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: