Post 338.

In 2019, the issues that have long faced women continue to be part of sustained struggle. The hope in this struggle are the many women, especially young women, fearlessly pursuing gender, sexual and reproductive justice around the region.

I’m meeting some of these women for the first time, feeling hope from their potential. I’m introducing you to them because the names of Caribbean women activists often disappear along with recognition of their labour.

I was at an Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) event recently, featuring companies and banks with progressive policies regarding women’s employment and leadership, sexual harassment, and work-family balance. Someone in the audience asked what led to these policies. The private sector speakers answered that society has changed, customers are choosing socially (and environmentally) progressive profits, and a younger generation is looking for jobs in companies that align with their ideals.

Society didn’t just change. Feminists labored for decades, despite being stereotyped and maligned, to mainstream the transformations that appear to have just happened over time and that, ultimately, benefit us all.

Societies don’t just change. Women, and feminist men who are allies, labour to make those changes to women’s rights, LBGTI human rights, rights to safe and legal terminations, rights of sex workers, and rights of girls and women to live free of male harassment and violence. They labour to make the changes to parenting policies, including extended paternity leave, that we take to be common sense today.

Such labour takes whole lives, is often voluntary, and can be exhausting, impoverishing and invisible. The private sector takes up this work when the social shifts have already happened, but rely on feminists’ everyday investment to take the risks and resist persistent social support for male domination, heterosexual privilege, traditional gender roles, and women’s unequal burden of care.

So, let me introduce you to Ifasina Efunyemi, a Garifuna woman, who co-founded Petal, Promoting Empowerment through Awareness for Lesbian and Bisexual Women, a Belizean organization that creates safe spaces, promotes healthy relations, and provides training that supports economic empowerment. Every year they hold a forum on International Women’s Day with different themes from gender-based violence to social security and the age of consent.

Meet Robyn Charlery White, co-founder and Director of Herstoire Collective, which promotes sexual and reproductive health and rights, works through digital advocacy, creates safe spaces for women and girls to access information and services, and teaches St. Lucian school age girls about menstrual health. You wouldn’t believe how little secondary school girls are informed about their bodies, fertility and sexuality, mostly because of parents’ silence, and the impact of such disempowerment.

Patrice Daniel, from Barbados, co-founded Walking into Walls in 2012. It’s an on-line space (which you can Like on Facebook) that documents gender-based violence against women and girls, their own narratives and stories of violence, and feminist activism to end such violence. In its own way, this crucial record of the most gutting of women and girls’ realities aims to highlight and challenge the norms that make male violence so normal in the Caribbean.

In Jamaica, Shantae Porteous works with Women’s Empowerment for Change (WE Change). Focusing on empowering lesbian, bisexual and transwomen, their work includes using culture and arts to heal from abuse. She’s also part of I’m Glad I’m a Girl Foundation, which has been lobbying to provide sexual and reproductive health services and information to girls thirteen to seventeen. Ironically, the age of consent is sixteen, but such services cannot be legally accessed without parental consent before eighteen. For almost ten years, the Foundation has also organised a feminist-led camp for girls that includes conversations on puberty, self-confidence and financial management. Boss mix, right?

You may think that the big issues are migration and trafficking, climate-related disasters, and poverty, but these are unequally suffered by the most vulnerable or stigmatised groups in our societies; teenage girls, persons living with HIV/AIDS, trans women, poor women, and survivors of insecurity and violence.

What do these and other young women need to continue creating hope? Funding, capacity-building, meaningful partnerships, volunteers, allies, political will and state collaboration, spaces to gather, succession planning, and opportunities to become financially sustainable.

It may not be visible, but another generation is labouring to protect and advance women’s human rights, and free women, girls, men and boys from patriarchal authority. In the spirit of regional solidarity, I’m billboarding their courage because the story shouldn’t be that societies just somehow change.

If anyone tells you the future is feminist. Now, you know their names.

 

 

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Post 337.

As a child, the white handkerchief in the right back pocket of my dad’s pants would dry my tears. Collecting his belongings, after he unexpectedly died of a heart attack on Thursday in St. Vincent, in a pair of his pants folded on a shelf, I found his handkerchief, soft and familiar.

