A huge part of this site is advocating for others and their rights. I knew from the beginning that one of the groups I wanted to continue to focus on is women. Why? Well for one, I am a woman, but also because many people have such a huge misconception of women’s rights and what it means to be a feminist.
I asked my best friend, Loren Reese, to write a guest post for me on her time in Jamaica as a Peace Corps Volunteer and how exactly it feels to be an American woman living her days in Jamaica. Does she feel she receives the same treatment she would if she were back home? Does she feel less or more of a woman when living in Jamaica? What opportunities are and can be given to girls in Jamaica?
Loren, as always, over-delivered with this chilling and necessary piece on how her time in Jamaica has been. I invite you to read this and ask yourself the tough questions. What are you doing to contribute to women’s rights, in your home country and nationwide?
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An American Woman Living In Rural Jamaica as a Peace Corps Volunteer
By Loren Reese
Where I Come From:
I grew up in a small suburb right on the border of Charlotte, NC. Growing up, I had many of the perks of living in a major city and the perks of your typical suburban life. I was exposed to diversity and I am forever grateful for being able to go to schools in Charlotte where I was surrounded by different perspectives constantly. However, I still grew up in a bubble and was ultimately sheltered. My parents had raised me to be this extremely tough, resilient, and independent girl, but I had never really faced much adversity when it came to being a girl.
I was lucky enough to have some amazing women in my life growing up. The first, my mom. This woman is not only a mother, but a wife, a professional, a cheerleader, and a care-taker. I have watched her work full time, take care of me and my brother, take care of my dad who has been battling cancer for almost a third of my life, and still find a way to have dinner on the table. I’ve watched her juggle her career, her family, and her own priorities so effortlessly. I know that there’s no way it feels effortless, but she has always made it look so easy.
The next two are my cousins, Jenny and Kelly. The two of them followed completely different paths. One, a world traveler, bouncing from city to city, never afraid to break the mold and push herself out of her comfort zone. The other, a Vice Principal (and now Principal as of this week) of an elementary school who married her high school sweetheart. Although their lives are very different, they exemplify strength and grace every day. Neither of them are afraid to challenge themselves or expectations set by others, and are loved by the people around them.
The fourth woman is the free spirit that I see in myself. My Aunt Jo is probably the one that inspired that part of me. I remember her coming to visit when I was young, listing off the places she’d traveled to and bringing back souvenirs from all over the world. She is creative and artistic and unforgivably herself. She thrives in her own chaos of projects and knitting and is never afraid to speak up and show her true, very vibrant colors.
All four of these women are breaking glass ceilings in their own ways, even if for a majority of my life, I didn’t realize the obstacles many women face to get where they are now.
Where It All Started:
I wasn’t always an activist, but it didn’t take much to persuade me to be one. There of course are many times I have been harassed, cat-called, and had little sexist remarks made to me, but I will remember one day for the rest of my life that was a catalyst in propelling me into women’s rights.
It wasn’t until college that I really started to understand what it meant to be a woman in the United States. I studied Animal Science at my university – a major with a 9:1 female to male ratio. In my last year at NC State University, I attended a dairy conference in Athens, Georgia because what animal lover doesn’t love cows, right? The conference was full of animal and dairy science students from across the southeastern US, a majority of which were women. Yet, there was only one woman who spoke at the entire three day conference.
I can remember walking into the session where she was preparing to speak alongside another farm manager (who was a man), feeling so excited to feel represented and to hear about her experience in an agricultural industry as a woman. She talked about how she grew up on one of the biggest dairy farms in the south, went to school, graduated, and decided to take out a loan to start a restaurant which eventually went under. That’s when she decided it was time to go home and become the new manager of the dairy farm she had grown up on and she has been there ever since.
She is one of the most experienced dairy managers in the region and I was impressed by her, so I raised my hand. I asked her what her experience has been like working in a male dominated industry and how she sees the future of dairy and the job opportunities changing as more and more women are graduating in agricultural fields. Let me tell you, I was not prepared for her answer. She started with the phrase “Well, I’m no bra burner.” I knew from there it was about to go downhill quickly. She very casually explained that, to her, being a woman hasn’t affected her experience at all, but that she doesn’t really like to hire women because they spend too much time talking about their children and their husbands (she too is married with kids). The man with her said he will hire women, but really only to be a secretary or receptionist. I could feel my throat get dry, my ears hot, and my blood start to boil. I felt like a fool who had just singled herself out, not realizing that just because you’re a woman doesn’t mean you can’t be sexist. I hadn’t taken into account that maybe this woman didn’t realize her privilege – that she made it to the top because she inherited it and couldn’t understand the amount of extra work that goes into proving yourself as a woman in agriculture.
I was frustrated and disempowered. Did someone really just look at least a hundred soon-to-be college graduates in the face saying he prefers if we take his lunch order and his messages instead of using our educations from top-tier schools?
