Post 228.

Almost forty years ago, Audre Lorde wrote, “we can sit in our safe corners as mute as bottles, and still we will be no less afraid”. Around the region today, women are posting sexual harassment, abuse and assault survival stories as part of the #lifeinleggings movement, precisely to overcome that silencing and fear.

The hashtag and postings were started by Barbadian women Ronelle King and Allyson Benn to highlight the pervasiveness of sexual violence. Can any of us say that we don’t know one woman who has experienced such threat, fear, harm and denial of choice, possibly many times?

They linked their initiative to Barbados’ 50th independence and, therefore, to the impossibility of ‘development’ without also ending gender inequalities. Caribbean states have paid scant attention to the realities of rape culture while reframing twenty years of lip service into a story of “too much focus on women”. Yet, the courage it takes to share these stories suggests that silencing remains more dominant than safe space for women’s truths about their relationships, families, communities and nation.

Breaking these silences remains a risk. Families are invested in hiding stories of sexual predation, telling women that it happened in the past or that it’s more important to just keep peace. People respond that, somehow, you must have looked for that because of your clothes, your job or smile. Others’ trauma at hearing what happened to you has to be managed, sometimes making it easier to say nothing. It’s common to not be believed or to be blamed or seen as bringing down shame or wanting attention or, worse, as a joke.

Now isn’t the time to say not all men rape, assault or harass. Women are not accusing all men, they are simply no longer hiding what actually happened to them. Women are not responsible for protecting themselves, for ‘men don’t molest decent girls’. These stories begin when we are children and modesty provides no safety. Women don’t want men’s protection, we want their solidarity. There’s one message that can change women’s #lifeinleggings, and that is that men’s sexual self-responsibility has no excuses.

From Bajan politicians to Guyanese indigenous women to Jamaican reggae singers to Trinidadian university educators to policewomen in St. Vincent to disabled girls across the region, every kind of Caribbean woman has stories. Imagine what it means when education, class privilege, fame, age, ethnicity or profession makes no difference?

Audre Lorde has written, “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you”. Almost forty years later, in support of #lifeinleggings, Tonya Haynes, in the Caribbean feminist blog, Code Red for Gender Justice, wrote,

“Women broke every silence. We spoke of street harassment: girl, yuh pussy fat! Principals who made no room for comprehensive sexuality education but slut-shamed girls who were themselves sexually abused. Rape by current and former partners. Years of sexual abuse by fathers, step-fathers, uncles, cousins. Stories of men who told us that they’re waiting for our four-year-old daughters to grow up. Men who offered jobs or rides or food or protection only to demand sex. Only to split our bodies open when we refused. Men who raped us because we are lesbian, because we are women, because we are girls, because they could. We exploded every myth about how good girls and good women are protected from this violence. That good men will protect us.  That all we have to do is call in our squad of brothers and uncles and fathers. We asked, and who will women and girls call when our fathers and brothers and uncles assault them? We affirmed that asking men to protect us from male violence is not freedom. All men benefit from male privilege and unequal relations of gender which disadvantage and devalue women and girls. We demand autonomy not protection! We split this island open for every woman and girl who has had her body split open. We split this island open and let all the secrets fall out”.

If you want to break your own silences, there is a #lifeinleggings gathering, on Saturday from 4-6pm, at the Big Black Box on Murray Street in Woodbrook. Go. Listen. Share. Let all our own islands’ secrets fall out.

Post 227.

A bill now before Cabinet proposes to raise the age of marriage for girls to eighteen years old. This is because the Children’s Act (2012) defines girls under this age as children, for whom marriage and motherhood constitute a violation of rights.

There will be brouhaha about this bill, but it follows a necessary global trend and, while imperfect, is worth supporting.

Some will say that marriage of minors is culturally or religiously sanctioned. Others will argue that the age of marriage and sexual consent should be set at sixteen years old, not eighteen, and that this is necessary to counter the sin and shame of unwed sex and motherhood.

