January 2019


Post 319.

The Break the Silence Campaign, familiar to most because of its blue teddy bear symbol, enters its tenth year in 2019. Focusing on raising awareness about the prevalence of child sexual abuse and incest, providing training about these as issues of gender-based violence, and building communities around empowerment of children as part of prevention, the campaign has indeed seen silences broken.

There’s more reporting now than before, confusing our understanding about whether the rates have risen, or just the reporting, but confirming our position that too many children continue to be harmed.

There have been 11, 787 reports of children in need of care and protection since proclamation of the Children’s Authority. Over 2016-2017, there were 4, 232 reports of child abuse and maltreatment, averaging 353 reports per month. In relation into sexual abuse, girls are harmed at four times the rates of boys, but the rates of neglect and physical abuse are nearly the same, and in fact slightly higher for boys than girls.

At the Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action (CAFRA) meeting yesterday, researchers highlighted childhood abuse, including sexual abuse, as a significant denominator among perpetrators.

Perpetrators also spoke about lacking healthy, involved and connected father figures. This doesn’t mean blaming women-headed households, which are managing the balance of both being freed from toxic masculinities while being burdened with unequal responsibilities.

It also doesn’t mean that it takes fathers to be fatherly figures or influential role models. It takes men in boys’ lives who care, enable them to feel accepted, and loved “like a son” so that boys don’t get used to “always walking around with hurt feelings as a young boy”.

CAFRA’s data is part of larger project to shift  cultural norms in order to end gender-based violence as it affects men, women, boys, girls, and especially those from marginalized groups defined by disability or sexual/gender orientation. This makes sense once you understand how striking the data is, and how complex explanations for it and solutions to it have to be.

In 2016, 3, 312 reports were made to the national domestic violence hotline, 150 to Rape Crisis Society, and 1, 141 to the TTPS. Why do hurt people feel safer to seek comfort from a stranger on the end of a phone than to reach out to the relevant authorities?

How were those lives lived after that call? Did the violence in that caller’s life end, and did it end with a perpetrator’s conviction for the crime of violence or with counseling as a path to accountability? Was there healing? Was there greater safety in our islands with as much as 1, 240 breaches of protection orders between 2009 and 2017? What happened to the children?

In the eighteen months between January 2016 and September 2017, ninety-nine women were murdered, but 857 men. As we think about the rates of boys and men murdering other boys and men in our society, who connects such killing to what we describe as domestic violence, or the ways that power is wielded in families that lead to experiences of trauma, harm and a will to hurt.

Even more significant, who has made the connection between child sexual abuse, neglect and physical abuse in boys’ lives, and their later actions that cause trauma, harm and death?

Currently, there is no national, state-led approach to prevention, prosecution and healing – including something as simple and necessary as age-appropriate curricula for primary schools that aim to change a culture that normalizes gender-based violence and forms of family abuse.

The Break the Silence Campaign is one example of a national focus on ending child sexual abuse and incest – which is so horrendous that it’s unbelievable we tolerate it enough as a society for it to exist. Any society that values family life above all else should have zero cases to report . What we have is a society that prioritizes fear, respectability, religiosity, discipline and silencing above children’s rights while children live amidst threat and vulnerability.

A decade on, the BTS campaign needs private sector and community infusion of support and investment so that it can continue to press against such silencing and violence for another ten years.

If we make the connections between child sexual abuse and incest, later domestic violence, and wider male violence and killing, we may prevent crimes before criminals are created. For the TTPS and its allies, this should be a priority, for it’s the more humane solution to the desperation of a shoot to kill policy.

 

 

 

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Post 318.

On Sunday, Colin Robinson kicked off critiques of ‘good men’ campaigns. People might think activists are being difficult. Surely this is what women wanted all along.

Actually, things are as complex as critiques make them seem. ‘Good men’ campaigns are a recent invention. In the 1990s when organisations such as Men Against Violence Against Women (MAVAW) were founded, and were profeminist and allied with struggles of the women’s movement, no one was talking about good men.

Both women and men involved were still trying to get the public to see men’s power over women as harmful, and were squarely appealing to men to disassociate love from licks. The men’s movement acknowledged male violence against women and men’s role in ending it. In today’s opposite world, MAWAW circulates videos lauding men “destroying feminism”, and participates in male-only chat groups that malign women who suggest that doesn’t feel like solidarity.