I think back about this day a lot because I sat there speechless. What should I have said? What is the right thing to say? How many other people have they said this to? Who else will think I’m incompetent because of what’s between my legs?
While this is not the first misogynistic thing I’ve ever heard, it was certainly the most profoundly I’ve ever heard anyone talk openly with this sentiment.
The Women’s March on Washington (and all over the world):
I was in Australia during the 2016 Presidential election, filling out my absentee ballot, and watching as the votes came in around the US. I remember watching as a man who bragged about sexual assault, a man who wanted to role back women’s rights, a man who wanted to restrict access to a woman’s right to choose, a man who said racist, derogatory remarks and was PRAISED for them, became President-Elect. I remember going up to my apartment after it was official and crying. I remember calling my friends and family who had just woken up to the news back in the US being totally shocked, and feeling so disappointed in my country.
The night before the Women’s March, I went to dinner with my family and my best friend, Liv. On the way to dinner we saw people dressed in designer gowns, with probably thousands of dollars worth of jewelry on, wearing “Make America Great Again” hats despite how elegant they all looked. We saw people getting teargassed by police for protesting outside of the National Press Building. But we also saw people writing huge thank you banners that would be sent to the Obama’s. We saw pink hats everywhere and ate at Michelle Obama’s favorite DC restaurant. We saw community.
I can honestly say that the Women’s March on Washington is the most empowered I have ever felt as a woman. It was the most remarkable thing that I have ever been a part of; watching all of my sisters and brothers in DC, across the country, and around the world demand attention, demand action, and demand responses (not excuses). I was lucky enough to have my best friend and my family marching by my side the entire time.
Being a Woman in Jamaica:
I am now serving as a US Peace Corps Volunteer as an Environmental Management Advisor in the parish of Clarendon. I’ve finished almost 15 of my 27 month commitment. Recently I was at a Gender Meeting that was hosted by the women’s group in my community. An organization, Women’s Resource and Outreach Center (WROC), came to facilitate parts of the meeting and asked the members, “What are the best parts of being a woman?” The answers varied. At first it was a lot of, “We are attractive and pretty.” However, it quickly shifted to “We are strong and resilient.” The women started feeling empowered, and not by the organization, but by each other and by themselves. But then, they were asked “What is the worst part about being a woman?” Immediately they started talking about the amount of responsibility and work that comes with being a woman and a mother in Jamaica.
I cannot tell you what it is like to be a Jamaican woman, but I can tell you what I have seen and what I have heard*:
- Girls tend to outperform boys in school- by a lot. There are more educational opportunities for girls than boys, and therefore more young women in tertiary institutions and with college degrees. Yet, the owners, CEOS, and other chief officers of most business and corporations in Jamaica are men. Women are more likely to hold managerial positions.
- Jamaica has one of the highest number of single mothers in the world per capita
- Women are expected to raise children, go to work, and manage a household
- Women (usually, not always), should not put their underwear in the washing machine (if you have one) because it is unclean. Men can put their underwear in the machine.
- Men will not take women’s underwear off the clothes line
- There is more expectation for women to go to church than men (Jamaica is one of the most religious nations in the world).
- Men catcall and sexually harass women like it’s their jobs
- Women are often more involved in community groups and projects
- Women are not seen as being physically strong
- Some churches will tell women they cannot leave a man, even if he beats her
- There are very strict gender roles in the culture, which includes gender roles for men as well
- Some men will not let women use any form of contraceptive, leading to pregnancy and high instance of STD’s and HIV in Jamaica.
- Domestic Violence is one of two crimes currently on the rise
*This list is not representative of Jamaica as a whole. These are Loren’s opinions based on the experiences and conversations with community members she’s had during her time in rural Jamaica.
With all of this said though, Jamaican women are far from victims. They are incredibly powerful and vibrant. As we say in Jamaica, “dem full a vibes.” They are able to work, raise children, and maintain a household. Many are incredible at advocating for themselves and their children. They are intelligent, motivated individuals and I feel very fortunate to have met so many wonderful people on this island.
What I Struggle with:
What I struggle with the most is coming to terms with the things I have been through here in Jamaica and continue to go through on a daily basis without painting Jamaica with one stroke of a brush. I spent a month in St. Catherine, six weeks in St. Thomas, almost a year in St. Elizabeth, and now a month and half in Clarendon. I have been to every parish on the island. In every parish I have experienced uncomfortable and sometimes scary situations with men. How do I say that Jamaica has a problem without making the culture and the country sound bad? How do I “big up” allies who are men when I spend my days being afraid of most men in this country? How do I not blame the culture when, in reality, I have had hundreds and hundreds of men sexually harass me and probably somewhere between 30-50 touch me inappropriately (whether they realized or not), and it is the culture that has created this atmosphere? How do I come to terms with this while knowing many of my Volunteer sisters on this island have been assaulted in one way or another and not reported it? How do I justify getting special leave to go home because of the mental strain being a female has given me while also giving this country and its people my everything? I was sexually assaulted in Jamaica and I wonder how do I openly talk about it without feeling guarded while seeing Peace Corps Volunteers(PCVs) who have gone home because of assaults and been diagnosed with PTSD? How do I show this country that I am so in love with and captivated by in a light that also shows its flaws, many of which have at times broken me?
