Post 233.

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

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

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

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

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

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

For this reason, important clarifications are required.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Post 232.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post 231.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Post 230.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post 229.

I don’t remember being much of a good student in primary school. I was rarely in the top five, maybe once in a while in the top ten. I remember Common Entrance as terrifying. All I have in my head is a picture of sitting at a desk in a room full of wooden desks, with the bright light from a large window to my right and a ‘lucky’ stuffed toy we were allowed to bring with us in those days, perhaps mine was a white unicorn, in front of me, watching me writing, writing, writing until my hand hurt.

I passed for Bishops Anstey High School, while girls who usually had better marks than me, but didn’t survive that one exam as well as I had, cried and cried when results came out. It’s painful to think about even today, that pressure and those immense feelings of relief and failure, when we were so young. Nonetheless, I never attended high school in Trinidad, instead becoming a Queens College student in Barbados, and later attending three additional high schools in Canada. In all of these, I was undeniably, unremarkably average.

I don’t remember any passion for my subjects or any particular drive to do well.  I barely passed physics and chemistry. I feel I like was on automatic, doing school because that’s what adolescents do, not necessarily connecting to a compelling reason, plan or future. I was a reader, and I liked writing poetry, but I had no real hobbies or areas of excellence. My mother most likely despaired, wondering if I’d turn into a delinquent, while I got through reality from shifting locations in my own teenage dream world.

Adults are so different from children that we should reflect on whether they see the world, and our expectations of them, the way that we do. Their inability to connect to our standards and aspirations might not be a sign of present or future failing on their part. They are just growing at their idiosyncratic pace, and partially living in their own world.

Parental expectations can also be wholly unrealistic. We want our children to do well in all subjects as if it’s a national norm for adults to be great at eight separate things simultaneously. By the time we grow up, we accept that we might be better at art and math than biology or creative writing, but we scan report cards with that very measurement rule still in our minds.

Ziya’s only just started primary school, yet parents are already concerned about revising classwork in the afternoons and reviewing term material for assessments, producing a sit down and learn practice, and comparing the percentages that children get at the end of term. I believe in none of these. Afternoons are for self-directed learning, including play. Revising for assessments hides what was actually learned, or not, in class. Sitting still and memorizing book knowledge gives concepts that can be regurgitated without understanding of their applicability or meaning. Percentages are great for knowing how your child performs in assessments, but not whether she or he increasingly loves learning, which is a wide indicator of when students will do well.

Any time spent with our children will tell us how they best learn to think, question, apply and remember, and which skills they have mastered or are still developing. Parents’ job is not to follow the Ministry of Education curriculum, but to do whatever enjoyable activities help to strengthen our children’s’ capacities, without resorting to more school.

All this sounds like letting education slide, but I’m more concerned with our despair when children don’t excel early on. Not all can excel every year for their entire school lives. Not everyone’s academic performance will peak when they are children. They might finally find their feet in university, in a job or in a course that offers an alternative to traditional subjects. That was me.

I began to seriously excel at university, finally. A surprise to many, I ended up with three degrees, plus focus, discipline and ambition. My mother need not have been so worried, and perhaps as parents neither should we. That’s the lesson I now try to live with Zi.

Post 228.

A process that began with the 2004 version of a Draft National Gender Policy is soon to be completed. Those years have involved letters to the Editor, media interviews, press releases, strategy meetings, appeals to political representatives and officials, think pieces by columnists, and public actions. All of this to maintain that approval of a gender policy is one measure of a government’s commitment to gender equality.

I put this into national print record because, although a gender policy is a reflection of the state’s position on how equality should be pursued across all ministries, its roots lie with the global women’s movement, which began to pursue women’s and gender policies from the 1980s, and fearlessly criticized governments when those policies missed core issues, contained contradictory positions, or failed at adequate consultation. It was the global women’s movement that mainstreamed the idea that every state policy, from health to education to trade, has an impact on equality and equity, on women’s lives and on the relationship between masculinities and power.

Though an approved gender policy will be marketed by government as a sign of its leadership and liberalism, that story hides the subtext of relentless lobbying by women’s and LBGT movements, whose leaders have survived and been lost to cancer, who faced the harm that comes from religious and atheist backlash to feminist aspirations, and who ushered in another generation of activists by organizing them around policy advocacy.

Hopes have been dashed, such as when ex-PM Manning trashed the first policy draft, forcing Joan Yuille-Williams to backtrack, even though she had pulled the state and women’s movement together to create a progressive product that reflected clear thinking or 20/20 vision rather than a later Vision 2020. As a young activist, I was very critical of her capitulation, but the party machine and Manning’s authoritarianism prevailed. At the time, he infamously made a statement about not believing in ‘gender flexibility’ which can only be described as a denial of vast anthropological scholarship and actual reality.

