March 2019


Post 326.

The government is proposing amendments to the Sexual Offences Act which would put a National Sex Offenders Register in motion. Civil society organisations have been welcomed into the process, and have argued for a rights-based and restorative justice approach to this legislative proposal.

Registries enable convicted offenders to be tracked so societies can take preventative actions to protect vulnerable groups.

It’s clear that traffickers, pimps, consumers and producers of child pornography, and repeat sexual offenders, particularly against children, present a risk that emerges from opportunity, impunity, and the need for greater integration of information, social services, policing and border security.

But, for some other convicted offenders, being put on a register may not be the best approach. Some categories of offenders, such as sex workers, should be understood in terms of their vulnerabilities, not as a risk to society. Sex work doesn’t have to be decriminalised for such protection, though this is definitely needed. Rather, those convicted under this category in the Sexual Offences Act can be exempted.

Putting up convicted offenders’ names in every police station to name and shame may result in increased vulnerability as children and those who report are blamed for the effects to families’ names, and blamed for convicted sex offenders’ difficulty working and living after they have completed their sentences. Indeed, reporting is still low when whole families know about child sex abusers in their midst because of fear of scandal and a belief that such matters should be kept private.

Civil society groups have argued that the register should be private, but fully available to protective services, social services, the judiciary, immigration officials and more. As well, CAISO: Sex and Gender Justice, as part of a wider coalition, has suggested that a ‘duty to verify’ by employers, religious authorities, school authorities, sports groups and day care centres, for example, is better than a public list and similarly ensures that children can be protected from offenders. These groups should request confirmation whether or not those with such potential access to children are on the register. This, rather than full public accessibility, should be built into the amendment.

Civil society groups are also arguing for clear protocols for the judiciary – where sentencing takes place and where it is decided which offenders would be registered. For example, a teacher who fails to report out of fear for her life would have a case to be kept off the register but the list is potentially very broad and it’s not clear where the onus is placed. Should an abused mother have to make a case for why she should not be convicted and put on a register or should the courts have clear guidelines that specify that registered offenders should be those that present a clear risk? These matters can be dealt with through a special division of the court, applying and extending model guidelines for dealing with sexual offences, and use of psychological assessments.

The register’s power to prevent sexual offences is limited by low rates of reporting and lower rates of conviction. As civil society has observed, one in five women will experience sexual abuse from someone other than her partner in her lifetime. Of every 75 women who do, only 12 (16%) will report it, 6 (50%) will have those reports become a legal case, and only one conviction (17%) will result. This means that trust in the system of policing and prosecution must be strengthened such that victims and others are prepared to report. It means that the rates of successful convictions must improve or else only a minority of sexual offenders will actually make it on the register. Currently, the majority of sexual offenders will remain unaffected by this valuable amendment.

Thinking about the rates of intimate partner sexual violence, which is reported by between 3% and 16% of women, were the system of justice to work as it should and both reporting and convictions match prevalence, it would mean that tens of thousands are registered – without mandatory rehabilitation upon conviction being part of the process.

Strengthened protocols and protections that encourage reporting, integration of experts in psychological assessments, comprehensive sex education, and widespread gender-based and sexual violence sensitisation across all ages have been recommended by civil society.

A register alone cannot change beliefs normalising child sexual abuse and sexual violence against women. Integrated institutional response, clear protocols, monitoring, and a commitment to gender equality are necessary for it to be effective in ways presented to a public desperate for solutions.

 

 

Post 325.

YOUNG PEOPLE were the most joyous part of Saturday’s International Women’s Day march. Many were university students bringing their friends, their homemade posters, their radiant energy, and their sense of participating in their moment in history.

The goal was always to provide a space in our nation for younger generations to experience the safety and inclusiveness, yet fearless politics, of a global feminist movement long challenging violence, gendered divisions of labour, homophobia, and domination of women and nature. It was to carry a legacy, begun in San Fernando in 1958, just long enough and lovingly enough to hand it on.

It was to provide an example of wide public representation, creative expression, diverse concerns, and intimacy with the dreams and labour of home-grown Caribbean feminisms. It was to bring young women and men together at a time when we already know men can be feminist. Finally, it was to remind about the humbling lessons of cross-class solidarity, for we march without registration, without ropes, and always mindful of women workers’ realities. Just bring your message and come.

Riffling through our visual archives, young people’s posters show them far ahead of the ruling generation of obsolete men and complicit women, together holding back on their promise of equal and inclusive citizenship, and holding onto an old order that upcoming ages have already transcended.

In the decades of the IWD march, the issues have expanded from a focus on girls and women’s rights to include those of transgender persons – those who dis-identify with the dominant expectations of masculinity and femininity or the identities of male and female or the category of heterosexual.

Sounds like they just want to be human, observed my eight-year-old, something a parliament of representatives isn’t brave enough to see. Meanwhile, we too must keep learning to challenge our privileges in our leadership, improving our accountability to people with disabilities, First Nations’ Peoples and refugees.

Caribbean feminism was always the region’s most radical struggle to recognise us as human beings, however we choose to live and love as families, neighbours and citizens consenting and contributing to a greater good. And, some moments, it seems like that message rings clear.

