You can tell a great deal about a country by the way it treats its women and children. The status that they occupy in the hierarchy of the society is usually a good indicator of whether the country is progressive or backward, oppressive or caring. What can we say about Jamaica?
The recent complaint by a young exotic dancer that she was gang-raped, allegedly by five policemen, has caused the nation to reflect on its gender relations. The allegations - though yet to be proved - have brought into focus the treatment of women in this country.
Over the years, Jamaica has made progress at lifting the status of women and girls. Nationally, we have accepted the principle of gender equality and the need to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women and girls. By and large, ours is a society in which a young girl feels free to make her choices and to live as a liberated, confident woman.
Gender equality is still years away. In fact, no country has yet achieved it. Women are still a minority in politics and in company boardrooms. However, Jamaica has made significant progress in the process of gender equality through a partnership involving women's groups, non-governmental organisations, government and the many enlightened brothers who realised that none is free until all is free; and that there will not be harmony until basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all, without regard to sex.
As a nation, we have put much effort into advancing the status of women and girls. We must be similarly zealous at protecting the progress made and upholding each other's human rights. We are our sister's and our brother's keeper.
While we are not in a position to pronounce a verdict in the case of the young exotic dancer from St Catherine, the allegations have shocked us as a people. We are rightly concerned and disturbed by them. It is imperative that there is a speedy investigation and that justice is done.
Violence against women and girls is of critical concern. It is a human-rights violation. We are serious about ending gender-based violence; and we have made strong efforts to address the problem through initiatives designed to increase knowledge and understanding of the root causes of gender-based violence. The initiatives include workshops, seminars, public addresses and discussions in the media targeting schools, communities, churches, select groupings and the general public.
Additionally, we have been working towards eliminating gender-based violence through policy development and implementation, as well as legal reform. We are reviewing legislation to ensure that they give adequate protection to women and girls; and we are also training and sensitising stakeholders in the justice system, including magistrates, about critical gender issues.
Jamaica joined the rest of the world in observing the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day on March 8. We launched the National Gender Policy which sets out the framework for gender equality in Jamaica. The policy addresses critical gender-inequality issues and seeks to address systemic imbalances facing both men and women.
The Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture is also focusing on a policy to address sexual harassment, especially at the workplace. The Sexual Harassment Policy being drafted will pave the way for the legislation on sexual harassment. As part of the policy-development process, the ministry, through the Bureau of Women's Affairs, is embarking on a campaign to sensitise the public on sexual harassment, which is usually a subtle but persistent form of gender-based violence that affects both men and women. Several public-sector and private-sector employees have received training in the issues involved in sexual harassment to enable them to identify it, prevent it from happening, and assist employers and human resource managers to develop policies and guidelines for their organisations.
The ministry also provides financial and technical support to select women's and men's organisations such as the Women's Crisis Centre and Fathers Inc, which work to provide a safe environment for women.
Outdated and discredited beliefs and practices are at the heart of the wide range of human-rights violations that women face. We know that culture and behaviour change cannot be achieved without the full involvement of our men and boys. In this regard, we are committed to the integral involvement of men and boys in the design, implementation and delivery of gender-sensitive programmes.
Last year, we launched the Male Action Groups in Communities and the Male Mentorship Programme in Schools as part of our strategy to challenge all harmful cultural practices and to encourage those practices which will enhance positive development.
We cannot lose the fight to end gender-based violence. It is ultimately the job of governments to address gender inequality and the low status accorded to women. However, all of us must work to eliminate this multi-faceted problem which affects all ages, ethnicities and all groups right across society. The progress we have made so far has come about as a result of our working together.
Together, we will achieve gender equality, the state when our rights, responsibilities and opportunities are not determined by the fact that we were born male or female. Can anyone seriously doubt that the world will be a happier place when we achieve this? It is the common-sense thing to do.
Olivia Grange is the minister with responsibility for women and gender affairs.