Post 224.

Government has the right and the power to amend the laws on child marriage. This right and power is not just because Parliament’s responsibility is to legislate for the best for all in the nation, particularly its most vulnerable citizens.  More precisely, it is because the government should and must harmonize all the laws governing the minimum age of sexual consent.

The Children’s Act (2012) sets the age of sexual consent at eighteen years old. Sexual relations between girls and boys who are both minors or within three years of age have been decriminalized. However, sex between adults and minors, meaning children under eighteen years old, is defined as rape.

In the case of the marriage laws, the majority of child marriages occur between girl children and male adults, at times constituting the legalization of statutory rape. This is the overriding issue that our society has to address.

The argument that we should pay attention to teenage pregnancies rather than child marriage is a misleading one. Child marriage and teenage pregnancy are parts of the same problem, which is too early sexual initiation, particularly in the lives of girls.

The sexualisation of girlhood, by older men, is a phenomena that has devastated the lives of girls across the region, leading to high rates of early forced sex, to girls 14 to 24 years old having one of the highest rates of HIV infection, and to teenage pregnancy. The consequences of these affect girls’ educational and economic options, cementing their dependence on others, rather than increasing their independence and self-sufficiency.

Both teen marriage and pregnancy also have to be situated in a wider context of widespread child sexual abuse, mainly by adult men.  This month, the Children’s authority publicized that 1000 cases of sexual abuse were reported to the Authority in the period May 18, 2015 to February 17, 2016. Of that, 142 children were in sexual relationships with adult men, with 61 of them becoming pregnant or having had a child. If those children were married to those adult men, would that make their situation more morally acceptable? To whom?

We’ve dealt with girls’ greater vulnerability to early sexual initiation by denial of the importance of sexual education through our school system. How else to protect our nation’s girls but with information about their bodies, health, safety, rights, options and sources of services and support? Learning how to make and live those decisions best for your future as a growing girl is a better solution to teen pregnancy than marriage.

The second approach that we have taken is shame and blame. The marriage solution makes sense in this context, for it seeks to restore respectability to a girl child, restoring respectability to the family. But, here, obeying the tyranny of respectability may not be doing what is best.

Research on past child brides suggests that girls were compelled into marriages far more than they chose them. Forced by parents who saw them liking a boy and decided a wedding had to take place. Other girls agreed because they were unhappy in their family homes and marriage provided escape. Still others were just doing what was expected, without understanding all the implications. Minors ending up in relationships with adult men had far less bargaining capacity to decide the fate of their lives, and had higher risk of violence.

Over the past six decades, girls themselves have decided against marrying as minors. This can be seen in the vast increase in the age of marriage over this period, once the decision was increasingly in empowered girls’ hands.

This also means that the actual numbers of child marriages are low. However, this is not a numbers issue. It is an issue of having a single, consistent legal position about the age of consent, what constitutes rape of a minor, and what the right approach to different aspects of girls’ sexual vulnerability should be.

The Hindu Women’s Organisation, and leaders such as Brenda Gopeesingh, have been consistently and fearlessly calling for this change for the last decade. There is also significant public support nationally and internationally. Despite sound and fury, amending the marriage laws is a low-stakes change. The political fall-out from this decision will be minor. And, a necessary message will be sent about girls’ right to be children, leaving we adults, rather than them, with the responsibility to resist their early sexualisation.

For more information, see the IGDS 2013 Public Forum on the Marriage Acts of Trinidad and Tobago which provides informed perspectives by Gaietry Pargass, Dr. Jacqueline Sharpe and Carol Jaggernauth.

http://www.looptt.com/content/womantra-religious-support-under-age-marriage-obscene%E2%80%9D

 

 

Post 223.

For the next two weeks, I’m enrolled in my first farming course. It’s more like a course in creating forests rather than farming, but the point is to harvest from rich biodiversity rather than destroy it in the name of food production. The goal “is to be a forager in one’s own ecosystem”.

This approach is known as permaculture, and its basically agriculture founded on observation of forests, and their ability to be self-sustaining. How do forests provide so many plant options without chemicals, what makes them able to conserve rivers and create rain? How can our backyards become micro forests, producing profusely, more than we ever suspected possible?