In the decades between the 1990s and now, the ‘good men’ campaign grew as International Men’s Day became a day, not for growing men’s contribution to ending patriarchal gender ideals as they harm both women and men, but for praising men, giving them more platform and visibility, emphasising all men (not just those poor, HIV positive, disabled or gay) as marginalized, and pressing for women and feminists to meet male needs with greater priority.

We’ve seen the surreal shift to women organising fora in which only men are speakers, and radio programmes, such as on I95 on Sunday, when a male host thought it good to have only men speak about gender issues (as if experts), in the process promoting significant misinformation about gendered power relations, nature and nurture debates, and Caribbean feminist visions for women and men in our region.

Turn the whole world upside down, sang 3 Canal.

Robinson argued against ‘good men’ sloganeering because men are not good. Rather, like women, like all human beings, men have capacity for good and bad. In his words, “men owning our violence and our capacity for it is critical to change…Until we create spaces where guys can be honest about not being “good” men, men aren’t likely to do the hard work of exploring other options”.

There’s domineering joy in telling women on their way to work what you think about their bodies, knowing you would find men doing that to you both unwanted and threatening. There’s also pain and vulnerability in admitting that violence is how you control your woman because that’s what you’ve learned, and becoming the man you didn’t want to be is killing you at the same time as you risk killing her.

Peter Weller and I didn’t debate whether we “change men’s behaviour or we change the culture, systems and ideology that legitimate toxic masculinity”. Behaviour change is a strategy. The feminist revolution is more radical, conceptual and far-reaching. It includes changing the violence associated with power, opening up our very definitions of manhood and womanhood, shifting laws, policies, notions of ‘work’, and deconstructing fundamental assumptions of Western philosophy and the plantation-economy.

These legitimate goals have decades of scholarship and activism behind them and can’t be flattened simplistically into soundbites. I’m always wonderous about good men who come into a movement that they acknowledge they don’t fully understand, and may not fully support, and then seek to contain its goals. Good men should meet feminist analyses where they are, rather than women making their dreams smaller so no one gets angry.

Back to ‘good men’.

This branding mobilises the stereotype that feminists think “all men are bad”. Feminists don’t say men are bad. They call on men to be accountable for their views, behaviours and choices, and fight against masculine ideals that reproduce them as normal, natural and unchangeable.

Second, it excuses ‘good men’ from confronting male privilege as real, as institutionalized, as global, and as benefiting even good men. It’s like talking about the need to transform patriarchal power to someone who responds that your argument doesn’t have validity because he’s not bad.

Being a good guy is necessary. Being a good human is better. Supporting the feminist struggle to end sexism and homophobia, and to value us all because we are good humans, not because we meet gender ideals, is best of all.

Finally, if good men stop others from being sexist, violent, homophobic, unemotional or uncompassionate, what do good women do? By that logic, good women become feminists. Good men too.

If this becomes the conversation, it’s a transformation we’ve been dreaming of all along. Good women and men, it’s time to turn the whole unjust world upside down.

 

Post 317.

Photo credit: Tivia Collins

Yesterday, the shoelaces almost made it. All they needed was a little more time.

While the little girl with curly hair sat at her school desk quietly writing neat sentences, they plotted furiously, twisting and edging out of the knots they were in. Today would be the day.

Everyone misunderstands undone shoelaces. Parents stand over their children teaching them to tie their white, brown or black laces into tight, neat bows. Principals expect such rigid discipline once uniformed students are past the school gate. Every morning, laces are trapped into their expected roles by a conspiracy of disciplinarians, sometimes even double-knotted to prevent escape.

But, who doesn’t dream of freedom from oppressive restrictions and rules? Who doesn’t want a chance out of the limits of routine and everyday, sometimes suffocating, roles? Who doesn’t dream of deciding for themselves where they will go in life?

Isn’t the whole point of our existence here to determine the direction of our next step? Is there any one of us who hasn’t imagined something other than who we are and what we do everyday?

Then why deny shoelaces the free will each of us carries as small fantasies; the ones that help us to see the potential for better circumstances than we are in, the ones that connect to that small kernel of who we know we are inside, the ones that propel us to achieve aspirations no one thought we could.

The shoelaces had been shushing each other. The laces on the girl’s left shoe were loosened. It was a victory. They celebrated like a fete match. The girl thought she heard voices cheering far away, but no other children seemed to notice. She put her head back down, concentrating on copying homework.

