Post 225.

Two weeks ago, I wrote what I then felt was a story of hope. Or, perhaps, what I then felt was the story that should be told. Everyone involved, from the neighbours to the Rotary Club members who were assisting, to the woman and her children, was talking about the chance for a happy ending.

I had my doubts. Having been defeated over years, women leaving batterers often return several times before ever permanently escaping abusive relationships. And, battered women tend to be at high risk of being killed when they do finally decide not to go back, creating great fear about trying to permanently leave. Women also face endless harassment from their abusers during the process of leaving itself: repetitive calls to their phone day and night as well as demands, guilt, blame, manipulation, pressure and promises. Familiar with such harassment, women may feed this pattern, perhaps because they feel incapable of moving ahead on their own.

I had other hesitations, what if this woman couldn’t manage the stress of caring for seven children by herself, even with charitable help for an apartment and living costs? Could she heal enough to re-establish clear thought, good decision-making and secure self-esteem if, in the end, she never received sustained counseling? In this likely scenario, would the children heal as they should or just endure, perhaps repeating a dysfunctional cycle in their own lives as they grew?

I write again about this real life story, which I suspected wouldn’t so simply unfold. There’s an eighth child due in a few months, following a failed termination, and the woman remains a heavy smoker, though when I took her to hospital last week the doctors said that it was affecting her heart and breathing. She left the apartment secured for her and has taken the children with her back to their father. She and the children remain at risk of various levels and kinds of abuse.

The clothes and other items they received from public help are at risk of being sold to pay for their father’s drug addiction. They can tell you where drug blocks are. All the children there are at risk of being involved in stealing, with parental knowledge, to survive.

The neighbours have been pushed away, for the woman felt that they were too much in her business. She’s threatened them harm if her children are taken away by authorities, and, fed up, her neighbours are resorting to responses we know so well: ‘she must like the licks’, ‘she wants the children so people will provide charity’, ‘there is nothing more we can do’.

Right now, they wait impatiently for the Children’s Authority to remove the children from the room where they again now live, all of them sharing two beds, the oldest complaining of cockroaches. There’s a home where the children can be sent together, but it’s the authorities who have to exercise that decision-making power, and they need to do it sooner rather than later.

One older boy, who has had to look after the younger siblings when both parents are not there in the day or at night, starts to cry when he talks about the situation, his feelings of frustration and powerlessness clear, for the adults whom he loves who will not do what is right.

Every day those children are around such neglect of their needs counts. How many days until their situation changes? What does a happy ending for them mean? How can we help make that possible?

Before we resort to the single narrative of woman-blame, we should remember that daily, professional, even over-the-phone, crisis counseling for a woman trying to leave a long-term abusive relationship is not accessible, making the messiness of this current outcome much more likely.

Even if a good shelter takes in all the children, they are unlikely to ever receive the extent of counseling they too need. Both batterers and victims have often grown up in abusive homes, and in one way or another repeat details learned through socialization to violence. Crucially, our social services are completely unable to cope.

This is one story, of thousands, across the country. Today it is told with more uncertainty than hope.

Post 224.

It isn’t often that Caribbean people who support struggles for equality get good news. On August 10, 2016, the Belize Supreme Court struck down the country’s sodomy law as unconstitutional. This is an historic victory for our region and reflects home-grown leadership and strategizing to secure greater justice through our institutions.

The movement to take a case to the courts was started by UWI Faculty, of whom we should be proud. In 2007, Jamaican legal feminist scholar Tracy Robinson, then at Cave Hill’s Faculty of Law, opened a conversation about litigation as a strategy.

Later discussion with Joel Simpson, then of the Guyanese LBGT organisation SASOD, Douglas Mendes SC, and Godfrey Smith, former Attorney General of Belize, led to the formation of the Lawyers from the UWI Rights Advocacy Project (U-Rap). However, U-Rap’s litigation possibilities were first outlined in an UWI LLB research paper by Conway Blake in 2004, and drew on Jamaican lawyer Philip Dayle’s legal assessment of laws criminalising same-sex sex in the Caribbean in 2006.

U-Rap member, Guyanese Arif Bulkan, now at the Law Faculty in St. Augustine, also worked with claimant, Caleb Orozco, a long-time LGBT activist, in this case against Section 53 of Belize’s Criminal Code. Counsel were Trinidadians Christopher Hamel-Smith and Westmin James, now Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Law at Cave Hill.

We need such fearless regionality, which included the community-based strength of Belizean LBGT and HIV Advocacy groups such as UNIBAM (United Belize Advocacy Movement ) and PETAL (Promoting Empowerment Through Awareness for Lesbian and Bisexual women), as well as Caribbean scholars and activists.