I slid it into my own right back pocket, his habit giving me comfort and connection. At the morgue, I stood bewildered, clutching that small cotton square, willing his eyes to open, contemplating the hard metaphysics that we can be here and not here at the same time.

I said all the things one says, it’s okay, I forgive you, I forgive myself, I’m sorry some people hurt you, I’m so glad some people treated you well, I wish you peace, I thank you, I love you. When I couldn’t think in words anymore, I stroked his hair and his head, breathing for us both, breathing, breathing.

My dad, Azad Nazar Hosein (February 9, 1943 – June 6, 2019) was brilliant. He was devastatingly logical, had an absorbed and dominating mind, and could sharply envision both a far end and each step in between. He opened the first computer school in the country, called ComTech, and I distinctly remember him teaching students to code, standing at a wooden podium with a gold plaque printed with the word, “Think”.

For decades, he worked with governments on strategic planning and project management like a guru in the field. He was a workaholic, committed to the region, his students, preventing fiscal mis-management, and empowering civil servants with whom he collaborated.

He was also difficult and unpredictable, and for a long time I struggled. I learned forgiveness and compassion from loving him as I grew older, but I also learned how to protect my boundaries, how I wanted to be loved, and what it means to both be a survivor and be who I am because of his strengths. Fathers are not always easy.

Stroking his hair, time fell away, and I was no longer the adult intimate with his gifts and failings. The more his cold body became real, the more insubstantial I felt, like I was dissipating into a ghost of myself at five or six years old, crumpling his handkerchief and drying my tears. I had not stroked his hair so gently like that for nearly forty years, with the entirety of a child’s adoration and affection. It was visceral and mutual, he adored me then too.

I saw him on Monday in a chance encounter in the Tobago airport. He was fasting for Ramadan and had just swum in the ocean. He looked tall, confident and well for his seventy-six years. We spent time discussing procurement and corruption. He started the conversation by saying he hadn’t seen me write in the newspaper about the new US laws against abortion, and launched into a short speech about how he strongly believed in a woman’s right to choose.

How did he manage to believe that his work with Caribbean governments would change how we strategise, implement and evaluate when it had not as yet? He said, you have to have eternal optimism that things will improve in the region. I looked at him, smiling to myself, so clearly the child of my parents’ politics and commitments, features and mannerisms.

Working at UWI reminds me of my dad, who also once lectured there. I think of him striding long-legged across the field to the mainframe computers on campus, with boxes of punch cards in his arms, while I ran alongside to keep up at six or seven years old. I think of him helping me learn to ride my bicycle on Dash Street, opposite UWI school, where I climbed trees in the lush backyards of campus housing. I think of him calling me ‘sugarplum’ when I would leap into his arms and touch his hair.

Before he boarded the plane on Monday, he retold the story of his happiness on the day I was born. I was the girl he wanted. Now I think I should have taken a picture of us, should have hugged him longer, but all I have is that he kissed me on the cheek and I saw him smile for the last time. He was not perfect, but he was mine.

In the morgue on Friday morning, the pathologist came out with my dad’s heart covered in a bowl in his hand. While he explained the autopsy results, I kept looking at his wrapped heart. This was the heart beating in his body on Monday. This was the heart I wanted to love me. Here for the last time was his heart. Now, there would be only memory and acceptance. No more chances to make anything right.

I was four years old when I stood next to my dad at his mother’s funeral, his handkerchief on his head while he prayed. For the first time I will be there again, on Thursday, his handkerchief drying my tears as he is laid to rest in his mother’s grave.

 

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Post 336.

When warriors walk into the pages of history, it is up to those of us left behind to write the words that give life to their memory. So it is with Guyanese activist, Andaiye, who passed away on May 31, 2019, aged 77.

Born Sandra Williams in 1942, she changed her name to a Swahili one, meaning ‘daughter comes home’. I always admired her singular name and have never met another Caribbean woman with one name, so chosen. No patriarchal or colonial lineage to negotiate, just what Dominican revolutionary Cecilia Babb would call her ‘woman name’.

Such boldfacedness seems to have come from a fiercer time than now, when Caribbean women, indeed Caribbean people, imagined ourselves on entirely liberated and self-defined terms.

