April 21, 2016
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.
April 14, 2016
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.
April 7, 2016
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.