I first heard about permaculture in 2013 when I watched Erle Rahaman-Noronha’s inspiring TEDx Port of Spain talk, titled ‘Bringing Nature Home’. In one of the last slides, he showed the land he began to work on eighteen years ago, which had been handed over almost bare, down to grass. The next slide showed layers of trees, from the ground up and densely filling different areas of his land.

I knew then that this was something we should all know more about given the increasing rate of tree cover loss in our communities, the unsustainability of conventional agriculture, and the need to feed ourselves as well as the other life forms with whom we share the planet.

I’m taking the lessons from the course back to the garden where I live in the hope of making it less dependent on anything from outside, whether in relation to excess water-use, especially in dry season, or artificial fertilizer, because now I better understand how to make well-balanced compost. It’s such a simple idea, forests recycle everything in a loop, with tree roots and even migratory birds involved. What can they teach us about how to use what we have to both reduce waste and reap more?

I’ve learned that it’s not necessary to till your land, particularly in the tropics where topsoil is thin. Forests don’t till; we don’t have to either. What we can do, like forests, is layer green and brown plant material, recognizing that both nitrogen and carbon are necessary to soil rejuvenation. Just add water to your mulch, aerate and watch soil emerge.

Stripping soil bare is unnecessary and harmful. All you will do is dry out your topsoil from too much sun or allow it to be washed away by plenty rain, kill thousands of organisms which exist in that top layer and off the grasses and plants, and lead to an obvious need for chemicals to jump start crops. Everything that looks like ‘bush’ has some value that can be reused for mulching. Don’t burn the bush you do cut or watch your future topsoil go up in smoke.

See your garden in three dimensions from the ground up. Something like tumeric or yam is growing in the ground, something like peas can be trailed higher. Banana trees then fill the space under larger trees, like tamarind or flamboyant, which are known as nitrogen fixers. The idea is to create continuous yields, at different times and with different returns, including for the insects, animals, plants, water, air and land around you. At one point yam, at another point bananas, then, perhaps timber.

Save water and slow the flow of water across the land so that it can be absorbed into the ground along the way, rather than washing everything away with it. Whole hillsides are currently planted without any ‘swales’ or little indents and dams, and channels to direct water across rather than straight down slopes. All land naturally has points for water storage, ringed by some trees to hold up the soil. The natural course of water is to meander along uneven topography and to be in a symbiotic relationship with tree roots which promote absorption. We should observe if our agricultural methods reflect just this.

These lessons seem so obvious because, I guess, they were the old people’s way or the old forests’ way, before plantation-economy monocropping and modern, chemical-based agribusiness.

Watch Erle’s TEDx Talk. Grow food that doesn’t require cutting down forests. Instead choose farming invested in creating whole forests with sources of food.

Post 224.

Sixty-two people own as much wealth as three billion people in our world today.

This is a figure so difficult to comprehend, it’s like the fact that 1 300 000 earths can fit in the sun or that 1000 of our suns can fit in the star Betelgeuse. The vastness is as difficult to wrap your head around as statistics indicating that poor nutrition causes approximately 3 million child deaths each year. Or, that between 250,000 to 500 000 vitamin A-deficient children become blind every year, half of them dying within a year of losing their sight.

Unlike the universe’s big numbers, our own world’s big numbers have direct impact on us, and we should be paying them the most attention.

We are currently experiencing two intersecting crises: an economic crisis and an ecological crisis. Their nexus suggests that even if we are to eventually get out of this bust moment and back into the boom part of the cycle, our growth model will only inevitably bring declining returns, precisely because of its unsustainability. We know this already from irreversible impacts of this model on our ozone, climate and environment.

We can wait for the petrodollars to rise again, and to resort to decades-old, energy-czar logic of downstream industries, and import dependence, but we will nonetheless be burdening our children with ecological costs which we do not currently measure or properly value. And, we will likely to be worse off in relation to drinkable public water, agriculture and affordable food, marine ecologies and waste management the next time around.

Look at Venezuela where the public service has shut down, and where they have had the country shift its clocks forward in a surreal move to create more daytime hours because of, among other reasons, the havoc wrecked by drought on their hydroelectric power. Venezuela’s economy, its government, malls and schools are waiting on rain.