Hopes were further crushed when the 2009 draft, which informs the one now heading to Cabinet for approval, said in bold type: “The National Policy on Gender and Development does not provide measures dealing with or relating to the issues of termination of pregnancy, same-sex unions, homosexuality or sexual orientation”. In other words, rights for the respectable. There were religious constituencies happy that discrimination and inequality were front and centre in a policy meant precisely to tackle how our beliefs about gender and sexuality reproduce discrimination and inequality; a holier-than-thou, bitter irony.

Marlene McDonald led the process to the 2009 draft. I found myself, also ironically, wishing for elder stateswoman “Auntie Joan”, who included women’s rights in a way that didn’t leave us so utterly kicked out of the door. In the last election, McDonald actually used the PNM Women’s Platform to attack Brenda Gopeesingh and Hazel Brown for the fact that a gender policy was buried alive by Kamla Persad-Bissessar, knowing full well that endless advocacy continued and that the women’s movement cannot be answerable for what Cabinet decides to do or not do.

Keep this very point in mind. The current draft is founded in unfair concessions to intolerance and sheer prejudice, and divides those who have rights from those who will not any time soon. As long as a gender policy fails to acknowledge the role homophobia plays in reproducing sexism, it is running in place. Further, the fact that the policy leaves abortion out of its notion of public health means it excludes thousands of women from its idea of the citizen public.

We will celebrate approval of a gender policy for we value every step forward. We will remember that it is not only a victory for state and party, but for feminist women and men speaking out all these years. However, we will maintain that the policy should leave no woman out because of her health choices, and nor any man or woman because of sexual orientation. We will not forgo all hope that one day an approved gender policy will be inclusive and just, and no longer subject to the Machiavellian politics of governing parties. Advocacy will and must continue.

*For a discussion of the relationship between sexism and homophobia, see this TEDx PoS talk:

Post 226.

In this rough monetary moment, the conversations we have about the economy are more important than ever. We could focus on issues of debt to GDP ratios. The debt-to-GDP ratio is over 60 per cent for 12 of 20 Caribbean countries, over 80 per cent for 6 countries, and over 100 per cent for four. Indeed it’s the pressure of debt payments that prevents Caribbean countries from affording development projects and social programmes.

We could focus on the importance of investment to economic growth. Investment provides funds needed by industries to provide jobs, create wealth and pay taxes. But we are at risk of invisibilising other indicators if we mainly focus on these. When countries focus on debt reduction, who carries the costs and how are those measured? When we rely on profit-seeking investment to drive economic growth, what might we fail to discuss in terms of environmental, labour, health and other costs?

Looking at women’s experiences in the labour market can show what such indicators hide. From this perspective, the global and national economy is fundamentally gendered, meaning that the roles that women play in both private and public spheres aren’t incidental, but central to how the economy is organized and experienced. For example, women often devise survival strategies for their families using their unpaid time and labour to absorb the effects of economic crises, such as industry shrinkage, or higher food prices, or prescriptions for debt reduction.

More than men, women perform uncounted, non-unionised and unwaged homebased labour, and have greater responsibility for care of children, and the disabled and elderly, particularly where health and social services are inadequate. Such economic exploitation within households reinforces women’s exploitation in the waged economy, where women predominate in the five Cs: caring, catering, cashiering, cleaning and clerical work. Particularly when traditionally male-dominated jobs are being lost, these women are more vulnerable to poverty and relationship violence because of their economic dependence.

When women take work to make ends meet, they may experience the absence of a social infrastructure permitting them to combine work with family life. Additionally, women’s clustering in service sectors, and informal jobs, that are often considered less skilled or valuable than hitting a ball with a bat, is highly exploitative and features low wages, poor working conditions, and little opportunity for security or advancement. In this context, economic problems and prescriptions are likely to have an asymmetrical impact on women and men because they have different relationships to labour in informal and formal spheres, and in reproduction and production.

Reflecting on this, Caribbean feminist Eudine Barriteau writes, “Constructing economic analyses around households should force development planners to move beyond exploiting the resources of women to costing out the use of these resources. It should no longer be possible to speak of market gains while households are suffering, of growth without equity or redistribution.” Making households the basic unit of socioeconomic analysis, she argues, should make planners directly confront the gendered nature of economic relations, disaggregating and exposing the conflicts and competing interests within households, and between household roles and market-based economic behavior.

In our economy, in the category of those 25 to 49 years old, men comprise about 57% of the labour force, women 43%. Within this age group, women’s labour force participation rate is 72% compared to 95% for men. Men’s unemployment is 2% for that age category, but women’s is 4%, and more women than men (28% versus 6%) are considered to be out of the labour force between the ages of 25-49. Why and with what implications for their labour?

In the petro/gas industries, men comprise 80% of those employed, women 20%. In the construction sector, men constitute 88% of those employed, women 12%. Finally, in community, social and personal services, as well as in trade, restaurants and hotels, women are 54% and 58% respectively of those employed in comparison to 42% and 46% of men. And, this labour force data for 2015 doesn’t adequately highlight women’s pervasive wage inequality for similar work.

The costs of recession and growth are being survived and subsidized by households, and by labour inequities being borne by women. In addition to indicators of investment and debt, this is something economists should be discussing.

 

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