The fact is the laws need to change. The civil marriage act specifies no minimum marriageable age. The Hindu Marriage Act, and Muslim Marriage and Divorce Acts, contain discriminatory provisions which enable marriage of girls at much younger ages than boys, reproducing a patriarchal view that girls do not need as much time for development of their independence and maturity before marriage.

But, there is more at stake. Child marriage is only one example of adult predatory masculinity, which can also be seen in girls’ rates of pregnancy, abortion, sexual abuse and incest, and HIV.

There have been small numbers of girls married at twelve, thirteen and fourteen as late as 2015. Seventeen 13 year-old girls were married in 2010 along with nine 14 year-olds. Between 2011 and today, twenty-one fourteen year-old girls were married. Overwhelmingly, of the 548 child marriages that took place between 2006 and 2016, the majority of those girls were married to adult men.

These are not relationships between equally adolescent minors. These are examples of relationships in which girls’ unequal age, power, and negotiating capacity are normalized. Were the situation to be reversed, where in one year twenty-six boys under 14 years old were married to mainly adult women, this would be appear to all as a theft of childhood, and molestation.

The symbolic significance of marriage blurs our understanding of child marriage rates as only one indicator of girls’ wider sexual vulnerability.

Turn to teenage pregnancy: Between 2008 and 2015, there were 35 pregnancies to girls twelve years old or younger, 2645 to girls between thirteen and sixteen years old, and 12 551 to girls seventeen to nineteen years old. “In these statistics, said the AG, “We have recorded the actual live births of thousands of children in circumstances potentially equal to statutory rape”.

In terms of sexual offense charges, between 2000 and 2015, there were 2 258 matters in relation to girls compared to two charges for sex with males under sixteen years old. As of July 2015, there were 559 cases related to sexual intercourse with a female under the age 14 years, 128 related to sexual intercourse with a person over 14 years and under 16 years without consent, and 45 related to sexual intercourse with a dependent minor. It is well documented that girls’ sexual vulnerability to adult men vastly increases between ten and fourteen years old, the very age around which child marriage debate pivots.

With regard to abortions recorded by public hospitals, between 2011 and 2015, there were 67 among girls thirteen to sixteen years old and 683 among those seventeen to nineteen years old. Finally, the HIV statistics are telling as girls 15-24 years old have almost always had higher rates than boys of their age. In 2014, girls accounted for 60% of infections among 15 to 19 year olds.

We need further research on these numbers and their meanings as well as on the prevalence and implications of adult men’s informal unions with girl children. Nonetheless, the overall trends are totally clear.

In a context where there is no national sexual and reproductive health policy, and no comprehensive sexual education in schools, girl children are overwhelmingly being targeted by men and boys older than them, in ways that impact their empowerment, self-determination, reproductive health, and right to live free from harm.

We must ask which is more important: protection of patriarchal ideologies, symbolic ethnic and religious laws, respectability politics and predatory masculinities or public will that presses political will to provide protections that girls urgently need.

Post 226. RED CARD RAPE CULTURE.

UWI’s responsibility is to transform the Caribbean by nurturing students’ commitment to fairness, justice, non-violence and sustainability. Young men have as much role as young women in creating gender equality and ending cultures of domination founded on sexism and homophobia. Indeed, this is my answer to the oft-asked question, ‘What about the men?’

Men have power to end violence against women at the staggering rates at which it occurs, just as they have responsibility to collectively organize to transform masculinities that create risk in boys and men’s lives. Young men have the opportunity to define their own identities by different ideals from those of past generations, creating future Caribbean male leaders willing to exchange the perks of privilege for the politics of justice for all, and a legacy in which women’s rights are never left behind.

Such commitment requires social movements that challenge the status quo and its tolerance for inequitable social norms. It requires role models and collective reward for positive change, thus changing young men’s options, solidarities, strategies and dreams.

Boys are now growing up conscious of themselves as gendered beings because of conversations about womanhood and manhood which feminism introduced into contemporary culture. This means that there’s potential among young men still working out their truths and transformations against educational advancements of young women and, yet, resilience of sexual violence against them. Such contradictions mark a cultural crossroads, and chance for young men to strike out directions that lead to dead ends.

Last Friday, the Institute for Gender and Development Studies, St. Augustine Campus, collaborated with the young men of the dorm, Canada Hall, to give young men a non-judgmental space to imagine a world without sexual violence against women. ‘Red Card Rape Culture’ wasn’t just a workshop with male students from ten Caribbean countries, or a hashtag that could go viral, it was a metaphor for men’s power to refuse the impunity of such violence. For, the field could never be level with such pervasive foul play, and their best selves would never let things run that way.

Rape culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence is glamorized, trivialized and excused in media and popular culture, leaving no guarantees for women regarding freedom from objectification of their bodies, disregard for their rights, unwanted advances, dehumanization or male domination. It’s the imposition of what men want and how they want it on girls and women.

Given that this is one of the issues most raised by their young, female peers, International Men’s Day, commemorated on November 19th, provided an ideal moment to meet young men’s needs for politically-progressive mentorship and to encourage their contributions to movement-building.

The workshop tackled beliefs, blame, consent, shaming and normalization. It went through a range of statements that included: “There are situations when a girl says no but she means yes”, “Rapists think differently from other men”, “It is a woman’s responsibility to not get raped”, “It’s wrong to lead him on and when he is ready… say “no””, “She sent me pics. She should have known I would share it”, “Nothing wrong with lyrics from songs like Kick Een She Back Door”, and “Women bring out a part in men that they cannot control.”

Young men could ‘red card’ the statements they disagreed with, ‘yellow card’ those they were not sure about, and ‘green card’ those they considered right. They could see each other doing it, noting when they shared views or differed, and observing both consensus and individual resistance. At the end, they wrote their own counter-messages. Some of these were: “A Man Is Like A Taxi Driver, He Knows When To Stop”, “Women Should Not Live In Fear, How She’s Dressed Does Not Mean Yes”, “If She Says No, Get Up and Go”, and “No Doesn’t Mean Yes”.

For International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, commemorated today, these statements are now on social media as memes and across the campus as posters, giving these young men’s words visibility, as part of transforming the kinds of commitments UWI men articulate as ideal.

End violence. Empower women and men to create gender equality. Transform our Caribbean future. #redcardrapeculture.

Post 225.

Most people don’t expect grandmotherly women in hijab to be leaders in Caribbean feminist movement building. Last Sunday’s Symposium on ‘Children at Risk’, which was collaboratively organized by Madinah House, the TML Ladies Association, the National Muslim Women’s Organisation of Trinidad,  and National Islamic Counseling Services, showed the limits of such typical expectations.

I have huge admiration for these experienced and committed women, whose consistent work to challenge and create alternatives to patriarchal domination and its harms might not seem to fit their respectability and religiosity as much as their other efforts to manage teas and celebratory functions for hajjis and hajjahs.

Yet, the history of such woman-centred public engagement dates back to the 1930s when Muslim women began to deliver lectures to mixed audiences, become members of elected mosque boards and councils, hold meetings to develop women’s groups, and participate in debates on a range of topics including, “Be it resolved that Muslim women deserve an equal social status with men”.

From the 1950s, within the Indo-Trinidadian community, the Young Muslim Women’s Association, the San Juan Muslim Ladies Organisation, and the Islamic Ladies Social and Cultural Association began to be established. The ASJA Ladies Association was represented at the first world conference on the status of women held in Mexico City in 1975. Muslim women also have a history of pushback against partitions narrowing their space for prayer in the masjid, and challenges to their exclusion from voting in organizational elections when they perceived their association or jamaat being a “boys’ club” for far too long.

Muslim women have also long been part of Caribbean feminist response to issues such as violence against women. Madinah House, a temporary shelter for women and children escaping domestic abuse, which began operations in 1999, and is run by Muslim women, is one such example.

