March 2018


Post 277.

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I got home very late from work and ready to collapse only to find the bed under a low-hanging, tent-like sheet, apparently making a ‘fort’.

I deliberated whether, out of sheer nostalgia and love, to shuffle underneath for a night of claustrophobic, but cuddly sleep (the kind where there’s always a small, brown limb thrown across one’s neck), leaving the sheet at its angle about a foot from my head.

Or, whether to take it down because, while there was space for her, she being the size of Donkey to Shrek (me being Shrek), at least I wouldn’t die of suffocation while she sleeps peacefully and would be alive and breathing enough to risk her seven-year-old disappointment in the morning.

There are few adults who didn’t build ‘forts’ of some kind growing up. Obliging parents let us take sofa cushions, lean them against each other in squares and then spread sheets across, with the greatest of joys being crawling under there with books, toys, a flash light, friends or siblings, and those Chinese shrimp chips that expand when fried and taste like childhood bliss.

Childhood has changed. No children I know still play ‘elastic’, and those worldly girls of today look like you are describing a rotary dial phone, a wholly foreign thing none of them have seen, when you ask.

Yet, there are some things that remain consistent and, unfortunately, one of them is bullying. Still, we now think about it differently from before, and can help children grow into kinder, gentler human beings than we are, perhaps creating a more golden experience of growing up than what nostalgia allows us to recollect.

If you want to get a picture of what bullying looks like, at least in secondary schools, look up The Silver Lining Foundation’s just released Trinidad and Tobago School Climate Report on Bullying and Gender-Based Violence in Secondary Schools. Overseen by a team of young researchers and activists, 651 students from 20 schools were surveyed, with the majority of respondents being 13-16 years old.

The study is nationally generalizable so note that in the three months prior to the survey: 73% of students indicated they had been teased or harassed at least once; 24% indicated that they had been pushed or hit at least once; 40% indicated that their belongings were stolen or damaged, 29% were victims of sexually explicit taunts or advances; and 28% reported being inappropriately touched by another. Primarily, appearance, ability, and sexual orientation and gender expression were the most common causes of verbal teasing, harassment or intimidation.

What was just as disturbing was that these numbers were matched by students indicating that they had actively participated in teasing, harassment, stealing, pushing or hitting, threatening and sexual aggression. Boys were more likely to engage in bullying than girls, but also experienced verbal and physical bullying at slightly higher rates than girls who experienced greater sexual and cyber bullying. Boys’ experiences centered around attacks on their masculinity which targeted their sexuality or gender expression, and LBGT students experienced bullying at higher rates than others.

Significantly, 63% of students never or rarely reported incidents of bullying because they didn’t want to be seen as tell-tales, did not trust teachers, did not want bullying by teachers or peers to worsen, or reported and felt too little was done.

Now think back to children’s familiar instinct for creating ‘forts’ as part of play or over their bed. Their desire to construct safe spaces, whether from cushions at home or in terms of relationships with family, teachers and peers, continues as they grow into adolescence. Without options for feeling sheltered, and because bullying still exists, vulnerability can easily outweigh young bliss.

I stood tiredly at the bedroom door, my shadow crossing the sloping sheet, thinking of the dream that children could both feel and be safe. You understand now why I decided to leave her ‘fort’ in place.

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Post 276.

Class has always been an issue in the women’s movement. Crossing class divisions among women, and empowering working class women to have the pick-up-the-phone power of wealthy businessmen, remains the challenge today.

This, despite organisations such as Women Working for Social Progress (Working Women) with an explicit politics of working class women’s empowerment since the 1980s.

Media wished us all ‘Happy International Women’s Day’ on Thursday. I reflected on whether I’d prefer being wished a ‘powerful’ or ‘fearless’ IWD, instead of ‘happy’.

‘Happy’ doesn’t require acknowledging how much more people need to contribute to changes to our ecological and economic decision-making, corruption, social services, transportation options, and gang violence, which is what women really want. Happy isn’t a statement of commitment or solidarity, it’s a celebration, which is cool, but it’s apolitical, which is not.

This day was born from garment women workers’ public and unapologetic protests for better wages and working conditions, and from socialist women’s struggles in relation to class inequities in the economy and politics, women’s unequal responsibility for care work, violence, and more.

Radio hosts, particularly male ones who dominate the talk show terrain, discussed IWD, often combining progressive positions on consent, violence and women’s leadership with stereotypical and problematic block talk on women’s ‘natural’ characteristics, lesbianism and abortion.

The slew of activities that filled last week spoke to a growing national will to see respect, honour and safety as part of women’s rights. This is a success that has taken 110 years of blood, sweat and tears globally.