Part of our problem is our measurements and our model. And, if there was ever a time for us to set a new course, these two current crises suggest it is now. First, we have to establish a different, less obsolete conception of what ‘development’ means, and go on to use and develop different measures that instead focus on well-being, equality and happiness across areas ranging from jobs to health, housing, civic engagement and the environment.

If you think this is idealistic or irrelevant, put yourself in the position of the thousands of workers that will lose their jobs this year and ask yourself whether marking our economic recovery by investment, debt and GDP alone will account for the unfair distribution of that recovery and its rewards when they finally trickle down across the country. Indeed, post-GDP economic analyses, which are premised on the idea of a more human economy, are part of a global conversation long happening, with which we in Trinidad and Tobago should be more engaged. But, which state economist or planner is having that conversation here?

Like any citizen looking at the state’s corruption and wastage of money as documented in the latest Auditor General’s report or any mother who finds it hard to be able to take her child anywhere that is garbage-free, ecologically protected and safe from crime, or any worker with a job watching others around me lose theirs, it’s not hard to observe a toxic global economy that is exacerbating suffering, inequalities and biodiversity destruction. And, such suffering counts, if we count it.

Our problem is not just the price of oil. It’s not this one ‘guava season’ in which the poorest are going to bear the biggest burden while we avoid the dignity of even looking them in the eye.

It’s that waste, corruption, tax avoidance, ineffective regulation, and exploitative human and natural resource use are secure in the model on which we rely. It’s that people will rob and riot to express their bewilderment, anger and desperation when informal, low waged, nonunionised, insecure, irregular and illegal work is no longer enough to survive.

The challenge seems astronomical, but sixty-two as wealthy as three billion is not right. These current crises make an alternative world a necessity for which we must fight, or pay with our lives.

See Oxfam

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-02-03/are-62-people-as-wealthy-as-bottom-50-per-cent-oxfam/7114666

 

Post 233.

Adults, including Ministers of Health and Education, political party representatives, religious leaders, police and doctors, are screwing adolescent girls. Check your dictionary for a fuller definition, but here I’ll define screw as ‘to mess someone up’ or ‘to cheat someone out of something’.

Imagine you are an adolescent girl in Trinidad and Tobago who becomes pregnant and decides you cannot manage pregnancy or parenthood. First, what is happening within your body is completely separated from ideas such as consent, choice and rights, as if T and T is not a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Second, you have been denied proper education about sexuality in schools, though it has been established for decades that this is one of the state’s best tools in tackling vulnerability to forced sex including child sexual abuse, high risk of HIV and STDs, early pregnancy, and difficulty negotiating contraception in sexual relations. You also face stigmatization buying contraception, making it less likely that you will do so.

Third, if you become pregnant, you will be prevented from staying in school with your community of peers, and will be sent elsewhere, as if your pregnant body is a source of contamination. Nurses will treat you like pregnancy is your punishment for having sex or having it forced on you. And, indeed pregnancy is your cross to bear regardless of your economic or psychological ability to cope. At least when a house burns down with a baby inside or when the newspaper says your murdered son had turned gangsta, everyone is clear who to blame.

Fourth, if you decide your mental health cannot cope and seek to procure a safe termination, rest assured that the best gynecologists in the country will not to help you, as they consider their own reputations, job security and freedom from criminalisation, rather than advocate for the law to be changed. When you find a good doctor, who bless her or his heart, will help you rather than judge you, you risk being charged by the police, and condemned by religious people more concerned about their beliefs than your care or welfare.

And, if you cannot find a gynecologist who will safely perform a procedure that women have sought for millennia, you can always bleed your way to the nation’s hospitals where about 3000 women a year will end up as a result of complications from unsafe abortions. Or, possibly, become a statistic: 10% of maternal deaths are the result of illegal abortions in Latin American and Caribbean.

For this reason, important clarifications are required.

Pro-choice policy isn’t pro-abortion. It is pro-women-not-dying, and pro-fetuses-not-being-found-buried-in-the-backyard. Fully legalising abortion does not escalate its numbers. Countries where abortion is legal generally have lower rates than those that don’t. Abortion is not a religious issue, unless the woman seeking to terminate her pregnancy is religious and this shapes her decision. It is not a ‘sensitive topic’ unless you are intimately connected to the pregnancy. Then, sensitivity is definitely required.