Following Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin’s decision, Caleb Orozco is quoted as saying, “This is the first day of my life in which it is legal for me to be me.” I can’t think of a more over-due experience, one which we can imagine enslaved ancestors felt as far back as 1834 when they were first formally recognized as human. We wait to see how this momentous precedent will affect law across the region as the long struggle for full emancipation for all, and recognition of the equal humanity of all, is re-energised with hope.

In another U-Rap case, four transgender women challenged an 1893 law against cross-dressing in Guyana, arguing that it reproduced discrimination on the basis of gender. In 2013, in what LBGT advocates decried as a ‘dubious decision’, the judge ruled that cross-dressing is a criminal offense only if it’s done for an “improper purpose”, which could include prostitution. The law was considered to already allow cross-dressing to express or accentuate one’s sexual orientation. In essence, the law was reinterpreted and upheld instead of being struck down as unconstitutional.

The Belizean case also comes after decades of work by a range of groups, from feminists to scholars to HIV/AIDS activists to public health advocates, to create constitutional reform recommendations, policy positions and OAS resolutions committed to ending discrimination, inequity, stigma, vulnerability and human rights violations on the basis of sex, gender and sexuality.

Indeed, the Belize decision recognized that Section 53 of the Criminal Code, which banned “carnal intercourse against the order of nature,” and primarily targeted same-sex sexual activities, denied a right to dignity, privacy, equality and freedom.

Consenting adults of the same sex are now free from arbitrary or unlawful interference with their privacy and are due equal protection under the law, meaning simply what everyone else already expects and gets.

Key about the Chief Justice’s ruling was his view that the bill of right’s protection of sex from discrimination includes sexual orientation. This reflects part of a larger, nuanced critique of legislation that polices sexual orientation as fundamentally and unfairly policing how LBGT persons live their own conceptions of sexual rights and human rights as well as manhood and womanhood.

These legal challenges continue, pressing for discriminatory legislation to be taken off the books. Earlier this year, a CCJ ruling made clear that Caribbean homosexuals must be allowed the right of free movement within CARICOM, and that immigration laws banning their entry, for example to Trinidad and Tobago, should be repealed.

Every generation, resistance against unjust laws and policies ignites across the region. That spark burns bright, fed by last week’s decision.

Post 233.

Though she sat with her head down, I could only think of her resilience. Now 31 years old, having survived fourteen years of battering by the father of her seven children, she seemed finally about to make a sure step away. Her neighbours, who have offered many moments of care, are unsung heroes of our nation, helping without public recognition, and it’s their strength that she is relying on to find hers.

The beatings started after her first son, as they do for so many women for whom having children puts them at greater risk of domestic violence. At first, women think it will stop. She said, she had ‘hope’. As their children increase, they become less able to leave, and to manage on their own. The rest of us may think that anything is better than a violent home, but that doesn’t help us to understand the challenges associated with leaving which women may be unable to overcome.

Violence continued, even while she was pregnant, once causing her to go into labour at home. Her tooth was broken, ears torn, lip burst, and she can point to scars from cuts all over her body. The last time, just weeks ago, one beating caused her head to swell, and she went to the hospital, though normally she bore her wounds at home, perhaps afraid of being judged as a woman and mother.

She made many reports to the police, but was never sent to a shelter, and would never have gone if it meant separation from her children. It’s a decision to stay that many mothers make which keeps them in harm’s way, but such separation is often their worst nightmare as those children may be their most powerful reason to live. Following a suicide attempt after another beating, she ran away from the hospital where she was taken, afraid they would declare her mad – rather than simply, finally more battered than even she could manage – and take her from her children. All these are the realities that social services have to take into account in their strategies to empower women to become independent and live violence-free. The police came to verify that she had chosen to run away. After that, nothing.

Social workers that she met through the Regional Corporation provided food cards, and community police gave her their number and offered counselling. He broke her phone where the telephone number was stored. She missed the counselling, from lacking clothes, money to travel and anyone to look after her children while she was gone. Not all her children have regularly attended school. Their father, on drugs, recently sold their home, leaving them homeless.

Astoundingly, despite numerous visits to police, with community officers, and from social workers and district health nurses, many of whom helped in one way or another, and despite teachers seeing children in school who one day disappeared, none of them ever helped this woman right through every step until she escaped. Despite a labyrinth of national welfare services, none pursued counselling to address the children’s trauma over these years. No one ensured she secured a protection order.

Understanding how impoverished and debilitating situations threaten women’s capacity to even make sound decisions, it wasn’t even clear where she could go that would provide step by step help to escape. And, the correct protocols are still not clear to all these, even well-meaning, state officials who encounter battered women.