Andaiye’s story won’t be told by the victors, but by those who stood at her shoulders, her comrades, her feminist sisters, another generation of upcoming social justice foot-soldiers, and others from all walks of life whom she continues to call into battle, her spirit as unrelenting in its call for our commitment as she was in life.

She was a sharp woman, wry and acidic, yet wonderfully encouraging and compassionate. She could bless and warn at the same time, empower and humble, educate and listen. I met her many times and she was always full of quiet and unwavering truth, her gaze looking right through pretensions, power and politicking.

Forty years ago, Andaiye was a founding member of the Working People’s Alliance at a time when revolutionary politics was sweeping the region, from the Workers’ Party of Jamaica to the New Jewel Movement of Grenada to student protests of the 1970s that aimed to topple the ‘flag independence’ and establishment politics of Dr. Eric Williams in Trinidad.

She worked as Coordinator and Editor, International Secretary and Women’s Secretary, until 2000. It’s like she herself was walking in the footsteps of the renowned radical, Trinidadian Claudia Jones, tireless thinker, writer, and fighter for working people, for justice for women, and for an end to the racist legacy of colonialism.

After the assassinations of Walter Rodney, Maurice Bishop, Jacqueline Creft and others in the 1980s, our Caribbean dream of a new world seemed impossible. In this dark time, women around the region began to organize anew. Andaiye co-founded Red Thread, a Guyanese women’s organization committed to women’s economic independence and power, cross-race solidarity, working-class women’s leadership, and development built on care and justice.

Women like her created and held a space bigger than our current aspirations seem. At a moment when everyone, from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to the big banks, is talking about women’s economic empowerment, Andaiye insists that this demands actually changing power relations in households, the economy and culture, and between our local economies and the global economic order.

She would scoff at the cheapness of a definition that aims to get more women into the waged labour force while ignoring the care labour they still carry, and while failing to support cross-class women’s movements so that the poorest of women are organized to exercise a say over our economy.

When CLR James wrote, Every Cook Can Govern, he wasn’t thinking of mothers, housewives and domestic workers, but Andaiye and the organisations she was a part of, the Women’s International Network for Wages for Caring Work, and the Global Women’s Strike, always did.

In Andaiye’s words, “I believe fundamentally that seeing how women’s unwaged labour underpins everything is the starting point of everything ranging from understanding capital to organizing against it”.

Her passing reminds that we should cherish what a generation of women spent their lives and labour working toward, and steady ourselves for the unfinished business with which we are left.

For her, Venezuela and solidarity with its people are our business. The “whole doctrine of pre-emptive strike – with all the rogue states and failed states being countries with people of colour” is our business. Men and boys murdered by the thousands across the region are our business. “Women at the bottom – working class, of color” are our business. Counting women’s labour is our business. Turning to our common humanity as a basis for political action is our business.

“I always feel good when people are not taking it – are fighting back”, said Andaiye in 2004. When published, her collection of speeches and writings will be titled, “The Point is to Change the World”. When we live by those words, we keep her memory alive. And, perhaps, that is all that needs to be said.

http://andaiye1942-2019.com/

 

 

Post 335.

Today, I turned 45. I’m not sure I feel celebratory. I feel like a survivor. Like the walking wounded. Moving slowly, but surely on my feet.

For all my empowerment, I’m amazed I’m still negotiating women’s timeworn challenges. Like an increasing number of us, precisely because sheer hard work has led to vastly more university educated women than men, I’m a main breadwinner.

At the same time, because male privilege remains so resilient, I also put in the majority of time on child care and carry the majority of responsibility for managing all the logistics and planning related to family life.

This comes at the cost of my savings and my career. It brings the exhaustion that so many single mothers are familiar with, and dust off like just another day.

It’s labour that is mostly invisible, undervalued, taken-for-granted, and assumed to be mine. For the good of my daughter, like so many moms, I do it willingly and wholeheartedly. I’m clear-eyed about the inequalities, but I’m prepared to sacrifice, to provide the absolute best, and to teach lessons of generosity, care and justice with joy.

I’ve started a whole new life. It’s like adulthood, which is cynical at best, but blushed with rose-coloured bliss. Maybe bliss is just a choice. I imagine I’m past life’s half-way mark so, at this point, I have fewer years ahead than I’ve already lived. These days, therefore, I’m just trying to be happy.