A referendum is not the way to secure safer and better-managed terminations; it’s a way to play politics and crush its possibility, for religious folk who are also pro-choice will be made to choose a side by opportunistic, patriarchal leadership. Charging women, including minors, and doctors will not stop abortions, it simply makes them more risky.

Abortion is, in fact, not illegal in our Common Law when it preserves a pregnant woman’s mental or physical health, preventing her from becoming a “physical and mental wreck”. Doctors should know this. More than half of the population supports expanded legalization, e.g. in cases of rape and incest. Calls for more discussion will not help mothers seeking terminations, decriminalizing abortion will.

Finally, important clarification is required of the Trinidad and Tobago Medical Association, and its PRO Dr Liane Conyette who is quoted as saying, “As doctors we are charged with protecting the life of all our patients, mothers and their unborn children alike, both of whom have rights that must be considered”. It is unclear where the TTMA sourced its position on the rights of unborn children. Do those rights begin at conception or later? What are those rights? Was this position collectively agreed on? Where is it written? What are the costs of this position for teenage girls?

Girls are cheated out of public education they need; public health procedures that should be safe; public programmes to empower them in the face of sexual violence and sexual exploitation by adults; public legislation that seeks to support their choices and needs; and a public that values girls and women’s lives, especially those who are poor.

The details of this week’s news of a sixteen year old who sought an abortion shouldn’t occupy us as much as the fact that there are many other minors in such precarious situations, and no end in sight. This is what it means to be screwed by adults and authorities, none of whom are publicly on their side.

https://www.guttmacher.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/pubs/IB_AWW-Latin-America.pdf

http://newsday.co.tt/news/0,226655.html

http://www.trinidadexpress.com/20160418/news/time-to-talk-about-abortion

http://www.newsday.co.tt/news/0,19661.html

 

 

Post 232.

Last Thursday, students in my Men and Masculinities in the Caribbean course engaged in pro-feminist men’s movement building on the University of the West Indies (UWI), St. Augustine campus, Trinidad and Tobago. They created games, posters, pamphlets and popular theatre that tackled issues related to fatherhood, violence, pornography, suicide, health, homophobia and popular culture. This assignment aimed to create peer learning outside of the classroom, challenging students’ real-life capacity to explain patriarchy as a source of both men’s privilege and pain.

There are many kinds of men’s movements, differentiated by their politics regarding race, sexuality, capitalism, militarism, religion and women-led feminist struggles. Pro-feminist men’s movements, which are also called feminist men’s movements, are not motivated by a desire to return women to ‘traditional’ or subordinate roles. They are not compelled by competition with women in the struggle for rights nor by an empirically-unfounded position that women now have too much power and men are the ‘real’ victims. Thus, such men’s movements are best for achieving gender justice, which requires us to dismantle and transform the hierarchies created by our ideals of manhood and womanhood.

While masculinity studies seems new, the study of men in the Caribbean emerged in earlier studies on the family. Since at the least the 1930s, anthropologists looked at Afro-Caribbean families, which didn’t fit colonial nuclear-family models, and concluded that men were marginal to them. Later feminist scholarship debunked that, arguing that while Afro-Caribbean fathers may not reside within families, which may therefore end up mother-centred, other men such as sons, uncles, brothers and grandfathers were not marginal to family life at all.

By the 1980s, a new discourse, not of marginality, but of marginalization was introduced. It argued that women’s gains were a direct consequence of black men being held back from advancement in the teaching profession in Jamaica. Men were being marginalized to keep them subordinated and prevent them from threatening colonial rule, it claimed. Despite the inaccuracy of this interpretation, and its denial of women’s own efforts to advance in the labour market, the myth of male marginalization caught fire across the Anglophone region as those who saw women’s advances in terms of men’s feelings of emasculation found a flag to wave in backlash to Caribbean feminism.

Nonetheless, from Jamaica to Trinidad were experiments with pro-feminist men’s organizing. Anyone active in men’s movement building in 1990s Trinidad and Tobago would remember MAVAW, Men Against Violence Against Women. UWI Lecturer Jerome Teelucksingh revived International Men’s Day commemorations on November 19th, his dad’s birthday, to mobilize men to improve gender relations and promote gender equality, through a focus on men’s health, positive male role models, and men’s contributions to community and family.