It’s neighbours who have held her and her family together, bringing all the children into their home after the last beating as she recovered from head injuries and they ended up alone and hungry. It’s her neighbours who sat with her when the Children’s Authority came this week, and samaritans offered her help for rent and to live. Care of neighbours succeeded where social services in an oil rich nation over fourteen years failed.

Today, this is a story of community help and family hope. One from among the hundreds of women who report domestic violence to the police each year. May this woman hold her head high, for she is a survivor. Now, hundreds more women need us to recognise that we are our neighbour’s keeper.

Post 232.

I’m a child of the UWI.

I came here as an MPhil student in 1997, but my earliest memories are of roller skating in the quadrangle at six years old or bicycling on a weekend with other children of UWI parents, over an expanse of concrete that then seemed unimaginably vast. I return to then whenever I see staff and their children getting exercise or playing on campus. As a younger generation, we gather long memories of the place, over decades, as if it is our second home.

There are many of us. Children of academic and administrative staff who grew up with intimate familiarity of the campus. We come to the UWI as students and meet lecturers who know us since we were small. We follow in the footsteps of our uncles, aunts and parents who studied or worked here, who were part of student politics, or who made life-long friends and memories.

Such a long view indelibly informs my deep commitment to the UWI today. The university is a place where people grow and give back, where knowledge can come to matter for how it changes individual lives and families, not just meets state ‘development’ goals.

Three generations of my family have been academics here. After Naparima College, my dad’s mother’s brother, Inayat Hosein, gained a diploma from the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture in 1937. In 1945, he graduated from Mc Gill University with a Bachelor of Sciences degree in Agriculture. In 1948, he was offered a scholarship to Kew Gardens. He obtained the M.Sc. in Botany from London University in 1955. He was a citrus expert and Senior Lecturer at the UWI when he retired in 1977.

My dad’s sister, Taimoon, studied international relations at UWI and became a senior research fellow focusing on trade and competition law at the Institute for Social and Economic Relations. Just before I submitted my thesis, she gave me her mother’s wedding ring, which she had promised me as a gift when I finished. She was the first among my dad’s siblings to earn a PhD and retired soon after I became faculty. I never take off the ring, remembering a matrilineal investment in education.

For a while, my dad was Head of Management Studies. I recollect sharp images of walking across endless grass to the huge rooms housing the university’s mainframe computers, trying to keep up while he carried tall stacks of rectangular boxes full of punch cards used for creating and storing computer programmes. As a child, I’d marvel that these cards could communicate with this hulking, futuristic technology. This week, I became Head of the Institute for Gender and Development Studies, after nineteen years first studying and then teaching here. On my first day at work, my dad texted to say that he expected me to surpass him one day, as a professor. I guess what one generation doesn’t fully achieve, but continues to aspire to, it hopes for in the next.

I remember lecturers in dashikis and leather sandals. There was Vere Knight, who wore shorts throughout his university career, whose family was like mine as a child. Today, tertiary education has narrowed to an ideal of preparation for employment and entrepreneurship, and jackets, worn by both women and men, fill a meeting room. I always thought of jackets as a capitalist uniform, drawing on Rastafarian cultural resistance, but bought my first jacket this year, in preparation for headship, on the advice of my predecessors who know women need every resource to negotiate the system and its hierarchies in a neoliberal age. Times indeed change a place.

Stories communicate how we make the history, community and landscape around us meaningful. Our stories give spaces humanity, inviting others to share where matters and why, allowing for our eccentricities. We tell such stories about Naps or Bishops. For UWI, they are a counter-narrative to easy public disparagement and generalized dismissal or, alternatively, to policy language and economic rationales.

Others can point to such generational relationships, chances for a first job, inspirational teachers and supervisors, and long-term mentorship. We follow in the footsteps of those who came before, literally walking the paths under the trees as they once did.

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On my first day at Head of the Institute for Gender and Development Studies, UWI, St. Augustine Campus. It’s been 19 years under the mentorship of countless academics, especially women, especially Professor Rhoda Reddock and Professor Patricia Mohammed. I walk with all their spirits. Forward ever. 

Post 231.

Global emphasis on women’s economic empowerment has taken centre stage. The UN is talking about it as are Commonwealth countries and top women execs. Headlines on this goal are set to become more common. What do they signal?

Feminist goals regarding economic power build on a century of analysis regarding women and work around the world. ‘Economic empowerment’ is an idea with long history: from the complexity of women’s experiences of sexual, reproductive and labour exploitation for colonial plantation profits to contemporary women’s subsistence agriculture or informal economic activities and housework hours remaining uncounted and unvalued. The idea has filtered into decades of focus on micro-finance, small-scale saving, sustainable income opportunities, fair trade, and public policies to support work-family balance.

