Have you ever needed something really intensely, but didn’t recognize that you needed it until you got it? Well, this week I got mine.
At our Early Service Conference in 2014, just four months after my group swore in as Peace Corps Volunteers and began serving in our communities, a couple of women in my group started a conversation about the need for a women’s support group. In rural Jamaica, community roles are heavily gendered and as American women, a lot of us felt a loss of power, lack of validation and just generally frustrated by the near-daily sexual harassment and discrimination that we face here. Thus, a few months and well-thought proposals later, EMPRESS was born.
For me, EMPRESS filled a void that I did not even realize I had. It legitimized so many of my discomforts, like feeling objectified any time I was catcalled in the street or frustrated that I struggled to find female friends my age or annoyed that at school I’m not supposed to unlock the computer room door because it requires me to bend down and the teachers don’t think it’s appropriate for a female to have to squat down to unlock the door (I do it anyway). Beyond that, having a living, breathing group that Peace Corps fully supported made me feel like these issues weren’t just complaints or “part of the process,” but real cultural collisions and gender inequality. It made it ok to seek validation and to admit that things were difficult and that we don’t have to be at peace with the way things are.
Flash forward to two years into my service. I’m getting ready to start my third year extension of service and a new chapter living in Kingston, getting ready to say goodbye to the rest of my group as they all depart for life back in the US. EMPRESS had our second annual women’s retreat in a gorgeous setting in the Blue Mountains of St. Andrew parish this week, and I did not recognize just how much I needed it until it was happening. We had meditation and yoga workshops, discussions about female-to-female competition and maintaining relationships. We all took turns helping to prepare a fabulous vegetarian menu and drank lots of good coffee and took hot showers. There was a river running through the property. It was awesome.
Reflecting on all that has happened, I’m challenging myself to really think about the transition ahead of me. I’m going to miss my group – we’ve been through a lot together. I’m going to miss my host family – we’ve been living together peacefully for two years! I’m going to miss my school and my likkle country place – it’s become my home. I’ve been so free to grow and change here, away from my known environment and creature comforts.
And yet I’m still learning.
I’m still being challenged by the slow pace of things, by the apparent lack of progress where I thought there would be more. I’m still frustrated by the sentiment that a woman is not successful without a husband, that she is a necessary accessory to his life. I’m still in need of support, but the kind of support I need has changed along with me.
After the retreat, I feel so rejuvenated and ready to take on the changes ahead of me. I also feel excited to continue to serve Jamaica and eager to help contribute to a similar feeling of empowerment to local girls and women. This year, Jamaica is becoming a Let Girls Learn post, a combined US government effort to educate and empower girls in the developing world. Our Education and Environment sectors will be beefing up their gender equality efforts and I feel so fortunate that I get to be a part of it as the Volunteer Leader.
I am once again reminded that humans are ever growing, ever capable of change. I am so happy to be alive in the age of feminism and so grateful to have a wide support system. Life is good.