October 2020

Post 396.

I’ve struggled with what to express other than haunting sadness at the killing of Tenil Cupid, and my condolences to her family and her children. I’ve wanted to write a column printed with blank space, where words would otherwise fill the page, to compel a pause, a moment of quiet, when we all still our steps, as we do for the national anthem, to remember that she was just 23 years old. We are a nation where young women are not safe, where they cannot love and choose to leave, and where men’s lethal violence produces generational trauma, pulling both boys and girls into its cycle.

I’ve struggled because statistics predict such pain and loss. All the recent studies of violence prevalence in the Caribbean, from Guyana to Jamaica to Grenada to TT, point to established risk factors in young Tenil Cupid’s life.

First, entering intimate relationships before 18 years old, particularly with much older male partners (who are legally sexual predators committing the crime of rape and child sexual abuse).

Second, motherhood and, especially, adolescent motherhood, for example, beginning at 15 years old and continuing through teenage years with multiple births.

Third, limited education, as well as relatively low school achievement of male partners.

Fourth, insufficient income and economic dependency on partners with low income, particularly when children must be fed and schooled. Keep in mind that young women under 24 have higher rates of unemployment than young men, suggesting complex power relations which they must negotiate to be secure and survive.

Fifth, the decision to end a relationship and to escape a male partner’s controlling behaviours and dominance. These behaviours are an absolute key red flag for femicide, whether the triggers are substance abuse or a new relationship or financial crisis and conflict.

There are hundreds each year who enter young womanhood in these circumstances, and additional experiences of child abuse and neglect. These are girls raised without sufficient information and support to make healthier decisions, and in circumstances that increase their vulnerability to much of what Tenil Cupid lived.

In the women’s movement, we worry whether women are being killed at younger ages, at the increase in such killing and at the state’s inadequate response in terms of having social welfare workers go to vulnerable homes in communities as they used to; appropriate psychosocial intervention for children at an age when it can still make a difference; and a serious national campaign against male predation as an accepted social norm.

As the Coalition Against Domestic Violence cautioned, after the murder of 29-year-old Reshma Kanchan, “we cannot run away from the intersecting relationship of domestic murders with gender inequality and harmful masculinities.”

That this intersection affects women everywhere was poignantly shown in Womantra’s Silent Silhouettes short documentary where murdered women and their children were shown in everyday places, their absence marked by the dark space and shape left by their missing bodies.

Conceptualised around 2006, by the Network of NGOs of TT for the Advancement of Women, to encourage us to emotionally connect to lost lives such as Tenil Cupid’s, these silhouettes also represent Jezelle Phillip Fournillier, Gabriella Dubarry, Naiee Singh, Trisha Ramsaran-Ramdass, Adanna Dick, Vera Golabie, Sherian Huggins, Joanna Diaz Sanchez, and Reshma Kanhan; all murdered by (mostly former) partners this year.

To better understand femicide prevention, the coalition has called for “comprehensive and multidisciplinary investigation into domestic murders” to assess the circumstances of both victim and perpetrator, whether a history of abuse was known to family and community, whether actions were taken to protect the victim, and whether any services were sought from state institutions. It also continues to recommend “school and out of school-based interventions, gender sensitive parenting programmes, and programmes engaging men including perpetrator/batterer interventions.”

The GBV Unit has responded, citing 220 arrests and 290 charges since January. However, convictions are beyond the unit’s ambit, and in TT are notoriously low, signalling how the judicial system slowly but surely reproduces impunity.

As Conflict Women urged this week, the Government must make “prevention and redress of violence against women a key part of their national response plans for covid19,” and men and citizens must “speak out, report and act against violence against women and girls,” perhaps saving another woman and her children from becoming statistics.

Meanwhile, at the end of this sentence, please stay with me for a moment of stillness, silence and sadness, for loss of words, for Tenil Cupid, just 23 years old, and taken too soon.

Post 395.

SEA results last week were an unwanted wake-up call. Until now, before Ziya started Junior 4, I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to school. She always did well enough, though there was room to improve. She was well behaved even if dreamy in class. She was always creative, curious, conversational and observant, and I was never worried. Mostly, I wanted her to be happy.

For me, childhood is a time for emotional, ethical and social development, for less homework and more play or extracurricular activities. I would have home-schooled if I could and dreamed of a school where learning was a joy, not experienced as pressure or terror. Having had mostly average marks until I began university, I also believed Zi would excel when she found her passion and was ready. You have to trust each child to grow in her or his own way. Children are not cogs in a machine.