In the present, many months go into planning activities so that women get direct access to political leadership or so that it’s the women from rural South and Cashew Gardens whose work is amplified or so that men are called on to be vocal and visible allies.

In addition, IWD cocktails and fashion shows, and sisterhood with Proseco events, pop up; some very last minute and some quite costly, as if IWD is trending or another all-inclusive or about etiquette or a day which women should pay to access.

Rather, IWD is built on long-term and even year-round commitment to transforming a world in which women do not yet have full human rights, choice and freedoms in conditions of their choosing.

While there is joy in gathering over food and drinks, there is a risk when the costs separate women rather than bringing them together. Finally, when events appear a week before on the calendar, as if it only just occurred to the organisers, it makes you wonder if they took the time to find out what the long term work, and collaboration with and support to that, could have helped accomplish instead of another separate event.

Yet, so many events last week democratize a feminist dream in a way that makes sense to different women wherever they are. Amidst this, professional women and those of wealth and means should be aware of gathering to celebrate sisterhood, but without sisters lacking wealth, professional status and networks.

I thought about this while putting on a good jacket to talk to women leaders and managers about a private sector approach to addressing intimate partner violence.

I also thought about it while reflecting on my own political goals to provide ways for women of all classes to participate in IWD, whether by cutting out an IWD poster printed on March 8 in the newspaper and making sure its up in the store where they work or the office where they clean; or by freely sharing all the #speakyourtruth and #caribbeanmencan messages created for Facebook and Instagram; or by marching as a nation of women and girls gathering across differences of class, age, ethnicity, sexuality, geography and ability.

As commemoration of IWD expands, let’s remember its history is not just about celebration, but affirming how we can put our power to empowering women still needing and pursuing what others have achieved.

Post 275.

Women, this week, speak your truth.

March through Port of Spain on Thursday 8th March at noon, continuing a 60-year tradition started first by Christina Lewis in San Fernando. Rally from Whitehall and around the Savannah on Saturday 10th March at 3pm with others painting posters, T-shirts and banners, and highlighting the challenges of women’s realities and our demands for long-due women’s rights.

Gather with your male allies to build movements, sisterhood and safe spaces around women’s issues and their solutions.

And, if you cannot be there, know that we have not forgotten you.

Maybe you’re a grandmother looking after grandchildren whose parents are incarcerated, managing just enough for passage to school and food. You’re an institutionalized woman or girl, the majority of whom have experienced childhood abuse and may now be deeply missing potential for healing.

You’re on your feet six days a week in retail stores in Tunapuna, High Street and Chaguanas Main Road, and the low wages and long hours mean you’re conserving your energy and money for waged work, work at home and managing another week. You’re the daughter primarily responsible for care of your aged or unwell parents, and don’t leave them more than you have to.

Your husband has been laid off or one of the hundreds killed by gun violence, and you’re in the kitchen after work and on weekends catering to make ends meet. You’re in treatment for cancer, but without enough strength to walk.

You’re one of tens of thousands of women living with intimate partner violence in the last decade, and you experience body pains, lack of confidence and an inability to concentrate, and it just feels too much to do one more thing in public. Maybe the bruises or the threats against your life are so bad, you’re unwilling to leave wherever you are now safe.

You’re on shift in the police force, in the army, at KFC or as a domestic worker in someone’s home. You are cleaning your temple, church or mosque as part of women’s work, keeping you away from organizing to advance struggles solely in your name.

The struggle for women’s rights is founded on common truths. Right here, on average, men make about $15 000 more than women per month. National-level prevention programmes and a coherent state strategic plan to end gender based violence do not exist. Girls’ rates of HIV infection, child sexual abuse, teenage parenthood and economic insecurity remain higher that boys. These are real harms, negotiated with great risk and backlash. Still, girls and women dust off and cope, survive and improve.

If you can’t gather, open up to your neighbor, your trusted religious elder, or your partner, so that hearing compels them to turn empathy to solidarity. Tell your co-workers, your boss, your support group so that they can commemorate your resilience. Make your survival visible on your Facebook or Instagram profiles so that you refuse shame and silence, and so that we can affirm the conqueror in you. Honour unrecognized women who are the foot soldiers holding families and nation together.

However, you can, press for gender justice, for a national gender policy, sexual harassment legislation, better services for trauma victims, ratification of ILO Convention189, and an end to corruption that steals from our children’s mouths and backpacks, and from their very dreams for a better future.

Visit the Facebook page, International Women’s Day Trinidad and Tobago, for a list of events meant to educate and empower. Whether you march or you finally leave or you speak up for yourself or you break a long held silence or you celebrate another day that you grow strong, you can stand up, speak up, get up.

Imagine and create a world in which girls and women feel collective power to make change that comes from boldly speaking our truths. However you can, this week, this is what you can do.