. The entire project ran from September 20, 2014 for some ten to eleven weeks, up to mid-December. The participants (from the parishes of Kingston and St. Andrew, St. James, St. Catherine and Clarendon) also created a WhatsApp group. An “almost daily dialogue” continues in this group, Nugent says – a supportive and positive reinforcement of commitments made, lessons learned and values embraced.
Nugent felt particularly proud of the “Resource Lymes” held at different locations, supported by UN Women’s Taitu Heron, Joan Grant Cummings and others. These relatively informal gatherings “helped build community,” says Nugent. She had been concerned about sustaining interest over the three-month period – but she need not have worried, as it turned out. “The Resource Lymes were critical in helping to educate participants on a range of issues and to develop networking and other social skills,” Nugent points out. At the trainees’ request there was a session on ganja law reform, and a one-day proposal writing workshop conducted by human rights advocate Jaevion Nelson. On Coming Out Day, Nugent facilitated a “Telling My Story” informal session with the participants; one poet in the group shared her work with the gathering. “It was quite a bonding experience,” Nugent adds. The women also attended national consultations and discussions on various topics: The Jamaica Environment Trust’s update on the Save Goat Islands campaign; a public forum on the chikungunya virus and Ebola; and a “Leaders to Leaders” seminar for young women.
The three-day residential workshop in Ocho Rios last October – which was the major activity in the program – trained women aged 21 – 45 years. It was “very intensive,” Nugent emphasizes. Some fundamental issues were up for discussion: Who or what is civil society, for example; equality and social inclusion; and how women’s rights and LBT (lesbian, bisexual and transgender) rights are treated at the United Nations. Learning and understanding the language of international fora, the media and government is crucial. How can LBT women advocate for their rights and the rights of others otherwise? Communication is key.
And how do our leaders make policy? What is the decision-making process? How can this process work for LBT women?Participants discussed and applied these concepts to the Jamaican context, eventually producing, at the end of it, four policy statements on the following topics: Beach Control; Access to Justice; Sexual Harassment; and Social Security, and how these issues can, and do directly affect LBT women. They will share these statements with parliamentarians.
How should LBT advocates approach the “powers that be”? Using the decision-makers’ language is one thing. Another, Nugent observed, is to “find common ground” with public officials. Hold them accountable, using the policies they themselves espouse and have signed on to. “One of the key things that jumped out at me during the training was something that Karlene Temple Anderson said – hold the government accountable to their words,” said Nugent. That word “all” as written in our Vision 2030 is important.
Program participants from St. James organized a public forum on the Review of the Sexual Offences Act, which highlighted some of the key points submitted by VERJ regarding marital rape, gender and language, sex work, and adolescent access to sexual and reproductive health rights. Another group is planning an activity this month on gender-based violence, and participants aim to engage their respective communities. Nugent has seen the women’s confidence grow as they express their views and engage others on social media on topical issues. Two participants from the program attended United and Strong’s Caribbean Women and Sexual Diversity Conference in Suriname in October of last year. Four recently participated in J-FLAG’s Speakers’ Bureau training.
Now, the plan is for WE-Change (Women’s Empowerment for Change), the new J-FLAG affiliate that was born out of the program, to move ahead to tackle a range of issues, including health (gender-based violence, cancer, other issues); the environment (climate change, water, recreational spaces); and economic issues (access to credit and other concerns). More on this to follow!
Latoya Nugent smiles. “I didn’t expect so much, coming out of a pilot project,” she confesses. She worked hard and received invaluable moral and practical support from colleagues. Most gratifying of all was the enthusiasm and energy of the participants. “Gaytastic!” is how one of the trainees, Madeline Green, described the program.
The women will graduate next month. Meanwhile, Latoya Nugent is already mulling over a Jamaican version of a Pride celebration for later this year. Stay tuned!