I was clearly being naïve, and only just woke up to the reality of the SEA machine. One that sorts those kept in the system from those flung to the floor, however unfair its process or conclusion.

There’s so much to say about this exam, from children’s tears when they don’t get into their first choice school (as so many won’t), to the narrow testing of learning styles that will always limit our assessment of their intelligence, to the 20 per cent list built on a clique of religious or familial contacts, to the confusion of parents when similar exam marks result in very different school placements because these are shaped by convoluted and obscure metrics.

There were so many parents who had to convince disappointed children they were still smart and well-rounded, that they knew their work better than one exam on one day showed, and that there was still reason to be proud. It was a little heartbreaking to see children’s shame after trying so hard. I realised that to try to protect Zi from that, momentum begins now.

So enters the juggernaut of after-school lessons. Lessons teachers are booked already, two years before the exam. Many students will drop everything for lessons seven days a week in the months before. You can barely find any lessons teachers available if you wait until Junior 5. It’s like the system slowly pulls you in if you want to survive. That’s the reality I’m now preparing for, wondering how to do my job and make the much-needed revision time on afternoons, whether after-school activities will still be possible, and whether the decisions I’ll make will be the right ones.

We consider SEA to be an opportunity to learn resilience in anticipation of the difficulties of the real world, and a hard lesson in why and how to beat books. Months of practice tests won’t make students smarter, but they do set the foundation for future skills in writing exams. In some schools, teachers will provide extra lessons for their classes for free. Others, crossing inequalities of income, will search around for ones they can afford. Others will try on the basis of what our public education system provides, both its good and bad, its teachers who empower and those who insult, its schools with connectivity and those without. We will see the impact of this year of covid19 in SEA results as much as two years from now.

I’m writing this because I’m noting how my own teaching and learning philosophy is compelled to shift. There’s a technique to excelling in these life-shaping moments, and drilling and repetition is key. I don’t think this is what connects children to their own self-esteem or humanity, or see their place as stewards of our nation’s ecology. Some become unable to cope with the stress or get bawl up week after week for not hitting the marks they need.

The threat of failure casts a long shadow, though many do come through and thrive. Often, they arrive at university with fears of making mistakes or speaking out, and a need for detailed instructions rather than a capacity to work things out for themselves, and must develop a whole new skill set for self-directed learning, collaboration, and solution-focused thinking.

I’m also tracing the SEA story backward, like bread crumbs, two years before the highest marks make front page and students’ placement becomes public record. Amidst budget debates, if you talk to parents struggling with results as well as those beginning to gear up, concerns are really about their children’s lives.

Post 394.

To financially-strapped states, public-private partnerships (PPPs) appear as a growing solution for providing technology, financing, infrastructure and services. Global case studies suggest they are a Trojan horse.

Their interlock with Finance Minister Colm Imbert’s fiscal strategy should provoke public conversation about each potential partnership and its implications, and send us to sharpen our knowledge of the impact of PPPs elsewhere in the world.

Caribbean feminist Peggy Antrobus brought this to my attention just two weeks ago, pointing to research by the feminist network, Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN), and suggesting we needed to bring the Caribbean into an ongoing global critique. Post-budget, it seems even more urgent.

Wherever you turn in the global South, civil society has hesitations about PPPs. These are long-term contracts, underwritten by government guarantees, where the private sector builds and implements projects or services traditionally provided by the State, such as hospitals, schools, roads, water, sanitation and energy. In our budget, PPPs will be used in agriculture, housing, energy and San Fernando’s waterfront development, but this is just a beginning.

Globally, they are considered another step in consolidating the influence of the corporate sector on the development agenda, giving private interests both more access and brokering power than civil society, whether at the UN General Assembly or national levels. They are bluntly called a tool of corporate capture of public policy, which promises increased productivity, growth, employment, food security, environmental sustainability and inclusion, but which instead increases extractivism, land and infrastructure grabbing, and inequality.

There’s so much backlash that, in October 2017, 152 civil society organisations, trade unions and citizen organisations from 45 countries launched a campaign manifesto to demand a moratorium on “the aggressive promotion and incentivising of PPPs” over “traditional public borrowing to finance social and economic infrastructure and services.” The lesson is not to be sweet-talked into a long-term strategy we have insufficiently examined.

Surveying DAWN’s resources shows that PPPs are considered to cost governments, and thus citizens, more in the long run, because states underwrite risks, and costs rise. There are examples from Lesotho, the UK and Liberia. What’s called “off-balance sheet” accounting can hide true costs of PPPs from national accounts. PPPs have generally failed to address an increasing divide between rich and poor, and gender gaps, as exemplified by Tanzania and India. They are considered to increase risks of corruption and reduce public transparency.

