Rebel to the end
by Latoya Burnham
Acting UN Women director Joan French was a rebel.
Brutally honest and forthright, not one to hold her punches, French would be the first to tell you so herself, even if it is with an almost self-conscious laugh.
As a girl going to school in Jamaica in the 50s, she said she was aware of the issues of race that permeated times back then and was not one to sit and take it. So being the rebel that she was, she fought for equality and it was that fight from even then that would see her returning even from retirement to temporarily take on the role of acting head of the Caribbean offices for women’s issues at the United Nations.
Sitting, feet lapped in her office at UN House, Hastings, Christ Church, she shook her head and admitted that she would not delve into her deeds as a girl, but was honest enough to say that it was her grades that saved her.
“I’ve always had a parallel life, even from my school days. Along with trying to keep up my grades so I could be in the top five, and the reason for that was that I was always a rebel on the other side and in order to avoid being expelled I always had to have good grades.
“So from those days I was very sensitive to issues of racial discrimination, gender discrimination and I would not want to expose my high school by saying what were the issues that were confronted there, but it was at a time when we were moving away from the sort of colonial era. I went just before independence in the 50s, so there were lots of issues that needed to be resolved and they were very evident in my experience and I was very vocal and active around them in my school. I think just my grades saved me.”
She would go on to school in London on a scholarship and even there she delved into the movements for equality and the fight against racism. On her return to the Caribbean years later, she would continue her activism, this time on the side of gender issues. She said back in the 50s and even in the 70s there wasn’t much talk about women’s issues, but rather they were encapsulated in the various movements, rather than separated.
French recalled that she began working with a number of women’s organisations, giving input where their perspectives were too limited or putting new organisations in place where they were none. She hooked up with Peggy Antrobus of Women’s Development and within that network played a role in the establishment of the Caribbean Association for Feminists Research in Action, which would go on to become a catalyst for advancing work on women’s issues.
“But that is not to say that women did not have a long feminist tradition in the Caribbean because I think in the 70s when we started to work we thought we were all fresh and everything new until we started to do research and discovered in fact in previous generations women had also spearheaded programmes that increased women’s power and role,” she says.
Even with all this history of activism under her belt, she balked at the initial suggestion of joining the gender work as a UN member.
Perhaps that needs to be explained, because as a girl French was initially excited at the prospect of working for the UN as an interpreter. She laughed at the naive girl that thought fluent Spanish would have been enough to secure such a position. So after realising it wasn’t she put the thought out of her head, only to have the suggestion raised years later.
It began when in 1995 she was working as head of the Caribbean Policy Development Centre. Her work then involved liaising with a number of NGOs in the Caribbean, and also conducting training for the Caribbean Development Bank and UNICEF on women’s rights and gender socialisation, in coordination with the Sistren Theatre Collective, an association out of Jamaica. Her work involved travel and she had been all over the region and further afield, but even when a UN official suggested she apply for the open post of gender advisor in Bogota, she scoffed.
“I said I’m not the least bit interested in the UN. I am not a bureaucrat, I am an activist and at some stage after saying it to me like three or four times, she got the application forms put it on the desk and said to me, fill it out, it is only another kind of activism. So I did, partly because I never thought I would get it,” she said.
And she got the job. So at the end of 1995 she moved to Bogota as a consultant ahead of assuming her official position at the start of 1996. From there she was called to UN Headquarters in New York to take over the gender programme.
Again it was another UN official who continued to call her about applying for the post, and again she said she was not interested, until she eventually applied “to get them off [her] back”.
“[T]hat is quite a funny story because I didn’t want to go because I didn’t like New York. How that happened was that they were in the process of downsizing, so they were trying to make four different departments/divisions into one. These covered gender, behaviour change communication, urban work and partnerships with civil society… I am not a specialist except in languages and international relations in which I am trained, but I have done a lot of work in behavioural change communication because that was what we were working on with the Sistren Theatre Collective.”
