Post 280.

I sat three rows from Theresa May when, as part of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, she apologized for Britain’s role in criminalizing same-sex conduct in former colonies. “I am all too aware that these laws were often put in place by my own country,” she said, “They were wrong then and they are wrong now.”

Apologies by Britain should come hard and fast, for colonialism itself, the slave trade, inconceivably vast economic extraction and impoverishment, antidemocratic laws kept in place by a ‘savings clause’, and more.

This apology should not be diminished, for it results from courageous and sustained global South struggle, across at least thirty-six countries. Nonetheless, as Justice Rampersad pointed out in his April 12th decision, changing discriminatory laws is a matter for emancipatory Caribbean jurisprudence. We didn’t need the British empire’s ‘benevolent’ mission of colonising and civilising. We don’t need a 21st century version of civilising now.

On the same stage that morning, Jamaica’s PM Andrew Holness spoke, quite brilliantly, highlighting what sustainability, prosperity, inclusiveness and security mean from a Caribbean perspective in which equity and accountability among nations count.

In an earlier response on having gays in his Cabinet, Holness said, “I think that the first step is that the State protect the human rights of every citizen, regardless of sexual orientation or inclination”.  This was a major shift in public position from Bruce Golding’s infamous “not in my Cabinet” statement, and highlights increasing openings for equitable and accountable Caribbean leadership.

Here at home, President Weekes herself has said, “I think in terms of the State and the law all citizens and all persons under the protection of our jurisdiction should have equal treatment whatever their gender, whatever their sexual orientation, whatever their race we need to have absolute equality across the board in terms of State obligations and constitutional rights”.

Having been involved in LBGTI rights advocacy since about 2005, I didn’t expect to hear such public declarations in my lifetime. I have a beautiful memory of CAISO’s 2010 campaign, conceptualized in many ways by Colin Robinson’s politics of claiming belonging to a nation of ‘many bodies’, and the dual flying of national and rainbow flags high in the air at massive UNC rallies.

It wasn’t an easy space, and the PNM campaign trail would have been significantly worse, for those were the infamous ‘big C’ days, but to publicly declare equal citizenship involved great courage. There are forgotten foot soldiers, among many, who have moved popular culture forward over the last decade.

I thought about all this in relation to Guardian’s front-page expose on Michelle Lee-Ahye. There’s much to disparage about ‘rescuing’ someone from social media smearing, and doing this using her partner’s photos, in a still homophobic society and without consent. There’s much to say about the problems of prying into the private lives of women in public life though that’s long been debunked as illegitimate, irrelevant and sexist.

However, more important, was the public backlash to the newspaper, rather than Lee-Ahye’s choices. Many were clear that her sexuality was a non-story, and were outraged it would be headlined, supposedly and misguidedly for her protection. Being a woman-loving woman, or any woman who has sex outside of heterosexual marriage, might be a basis for idle gossip, but it doesn’t tarnish her achievement of gold nor does it reduce her right to privacy. That this could be expressed as a widely held view was an unintended, progressive outcome of that story.

In 2005, I couldn’t predict all this. Advocacy felt exhausting and ongoing without any progress. Even seeing hundreds proudly, joyfully gathering with rainbow flags over these past weeks was unimaginable as late as 2010.

Hope has been reborn in me. Yet, the evictions and firings of LBGTI citizens following Justice Rampersad’s decision signal continued need to tirelessly press back against continued vulnerability, believing that together we can actually aspire and achieve.

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Post 279.

An attuned ear hears a shackle when it falls. It’s a surreal sound, when an instrument of inhumanity hits the ground broken, clanging with its iron weight of history. Instinctively listen for the heart-piercing exultations of emotion that echo out powerfully. Also be stopped still by a black hole of quiet horror that you may yet again hear that shackle clink close around a human body.

If the pores on your skin raised, as did mine when I heard Justice Devindra Rampersad’s judgment on Thursday, it’s because I never anticipated that a shackle’s fall could sound and feel like the force of a supernova when it collapses, its vibration sheer disintegrating your heart, leaving you in breathless tremors and shaking tears.

The boldness of the judgment and the interval of freedom it created for the first time in hundreds of years, like a slash in colonial space-time continuum, can’t be anything but celebrated.

There are thousands of bodies in the nation which had been existing in fear, shame and silence and which, for the first time, felt included, protected and free. It is like the future time-traveled and arrived to rock the vibrational field of the present, in a way so many citizens dared to dream, but despaired they wouldn’t live to see.

