August 2016


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.

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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.