The 51% Coalition has been busy. With funding from UN Women and with the partnership of Fi Wi Jamaica, the Jamaica Network of Rural Women Producers and others, the Coalition has traveled to several corners of the island for discussions with women on their issues, their concerns – and solutions. Each session also included presentations on human rights and human trafficking. The program was adjusted when it became caught up in the pre-election season, but the dialogue was rich and the issues were expanded on and then distilled into core issues to be addressed. Coalition members traveled to Montego Bay, Savannah-la-Mar, Westmoreland, May Pen, Clarendon and Portland to provide the training, alongside Professor Rosalea Hamilton of Fi Wi Jamaica, who talked to the women about human trafficking.
The aim of the Coalition’s current project is to build a “women’s constituency.” What does this mean, exactly? “Constituency” is a very political word, of course – but basically it means bringing together people with shared views. I wrote about the first discussion in Kingston earlier this year, which set some important items for consideration on the table. Were rural women’s considerations so very different from those of their urban sisters? To some extent, yes – and in a different context. But there was also much common ground.
I took the time for a quick chat with two women from two different sides of the island, in Montego Bay and Portland, eastern Jamaica.
Irene Moore is from Breastworks, a few kilometers south of Port Antonio in Portland, on the hilly road that climbs steadily up along the Rio Grande Valley. Moore is a woman who does not shirk from taking on responsibilities, on the Parish Disaster Committee and other local bodies. There is also one word she loves: Empowerment. There is a new collaboration among women in her community, says Moore; the Women’s Liberty Movement has seventeen members to date. “The youngest member is five years old,” she chuckles.
However, there are challenges. Unemployment among women is a major concern, besides the need to diversify and find new employment options. “We need to move away from craft for the tourists,” says Moore, “We need training for new skills.” However, there is no community centre in Breastworks. Moore is trying to find space in the district for training with the HEART Trust to take place. Why is this important? It was expressed more than once during the Portland session (and elsewhere) that rural districts are starved of resources within the community. If women want to improve their employability through training, they have to travel to the nearest large town to do so; this not only consumes time and money, but also means leaving other duties behind – which is not always feasible. Ideally, if small businesses were established in small towns and villages in rural Jamaica – where transportation is expensive and difficult – these would add tremendous value, for women, their families and community members. I am not just talking about the neighborhood shop, but small agro-processing and service projects, for example.
In Montego Bay I spoke with Margaret Bramwell, a mother of six (“My baby is twenty-five,” she smiles) from Lime Tree Garden in St. Ann – not far from Bob Marley’s burial place. Bramwell is the supervisor at a peanut factory in the village. She is a Seventh Day Adventist. She describes Lime Tree Garden as “a very quiet community…People get on well.” Yet during our conversation it became clear that the community was under considerable stress, largely because of unemployment. The peanut factory work is seasonal and depends on the crop from nearby farmers (they sometimes have to go further afield to find peanuts); and it only employs ten people. There is a need for more good agricultural land; the soil is poor and mostly infertile in the mined-out bauxite pits nearby. Hotel and domestic helper work is not permanent; it comes and goes.
Margaret Bramwell worries about the young people. She worries about girls becoming pregnant at an early age and finding themselves unable to cope. She worries about the children, who become adults too soon and who do not always receive the love and care they need. She worries about the young men, “digging out their hand middle” under a tree (in other words, rolling a spliff to pass the time). Yet, like Irene Moore, Bramwell sees a way out: “You can create a job,” she says. She used to sell “bag juice” at her house, and was careful with her money. The women (especially the young ones) in her neighborhood need to be lifted up, she believes; they need to be educated in their rights. Self-esteem is in short supply. It’s empowerment, again, building a sense of self-reliance, and taking charge of their lives.
It seems that, once again and probably more so in the rural areas: “It’s the economy, stupid.” That is, unemployment, under-employment and what the Portland women called “financial abuse” – low pay. Secondly, sexual harassment and gender-based violence (and everyday violence in general) are very real and pressing issues for rural women, though often hidden. Low levels of education and a lack of information on opportunities that are available is common; many women feel isolated and insecure. Their horizons are narrow.
Well, you may say – these are the problems, many of which we are fully aware of already. What are the possible solutions for women in our rural areas? Here are a few of the suggestions that came out of the sessions that I attended (and I know there were more):
- Form a group of motivated and informed women to educate and mentor other women in small groups on issues such as sexual and reproductive rights.
- Recognize and learn about your own rights as a woman – what is the law regarding land, inheritance etc., for example.
- A women’s group (it does not have to be large in numbers) could work as a team in the community – sending out flyers, holding information sessions, educating and raising awareness on human rights, with the aim of building a more tolerant and peaceful community (“Many people don’t like what they don’t know about,” one participant observed). Invite a person living with HIV to talk to residents, for example. Respect and promote the rights of others and be ready to advocate and speak up for what you know is right!
- Volunteer: There are opportunities for training – for example, first aid at the Red Cross. Don’t do it alone – get a group of women together and decide on a focus. This will help you acquire new skills, network and build a stronger community.
- Seek training (preferably in the community) and employment opportunities. Get help from outside for small loans, start-ups.
- Talk to your children. Break the cycle of violence through dialogue. Don’t try to solve a problem in ignorance or anger. Create respectful spaces.
At the end of each session, the women felt they were only just getting started. So much is under-reported and not fully aired in women’s lives. The 51% Coalition team felt it was just lifting the lid of a box, layer upon layer of concerns.
It’s time to unpack that box and deal with them, one by one – not alone, but working together.
The 51% Coalition will celebrate its fifth anniversary later this year. It is an alliance of women, women’s organizations and partners that formalizes collaboration that has been taking place over a number of years. It is non-partisan and has a policy of non-discrimination. The 51% Coalition seeks to promote gender equality on boards and in decision-making as a means of ensuring that Jamaica has her best chance at national development. The Coalition is working to secure quotas to advance women’s participation in decision-making and more broadly to press for the effective implementation of the National Policy on Gender Equality (NPGE) and the achievement of Vision 2030.
Where to contact the 51% Coalition – Women in Partnership for Development and Empowerment…
47 Beechwood Avenue
Kingston 5, Jamaica
Telephone: (876) 929-8873; (876) 960-9067
On Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/51CoalitionJa
On Twitter: @51Coalition