Beyond services are also advocacy and consciousness-raising within the Muslim community and nationally, in collaboration with the wider women’s rights movement, to encourage men to more greatly share domestic work, to call for greater commitment to ending child abuse, and to insist on collective responsibility for families free from violence.

Sunday showed such larger work to break silences about the reality of incest, neglect and abuse in children’s lives, and to provide concrete understandings of vulnerability and risk.

Supported by the US Embassy, the symposium brought a range of powerful women to the mic, including Lt. Colonel Shareda Hosein, originally from Aranguez and now retired from the US Army. Sit with your children, listen to what works or doesn’t in the family, write down what should change, and commit to it as parents, she suggested.

The indomitable Natalie O’Brady, General Manager of the Rape Crisis Society of Trinidad and Tobago/Coalition Against Domestic Violence, reinforced the importance of stable homes, and parental time and attention. These are fundamental to child protection, resilience and rights.

Children’s Authority staff and clinical psychologist, Vandana Siew Sankar, highlighted that neglect and physical abuse is almost equally distributed amongst girls and boys, with their greatest vulnerabilities occurring before they are four years old, except in cases of sexual abuse, which become more common, especially for girls, with the onset of puberty.

Director of the Gender Affairs Division, Ms. Antoinette JackMartin pointed to the establishment of a Central Registry on Domestic Violence, precisely to address a need for accessible statistics.

Finally, Sharifa Ali-Abdullah, whose work to develop the Children’s Authority of Trinidad and Tobago is legendary, emphasised that we should take seriously the likelihood that oncoming economic decline and unemployment will increase the incidence of child abuse, which already spans from extreme and exceptional to everyday and normalized in the thousands of cases that come to the attention of the Authority, and which are largely inadequately addressed by social services.

These efforts to prioritize prevention of violence against women and children; to provide woman-run, woman-centred and community-supported services; and to publicly bring a message fundamentally grounded in a right to live free of domination, threat and fear are strengths on which the regional women’s rights movement was built over the last decades.

Consistent with such a history of Muslim women’s pious, yet path-breaking contributions to a Caribbean feminist vision, Sunday again offered lessons and inspiration.

Post 224.

‘Do we have to grow up?’ Ziya asked, at the end of Tuesday night, on her sixth birthday. I could only shake my head.

I don’t remember wanting to stay small. I remember wanting to grow up, become a teenager, become an adult. Adults seemed to have so much freedom. As Zi says, pouting, no one bosses around adults the way adults boss around children. At least, like her, that’s what I saw.

Unlike some other adults, I don’t want to go back to my childhood. I like this age, this stage and the control, power, insight and influence that years of school, work and hard knocks have provided, which I hope to use to make the world a better place, to mentor and inspire another generation, and to define the priorities and values I want to live by.

But, I also understand that along with those come ever more responsibilities, compromises and stress, which, like all of us, I take in stride even when they feel exhausting or overwhelming. In those moments, childhood seems so much simpler, so much more a world of magic and play, so freer of complexities, whether global or interpersonal, than now. Children don’t feel so world-weary, do they?

Yet, as many know, such nostalgia is pointless. Far too many of us were in fact negotiating complicated, even dysfunctional childhoods, managing lack of control over our world as children do, with resilience, with whatever coping strategies we can invent. I always wondered why adults thought that children didn’t understand what was going on in their midst, giving what they thought were age-appropriate explanations, as if children were not fully clued in to what adults thought they could hide or pretend wasn’t true.

So, I shook my head, not knowing quite what to say to a girl, six for only one day, who, in her own way, was weighing these existential dilemmas. I wasn’t going to assume she didn’t get it. I think children do.

Yes, we have to grow up, I answered, though I’d keep you this age for another year or two if I could. I could hear her thinking in the dark. ‘I like being a child’, she said. ‘Of course you do’, I thought.

One of my friend’s sons had told her she was so lucky to do all the things she loved, like mopping, cleaning and washing dishes. Zi had said similar things about how I got to do all the things I want, like go to work all the time. That feeling of entitlement of children, the expectation that they should enjoy life, even while we give them chores and teach them to take up responsibilities so that they come to appreciate and reciprocate our efforts, is an achievement. It’s a happiness they only get now, precious and fleeting.