Though today only a few hundred, in a decade there may be thousands marching. Just enough to open the corridors of power in our homes, schools, corporate boardrooms and Cabinet.

Nurtured amongst those who have come of age in TT’s most progressive big tent where Soroptomists march with ASJA Ladies who march with the National Union of Government and Federated Workers’ Women’s Executive Council who march with Womantra who march with CAISO who march with the Breastfeeding Association of TT who march with the UWI Guild of Students who march with the Silver Lining Foundation who march with the Single Mothers’ Association of TT who march with TTUTA, all carrying flags that call for gender justice.

The full list of organisations is much longer, showing a feminist movement that endures despite the precariousness of NGO survival. The Network of NGOs of TT for the Advancement of Women, Women Working for Social Progress, the Women’s Institute for Alternative Development, the Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Conflict Women, Mamatoto, the CEDAW Committee of TT, the Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action, the Family Planning Association of TT, the Association of Female Executives of TT, and more were all there.

These long-established women’s organisations held on through the decades to see another generation, that doesn’t even know their history or their name, spring fresh, certain and strong.

Women’s inter-generational mentoring of civic challenge to all the harms of patriarchal power, and radical impatience for a world already possible can be seen in those youthful posters.

There are many reasons to march. To protest or to add public power to public outcry. To build a movement. To inspire those who didn’t know they were imaginable and their dreams realisable.

To make our numbers a source of strength for when we return to everyday struggle. To simply take up public space. To find that woven into the labour, despair, risk, exhaustion and hard lessons are also community, hope, successes and joy.

When students come, on their own, it is a sign of the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times. They marched for better for themselves and each other, for better without violence or silence, fear or favour. The struggle continues. Next year, we will be here so they grow stronger.

 

 

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Post 324.

IT WAS a brief, breath-held moment of unexpected confidence. As a mother, I felt as if I had managed to do something right. This rare feeling wasn’t dependent on her marks or good behaviour. It came as I watched her be brave as if that’s what she was born to do.

Ziya’s typically a little shy and hesitant, but Friday was her fourth calypso monarch competition at her primary school. We never understood how she agreed to go up on stage in the first place. The last thing she wanted was the awkwardness of public performance and attention, what she described as “too many people watching.”

We figured that, somehow, being the daughter of a DJ and a poet maybe had genetic influence. We thought that maybe growing up in a production studio made her edge a little closer to familiarity with music. There isn’t a clear answer, but she was up there when she was five years old expressing a self that seemed unusual for a girl who would still hide behind me when she met strangers. She stood on the school’s auditorium stage then; small, focused and fixed to the spot, remembering her lyrics.

We sent her up twice more, finding topics that filled a space for children in Carnival and focused on the little ups and downs of their lives. So, her first song, Mosquito, complete with a dance and drawing the interest of the Ministry of Health in their fight against dengue, was followed by a composition about losing her pot hound, Shak Shak, when she ran away one day.

True story: Shak Shak was found a week later far away in Las Cuevas, inexplicably distant from Santa Cruz, and well looked-after. She had, somehow, hopped a drop to the beach and the song found the humour in searching high and low, almost from Tobago to Toco, calling and calling. The chorus, “Where’s Shak Shak?,” got the whole audience to participate in solving this mystery.

Last year, we decided to start experimenting with soca, bringing calypso story-telling to pace and production which children could dance to. Have you ever noticed that there’s no music just for children at Carnival, their own soca genre that draws from the best of call-and-response refrains, and exuberant happiness? We began to aim to create that content.

Though Zi would alternately agree and refuse to compete, as shyness recalibrated with the push of coming second place, in the end she was there singing, Pencil Cases in the Air, a tune about packing your school bag. “Before the school bell rings, every morning check your things: erasers, sharpeners, rulers too, scissors, pencils and your glue,” she listed. Now in her third year, she was bouncing a bit more, tapping her foot on the stage’s wooden floor, but still contained like a child successfully performing what she had rehearsed, not yet able to leap into connecting with an audience.

This year, it’s like she grew up, as children so quickly do, one day more capable at a particular skill than they were before, as if the cumulative effort of years of parenting suddenly met with the right age for another step in life to be conquered.

Singing about the tribulations of having to learn times tables, we wrote lyrics for eight-year-olds, about the pressure of having to know the answer to two times eight, about revising for tests and being up late, and about it being true for every child that, “times tables coming for you.”

It isn’t often that you get to tell a story of Carnival as a space for growing up, whether for children singing, stilt-walking, playing pan or playing mas. On stage this year, she moved like an experienced performer, channelling the humour of Rose and Sparrow, the populism of Iwer and Machel, and the sweetness of Shadow’s horns.

I had never seen her this confident. One day, children grow into a lesson and get it perfect, maybe in English, math, music or sports. Then, if you are a mother who often doubts if she’s making the best decisions or one who quietly regrets her many mistakes, you exhale because such bravery was all you had hoped for, and you give thanks with wonder, rather than pride.

Although this is a story of Carnival, calypso and growing up, and of finally winning through many tries, such momentary magic of together getting it right is one with which parents anywhere in sweet T and T can perhaps identify.

 

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