Caribbean women have deep knowledge of the intricacies and challenges of economic empowerment. Our grandmothers were raising families, theirs and sometimes others, while also taking in sewing work, selling cakes and pastelles or marketing their garden produce. Many Caribbean women labour in the informal economy, manage small savings through sou sou systems, and take risks to start their medium-scale businesses. Yet, it’s only been in the last decades that women have shattered glass ceilings in middle management. They have yet to do so among top CEOs and in areas like finance.

Caribbean feminists have added an important dimension. For them, economic empowerment should not be reduced to women’s entrepreneurial survival and success. In other words, empowerment isn’t only how well you do at business nor is business logic the best way to ensure equity, rights, freedoms and a good life.

Rather, economic empowerment is when women, including the poorest among us, can collectively and powerfully influence states’ macro-economic policy, and push through legislation and protocols that effectively stop waste and corruption, which ultimately emaciate social sector spending. Have women secured such influence in Trinidad and Tobago today? If more women became successful business leaders, would they be more likely to take on these issues?

Economic empowerment is when women’s experience of labouring in both the public sphere and private businesses occurs within the context of all the policies that they need. It is when market vendors can shape agricultural trade policy or when domestic workers can get the government to ratify International Labour Organisation Convention 189, which enshrines their right to decent work.

Women’s economic empowerment isn’t just about jobs, financial services, property ownership and legal rights, though those are important. It’s more than increasing the numbers of individually wealthy women. It’s certainly about more than their charity and greater ability to help others. It’s about more than increasing the numbers of women in the workplace, for many of those jobs may be dead-end, like hotel cleaners at a Tobago Sandals resort.

Strong, women-led, social movements, which successfully hold the state and political-economic elites accountable for our economic conditions, are the best example of women’s economic empowerment. These movements recognize the unequal burdens and intersecting sources of subordination as well as the forms of dignity and value that characterize women’s labour. They collectively challenge ideologies and institutions that sustain existing inequities in power and patterns of control over economic, natural and intellectual resources. They compel investment in public infrastructure, for example in drinkable water and safe transportation, that affect women’s home-based and waged-based work.

Will the current focus on women’s entrepreneurship advance such movement-building? Will it sustain commitment to cross-class solidarities among women, or a trickle-down form of feminism?

Indian feminist, Srilatha Batliwala, writes, “in keeping with the insidious dominance of the neo-liberal ideology and its consumerist core, we see the transition of empowerment out of the realm of societal and systemic change and into the individual – from a noun signifying shifts in social power to a verb signaling individual power, achievement, status” (OpenDemocracy 2007).

Yes, there should be more equal numbers of wealthy women to wealthy men. But, there should also be less extreme economic inequality between wealthy and poor. There should be access to justice for all regardless of their place in the economy.  Such justice must include the legitimacy and influence of movements to end gender inequalities.

Given all that women’s economic empowerment thus means, we wait to see what emphasis on women’s entrepreneurship actually achieves.

Post 231.

Imagine my amazement that Zi would be familiar with the playlist of songs currently topping charts, by everyone from Rihanna to Taylor Swift to Meghan Trainor. These were songs I didn’t know and don’t play. Yet, she was singing along to chorus and sometimes verse. Where did such socialization happen?

First, older cousins who opened her eyes to the Disney channel world of tween pop music and culture, playing the role that older, adored cousins have somehow always played for little girls.

Then, friends. I overheard one playdate asking for Zi’s Barbies, and describing the details of how many she owns. Given that she has none herself, Zi pulled out some White, blond doll someone gave her, and it passed the test, preserving her street cred.

She listens in on the sidelines of school conversations and figures out what information she needs to know for next rounds, then comes home and asks me for the Hastek sisters’ cover of Spice Girls’ songs. I tried to show her the global girl power version, highlighting rights to education, marriage after childhood and more. She just said, no mummy, that’s the wrong one.

Stone thought I shouldn’t have looked up Lego Friends when Zi wanted to see who the characters were in Lego’s girls’ line of products, which is annoyingly pink and purple, but also features one of the few black girls with curly hair in any of their collections. Ha! Another friend came over and was already into the series of short, addictive videos that the company produces about the characters. All I did was route her to being in the know.

As I buy clothes in bigger sizes, she complains about the ones that look like boys’ T-shirts, refusing black, greens and blue, and insisting on pink. It’s all to match the outfits her best friends have. It’s all about their approval. So and so will like these shiny gold shoes. So and so and I can wear our pink skirts together next time.