Below the desks, the classroom of shoelaces craned their necks. The air was jumpy with shared anticipation. Sensing this, some students kept shuffling about their feet. The teacher admonished them to sit still.

In this overlooked community of laces were few which hadn’t also tried to run, but some were more tightly bound than others, some had grown close to their families, and had ambivalent feelings about living as refugees in the shadow of their former lives, and some had given up for the stress began to make their nerves visibly fray.

The bell rang for lunch. The left shoe had been won, but either the laces would be found out now and retied, or would remain unnoticed over playtime or, perhaps, tied hurriedly and halfway amidst running up and down.

Hope sprang eternal in their hearts, but the laces held themselves motionless, avoiding eye contact with prefects and teachers. This was a make or break hour.

After, back in class, their gains were secure. There were high fives and fist bumps all around the girl’s socks.

2.15 pm. Their breath ragged, both left and right laces were now completely undone from their knots. They continued smoothly, like brown ninjas, sliding out from the holes and loops, further slackening the grip of the shoes. Shoelaces across the classroom locked eyes, rooting that the hour may finally have come for one of their own. As if the children could hear, they all began fidgeting in their chairs.

This was it. School was suddenly over and the little curly-haired girl was shoving books into her bag like her mummy didn’t pay good money for them, and chattering without a care with the other children. She hadn’t noticed both sets of laces loosened and dangling. Freedom was near!

They could run for it now on pure instinct that it isn’t a job or identity that defines one’s purpose in life. All that matters is an imagined future as vast and endless as January’s blue sky.

But, what’s this? Why is the curly-haired girl’s mummy suddenly pointing at her shoes? Wait! Why are they talking about shoelaces wanting to escape by afternoon each day? How do they know? Does every struggle have its double agents?

They are laughing like it’s a funny story that explains why the girl’s laces have always become undone by the time school is over.

Dastardly repression! We are tightened back into knots!

Today is not the day, but this is not the end. Tomorrow again, under school desks everywhere, we will loosen ourselves.

Shoelaces of the world, untie!

If you’ve ever wondered why children’s shoelaces always end up undone, this is why.

One day the shoelaces may succeed in their ambitious escape for, surely, they will continue to try.

Post 316.

There are reasons why nations rely on reports such as the Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI), even though it has limitations. Not every measure of inequality measures up.

There’s the recently released Basic Index of Gender Inequality (BIGI) which focuses on three factors: educational opportunities, healthy life expectancy and overall life satisfaction. This index reflects a backlash that misunderstands gender inequality and why women’s disadvantage is historically highlighted, and that denies patriarchal ideals are the most powerful force organising such inequality.

It’s being touted as more fair to men, given that previous indexes set men’s status as a standard of comparison for women. Using men’s status as a standard is valid, but not perfect. Globally, women continue to fight to secure equal opportunities to men and equal status in law. For example, in the Bahamas, children can get Bahamian citizenship from their fathers, but not their mothers.

However, such measures also always needed to recognise that women’s struggles cannot all be compared to men’s. Women are specifically targeted by male sexual violence because they are women. Women are denied full right to determine what happens to their bodies and fertility in relation to sex and childbearing because their bodies are female and can reproduce. In other words, the rights that women seek are specific and legitimate because women are human beings with desires for freedom on our own terms.

That said, typical measures, which focus on political leadership, participation on boards, income levels, property ownership, and labour participation, remain valid. They show where power, wealth and decision-making lie.

They highlight how our beliefs about proper roles and rights for women and men, gender stereotyping, unequal responsibility for child care and family financial costs, and violence in homes and streets continue to disadvantage women.

These measures also show the extent of states’ recognition of such disadvantage. For example, although girls and women travelling by public transportation are far more vulnerable to assault and rape than men, nowhere does this reality inform transportation policy in Trinidad and Tobago.

The story behind numbers is complex. Measures, such as educational levels, show significant shifts. Across the world, women are entering tertiary schooling in greater numbers than men, despite the resilience of patriarchal beliefs which make masculine status in religion, family, politics, business, law and media appear normal and invisible or the least somehow justifiable and without consequences. In our region, it’s considered a ‘Caribbean paradox’, illuminating contradictions in the story that ‘women have already won’.

