Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Looking through gender lens with Hilary Nicholson

Published in The Gleaner's Flair Magazine on Monday, March 2, 2015

Justice. Fairness. Awareness. Equality. Gender. Hang around Hilary Nicholson long enough, and these words will become essential to your vocabulary. Your interpretation of them may expand. Your perspective on their presence or absence in society may change. You may even become an activist yourself.

As a gender trainer and advocate, Nicholson has spent more than 30 years educating and empowering others to see the world through gender lens, and to work towards "a kinder, peaceful, more caring society, which both men and women can enjoy". She has been involved in the Sistren Theatre Collective from its inception and was also a founding member of WMW Jamaica (formerly Women's Media Watch). Both groups focus on advancing women's rights - Sistren through the arts, and WMW Jamaica through advocacy, training and research.

Nicholson has not just witnessed the advancement of the women's movement in Jamaica over the years, she has been an active participant, and even a leader in the field. But how did she come to be interested in gender advocacy at all?


"I got into it because I got involved with Sistren Theatre Collective in the early '70s," Nicholson tells Flair. To hear her tell it, you would think she stumbled into gender advocacy because of the direct connection it had to another great passion of hers - theatre arts.

"I was a theatre student at [the Edna Manley] school of drama," she reminisces, sharing that one of the highlights of this time was the experience of studying with Dennis Scott, a former director of the Edna Manley College for the Visual and Performing Arts School of Drama (then called Jamaica School of Drama).

"My life was absolutely changed by Dennis Scott!" Nicholson enthuses, "because I learnt about participatory methodologies and theatre in education from him. I learnt about using theatre to explore social issues. It was experiential learning. It totally changed my perspective on everything I did. Through that, I got interested in Sistren, and through the Sistren experience, I got interested in women's empowerment."

Nicholson notes that it wasn't planned. "I never made any fixed decisions. I had no interest in children or family or anything. I was too busy. I taught school for two or three years. Then I lost my teaching job. But that was the best thing, because then I moved into working in theatre with Perry Henzell. I was involved in dance classes with the NDTC (National Dance Theatre Company). Then there was the Sistren experience."


And as they say, the rest is history. Since that time, Nicholson has become an expert in gender analysis. She has trained thousands of persons in gender advocacy, and even though she doesn't consider herself to be "an academic", she has inspired many to work in academics and at the grassroots levels to advance the women's movement in Jamaica, and to teach others how to see life through gender lens.

So, what exactly are gender lens?

"The gender lens helps you to understand life and why things are happening," Nicholson explains. "It means being aware that women and men come to the world with different experiences and knowledge ... just ordinary things like water lock-offs affect women and men differently because of their differing roles. Poverty affects men and women differently - the woman may immediately think of the children, while the man may feel like less of a man because he is unable to fulfil the role of provider. If we don't understand these things and take note, we don't know how to address the problems that arise and how to develop policy (to address them)."

She continued, "Even chik-V affected men and women differently." Nicholson notes. She adds that a gender analysis can be applied to just about any sphere of life: the classroom, the work world, the church, and even the bedroom. In fact, it is this unique perspective which has helped to shape her life.
Today Nicholson is heartened by the progress that has been made over the years. Speaking specifically to work done by WMW Jamaica, she says: "The role of media in society is recognised as important now by citizens generally, especially regarding sexism, violence, and other issues. When WMW started calling attention to this at the end of the '80s into the '90s, there was not this recognition. We were like a voice in the wilderness. Often, the general response was, 'what's the fuss about?'."

Over the years, and after thousands of training and sensitisation workshops by WMW Jamaica, Nicholson believes more people now understand what the 'fuss' is about, and why a 'gender-aware' perspective is necessary and important.

She points out that through WMW Jamaica's lobbying, the Children's Code of Programming in broadcast media has been created. And along with other members of the Association of Women's Organizations in Jamaica, WMW lobbied for legislation such as the Domestic Violence Act 1996, the National Policy on Sexual Harassment, as well as the National Policy on Gender Equality.

Looking back, she says with contentment: "I have learnt a whole lot. I can't even begin to say how much knowledge, skills, wisdom I've gained. I've learnt gender by doing gender. I have become a well-informed gender trainer, advocate, without planning it this way."

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