By Sara Hanson
G ender-based inequalities are an issue not exclusive to the developing world.
After volunteering with Women’s Media Watch Jamaica–a non-governmental organization against gender-based violence–for two years, CUSO west outreach leader Erynn Lyster returned home with a new perspective on the challenges her gender faces. Lyster explained that while the sexual portrayal of women in Jamaica is more overt than in Canada–where women’s issues are more focused on body image–volunteering with WMWJ made her realize women in Canada need to be more open to talking about issues related to gender.
“One of the worries I had coming back to Canada was that we are pretty complacent here, that everything is fine,” said Lyster. “I was disturbed by what I had seen in Jamaica, but even more so by women I know who think we’ve won the battle–that we’re equal to men. At least in Jamaica, people would admit that women are not always seen as equal to men.”
As a nation, Jamaica struggled to escape the violent oppression its people faced from the plantation economy introduced by European settlers. WMWJ training coordinator Hilary Nicholson explained that while Jamaica’s high level of gender-based violence can be attributed to its violent past, the culture of violence against women is a global problem.
“In contemporary times, people who work in the media very often tell us about sex and violence themselves,” said Nicholson. “We are fascinated by violence, and the strange thing is that we take our hard-earned money and go to the movies, not just in Jamaica but all around the world, watch violence on the screen, and then are surprised why our children are violent. [Jamaicans] are exposed to just as much of that as [Canadians]. A great deal of the media our children are exposed to comes from overseas.”
While WMWJ is concerned primarily with educating women about their rights, Nicholson explained that with support from the Canadian Caribbean Gender Equity Program, WMWJ was able to design workshops specifically geared towards men.
“We have to look at how masculinity is developed, how we define it, how men are raised and socialized, and how all of us–women and men–use the power we have in our relationships,” explained Nicholson. “With the kind of history that we have, power is an issue. Each one of us wants to be in control of our lives, but if you are not feeling empowered, if you are feeling disempowered by global politics and the global financial system, that has an impact on your personal life.”
Lyster noted the male-only sessions were extremely successful, as the men were very open when discussing the pressures Jamaican society places on their gender. While the concept of masculinity may discourage men from expressing their emotions in both Canada and Jamaica, Lyster explained Jamaican men face some different cultural expectations.
“[Jamaican men] are so surprised when other men feel [pressured to have] more than one woman, but don’t want to,” explained Lyster. “I found it amazing to watch these young men open up and be excited to talk about that sort of thing.”
As Jamaica is an extremely Christian society, the men are also subjected to patriarchal pressures, explained Lyster. However, Nicholson stressed that providing a safe place where men can discuss these pressures is an important step in preventing violence against women.
“[Men] need to recognize the gender expectations which lead them into dangerous relationships, where they feel they always have to be in control and use violence to maintain control,” said Nicholson. “We are trying to [teach] them there are other ways they can define their masculinity, other than always having to be the ruler of the household.”
While Lyster initally volunteered with WMWJ to share her communications and technical skills, her experience proved to be about much more than teaching.
“Working in the development world in Canada, there is often that mentality that you send volunteers to teach the south,” said Lyster. “I learned more from them than I taught, hands down. People think we’re [there] to teach, but it’s not about that at all. In fact [it’s] the exact opposite.”