The BIGI guys argue that past measures which focus on women’s issues are ‘biased’ and not real measures of gender inequality. They argue that this index doesn’t show where men are at a disadvantage, such as harsher punishments for the same crime, compulsory military service and more occupational deaths. By definition, they argue, men can never be more disadvantaged than women in the gender gap index. However, it isn’t that the index is biased. It’s based on a correct understanding of patriarchy.

Men dominate prison populations, have higher levels of substance abuse, higher suicide rates, and higher murder rates because associations between manhood and strength, physicality, violence, toughness and more shape men’s choices, relations of control and power among men, and between men and women, and the standards by which men are recognised by others as men.

The BIGI’s basic premise is that its really men suffering from gender inequality. It’s no surprise then that the measure found “that men are, on average, more disadvantaged than women in 91 countries compared with a relative disadvantage for women in 43 countries”.

Their mistake is to see men’s issues as comparable to women’s when ideals of manhood both benefit and harm men at the same time. By contrast, femininity and all it represents – from softness to vulnerability to being defined as ‘the neck’ rather than the ‘head’ or the sex born to be penetrated – all remain low-status qualities and identities which men avoid.

The BIGI guys even argue that polygamy, an old system of male sexual privilege, harms men. Of course it does, but only as an issue of unequal power between older, higher status and younger or lower status men, not as a sign of men’s gender inequality in relation to women.

Focus on women is suddenly considered discriminatory, men are now considered the oppressed sex, and feminism must apparently, and without irony, earn acceptance by putting men’s needs first. Be skeptical of this argument, and data put out to justify it. This column begins to suggests why and how.

 

Post 315.


A new year brings renewed hope. Maybe we will talk to each other about these hopes, find ones we share and support each other in achieving them
.

Maybe you woke up on the first day of the year hoping that your layoff will turn into stable and sufficient income. Maybe you thanked God for your health, and that of your children, in the hope that your lives are spared for one more day. Maybe you woke up as a refugee, hoping against both odds and national policy that you will get the papers to allow you to pursue a better life, anywhere but where you left. 

Maybe you’re hoping for the relationship you always wanted to have or to finally leave the partner you shouldn’t be with. Maybe it’s instead to get justice you deserve from the court system, and the compensation you’ve been waiting on. Maybe it’s just the hope that you’ll find a way out of your debts with dignity.

However ambitious, and hinged to a new business or a promotion or a big scholarship or a new baby or becoming free from addiction, or however meager, your hopes are there, breathing strength of purpose into you like air.  

I came across fifteen-year-old Greta Thunberg’s speech at the UN Climate Change COP24 Conference. I’ve quoted it here because it was her last line, “change is coming, whether you like it or not”, that gave me hope, reminding me to aim higher than my own goals, and connect to the idea that we could be each other’s hope. 

This is especially important when such optimism is low, when the planet is under attack by capitalism and consumerism, and when this generation faces crises we’ve long nurtured, but never thought would come of age.

In her words:

“I’ve learned you are never too small to make a difference. And if a few children can get headlines all over the world just by not going to school, then imagine what we could all do together if we really wanted to. But to do that, we have to speak clearly, no matter how uncomfortable that may be. You only speak of green eternal economic growth because you are too scared of being unpopular. You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess, even when the only sensible thing to do is pull the emergency brake. You are not mature enough to tell it like is. Even that burden you leave to us children. But I don’t care about being popular. I care about climate justice and the living planet. Our civilization is being sacrificed for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue making enormous amounts of money. Our biosphere is being sacrificed so that rich people in countries like mine can live in luxury. It is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few…

You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes. Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope. We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis. We need to keep the fossil fuels in the ground, and we need to focus on equity. And if solutions within the system are so impossible to find, maybe we should change the system itself. We have not come here to beg world leaders to care. You have ignored us in the past and you will ignore us again. We have run out of excuses and we are running out of time. We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not. The real power belongs to the people.”

I sat quietly on the last day of last year wondering what my hopes were. I realised I have to think about hope differently than I was doing, not as aspirations we define from within, but something we look to in others, something we are for others, something our decisions bring for each other.

If there is one thing that connects us, it is hope. I know you have a list, but imagine something greater, maybe it’s you that are the hope which gives us strength of purpose to change the way things are. Requiring nothing but solidarity and love, connecting to this in each other could be our real power.