“I might not be able to run a 100-metre race, but I can lift up my hand and do something,” was the plea of 40-year-old Aliseen Bruce, a member of the Women Empowerment (WE) Group, who bemoaned the lack of training and employment opportunities in Jamaica for older women.
The WE Group is a community-led volunteer and advocacy organisation based at the offices of the Women's Outreach and Resource Centre (WROC) on Beechwood Avenue in St Andrew. Its members, who are mostly self-employed or retired, say they feel as if they have been cast aside with age, and are calling for equal opportunities to better themselves and earn a living.
Doreen Knight, a member of the group's steering committee, said in addition to being scrutinised when applying for jobs because of her address, she is also discriminated against because of her age.
“They look down on you because you are older now, so you should step aside for the younger people even though sometimes we have the same qualifications as the younger people. They just box us in. It's as if we don't have the right, so when we go out and apply, we don't get the job,” she lamented.
“We can work as long as we are able-bodied. Don't set a limit to us. We have the right to employment, too. As long as we have the skills and the qualifications, give us that chance to prove ourselves,” she continued.
Another member of the group, Opal Dennis, said as an activist in her community, she is always encouraging young people to sign up for government-funded training programmes, but she dares not apply.
“I was interested in the HOPE (Housing, Opportunity, Production and Employment) Programme that the Government launched a few months ago, but the form said it wanted persons from 16-29, so where does 30 and upwards go? Should we sit down and not do anything?” she asked.
“I understand that they are putting young people out there, and that is good because I have children and I want them to be dominant in the working world and to be properly trained, but there are still numbers after 29,” she pleaded. “For instance, if I am 30 and I want to go and learn a skill such as welding, but I don't have the money to go and pay to do welding, the Government has a programme for it, but because of my age, I can't access it. I am 30 and up and running. Nothing is wrong with my eyes, feet or hands.”
Dennis said that even with programmes that target older women, they are still handicapped when it comes to their career choice.
“I visit most of the facilities in my area and if you go in and try to apply for something like cosmetology, they will say, 'Why don't you try housekeeping?' They're trying to push us older people into housekeeping, but not things like business and information technology. So I'm old enough to be a housekeeper, but I can't work at a front desk?” she asked. “It is discriminatory, and it causes us to look down on ourselves and wonder if we should just give up and try something like selling bag juice or opening a stall on the street.”
The composition of the group of women is testament to the plight which they shared with All Woman, as they are mostly self-employed. Some of the women operate corner shops and restaurants, with others doing dressmaking and cosmetology, making craft items, selling clothes, snacks, ice-cream and accessories, and still others being unemployed or retired.
Bruce, who is the mother of two girls, who will be enrolling at Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts this year, and a son in high school, said if she had the prime minister's attention for a minute, she would plead her cause with him.
“If I am to sit before the prime minister, I would look at him and tell him that the same people between the ages of 16-29 who they want to train, we are the parents of those people who have to find the money to send them to college,” she said, as the room of more than a dozen women expressed their agreement.
“As a parent who is not working, where do I find that money? What am I to do, sit back and tell my children to stay home?” she beseeched. “This has been going on for far too long, and because of that, women, even if they have the drive to do it, they stay home and have a lot of children because they think their place is just in the home.
“It feels as if you are sending us back into the days when women were just in the home, where all we are good for is spreading bed, cleaning floor and bathroom, and all they could do for fulfilment was have sex and make babies!” Bruce exclaimed. “That is what you are telling us that we are good for.”
The one-year-old Women's Empowerment Group was formed after some of the women were trained in leadership and self-development skills, as well as health rights advocacy under a USAID-funded National Integrity Action programme and an EU-funded Partnership for the Promotion of Patients' Rights in Maternal, Neonatal & Infant Health, both of which were facilitated by WROC.
Since its formation, the group of women have been positively impacting their communities through volunteerism and advocacy. The group focuses on areas of personal development such as leadership, etiquette, conflict resolution, and time management. The women also host outreach activities in their communities and educate people about their rights and sexual health.