July 21, 2016
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.
July 14, 2016
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.
July 9, 2016
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.