Linette Vassel has been associated with the struggle for women’s rights in the Caribbean since the 1970s. She was the first coordinator of the Committee of Women for Progress, an activist organisation formed in 1976 which was among the pioneering organisations for the struggle for maternity leave with pay for women.
A well-known academic, activist and speaker, when asked to introduce herself, Vassel is quick to say she’s the mother of one girl who now has three children. “So I’m a grandmother,” Vassel says. “I’ve been married to my husband for 49 years. I say that to say that the family has been a very supportive environment for what you hear about me. People see the person but not the support systems. I just want to put that on the table first and foremost. We are the community, and the village has nurtured me and my family.”
Vassel spoke at a Global Consultation on the Decade of the Churches in Solidarity with Women being held this week in Jamaica. She was participating in a panel entitled “Introduction to the Caribbean context.”
Vassel, who has done a lot of academic work on gender and women’s history, has often considered how women have struggled from the plantation into the present. “We recognize and honor the fact that we have been very central to the development of our region as a whole,” she said. “We are just in the process of independence and decolonization.”
Involved in political activism since the 1970s, in 1983, Vassel founded the Women’s Resource and Outreach Center, which is still active in responding to the needs of women and their families. Participants in the global consultation will visit the center during their stay in Jamaica.
WCC Communication interviewed Vassel on the sidelines of the gathering.
Q: Please describe the social context of the Caribbean from the perspective of a young girl or a woman in Jamaica.
A: We have to locate it in the whole economic framework of the Caribbean. We are small developing states. We have very small, developing economies. The poverty is higher among women and young girls. Poverty among women is twice that among men. Young girls are especially vulnerable because their parents just do not have the means. Forty six percent of our household are headed by women in Jamaica. They are solely responsible for their households. Women are always expecting the man will come along and help, and it does not happen. The minimum wage is ridiculous. Teen pregnancy is a problem in the communities. Parents do try with their children; they make valiant efforts to get them to go to school. There is also a lot of threat of violence in the communities. We have situations where young girls are murdered and killed, a kind of lawlessness. It’s really very hard. There are also situations where you find younger girls being in a relationship with older men, although a lot of young girls are trying in school, and and young boys are also. It is a mixed bag.
Q: Your church is the Webster Memorial United Methodist Church. What are some unique elements church and faith-based groups can contribute in bringing change to society and making an impact?
A: A church is not a building but relational to people on the outside. We have outreach programs but we can do more in terms of engaging in the community. We do advocacy. We have discussions and we try to impact policy but here again that’s something we can do more effectively. Another area of interaction is that the churches own a number of schools, so keeping those schools alive, secondary and primary schools, establishing a basic education. That’s an important zone of our contribution as a united church. As far as whole advocacy for transformation, addressing gender issues, poverty, we can be more forceful around those things.
Q: When we consider the multiple roles of contemporary women, particularly young women, do you believe it’s realistic that they will meet the expectations?
A: It is totally hard work meeting the needs of young children and balancing everything. The first thing I would say is we have to recognize that we make choices and we have to be prepared. We are making choices to enter into relationships and to have children. We are making choices for ourselves and for the children as well. You have to be very prepared in terms of what you can give. You have to be sensible in building partnerships. A woman cannot do this alone nor can a man can do this alone. You have to negotiate to have a partner who recognizes it’s not your duty alone. We need to recognize that childcare is personal but also social. We have to make life better if we want human beings to thrive.
Q: Regarding the power of governance for women in decision-making, what is it that women can do differently as leaders?
A: What they can do differently is always remember that they are building on the shoulders of other people. A lot of women say “nobody helped me.” That is not true. We need to really look at ourselves as part of that community. In a sense, it’s a moral obligation. We have to draw on a higher moral order. It’s not about me alone. There needs to be an understanding of what power must mean for women and men. We need to examine power more deeply as women. I think that we have to build relationships and alliances with other women. We need to debunk the concept that we are our own worst enemies. That’s not true. I have been supported by so many women. The patriarchy has set us up to compete for everything - to compete for the man. You’re not going to love everybody but, at the same time, this sister is not your enemy.
Q: What is your advice to a woman experiencing violence of any kind, in a relationship, professionally, socially?
A: I think the first thing she has to realize is that this is not good living, this is not love. She then has to tell somebody she trusts - who she believe will help her make a decision as to what to do. Unfortunately, the church has not shown itself to be a productive partner for women in those situations. But there are other organizations and women you can talk to. The main thing is to recognize that this is not life. Your integrity as a person should not be undermined by anyone especially when they claim that they love you. If I love somebody, I’m not going to do anything to harm them. We can break the cycle. It’s not easy.