There’s debt to climb out of, overdue publications to submit, a house to buy, and ends to meet. It’s the kind of stress that keeps you up calculating at night.

There are also rivers to walk, waterfalls to find and beaches to remind of the wind and the waves, alternately whispering and roaring, as both wash across the shore.

There’s also love which feels like winning the Lotto every day. Maybe past forty you are not looking for perfect, maybe you are not even looking, maybe you just get lucky enough to cross paths with someone committed to growing.

Inside, I’ve turned bountiful like the hillsides after first rains. I awake more aware that love is a harvest you sow each morning. I count lessons about commitment and communication like seeds, in between calculations at night.

Some days, I lift each limb depressed and empty, like Sisyphus waking to discover the boulder he had shouldered uphill had rolled back down again. What working mother doesn’t know the feeling of not having an hour for herself, to breathe, to think, to feel or to stay sane.

I pole dance twice a week now which is both hard and hot AF. It enables me to support a woman-run and women-only small business which challenges women to become strong, to feel good, to recognize their challenges, to value themselves, and to connect to their sexuality. My goal is simply to show up, for me.

I’ve reached here through taking on and giving up, through gathering and letting go. I remind myself that it’s not possible to have it all, at least not at the same time, wondering if men tell themselves that daily too.

Patriarchy, from politician to religious leader to employer to lover, is a killer, but it’s like rising above the falling rain when you finally reach where you know yourself, your rights and your power. Women come into our own because we’ve hurt and healed, stooped and conquered. I hope I can carry my own independence and freedom, for it has been hard earned.

I now understand how women seem to become more certain, more centred, more unapologetic, and more fearless in their fifties, sixties and seventies. They’ve paid their dues pleasing everybody. Having learned through love and loss, they know there’s far less to fear than they thought. Such insight is a trade with age.

I’ve learned gratitude and forgiveness for those on my side, for those in my softly-beating heart, for the giants in my life, for the child who teaches me, for allies and inspiration, for opportunities to become a better person, and for laughter and cool mornings with trees in the distance.

Every dawn, we receive life as a gift to keep opening. Every dusk, women know the weariness from standing tall like a silk cotton tree, carrying our scars and imperfections, worries and burdens.

Over my shoulder, my own jahajin bundle is slung. Thirty kilometres per second on this next rotation of the sun, and blossoming in my own time and season, here I come.

 

Post 334.

“Vote for we and we will set you free”, sings David Rudder in the Madman’s Rant, parodying election-time sloganeering.

So said, so done. The campaign trail keeps it simple and typical: promises of more police car, to take the country far, to put the bandits away, to make criminals damn well pay, to abolish the tax, and to give we the facts.

It’s an easy myth to swallow because the alternative requires more of our attention and responsibility. We show up at rallies to nod at our heads at good speech, but don’t follow a story far enough to know when we are being hoodwinked, when we need to intervene, or when not everybody will be set free.

Take the National Workplace Policy on Sexual Harassment in Trinidad and Tobago. Symbolically laid in Parliament on International Women’s Day 2019, Senator the Honourable Jennifer Baptiste Primus stated, “For far too long, victims of Sexual Harassment in the workplace have borne pain and suffering in silence as the perpetrators of this disgraceful and unacceptable behaviour have utilised intimidation, victim shaming and abuse of power to get away with it, without facing any sanction or penalty. However, Madam Speaker those days are over”.

There’s much to celebrate about a policy, long called for by feminist activists, finally being drafted and publicized, but what about the details? Employers must keep a sexual harassment log documenting all incidents of sexual harassment at the workplace. The grievance procedure guidelines emphasise the role of a complaints committee and change management teams.

Now think of all the low-income women – young women, mothers, primary breadwinners, those supporting aged parents, illegal migrants – working in shops, restaurants and malls in Port of Spain, Chaguanas and San Fernando, or working as domestics cleaning and providing child care in homes, for whom the employer is the real perpetrator, as is so common.

To whom do they turn without losing their job? In this precarious economy, Madame Speaker, are their days of sexual harassment really over? Keep in mind that, despite parliamentary speeches, this policy is not yet approved by Cabinet, constituting more smoke than fire.