Justice Rampersad’s judgment in Jones v TT ruled that Sections 13 and 16 of the Sexual Offences Act, which criminalize buggery, or acts of anal sex, and same-sex genital touching, are unconstitutional. He held that the “savings clause”, which retains the legality of colonial law despite our republican status, doesn’t apply. This is because, in 1986, the Sexual Offences Act was repealed and “replaced”, thus creating new, post-1976 law.

Also new law was created with the unprecedented extension of penalties for buggery from 5 years to 25 years and creation of a new prohibition, titled “serious indecency”, and explicitly meant to criminalise lesbianism for the first time (by legislating that only men could have sexual access to women). In other words, this is new law, not simply a re-enactment and continuity from 1925.

Second, he argued that even if the savings clause could hold, its intention was to continue and preserve protections of citizens’ rights in the move from colonial subjection to independent nationhood, not deny rights, discriminate or victimize. In this case, relying on the savings clause as justification goes against its spirit.

Additionally, he agreed that Jason Jones’ right to privacy was denied, observing that such privacy had not been conceptualized in early colonial law, but was now an accepted ideal. Use of the savings clause to deny that right again defies its intention.

Regarding the Act itself, its violation of Sections 4 and 5 of the constitution were already acknowledged by parliament in 1986. It is possible to infringe upon individuals’ constitutional rights, under Section 13 of the constitution, but the burden is on the parliament to fully justify its necessity, which it has not done. Passage of legislation by 3/5 majority, however procedurally legitimate, isn’t enough.  Religious or majority view and public opinion isn’t enough. Political expediency is far short of enough in the face of signed international conventions and global and liberalizing standards of dignity, decency, equality and human rights. Claiming parliamentary prerogative isn’t enough, or might be enough in Britain where no constitution exists so parliamentary law is highest authority, but not in Trinidad and Tobago where the constitution should be supreme.

In other words, Jah bless our republican status and the possibilities for future-facing Caribbean jurisprudence. Why rely on British law when we have our own constitution? Why still carry habits of prisoners when we are freed from such imprisonment?

Without the savings clause as a defense, the 1986 Act was always unconstitutional and unjustified, and unreasonably and arbitrarily denied rights to privacy, family, intimacy and equality to all citizens and couples. Its legitimacy was founded on its own fiction and presumptions, like the emperor with no clothes.

To write that race, colour, gender, age or sexual orientation is not all that encompasses a person’s soul nor their value to society or themselves is to wield something other than the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. This is the ultimate dream of Caribbean emancipation.

For this to occur in real life and in our generation is overwhelmingly beautiful, and feels cosmically huge. On appeal, we hope the disturbing metallic edge of manacles, re-clasped on those who call for our love, is not something we have to hear. To them, do not turn a deaf ear.

Post 278.

Twenty-year-old Christine Chuniesingh lost her life to intimate partner violence this week. She won’t be the last woman for the year to die at the hands of her male partner.

A month ago, the National Security Minister reported to the Senate that police were focusing on responding to violence against women through a visible presence, marked and unmarked vehicles, town meetings and more.

These steps are good news, but as the State Minister for National Security in Jamaica pointed out last year, violence against women is not a police issue, it’s a national issue.

This should be kept in mind by the AG and the National Security Minister when they want to put this problem in the hands of cops instead of recognizing that approval of a coherent strategy is Cabinet’s responsibility.

So, the question is, what is our national response? And, how is this national response rolling out through the school system, the health care system, collaboration with the private sector, and more? How are we explaining the paradox of these murders of women even while reports of domestic violence have been falling?

Is the state’s position that it has no idea how to prevent deaths in these numbers, given that we are already at 50% of the women murdered by their partners for all of last year?

It’s well-established that intimate partner violence is founded in our current ideas about masculinity and femininity, and the association between manhood and power over women. Violence is simply a way to keep this in place when its being challenged in interpersonal relationships.

Already, there’s denial of this association by representatives of the men’s rights movement, who against all national data, including the numbers of intimate partner killings, argue that women are more violent than men.

Already, there’s a myth that women have taken over the state, the court system, the labour market, and the education system, and that men are now the real victims of gender inequality.

Already, there’s a backlash to women doing well in education and employment, with many bringing all this empowerment back to a mythical marginalization of men, and the necessity of making women account to men’s feelings about their goals for autonomy.

This wider societal backlash to women wanting a life beyond male control plays out in relationships too. Containment of women’s empowerment explains intimate partner physical and sexual violence (the male backlash model), such as when women are earning more than men or pursuing qualifications beyond men’s own.