As the global campaign manifesto describes, “PPP contracts are extremely complex. Negotiations are covered by commercial confidentiality, making it hard for civil society and parliamentarians to scrutinise them,” especially without procurement legislation in place. Also, “PPPs can limit the capacity of governments to enact new policies – for example strengthened environmental or social regulations – that might affect particular projects,” with examples from Australia, Brazil and the Philippines. Finally, they are considered to result in wrecking of habitats, displacement of communities and abuse of protesters. None of this would be surprising here and our planned mega-projects, including the port in Toco, could see exactly some of these outcomes.

Clauses can make governments compensate private interests for changes in laws that impact projects, even when they are meant to protect citizens. In another example, clauses could require governments to compensate the private sector for workers’ strikes, pressuring states to use security forces against workers even with legitimate demands. Even speaking from a better regulated political economy than our own, the European Court of Auditors 2018 report was entitled “Public Private Partnerships in the EU: Widespread shortcomings and limited benefits.”

With regard to gender equality, the African Women’s Development and Communication Network essentially says to mash brakes. First, data (including from the World Bank) doesn’t suggest that PPPs effectively address gender inequalities. Second, new or increased user fees of previously public services may increase, more greatly affecting women who, inevitably, predominate in the lowest paid sectors of the economy. Finally, as happened in Portugal, when governments have to pay the bill of failed PPP projects, “women are disproportionately impacted, either through increases in their unpaid work or cuts in their public sector employment.”

With what economists describe as little fiscal space, or what others describe as mauby pockets, we have to protect every dollar. It may seem like we are “maximising finance for development,” following World Bank mantra, but we have learned over decades of structural adjustment policies that liberalisation of economies can cost the most vulnerable in ways now familiar to us in the region. Be aware. At this time, we cannot be complacent.

Post 393.

Thinking about the economy as it falls apart, like chunks of glaciers breaking off and melting away, I’m wondering where to turn for the socio-economic forecasting absolutely critical at this time.

Not only have government revenues plummeted, but businesses – from factories to the small, independent cobbler in Trincity Mall – are facing reduced revenues, cutbacks and possible closures. Some will not recover after their losses or the impact to their lives. The words of a Flavorite Food Ltd worker speaks for so many:

“Families were broken up. Employees were evicted. Some are owing bank loans and they cannot pay. Most of us signed up for salary relief but didn’t get it as yet. I am a single parent with a mortgage to pay…My daughter was even accepted into the University of the West Indies, but we had to decline the offer because we don’t have the money to pay the tuition.”

We may be buoyed by deficit-financing over the Government’s term, but stories of hardship will rise around us for at least the next two years. What is our plan? By plan I don’t mean the Recovery Report, I mean anticipating the social impacts and rearranging state strategies to tackle the demographics and outcomes of such increased insecurity. Has anyone done a forecast of the likely socio-economic scenario in two years, and can we begin to work backward knowing the specific and increased vulnerabilities to plan for from now?

I began searching around for such forecasting after last week’s column where I wondered whether health officials had anticipated a rise in child abuse, as a result of school closures, pandemic stress and continued economic contraction.

If we know reports rise in October, but that teachers were no longer the point of direct access to abused children and a source of reports made for their protection, was there any strategy we should have mobilised once the decision was made to close schools? Such forecasting could have led to a national communication strategy to highlight this risk (for example, through the Ministry of Health updates), and increased and strategic use of nurses at health centres and even community police to fill a gap in recognising victims.

We can say the same thing about education. Where schools have stayed open in some countries, teachers have been absent in critical numbers because of the delays in getting covid19 test results. Yesterday’s UK newspaper, the Guardian, ran a story on some schools increasing their class sizes to up to 60 pupils as teachers in as many as 45 per cent of schools self-isolated while waiting for test results. Timely test results remain a challenge here so if we open schools in January or September 2021, can we forecast similar staff absences? Seeing these examples ahead of time, what should be our plan?

National budgets are prepared on the basis of requests from ministries and stakeholder lobbying, but to what extent are they a response to labour data, and an understanding of where women will likely be in two years as they currently occupy the lowest level tiers of income, are fewer small-business employers, are more likely to lose their jobs in service and retail sectors, and will have their capacity to work more greatly impacted by care responsibilities. Is our fiscal policy forecasting which labour market and gender inequalities will increase and aiming to tackle these in its approach to economic stimulus and diversification?