Take the recent legislation for the Sex Offenders Registry. Containing much that is useful for protecting society from specific kinds of sexual offenders, the Registry as it currently stands could further stigmatize groups of women, such as sex workers, who already come from the most vulnerable categories of women: the young, poor, sexually abused, under-educated, migrant and trafficked. Civil society groups made this otherwise overlooked and undervalued point to Honourable AG Al-Rawi.

Should good legislation do harm? When the bill becomes an Act, we will see whether this group is liable to further long-term penalty, entirely defying the purpose of a register, which is to protect the vulnerable, in the first place. Organisations such as CAISO have also pointed out that if the buggery law is upheld by the Privy Council, which the state is seeking, consensual anal sex would also not only remain a crime, but absurdly require such criminalized citizens also be registered.

Take the 2012 Children’s Act. As the age of consent to sexual relations is now set at eighteen years old, sexual and reproductive health service providers, such as the Family Planning Association of Trinidad and Tobago, now have to report incidents of penetration of minors sixteen and seventeen years old, even by others within three years of their age, even when it occurs by consent.

This means that providing confidential counselling services to teens over sixteen without reporting those cases to the police can now be a crime. This risk to service providers means that FPATT no longer provides the youth counselling it once used to, leaving a vast need now unmet. This same act, it should be noted, also decriminalized heterosexual penetration between minors while extending the punishment for such same-sex sexual relations among minors to, of all things, life imprisonment. So much for child rights.

NGOs will tell you that real transformations, rather than empty slogans, most matter. When politicians hit the platform to wax about their accomplishments, remember it’s easy to convince a population of a government’s successes when we are not bothered to follow details and when headlines are all corner block-talk seems to need.

Political participation and power mean paying attention to the fine-print of legislation, policies or budgets even when splashy campaigns deliberately distract. Vote for them, by all means, but know that only a madman would believe anyone but yourself is going to set you free.

Post 333.

Finance Minister Colm Imbert might as well have said, “let them eat cake”. The phrase has historically symbolised disregard for struggling masses ketching to afford even basic necessities by suggesting more expensive alternatives out of reach except to the rich. It’s his buoyancy in the face of obvious, everyday economic challenges that smacks with such disdain.

Commonsense tells us that unemployment has significantly risen, and this has led to contraction across the economy. Statistics can’t disagree with commonsense as we haven’t collected unemployment data since the end of 2017. Are “revenue and expenditure now in broad alignment”? If you are spending more than you are bringing in, doesn’t even an ordinary housewife know that this is mere robber talk?

When our children look back at this moment of creating a “solid foundation on which transformation and growth would now be anchored”, will they see creation of an economy with the capacity for self-sustaining growth? Currently, 63% of government revenue comes from taxing agriculture, manufacturing, construction, finance and insurance, but the majority of foreign exchange comes from energy. Non-renewable fossil fuels, converted into state spending, corruption and patron-clientelism, enable us to sustain our import-dependence, but what happens when prices fluctuate or when the fields empty?

Will there be less reliance on foreign investment and more on investment supported by national savings? Commonsense also tells us that increasing our deficit increases our debt and decreases savings, leaving our children to pay in the future for politicians to gallery today.

Finally, will they see a more resilient and diversified economy? Where? How? Construction is a standard stimulus strategy which assumes that putting more money into men’s hands, as the sector is 80% male, will lead to equitable development, sustainable diversification and socio-economic resilience.

Is this a valid hypothesis in Trinidad and Tobago? We don’t even collect the sex-disaggregated data to track the unequal impact of such a strategy on men and women, and on trickle-out across communities. When the construction money disappears like rivers in dry season, what will contractors do?

Experience tells us that this sector will then fall into some of the highest levels of unemployment, with predictable effects on man-woman relations, family insecurity, and domestic violence. Luckily, as money is being released, this will happen after the election, ensuring the local contractocracy plays the role it always has in financing an incumbent’s campaign.

To draw on Caribbean thinker, William Demas, who I knew as a child, will my own daughter see structural transformation of the economy with growth of inter-industry linkages, reduction of dualism (an-offshore and in-shore economy with different realities), and complete eradication of open and disguised unemployment?

Economic stabilization of our kind relies not only on necessary belt-tightening, but on young graduates remaining unemployed and supported by parents because joblessness is real and entrepreneurship isn’t an easy or always realistic fix. It relies on labour becoming increasingly precarious as health and other long struggled-for benefits are cut by the new regime of short-term contracts even for long-term public servants.

