“A woman with a voice is by definition a strong woman. But the search to find that voice can be remarkably difficult.” – Melinda Gates
Since coming to Jamaica, I’ve met more strong women than I can count. Women run their households, provide a strong foundation for community and church organizations and dominate the middle management sector. Most women raise their children and grandchildren without the support of a spouse.
And it’s no surprise that women often grow to take their responsibilities seriously; it starts from a young age. Girls are expected to stay inside and help with housework or to take care of younger siblings, while their brothers and neighbor boys are encouraged to play football and other games outside. Girls are expected to be soft-spoken and well mannered. Girls are outperforming their male peers in school by leaps and bounds.
I have witnessed girls get scolded for being too outspoken. I have met grown women who are criticized for being too independent of their husbands. Girls in Jamaica are subject to similar double standards to those I have struggled with in the US. When a boy is outspoken, he is a leader; when a girl is outspoken, she is bossy or rude. It seems contradictory to me that the people who work the hardest are sometimes discouraged from showing strong leadership because of the expectations for their gender.
I don’t want to paint a single-sided view of gender in Jamaica. Generalizations aren’t fair or entirely accurate, and I come to think of this topic with my own preconceived set of beliefs. So I asked girls at my school to finish the sentence “Jamaican girls are…” Here’s what they came up with:
Jamaican girls are special. They are beautiful, wonderful, intelligent, funny, helpful, fun and awesome. They are amazing. They are creative and they are strong-willed.
I have never analyzed my beliefs about gender more than I have in Jamaica. I find the cultural contradictions puzzling. Women deal with sexual harassment on a near-daily basis, but Jamaican women are some of the most outwardly confident I’ve met. They bear the majority of the work of child rearing and community building. They serve their husbands and boyfriends tirelessly despite their understanding that they might not be his only woman (infidelity is not liked, but socially acceptable). Most top-level professional executives are male, but the Prime Minister is a woman.
There is one thing that I’m certain of: my best friends in my Jamaican community are some of the most impressive, hardworking women I’ve ever met. From my scarily intelligent 3-year-old host sister, to my 12-year-old host sister who writes songs with me, to their grandmother and my host mom who seems capable of whatever she sets her mind to, these ladies are seriously badass.
Peace Corps recently launched an initiative in partnership with the White House called Let Girls Learn to help place extra focus on promoting gender empowerment and equal access to education for girls in the developing world. As the winners of the 3rd Annual Blog it Home Contest come together this October, we will meet under the theme of Let Girls Learn in order to celebrate the work that Peace Corps Volunteers do to empower girls everywhere.