The Survey of Living Conditions, which provides measures of poverty, provides a picture from 2005, though that data suggested that Sangre Grande, Princes Town, Siparia, Mayaro/Rio Claro and Point Fortin, in that order, were the municipalities with the highest number of poor people. A 2020 survey is on hold because of covid19. A National Poverty Reduction Strategy was also to have been completed by the end of the year, and I would welcome seeing how it intersects increased poverty with increased family violence, educational disparities, and exacerbated vulnerability of children.

The National Social Mitigation Plan 2017-2022, developed to respond to the economic downturn prior to covid19, described the following: fall in real GDP, increase in debt, increased unemployment for youth, gender disparities in the labour market, increased retrenchment, fewer job vacancies, increase in depression, suicide and substance use, increased family conflict, increased criminal motivation.

Just thinking aloud today, is it possible to do some intelligent and collective forecasting and build a response in relation to what we can anticipate? Otherwise, it feels like we wait to reach before wondering what we should do.

Post 392.

The Children’s Authority’s press release on September 20 is a red flag regarding children’s increased vulnerability. Abuse rates were already high prior to covid19.

On January 29, the TTPS Child Protection Unit reported a 137 per cent increase in criminal acts against children, including a 45 per cent increase in violent offences such as cruelty, between 2017 and 2019, years when the economy slowed and unemployment soared.

Similarly, in its 2018/2019 report, the authority highlighted “an increased number of children lacking care and guardianship…and children in need of supervision…While for Trinidad, sexual abuse, physical abuse and neglect continue to be the highest categories of reports of abuse, in Tobago, sexual abuse, neglect and children lacking care and protection were the highest categories of abuse received.”

The highest number of cases were reported during April-May and during October, with an average of 361 reports recorded per month.

Children 10-13 years, and children in the areas of San Juan/Laventille, Tunapuna/Piarco and Couva/Tabaquite/Talparo in Trinidad, and in the areas of St Andrew and St Patrick in Tobago, were at highest risk. In terms of reports, sexual abuse accounted for 23 per cent and neglect, 20 per cent, but note that ten per cent of children lacked care and guardianship and another seven per cent were in need of supervision.

Girls experienced significantly higher rates of sexual abuse than boys (34 per cent to ten per cent), and boys experienced slightly higher rates of neglect than girls (23 per cent to 17 per cent). Strangely, the authority doesn’t sex disaggregate perpetrator data, but, historically, sexual abuse of girls by uncles, cousins, fathers and other trusted men is a consistent risk. Girls are most vulnerable to abuse in the homes where they are now confined.

Children with special needs are always more vulnerable because they are more dependent, and less able to break silences about their conditions and experiences. Migrant children are a new category still insufficiently integrated into our social services, and at risk for sexual exploitation.

The numbers show children’s complex and stressful circumstances. Sexual abuse reports increase up to 16-17 years, but physical abuse reports decrease. Reports of children in need of supervision increase significantly at 14 years while reports of neglect go down after 13 years old.

Given that “children in need of supervision,” “lacking care and guardianship” and “neglect” comprise the most reports (except for children 14-17 where sexual abuse is the most reported form of abuse), it is not surprising that mothers account for 40 per cent of perpetrators, for they have unequal responsibility for child care and financial provision under more severe conditions of economic stress and poverty, both of which have increased as the economy contracted since 2015.

This brings me to this week’s press release. In it, the authority reminded parents to “ensure children are left in the care of trusted and responsible adults” and that “older children should not be given the responsibility to supervise younger ones.” This is hopeful, but nearly pointless to say when daycares and schools are closed, and many parents do not have the luxury of working from home.

Across the country and at different levels of employment, women’s jobs are at risk because they have no one to stay home and look after their children. Children are being left at home by themselves or with older children because parents have no better choice, not simply because they are irresponsible.

State decision-making always affects the most vulnerable, in this case economically insecure and single-parent households, and children. This occurs whether such policies intend to or not, and whether state officials acknowledge this impact or not. Covid19 public health decisions have increased children’s vulnerability to abuse. Gender-sensitive and child-sensitive decision-making would have required these very officials to forecast this likely scenario and build in a response.

Child abuse is not a virus, but it is a public health issue for it impacts thousands of children each year, harming their mental, emotional and possibly physical health, and literally reproducing such harm over a lifetime and even generations. We cannot finger-wag at parents who cannot cope with the effects of the economic, social and policy crisis created first by the crash of a petrostate and now by the pandemic.

What we need is a state that will spring into action to ensure options for children’s safety with the alacrity it responded to our risk to covid19, and with the sense of these as intersecting vulnerabilities. The authority highlighted an existing problem which will only worsen. Whose responsibility is it to prevent the rise in reports typical of October? I fear for our children.