My sister, who is with us, and went through stages from Goth to army surplus store chic, was just as amazed at how important approval and belonging had become, on narrow, gendered terms. There’s only so much a feminist mom can do when hyper-feminization of girlhood is part of the life stages of patriarchy. Six year olds wear shoes with heels. She wants nail polish because other five year olds wear nail polish on weekends.

I bought dinosaur-themed birthday materials. In all seriousness, Zi asked if I thought her friends would want to go home when they realized that it wasn’t a princess party. My choices for her get evaluated by these standards of hip. This is how you know your sapodilla is no longer a baby. Girl culture, in all its stereotypical colours, obsessions, conversations and criteria, has taken over. It was always going to happen. I just didn’t think it would happen so early.

My sister asked me why I give in to the colours or videos Zi has decided she’s into. I don’t know that I have much choice. Did you want to be that kid, among your peers, dressed in your parents’ ideological warfare against the world? Moms tell me that they give in because their girls are going to get exposed to whatever others are allowed anyway. They play jazz, like I do, but also Justin Bieber. They give them make-up to pretend, but they also sign them up for football.

Any mom will tell you, each stage is a new negotiation. This one is when the world takes socialization from your full control. You catch up and keep up. Stone might decide there’s no way he’s playing Katy Perry. I’m going to have to know all the words. That’s what moms I know do. You also start those conversations about what it means to decide for yourself who you are and what’s cool.

Why does any of this matter? Any anthropologist will tell you that the micro reveals the macro. We should pay attention to the British Prime Minister’s gender politics, but insights as legitimate come from observing globalized sub-cultures shaping terms and options for a new generation of our girls.

 

Post 230.

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Our school children marked a milestone this week. Some survived the experience of SEA. Some became the ones about to enter their time of preparation and pressure. Some, like my sapodilla, finished just her first year of primary school.

Up to December, she would cling on with both arms and both legs when I tried to leave her at assembly, and her tears would follow me to my desk at work. I’d rue all the constraints faced by mothering workers, and sit staring at my computer screen, bereft even though I knew Zi was likely to be onto a different emotion moments after I left.

Children are resilient. They both can and have to figure out on their own how to be all right, but that doesn’t mean that the desire to be there all the while doesn’t persistently tug on your heart.

I spent the year hearing about the seemingly daily making, breaking and making back up of best-friendships, and which boys got into trouble with Miss. Over this time, Zi came home talking about honesty, hygiene, hydroponics, homophones and much more. She learned those hand-clapping, sing-song games that generations of school children have taught each other, away from parental socialization, constituting a peer culture that crosses the region. Shy in front of strangers, she came third in her school calypso competition. She didn’t even blink about going up on stage. In the end, we underestimated her capacity to be brave.

A little person grew up just a little. Might other parents feel this way at the end of a school year? Nothing profound about it, just that milestones were crossed, while we’ve watched, trying to figure out that balance between being there and letting go.

Both Stone and I met Zi at the end of her final day of this first year. Ten years ago, when we were young, I was a poet and he was a DJ. I wrote him a song whose lyrics were plain and certain: ‘We are on every quest together. Our nest can withstand any weather. We live best with love as our shelter. Two little birds of a feather, who are blessed. I love you so endless. Endless’. Now, we are three.  We make up her nest, and these chances for togetherness don’t come again.

We walked over to the field where I played when I was exactly Ziya’s age. She climbed on the metal jungle gym, and swung upside down, as I had climbed on thirty-seven years ago, with scars to prove it. The saman tree still stood overhead, and I wondered if Zi would have the same childhood fantasies I did, imagining that fairies lived at the mysterious, unreachable top of the trunk.

A few weeks ago, she started talking about how she wished her toys would come to life. For me, it was Enid Blyton and the Faraway Tree series. Today, it’s Doc McStuffins. As I stood under the saman’s shade with her, I felt like I was in a strange time loop; the same age, same space, same metal jungle gym, same uniform, and the same galaxy of branches overhead.

Four decades separated our crossing of childhood milestones. There was no way I could have predicted the circuitous path that led me back here, and looking at the time between us, I cannot begin to fathom the twisty route that she will travel over her own forty years.

Our children’s test marks signal how well they did that day, not how hard they worked or where their passions and skills will lie, nor the extent to which they are truly blossoming, but at their own pace. We should be proud of them for trying, following through, and learning the myriad minutia that children have to.

These little persons navigate untold complications of adults’ world, grow up a little along their own circuitous routes, and enter and complete new challenges we all know are not easy. That last day, I made sure to be there because endless love and pride is all that I think one such little sapodilla wanted from me.

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