Men also don’t believe women have a right to leave relationships whenever they chose, and deal with feelings of rejection and failure with a reassertion of masculinity and control.

These dynamics get established in childhood, through big processes such as the socialization of children to differences between women and men, and their meanings and their value.

Such socialization isn’t only by mothers, but by all family members, media, peers, educators, neighbourhood members, and more. It is also learned through specific experiences such as witnessing or experiencing familial violence or child abuse.

But, at the heart of all these is a resilient belief in the notions of manhood and womanhood we take to be normal, and in the kinds of respect women should have for male authority and power that we take to be natural. The police cannot transform these beliefs.

As Cabinet is dominated by men, I can legitimately say that it takes balls to decide to go against what falsely appears to be God-given, and instead wake up to what ending this problem really needs.

Somewhere in Trinidad and Tobago, there’s a woman who is going to be the next one killed. It’s just a waiting game until we know her name.

We don’t have an urgent, coherent, cross-sectoral, national strategy to prevent or even systematically reduce this violence against women. I’ll be relieved but surprised if we do by the time we hear that news.

 

Post 277.

-1

I got home very late from work and ready to collapse only to find the bed under a low-hanging, tent-like sheet, apparently making a ‘fort’.

I deliberated whether, out of sheer nostalgia and love, to shuffle underneath for a night of claustrophobic, but cuddly sleep (the kind where there’s always a small, brown limb thrown across one’s neck), leaving the sheet at its angle about a foot from my head.

Or, whether to take it down because, while there was space for her, she being the size of Donkey to Shrek (me being Shrek), at least I wouldn’t die of suffocation while she sleeps peacefully and would be alive and breathing enough to risk her seven-year-old disappointment in the morning.

There are few adults who didn’t build ‘forts’ of some kind growing up. Obliging parents let us take sofa cushions, lean them against each other in squares and then spread sheets across, with the greatest of joys being crawling under there with books, toys, a flash light, friends or siblings, and those Chinese shrimp chips that expand when fried and taste like childhood bliss.

Childhood has changed. No children I know still play ‘elastic’, and those worldly girls of today look like you are describing a rotary dial phone, a wholly foreign thing none of them have seen, when you ask.

Yet, there are some things that remain consistent and, unfortunately, one of them is bullying. Still, we now think about it differently from before, and can help children grow into kinder, gentler human beings than we are, perhaps creating a more golden experience of growing up than what nostalgia allows us to recollect.

If you want to get a picture of what bullying looks like, at least in secondary schools, look up The Silver Lining Foundation’s just released Trinidad and Tobago School Climate Report on Bullying and Gender-Based Violence in Secondary Schools. Overseen by a team of young researchers and activists, 651 students from 20 schools were surveyed, with the majority of respondents being 13-16 years old.

The study is nationally generalizable so note that in the three months prior to the survey: 73% of students indicated they had been teased or harassed at least once; 24% indicated that they had been pushed or hit at least once; 40% indicated that their belongings were stolen or damaged, 29% were victims of sexually explicit taunts or advances; and 28% reported being inappropriately touched by another. Primarily, appearance, ability, and sexual orientation and gender expression were the most common causes of verbal teasing, harassment or intimidation.

What was just as disturbing was that these numbers were matched by students indicating that they had actively participated in teasing, harassment, stealing, pushing or hitting, threatening and sexual aggression. Boys were more likely to engage in bullying than girls, but also experienced verbal and physical bullying at slightly higher rates than girls who experienced greater sexual and cyber bullying. Boys’ experiences centered around attacks on their masculinity which targeted their sexuality or gender expression, and LBGT students experienced bullying at higher rates than others.

Significantly, 63% of students never or rarely reported incidents of bullying because they didn’t want to be seen as tell-tales, did not trust teachers, did not want bullying by teachers or peers to worsen, or reported and felt too little was done.

Now think back to children’s familiar instinct for creating ‘forts’ as part of play or over their bed. Their desire to construct safe spaces, whether from cushions at home or in terms of relationships with family, teachers and peers, continues as they grow into adolescence. Without options for feeling sheltered, and because bullying still exists, vulnerability can easily outweigh young bliss.

I stood tiredly at the bedroom door, my shadow crossing the sloping sheet, thinking of the dream that children could both feel and be safe. You understand now why I decided to leave her ‘fort’ in place.

Post 276.

Class has always been an issue in the women’s movement. Crossing class divisions among women, and empowering working class women to have the pick-up-the-phone power of wealthy businessmen, remains the challenge today.