It relies on hospitals, prisons, courts, social services, and schools simply not working as they should for so many. It relies on people surviving through the informal economy. It’s great to hear that food inflation was kept low, but what does that mean when local fruit prices are so high? It’s joyous to hear the Minister Finance pat himself on the back, but what are NGOs saying about the everyday suffering they see?

I know self-congratulation is the key language of the hustings, but I’m tired of it before it’s even properly begun. There’s areas of revenue and GDP increase, there’s profit at the banks, and there’s big projects to disperse the dollars, but there’s also a reality in households at odds with the table-thumping in the House. It’s like how we report 98% literacy when any teacher can tell you that’s not the true story.

There’s no updated survey of living conditions nor household budget survey data to turn to in order to empirically applaud a story of turn-around on the ground. I suppose it’s too much to ask for a little humility just in case those who can’t afford bread are also not yet celebrating with cake.

 

Post 332.

On Sunday, in front of an audience of over a thousand, three young women topped the annual First Citizens National Poetry Slam Final for the first time in eight years.
Remember their names, for often we don’t remember our own poets, despite poetry’s power to save lives, inspire action, and document history as it is being lived.

Alexandra Stewart, whose piece last year represented the voice of our planet advocating for ecological conservation, placed first this time. I thought she well deserved the big prize of $50 000. She was my choice of winner for her poem had a clear message, didn’t over-use rhyme, felt authentic, was well-paced, kept within time, and showed straight up good writing and delivery.

Ironically, it was about the disrespect shown to poets when they are asked to perform for free, or for less than they need to even make ends meet. This is real and all artists in T and T can relate to budgets that include all the costs, but none for musicians and poetry. Her delivery kept it to the point. Artists also have to eat.

Earning second place, Shineque Saunders wrote an emotional piece about being separated from her mother who migrates to help her family survive. Shineque played her mom’s different voices in creative ways, creating a British accent and different name for the woman who migrated and a Trinbagonian accent for the one who remained, eventually bringing the stories of the two together to highlight the sacrifices mothers make again and again for their children. It spoke to a common reality for many today, represented confidently with both drama and flow.

Finally, Deneka Thomas, last year’s winner, placed third with a poem about the character of La Diablesse, showing us how rape can turn women into supposed-monsters. La Diablesse’s typical characterization as seducer of men isn’t just a story of sexuality and danger, but also one of negotiating power out of sexual violence and trauma, one we little hear because this character has remained so demonized and yet so silent in folklore. Redeeming such voices, through style and play, is a feminist act of turning words to power.

As a younger generation stepping in where Paula Obe, Lisa Allen-Agostini, Dara Njeri, Carol Hosein, Ivory Hayes, myself and others once held stage lights, it’s brilliant to see young women nurtured by 2 Cents Movement and, soon coming out of the school tours, setting the standard for spoken word on stage.

The story of young women championing at performance poetry has reasons for capturing our attention. The stage in the Caribbean has always been male-dominated, the lyrics “man” is still a resilient archetype, and so many women who have carried the spoken word movement over these decades and their very names have disappeared from its history.

Spoken word spaces have always been progressive, with young men also advocating an end to violence, speaking about tumultuous or disappointing relationships with their fathers, highlighting child sexual abuse, and analyzing poverty and injustice and much more. Yet, these are also spaces where young women can point to continuing politics of male privilege and the resilient nuances of a boys’ club.

On and off stage, there’s a story of women’s experience as performance poets that remains to be negotiated, transformed and told. That they exist in a community of young men also willing to challenge patriarchal religious authority, ego and silences speaks to the potential of another generation to right earlier wrongs.

The National Poetry Slam is a gathering of another generation’s politics and vision. It’s a gayelle of their lyricism. It feels youthful and fresh, leaving you, not just alive, but hopeful that others care enough to put the world’s challenges to pen and then to perform their call at a microphone.

As part of the wider NGC Bocas Lit Fest’s readings from poets and writers of all kinds, it’s a signal that out there, regardless of your class or sex or sexual orientation or age or race, all you need are words and, like one of those from among us who have been published or are young veterans of the stage, you too can write.

You too can step up to the mic.