‘I wish nothing was real’, Zi concluded, ‘then there would be nothing to change’. Maybe she thought that if everything was imaginary, you could imagine things however you wished, the way she wished her toys would come alive as Doc Mc Stuffins’ did or the way she imagined making real tea in tiny tin toy teacups. Maybe if nothing is real, then their passing doesn’t matter so deeply.

‘You don’t want things to change?’, I asked. ‘I don’t want things to be different’, she answered. I can’t say that I understood all she was experiencing, except she was happy and didn’t want to let it go, didn’t want to have to start again tomorrow.

Is there any of us that haven’t also felt that way? Is there any of us who haven’t wanted to hold one night, one achievement or one relationship like that forever, even as we watched it turn to mist and dissipate?

Ah, six year-old rueful observance of life’s passing.

What’s a mom to say except that this is only the beginning of that feeling and there isn’t an adult alive who doesn’t know it.

Welcome to your one wondrous life, little warrior of light.

There is only one lesson. Whatever your fears and joys, seize every second. Then, refusing rut and regret, let go, as the next moment to live to the fullest inevitably and irretrievably beckons.

Post 233.

Our development dreams are a planetary nightmare. We are living that nightmare now, even if we have not yet connected higher food prices, increasing drought, floods, hurricanes, fish depletion, waste poisoning or air pollution to vast, wider global changes.

This year, gorillas, bees, amphibians, plants and others have been added to the endangered list, which already consists of 80,000 species, almost 24,000 of which are threatened with extinction. This is reversible, requiring us to take responsibility for solutions.

Animal populations plummeted by 58% between 1970 and 2012, with losses expected to reach 67% by 2020, according to the Living Planet Index, which was released last month, and highlights our destruction of the natural world on which all life depends.

There are different causes for this, predominantly loss of habitat, use of pesticides and other pollutants, and unsustainable fishing, hunting and corporate practices. There are higher and lower numbers for specific species, but the trend remains disturbing. This holocaust of animals is a glimpse of our own future.

All such injustice against the earth’s ecology and inhabitants is authorized by those with institutional power, and the force of state, law, and industry. That’s the case here, in terms of depletion of fish as a result of the oil and gas industries’ poisoning of rivers and marine environments, with everyone from BP to Petrotrin guilty. It’s the case with Styrofoam and plastics pollution.

Yet, the message from Green Screen’s brilliant, now six-year environmental film festival, is that small communities of committed people can secure change, by bearing witness, by inspiring others, by demanding different decisions.

Wednesday night’s films highlighted suicides, by the hundreds of thousands, of Indian farmers caught up in debt cycles because of agricultural practices instituted by the pesticide and fertilizer industries, and the Indian government. Corporate control of agriculture decimated sustainable food production and their livelihoods.

A short, intimate look at the life of a spear fisherman in La Brea, seemed all too similar and close. He has no idea whether it’s still safe to eat the fish he catches and neither do many consumers, affecting his ability to support his family.

The Living Planet Index indeed shows that rivers and lakes are the hardest hit habitats, with populations down by 81% since 1970. Excessive water extraction, pollution, dams and habitat pressures from global warming are all causes. In the film, Jason James looks at the camera and concludes, “I am too young to die”.

The final, deeply moving film on the history of Greenpeace reminded us of what happens if only we care. I took a busload to UWI students to see the films because, among other things, I teach students to understand violence, and our relationship to our planet’s ecology constitutes one of its many forms.

I took another busload of students to Chagaramas to witness the nexus between state corruption, unethical and illegal privatization of ‘the commons’ or land meant for free, public enjoyment, and the negative impacts on wildlife. The caiman Ziya saw on her first forest walk, by the turn to Macaripe, was not there, and who knows if it will be again.