This, despite organisations such as Women Working for Social Progress (Working Women) with an explicit politics of working class women’s empowerment since the 1980s.

Media wished us all ‘Happy International Women’s Day’ on Thursday. I reflected on whether I’d prefer being wished a ‘powerful’ or ‘fearless’ IWD, instead of ‘happy’.

‘Happy’ doesn’t require acknowledging how much more people need to contribute to changes to our ecological and economic decision-making, corruption, social services, transportation options, and gang violence, which is what women really want. Happy isn’t a statement of commitment or solidarity, it’s a celebration, which is cool, but it’s apolitical, which is not.

This day was born from garment women workers’ public and unapologetic protests for better wages and working conditions, and from socialist women’s struggles in relation to class inequities in the economy and politics, women’s unequal responsibility for care work, violence, and more.

Radio hosts, particularly male ones who dominate the talk show terrain, discussed IWD, often combining progressive positions on consent, violence and women’s leadership with stereotypical and problematic block talk on women’s ‘natural’ characteristics, lesbianism and abortion.

The slew of activities that filled last week spoke to a growing national will to see respect, honour and safety as part of women’s rights. This is a success that has taken 110 years of blood, sweat and tears globally.

In the present, many months go into planning activities so that women get direct access to political leadership or so that it’s the women from rural South and Cashew Gardens whose work is amplified or so that men are called on to be vocal and visible allies.

In addition, IWD cocktails and fashion shows, and sisterhood with Proseco events, pop up; some very last minute and some quite costly, as if IWD is trending or another all-inclusive or about etiquette or a day which women should pay to access.

Rather, IWD is built on long-term and even year-round commitment to transforming a world in which women do not yet have full human rights, choice and freedoms in conditions of their choosing.

While there is joy in gathering over food and drinks, there is a risk when the costs separate women rather than bringing them together. Finally, when events appear a week before on the calendar, as if it only just occurred to the organisers, it makes you wonder if they took the time to find out what the long term work, and collaboration with and support to that, could have helped accomplish instead of another separate event.

Yet, so many events last week democratize a feminist dream in a way that makes sense to different women wherever they are. Amidst this, professional women and those of wealth and means should be aware of gathering to celebrate sisterhood, but without sisters lacking wealth, professional status and networks.

I thought about this while putting on a good jacket to talk to women leaders and managers about a private sector approach to addressing intimate partner violence.

I also thought about it while reflecting on my own political goals to provide ways for women of all classes to participate in IWD, whether by cutting out an IWD poster printed on March 8 in the newspaper and making sure its up in the store where they work or the office where they clean; or by freely sharing all the #speakyourtruth and #caribbeanmencan messages created for Facebook and Instagram; or by marching as a nation of women and girls gathering across differences of class, age, ethnicity, sexuality, geography and ability.

As commemoration of IWD expands, let’s remember its history is not just about celebration, but affirming how we can put our power to empowering women still needing and pursuing what others have achieved.

Post 275.

Women, this week, speak your truth.

March through Port of Spain on Thursday 8th March at noon, continuing a 60-year tradition started first by Christina Lewis in San Fernando. Rally from Whitehall and around the Savannah on Saturday 10th March at 3pm with others painting posters, T-shirts and banners, and highlighting the challenges of women’s realities and our demands for long-due women’s rights.

Gather with your male allies to build movements, sisterhood and safe spaces around women’s issues and their solutions.

And, if you cannot be there, know that we have not forgotten you.

Maybe you’re a grandmother looking after grandchildren whose parents are incarcerated, managing just enough for passage to school and food. You’re an institutionalized woman or girl, the majority of whom have experienced childhood abuse and may now be deeply missing potential for healing.

You’re on your feet six days a week in retail stores in Tunapuna, High Street and Chaguanas Main Road, and the low wages and long hours mean you’re conserving your energy and money for waged work, work at home and managing another week. You’re the daughter primarily responsible for care of your aged or unwell parents, and don’t leave them more than you have to.

Your husband has been laid off or one of the hundreds killed by gun violence, and you’re in the kitchen after work and on weekends catering to make ends meet. You’re in treatment for cancer, but without enough strength to walk.

You’re one of tens of thousands of women living with intimate partner violence in the last decade, and you experience body pains, lack of confidence and an inability to concentrate, and it just feels too much to do one more thing in public. Maybe the bruises or the threats against your life are so bad, you’re unwilling to leave wherever you are now safe.