Unfortunately, the turn of the century witnessed an about-face by campus principals, state bureaucrats, politicians, policy makers and fathers’ groups.  A language of ‘balance’ began to displace one of equity. A vocal men’s rights movement emerged, increasingly attacking rather than collaborating with feminists. A once visible (pro-)feminist men’s movement shrank, leaving those men who continued to invest in challenging patriarchal relations feeling isolated, and reproducing the fear, shame, silence that Michael Kimmel describes.

That said, a vibrant gay men’s movement emerged in this very period, but it too gets little love from the men’s rights approach. This is one example of where pro-feminist men’s movements can take responsibility for challenging men’s rights groups as well as discrimination that men still face.

This turn ignored women’s long solidarity with men’s movement-building, and both Indian and African men’s solidarities with women’s rights in the region. In the 1990s, I often worked with young male activists from the YMCA who sought to transform masculinities to create a kinder, gentler world for subordinated boys. Women in UN organizations and university departments generated funds and developed curricula for masculinity studies, facilitated workshops for men, established peace-building programmes, and supported networking amongst men across the region. Neither the women nor men always got it right, but we were not enemies. Rather, we shared struggles from different, contradictory and shifting sites of power.

In a globally right-wing moment, it remains necessary to mentor men and women to change the nexus of power, privilege, pain and powerlessness in boys and men’s lives. My students engage in pro-feminist movement building to better understand the project of men’s movements, like women’s movements, to fairly and lovingly value us all simply because we are human. When that pedagogy works, it garlands the bread of solidarity with roses of hope.

Post 231.

On Wednesday, SALISES at UWI held a forum on participatory governance. With the opening line, “Let’s do this together” replacing the usual national sentiment of “Who we go put?”, the intention was to explore the best way to get state accountability, responsiveness and inclusion. Maximum leadership can screw with your constitution, institutions and political directorate for several generations, and this discussion wouldn’t be dogging us today had Williams himself been more democratic and less tolerant of corruption.

The audience suggested pushing for the right of referendum, indeed making it so through a referendum. A network of citizens was formed to create an alternative, people-driven ‘Green Paper’ on Local Government Reform based on the idea that neither had the government process adequately referenced past reform reports nor adequately involved another round of true consultation. The Constitutional Reform Forum has been at this for about 15 years. Still, no point getting mad and marching in the streets, said Michael Harris, the only lasting revolutionary accomplishments are ones that entrench institutional change.

The pervading atmosphere was one of intellectual-elite cynicism about positive developments within officialdom. Indeed, speaker Reginald Dumas noted that he received no response to his offers to advise current bureaucrats and permanent secretaries about what public service professionalism required.

In the past few years, anyone watching Caribbean countries at international negotiations would have seen Foreign Affairs officials championing their own bias, for example against reproductive rights, rather than international conventions which determined the official position. And, if a PS decides homophobia will never be challenged in policy, with no accountability to civil society, the status quo shall be so.

On the other hand, there was passion, driven by painful love for this place and its people. Kirk Waithe, Head of Fixin’ T and T argued that we have failed to demand the government we deserve, reproduce white collar crime and petty corruption to oil the workings of the business community, and have created an environment where you can justify earning $34 million for nothing, because of a technicality, and walk around as brazen as Adolphus Daniell, while small time ganja smokers turn hardened criminals in jail.

He’s right of course. You want change, target the mismanagement, payments and losses happening by the millions, and force disclosure of information.

Remember how Bhoe Tewarie fought the JCC over development of Invader’s Bay, arguing that the state had a right to withhold legal opinion from the nation, despite representing ‘we the people’, and paying for those opinions with our money. Remember it took the Freedom of Information Act to publicise Marlene McDonald’s ongoings, because the PM was willing to overlook what he knew we had not yet proved. Remember how those vacuous ‘Happiness’ campaigns netted Ross Advertising 20 mil. in 2014 alone, although in 2012 and 2013, there was no provision for such expenditure in the company’s corporate communications budget.

Every lost dollar becomes a missing hospital bed, a potholed road or an under-equipped school, while somebody either becomes or can now command ‘Benz Punany’.