A fellow Peace Corps Volunteer of mine and friend, Hannah Baker, wrote a poem recently that says it all.
One thing I really want to point out is that we live in our communities alone. We don’t have other Volunteers or Americans living with us usually. We are facing a lot of these issues by ourselves and have to rely heavily on our instincts, what we know about Jamaica, and community members to keep us safe. Another issue a lot of women face in Jamaica is not having friendships. It is hard for the female PCVs to be friends with men, because often times there are different motives at play, or it’s seen by the community as more than a friendship. Jamaican women also are much less likely to really befriend female PCVs, so many Volunteers spend two years of their lives feeling isolated and it can be really challenging mentally to feel like you don’t have someone in your community to hangout with or trust.
My service has been different because I was given a site change. In my first community I was sexually assaulted by a community member I had spent a lot of time working with and Peace Corps decided I couldn’t stay there. But, in all honesty, I really did not like it there. I didn’t have any friends, people would spread vicious rumors about me, my supervisor had no idea what my job was up until the day I left, and I never felt truly safe there. In my new community, however, I have seen the love and warmth that Jamaica and its people can offer. I have a close friend who is the president of the women’s group and is also 22. She and her entire family have opened their arms and their home to me. This is so incredibly rare in rural Jamaica, and I am so incredibly grateful for them.
What I Am Doing and What Can Be Done:
The issue of sexual harassment is one that cannot be easily fixed. But myself, and other Peace Corps Volunteers are doing what we can to make a difference here none the less. I am the co-executive officers for Peace Corps Jamaica’s Gender and Development group. We work on how we get Volunteers to think about gender in Jamaica, connecting PCVs with resources and organizations, and assisting PCVs with gender related projects at their sites across the island.
I am also on the executive board of our Camp GLOW(Girls Leading Our World). This is a summer camp being hosted this August which I am incredibly excited for. This camp is all about empowering high school girls from rural and deep rural Jamaica. Sometimes I find it hard to advocate for myself as a woman and as an outsider, but I am NEVER afraid to advocate for these girls who are the future of Jamaica.
I had a GROW (Girls Reforesting Our World) Club at the primary school in my last community where we planted trees and created an orchard, while discussing issues facing Jamaican girls. I remember on the first day, I asked, “Are girls in Jamaica strong.” I got a unanimous ‘NO.” We talked about what strength looks like, and how girls can possess strength, whether that be physically, mentally, or emotionally. We talked about resilience, and what that looks like. We talked about role models and how to show respect to each other, ourselves, and the world.
I may be an Environment Volunteer, but I get the most joy and feel the most fulfilled working with young girls. I came to Peace Corps hoping for clarity for my future and who I am, and I know that I’ve found it. There is so much work that needs to be done to lift up and support girls and women around the world. The best thing I have learned here is how to be an ally, to my friends, my fellow Volunteers, and women and girls on this island.
What Feminism Means to Me:
Roxane Gay, in her book Bad Feminist writes,
“Feminism is flawed, but it offers, at its best, a way to navigate this shifting cultural climate. Feminism has certainly helped me find my voice. Feminism has helped me believe my voice matters, even in this world where there are so many voices demanding to be heard.”
“I try to keep my feminism simple. I know feminism is complex and evolving and flawed. I know feminism will not and cannot fix everything. I believe in equal opportunities for women and men. I believe in women having reproductive freedom and affordable and unfettered access to the healthcare they need. I believe women should be paid as much as men for doing the same work. Feminism is a choice, and if a woman does not want to be a feminist, that is her right, but it is still my responsibility to fight for her rights. I believe feminism is grounded in supporting the choices of women even if we wouldn’t make certain choices for ourselves. I believe women not just in the United States but throughout the world deserve equality and freedom but I know I am in no position to tell women of other cultures what that equality and freedom should look like.”
These two paragraphs pretty much sum it up for me. Feminism to me is the ability to be whoever I want to be. To achieve whatever I want to achieve- equally. Feminism is at the core of my life and my role as a Peace Corps Volunteer, encouraging girls to be who they want to be, to express themselves how they want to, and to do what makes them feel happy.
Feminism doesn’t mean that I am totally focused on girls. I had a boys club as well at my last assignment, where myself and a male staff member at the school talked with the boys about gender roles and expectations boys have that really set them back. Feminism is not just about uplifting girls, it’s about uplifting everyone when they need it. It’s about equality and access to opportunities.
The strength of my community back home, my fellow Volunteers, and the women in my community here have gotten me through a very challenging service thus far. I have learned more than I could have ever imagined about myself, about the importance of equal rights and opportunities, and about this island and the Jamaican culture. As they say in Jamaica, “Wi likkle, but wi Tallawah.”