Amidst non-organic, elite-owned agriculture, loss of sea grass and starfish because of coastal construction, and bright lights in a dark-zone, I wanted them to learn about the power they have if only they decide.

Green Screen also held a panel discussion with Nadra Nathai-Gyan, Molly Gaskin, Peter O’Connor, Akilah Jaramogi and Bobbi Hunter of Greenpeace. On the bus back, I listed other environmental and wildlife protection pioneers, who students could contact and learn from, without an essay or test in sight, if they only tried.

Before we left, Molly Gaskin listed just a few of the successes our small movement had accomplished, such as getting Trinidad and Tobago to sign the Convention on the Prevention of International Trade in Endangered Species, preservation of the scarlet ibis, which was being hunted while nesting, designation of Nariva as a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention, and a halt to the passage of ships carrying nuclear waste through the Caribbean.

Power is ours. Those films make clear. We must wake up and pursue a different dream. The first step is to care.

Post 232.

Dear Karian,

As a woman who has been followed on the street by men even after ignoring them or polite ‘no thank you’. A woman who has had men yell at her from Independence Sq. KFC about her ‘box’ and how it looking like lunch. A woman who was sexually harassed in the TV6 newsroom and until today, when I see that cameraman in public, I’m angry at his indecency and harm. Just as I’m angry at the ex-Minister who thought his unwanted touching on the campaign trail would be accepted because of his status, rather than refused because of mine.

A woman who has walked past many men’s unwanted comments that degrade more than compliment, and knew it could become worse if only I said no or stop or insisted on respect. A woman who doesn’t feel safe in her neighborhood or workplace or on streets, and not only at night, because men, whether a few or many, present a sexual threat.

A woman whose woman friends tell story after story of growing up with harassment on the streets, at work, at the gym, in Carnival, in meetings, in churches, in mosques, in temples, in training programmes, outside of schools, inside of schools, in libraries, in ministers’ offices, in parties and in every other location.

Women whose stories are an angering tale of negotiating self-silencing and fear, speaking out and risk: those who said nothing and wished they could and did, those who spoke back and had abuse or a bottle thrown back at them, those who cuss out those specific men knowing that they were borrowing from the energy required to cuss out more tomorrow.

Women who are called ‘lesbian’, ‘bitch’ and ‘cunt’ repeatedly, as an insult, as part of a threat, as a consequence of dismissing unwanted advances, from men they know and complete strangers. Women whose stories abounded everywhere but in the press, for more than a few days, though those stories occur every single day.  Women who were not yet women when they began to have these stories to tell.

As that woman, I write with everything women feel, knowing another one of us is being wronged in ways with which we are too familiar. All emotions are here. Sorrow that one time won’t be your first or last. Anger that you are not the first or last. Anger at the complicity of men and their failure to collectively break the bro code, to say no to all forms of sexism and sexual harassment that harm women and deny that harm.

Men’s collective and public failure to acknowledge the normalcy of predatory masculinity allows so many to pretend, with insistence, authority and pride, they don’t know the difference between harassment and compliment, between unwanted and chosen. I despair at their denial of rape culture in all its forms, playing it down as unreal because it’s an inconvenient truth.

I am sorry and angry that you had to be brave, that you had to get angry, that you had to protect yourself because your society fails to protect women. You are a fighter, though you should not have to be simply to walk on the streets. You are an example to all fearful young women I tell to speak out and tell their harassers to stop, though you shouldn’t have to shame men for their violence, knowing that even more around you are secure in their impunity.

You were right to cuss those men hard, loud and stink, though the cuss out is really, rightly, for the whole society. You don’t have to be a daughter or wife to deserve respect. You are a person, with your own honour and you don’t have to business about whose bad behaviour that checks. But, you know all that already. We all do.

You are right to think that your story will make little difference to legislators, policy-makers, police officers and more, for sexual and street harassment will remain an unprosecuted and pervasive reality.  You are right to simply want to be left to walk free. All I can say, young sister, is that you owe shame, silence, respectability and fear nothing. And, know, lioness, that you are not alone.