As a feminist advocating for issues which will not get mass support in protests, letters or votes in any near decade, all this talk of local government reform and referenda seems necessary, but far removed. Kamla Persad-Bissessar resorted to referendum talk, though human rights should not be determined by a popularity contest. In Bahamas’ referendum in 2002, citizens voted against giving women’s spouses the same right to citizenship as men’s spouses. This was changed by legislators, finally, last month.

We need institutional and constitutional change, and to be corruption watchdogs. Even parliamentary Joint Select Committees need more teeth, observed Ashaki Scott. Yet, we also need to challenge the invisibility or illegitimacy of some issues, or a hierarchy amongst them.

‘Women’s issues’ are citizenship issues central to any politics of inclusion, and their effects filter through the economy, politics and family. LGBT issues are not special interest issues once you understand how constructions of gender and sexuality harm all our lives. To ‘do this together’ is first about widespread justice in village councils, religious communities, health centers and police stations, for  all who, as Lloyd Best describes, wish to become proprietors of our landscape and governors of the dew.

 

Post 230.

Weekends are for rivers and forests. I want Ziya to value the place within which she is growing, and all that it bequeaths, as part of learning to value herself and her identity. Getting out of walled buildings and urban spaces is important for emotional and mental health, and though Zi may wonder why I’m dragging her around the country, when she’d rather stay home and snack her way through the day and the cupboards, I know that familiarity with our landscape will define her self-understanding in ways that school cannot.

We were at Turure Falls, walking reverently through the river collecting natural crystals. There were no others tramping through the bush, just breeze and light. Then, we came to the rockface where water cascades into pools. There, scrawled across the entire rock were the names of men who thought it was right to scar a natural setting, an hour’s hike away from civilization. Their names were everywhere, chiseled deep, like the defacing of a cathedral.

This happens because the state has no regulatory mechanisms for monitoring who goes into our forests and what they do while there, no records of names, no permits, no penalties, and no real conception of protection of our natural resources. That is a fact,  discernable whichever coast one is on in the country. We collected a bag of garbage on our way out, and there was more we left behind.

What did Zi learn from this? She could look around her and see for herself why the environment needs protection. She could read the details of how governments fail. She could be confronted with how quickly pristine spaces can be destroyed, and therefore the urgency with which her generation must act to change everything from education to policies.

We were in Caroni Swamp yesterday, impressed with the incoming flocks of scarlet ibis, which are truly wondrous to see, along with all the other wildlife, from boas to silky anteaters to a range of birds, from cardinals to herons, egrets, owls and more. But, from the dilapidated entrance sign to the badly kept Visitors’ Centre, what was clearly a site for preservation for seven generations, was suffering from sheer neglect of adequate ecological consciousness and government oversight.

For one, the boats of the tour operators should not produce so much noise or gas fumes. On a boat with about forty persons, at $60 per person, and at least three boats out simultaneously, the main tour operator is making enough to invest in ecologically friendly engines, and those managing the site should insist on them. No wonder the guide said that all the human activity has driven most wildlife to inaccessible sections of the swamp, boatloads of people go in every single evening. There isn’t a day when the Swamp is closed to visitors to allow the animals some respite from the noise, and wardens for the swamp should engage in regular cleaning up of the garbage that hangs from mangrove roots like shed snakeskin. Sitting quietly watching the flocks come in for the evening, I wondered how many of those 18 000 birds will still be there in twenty years, and whose responsibility will it be if they are not. Ours, right? So, I told Zi. Mine, hers and our responsibility.

All along the North Coast, there is garbage, mostly plastic bottles, but also wrappers of all kinds. Along Icacos, there’s a photographic exhibit worth of garbage. Maracas’ ‘upgrade’, seems to have forgotten that a river exists behind the beach, and that this too, not just the range of fish you can fry, is a sign of ecological diversity. Can you imagine if there was a children’s education centre at Maracas? Children could run through, in their sandy feet, while learning about rivers, forests, watersheds, and all the wildlife, from caiman to sharks, that deserve protection from endangerment. Until then, in horror at the ‘development’ of Maracas beach, Zi and I only drive through.

Lloyd Best once said to me, to understand Trinidad and Tobago and what it needs, just walk around with your eyes open. So true. Weekends are therefore for teaching Zi that observing her precious world is what she must first learn to do.

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