October 2017


Post 257.

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Get up. Stand up. Speak up.

“To achieve the full and equal participation of women and men in our national and regional development as competent human beings, and not property or real estate, then we have to stand up for gender justice”. Lyrics to make a politician cringe, delivered, as they rarely are at UWI’s graduation ceremonies, by Dr. Hazel Brown.

The podium was a platform for advocacy in common-sense style. Her walk to the microphone suggested frailties that come with age, but her words were tough talk from a tireless soldier still in the trenches. She wondered aloud how being conferred an honorary doctorate would help her to achieve long-pursued dreams for women’s rights, consumer rights, transformational leadership, and fair distribution of wealth and power to meet household needs. That’s the damn question self.

How do the degrees we receive, handed like a baton from the past to the future, become our fighting words and weapons against corruption, mismanagement, violence and inequality? “My greatest disappointment during my years of advocacy has been the lack of consistent, purposeful organizing by people like yourselves, in this room, in areas of active citizenship. There’s much talk, but there’s not enough of the necessary action that is required around the advocacy and for social justice”, she cautioned another generation.

Fifty years in the work of social change and people’s empowerment, and goodly Dr. Brown’s greatest disappointment is the well-schooled, well-heeled and well-robed who, by our thousands, are responsible for today’s perfect storm of fossil fuel dependence, increasing insecurity, and near institutional collapse; all avoidable if we mobilised our degree like a hammer and sickle, a small axe, a bilna, or a broom for the sweeping changes we long need.

Few know that Hazel started at UWI and left, finding organisations like the Housewives Association of Trinidad and Tobago, and later the Network of NGOs of Trinidad and Tobago for the Advancement of Women, a better academy for a woman of action. I can’t disagree.

Invest enough time supporting and learning from fearless activists and you emerge with lifelong intimacy with and commitment to standing up and speaking up, rather than remaining silent. You don’t conceive the work, and its demands and risks, as somebody else’s responsibility. I’m not convinced we’ve yet dreadlocked that fierce will to be truculent about transparency and justice, in the face of elite decision-making, into a UWI degree.

This can’t be top-down. Students have to demand of themselves that they learn to get up, stand up and speak up. Three weeks ago, I made my own students count all the readings they had not done and told them to give back one dollar for every one. Their education is an investment, and when they waste it the way WASA wastes water or the way the THA can’t account to the Auditor General and doesn’t care, they commit the crime that has left our Heritage and Stabilisation fund woefully empty. They directly take what could have bought another hospital bed in another Ministry’s budget, or paid another social worker to help the almost 20 000 school children seeking counseling.

Because I’ve been thinking about budgets in an economic crisis, I was dead serious about how blithe indolence is almost like tiefing. They were more offended at my demand for their pocket money than horrified at their entitlement, but how will we produce graduands who won’t waste one more public penny?

So, what are we conferring on Dr. Brown? Is it promise of solidarity? Is it institutional backing? Is it commitment to households, consumers and communities, rather than alignment with the tripartite box of labour, government and industry? Will this mean that a university dominated by men will bring its bois to back Dr. Brown in her decades-long call for a national gender policy?

Being close to her advocacy for over twenty years has taught me more than my degrees. There are not many people from whom you learn something activist, strategic, global, grounded, historical, feminist, and community-centered every time you sit in a room with them. The honor acknowledges her contribution to knowledge for Caribbean transformation. It should give her the power to be able to call on a university graduating women and men of action.

 

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Post 256.

I won’t belabor the blatant objectification of women in the Prime Minister’s block-talk guffaw that “a golf course is like a woman, you have to groom her everyday otherwise it turns into a pasture”. Objection means seeing or referring to someone as a commodity or object, you know, like a pasture. Or, seeing women as an object of male sexual desire, you know, like sexual offenders’ practice of grooming girls to enable their acquiescence to sexual predation.

On national TV, of the many things we saw is that even Parliament isn’t a workplace where women are safe from sexist jokes by powerful men. Tells you a lot about the likelihood of that kind of discomforting bro-code language and power being similarly wielded across our nation’s workplaces in addition to its street corners. It also tells you a lot about the myth of women achieving all they want. You could get your education and your career, but you are out of order to expect ideals of manhood to change in acknowledgement of the fact that you are not just meant for men’s bedrooms, groomed.

However, above all, it’s his unapologetic impunity that makes me want to throw a teacup in Dr. Rowley’s direction.

The guy is a UWI graduate, a grandfather, political party leader, and the most influential elected official in the land. Parliament was in a supposedly serious debate about responses to an economic crisis which is extremely likely to exacerbate intimate partner violence as household insecurity increases. And, finally, a woman is neither like a golf course nor a pasture, because she is a person.

Impunity is freedom from punishment for harm caused, and its pervasive, making you wonder if all women and girls should arm themselves with a driving iron to unhesitatingly use in response to sexist language, harassment and violence. The extremely low conviction rates for domestic violence and sexual assault tell us much about the extent of that impunity, for there are no real consequences for wrong-and-strong men. In the context of such state-enforced gender inequality, Dr. Rowley’s lack of real accountability further asserts, hope for solidarity and expect salt, for bad man doh account to women and doh give no apology.

Ironically, in the same week, the ‘me too’ campaign circulated across the lives of millions on the planet. Started by activist Tarana Burke ten years ago, the words are meant to show that girls and women who have survived sexual abuse and exploitation are not ashamed and are not alone. Revived as a social media status, women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted disclosed their own survival, with far too many in Trinidad and Tobago either adding their post or reading others with which they could identify.

I had been lucky enough to attend the third match between the Sri Lankan and West Indies cricket teams last week Friday, but unlucky enough to see Sam, a longtime cameraman, and sexual assaulter from my youthful newsroom days, there also. I pointed him out to Ziya and told her what he had done so she could know, her mom is educated, employed and empowered, but look at what impunity looks like because he never faced consequences. Yes, ‘me too’.

Last year was swept with ‘Life in Leggings’ stories from Caribbean women harassed and harmed. Then, as now, I find myself asking the ‘what about the men’ question that occupies everyone when girls are doing well because they worked hard, but not when women are being dehumanized and threatened. Don’t men want a world where no girl or women has to again say ‘me too’? Isn’t speaking out for approval of a national plan to end gender-based and sexual violence, or for higher conviction rates for sexual offenses, or across the board workplace and political party sexual harassment policies also men’s responsibility? Isn’t also publicly insisting on better from Dr. Rowley?

His words may seem harmless, but they land on a nation full of girls and women still struggling to break silences about harm, and still hoping for men’s solidarity. Lack of consequences is part of something much greater, that gets far more dangerous. That is why a Prime Minister’s impunity must be taken seriously.