You’re on shift in the police force, in the army, at KFC or as a domestic worker in someone’s home. You are cleaning your temple, church or mosque as part of women’s work, keeping you away from organizing to advance struggles solely in your name.

The struggle for women’s rights is founded on common truths. Right here, on average, men make about $15 000 more than women per month. National-level prevention programmes and a coherent state strategic plan to end gender based violence do not exist. Girls’ rates of HIV infection, child sexual abuse, teenage parenthood and economic insecurity remain higher that boys. These are real harms, negotiated with great risk and backlash. Still, girls and women dust off and cope, survive and improve.

If you can’t gather, open up to your neighbor, your trusted religious elder, or your partner, so that hearing compels them to turn empathy to solidarity. Tell your co-workers, your boss, your support group so that they can commemorate your resilience. Make your survival visible on your Facebook or Instagram profiles so that you refuse shame and silence, and so that we can affirm the conqueror in you. Honour unrecognized women who are the foot soldiers holding families and nation together.

However, you can, press for gender justice, for a national gender policy, sexual harassment legislation, better services for trauma victims, ratification of ILO Convention189, and an end to corruption that steals from our children’s mouths and backpacks, and from their very dreams for a better future.

Visit the Facebook page, International Women’s Day Trinidad and Tobago, for a list of events meant to educate and empower. Whether you march or you finally leave or you speak up for yourself or you break a long held silence or you celebrate another day that you grow strong, you can stand up, speak up, get up.

Imagine and create a world in which girls and women feel collective power to make change that comes from boldly speaking our truths. However you can, this week, this is what you can do.

 

 

Post 274.

Zi came home from school with minor injuries. A boy had pushed her down making her bleed from her knee. Another day, one kicked her in the neck, somehow, and it hurt her for a week. Next time, a third hit her in her eye. The physical violence wasn’t purposeful, the boys were being wild. But I wondered if there was a later lesson, that men can behave how they choose and women must learn to manage their own safety or risk injury.

The fact of ‘boys being boys’ as the denominator of social rules isn’t good enough when spaces are shared. One of the boys was also calling her and other children names. I said she should tell him not to call her names, she doesn’t like it and to stop. She said, he wouldn’t listen and would anyway. I said tell the other boys that they have to make sure how they want to behave doesn’t hurt others, including her. She said they wouldn’t care. I said, tell your teachers. She said, they just say, don’t worry about it and go play somewhere else, so she stopped saying anything.

Is this how gender-based violence becomes familiar, when girls realise that they cannot state their right to not be insulted or injured and have it heard, thus changing boys’ behaviour? When there is impunity and lack of accountability about respect and safety in shared spaces, raising these realities gets read as advocating the feminisation of childhood, but something else is at stake when girls learn to stay silent and be more careful.

Zi wasn’t prepared to press her point or fight back, risking further rough play to defend her terms, so she experienced a moment of socialisation about silence, inability to change the conditions she experiences, and responsibility for her safety. Sound familiar? I began thinking about what she’d need to be able to state her fair needs and rights as a basis for autonomy, sovereignty and empowerment.

I thought about continued government failure to implement gender-based violence programmes in schools or preventative programmes in social life. Global literature will tell you that gender ideologies –  beliefs and values about manhood and womanhood, their roles, and their right to different forms and expressions of self and power – are at the heart of violence against women.

Other factors, whether interpersonal conflict, substance abuse, economic insecurity and infidelity, are triggers, and sometimes consequences, but not the cause.  A country that takes such violence seriously would systematically transform our gender ideologies, giving girls greater practice stating the terms of their relationships with others, and refusing verbal or physical violence and harm.

People think women are too empowered or have ‘too much equality’, but the numbers of applications for protection orders, the deaths from intimate partner violence, and rates of sexual violence against girls and women tells a different story.

Religious messages are those most pervasive and least likely to emphasise the legitimacy of women having full sovereign power over their own bodies, sexuality and reproduction. Pastoral care often reminds women of the sanctity of marriage to men, the need to respect husbands as authority figures, and the necessity of sacrifice for peace in the family.

Male violence is backed by surprisingly common ideas that women don’t have the right to decide when the relationship is done and should peacefully cooperate with practices of male culture and control.

Do girls have the right to state what they want and how they want to be treated, and to have that respected? Do they have the right to say no to insult or aggression? When do they get to practice the skills they need to stop any experiences of violence?

Neither state nor society takes preventative programmes seriously enough to stop violence against women. Seeing those moments of gender socialization that don’t help either stops all my public activism in its tracks and makes me wonder.