Critical Reflections in a Time of Uncertainty
Critical Reflections in a Time of Uncertainty, is the theme of a successful regional conference which was organized in August 2012, by the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute for Social and Economic Studies, (SALISES) of the University of the West Indies, (UWI), to acknowledge the 50th anniversary of Jamaica’s political independence. Here in Jamaica, in most formal academic “spaces” like conferences, women’s voices as researchers, analysts and presenters continue to be overwhelmed by those of men. Beginning with the way Jamaica’s economic, social, cultural and political development evolved, and how it has been recorded historically, women’s voices, experiences and survival strategies have not been adequately told. Until very recently, the gendered life experiences of women, explored through the empirical work of female researchers, academics and gender practitioners who work in the field have not had adequate exposure via national or regional conferences.
To address this ongoing imbalance, FES Jamaica collaborated with the UWI SALISES, the Institute of Gender and Development Studies, and the Women’s Resource and Outreach Centre (WROC) to present research findings on four themes, at a panel “Gender, Citizenship and the Challenges of Empowerment” during this conference. FES Jamaica deliberately supported an inter-generational , experiential and academic approach to the research activities and presentations. A summary report of the four presentations follows.
The first paper, Securing Women’s Equal Citizenship by Linnette Vassell (WROC) argued that the persistence of gender inequality has undermined women’s experience of full and equal rights as citizens in Independent Jamaica. It called on numerous sources to demonstrate that this is evident in the family and community, in educational and public institutions, in aspects of the culture and in elected representation. The paper raised concerns about how the State, since political Independence, has limited the citizenship rights of women through persistent gender inequality, and also, other dimensions of citizenship including sexual and reproductive citizenship. These concerns are part of a wider “Conversation” that raises questions about citizenship that has been gendered as masculine and largely seen in terms of civil, political and social rights.
The second paper, ‘Law or no law: Interlocking Narratives of Subordinated Citizenship in Jamaica’ by Taitu Heron (UWI/IGDS) reminds the reader that terminating a pregnancy in Jamaica is “unlawful” and subject to imprisonment under section 72 of the Offences Against the Persons Act (1861). Under the same law, same sex relations between Jamaican men are also considered a crime, whether by consent or by force. Recent constitutional reform did not address this issue, but embedded these provisions even further, making it unconstitutional for these provisions to be changed. At the same time, the same reformed constitution and Bill of Rights, argues that all Jamaicans are equal and should be guaranteed equal treatment and the right to non-discrimination under the law. The paper argues that on the 50th anniversary of Jamaica’s Independence, this is a retrogressive step and poses implications for visioning the future direction of the country and the value placed on citizenship, for all its citizens. Thus this paper questions how this recent constitutional contradiction affects the meaning of citizenship in Jamaica, and the implications for the experience of citizenship for women who seek to terminate a pregnancy and the experience of citizenship for homosexual men.
The third paper, which was presented by Judith Wedderburn, (FES Director), addressed the theme: “Labour Force Participation: Constraining or Advancing the Empowerment of Jamaican Women?” . It provided a space for examining how participation in the labour force has supported (or not) women’s empowerment, and their right of access to the broadest and diverse range of choices required for their own personal and professional development. The paper explores the basis on which women enter the labour force, acknowledging that this decision cannot be treated as a simple one, since it requires allocation of time across a variety of activities. A gender analysis of these activities, economic and non-economic, and of the occupational and industry groupings across several decades provided an opportunity to explore how women have fared during this period. The paper sought to address some of the factors, policy and systemic, which should be considered in order to secure women’s more equitable participation in the labour force. It therefore explored the following questions: are women caught in a productivity trap related to economic segregation by gender? If democracy is as much about the freedom to make informed choices as it is to vote, can women experience equality with men, to make those choices which would provide access those sectors or economic activities which provide higher paying jobs, and decent working conditions? Is this possible in the face of gender segregation across sectors and economic activities? Can women have the same capacity as men to exercise agency in light of the factors that affect their entry into, and participation in the labour force?
The paper raises concerns about the viability of any economic development policy going forward in Independent Jamaica that does not lead to women’s economic empowerment, and argues that such policy may instead, give rise to the reproduction of specific gender inequalities across generations.
The fourth paper “A Gender Analysis of the UWI: Assessing its Capacity for Developing Women’s Leadership” by Nadeen Spence, (UWI/IGDS) explores the inconsistency between the stated mission of the University of the West Indies, to train leaders of and for Caribbean society, and the observation of a university culture and philosophy of training men for leadership, despite the increasingly large numbers of women as undergraduates and graduates. The paper reminds the reader that this philosophy was inherited from the tradition established in 1948 when the UWI was founded as a College of the University of London. Calling on studies of similarly prominent universities such as Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge, the paper points out that higher education or tertiary level education was historically built around a core mission of educating men for the specific purpose of providing leadership and technical knowledge for a given society. Women’s inclusion in the university as either students or teachers, or as legitimate citizens came much later.
Despite the fact that the UWI has consistently graduated more female students since the late 1980s, the reality of leadership at the national decision making level for both the public and the private sector is that it has remained firmly male dominated. Recent research into the leadership of public and private sector boards, and in political representation confirms this view. Using bell hook’s methodology, and guided by her book “Teaching to Transgress” , the researcher notes that the classroom and the teaching methodology which has the power to empower and transform women into being sovereign learners and empowered citizens is not usually practiced in higher education classrooms. The paper therefore explores a number of questions: what is the impact of this education/training, and why has it not been able to transform its female students into leaders? What are the educational paradigms and the assumptions of the UWI learning environment, and do they provide an enabling environment for its female students to become leaders? What is the learning culture at UWI?
The theme of this Conference, Critical Reflections in a Time of Uncertainty, offered space for a new conversation about democracy and citizenship, a conversation which advances the understanding of democracy beyond perceptions of a government founded only on electoral contestation and official equality. It also allowed critical thinking about a range of issues which are contributing to the “uncertainty” of these times. These issues include uncomfortable changes in perceptions of sexual and reproductive rights, and in relations of power which accompany a broader and increasingly demanded understanding of citizenship. This understanding questions whether, in the traditional understanding and practice of citizenship, full citizenship can be exercised by women generally, by female students, or women and men seeking to exercise their sexual and reproductive rights. This panel discussion was a final activity in the 2012 programme of collaboration between FES Jamaica and the Institute of Gender and Development Studies (IGDS). This 2012 programme incorporated several activities during the year under the general heading “Conversations on Independence: Through Women’s Eyes”.
Submitted December 29, 2012, by Judith Wedderburn, Director, FES Jamaica and the Eastern Caribbean