From 1998 to 2003 she stayed in New York leading the process of mainstreaming gender and developing briefs for what areas they had to look at in relation to gender.
When the UN believed gender had become more mainstream and her stint ended there, French requested to be put back into the field. As an activist for most her life it was difficult to simply remain behind a desk, working more with policy than in the field implementing it. So when the opportunity to return to the more hands-on stuff came up – she jumped at the chance to head to Africa.
“I had been to their regional meeting to do some training, and at that time, because it was so rare for somebody to come from headquarters to that region from the gender area. I think I was looking out my hotel window and saw this stream of people on bicycles going down the road, stream of women as well. Some were in their African boo-boos, some in suits, some in the sharia-type gear and then they had babies on the back, chickens in front, goats on the side and I was like what is this. It just looked to me like total acceptance of diversity… and I thought this is really a nice feeling.”
It was her first overwhelming connection with Burkina Faso – an impression that would stick with her during her work there, improving the school networks, especially for girls. Satellite schools was something that area already had and had been pushed by UNICEF regional rep Rima Sala there. A study by the World Bank had concluded that the satellite schools were a great idea and could do with some upscaling. With that “ammunition” in hand, French set about to do just that, over the years even ending up funding the education of some girls who could not afford it herself.
“That is still what I think my period of being in Burkina Faso is known for. The thrill, the hard part was working to get UNICEF’s work in that area, I wouldn’t say accepted, but robust at the level of working with the partners. It was not easy but when I went for my walks I would get children saying, you see madam I go to school,” she said, recalling the satisfaction that created.
Her only real regret over that period was not being able to set up some kind of education fund that could take the challenge of paying for aspects of schooling there off the families, and especially the women and girls.
With that work over, returning to the Caribbean, she said was a different experience. Even coming out of retirement to once again head UN Women, she acknowledge that the gender fight and the associated challenges are different from Africa, but it does not mean the successes are any less significant.
“We don’t have issues about the access to school anymore. It has a kind of dual effect. I miss the work in Africa because I think there is so much to be done. It is very rewarding because it makes you realise how much you can do just by inspiring people. A lot of it is tough because a lot of it is dealing with cultural patterns, but you never wake up one morning wondering well what strategies, or what’s the work you have to do.
“It is true too in the Caribbean that we have work to do. It is of a different kind. I would say the level of violence in the Caribbean is very, very troubling. Personally I would say in Africa while you have to confront cultural issues of violence, that is female genital mutilation, but they are structural things… I know that domestic and intra-familial violence does exist, but I think there are certain mediating mechanisms about the respect for women, so that even if you are tied into a role and that role is limiting, it is none the less a respected role. Please don’t interpret that to mean I don’t think there is violence.
“In the Caribbean I feel it is harder for us to expose and make visible and get accepted the need for the struggle around women’s rights because the larger issues like education are largely resolved. I say largely resolved because although we have highly educated women they are not in positions concomitant with their education. ”
French noted that the majority of “structures” in this region were still male dominated and even those women who made it to the top still had to struggle to prove they belonged there. Politics was one of the areas she identified that it was glaringly apparent.
“You might have a few female ministers, but the majority of ministerial positions are male dominated. The general acceptance that women can is constrained by the belief that you don’t put women at the top. This is why we can have discussions where people say we are not going to elect a woman unless she is capable. You never ever ask that question about men because it is assumed that it is your right to contest. Nobody says we are only going to accept male candidates [who are capable], that happens in the electoral process. That is what should happen to women and it is very hard to explain that to men and some women as well.
“There are two rungs — even if I don’t like that woman she has a right to contest and if we are not getting an equal number of women contesting then something is wrong with that de facto,” she stated.
Most of French’s work now, she said, was about dealing with the issues of women around her age, especially as the challenges associated with health and other matters are so often neglected. It is also about helping the younger generations find their place and continue the struggle that women like her helped blaze the trail for so many years before. Even now, it is still rewarding work and a struggle she would not have imagined as a girl.