February 2023

Post 445.

THE TOBAGO House of Assembly elections result have awoken in us a sense of optimism at a moment that feels very much like 2010. 

The country was fed up of Patrick Manning. He had grown increasingly unable to communicate with the public, and become high-handed and condescending. He seemed to believe that he and the PNM were untouchable, and was shocked when the party lost the election, when vote-buying promises didn’t work yet again, and when threatening to beat his enemies across the east and west failed to intimidate a fed-up electorate.

We have been feeling this way over the past months. The current Prime Minister is either berating people or using vicious language to establish his lack of accountability, whether over the commissioner of police snafu or questions about his own integrity.

The party mocked accusations of gerrymandering the electoral boundaries in Tobago. Ironic, given where the PNM polled its major votes. It ran a smear campaign in the newspapers, focusing on the same old strategies of condemning opponents and flinging promises in every direction, but could not bring a sense of hope despite all the resources available as incumbents.

Additionally, in much of his recent communication, the PM himself cannot strike the right tone: he seems either obsolete and/or on the defensive, mired in an old mode of authoritarian leadership and dominant manhood. The PNM voice is an arrogant one. 

The party made the same mistake in 2010. Then as now, the electorate leapt toward an alternative with sweeping dismissal of a party that behaves as if it has a right to power, to state monies and channels, and docile voters. 

The key, of course, was an alternative. We don’t currently have one in TT.

Whatever the pros and cons of the Opposition Leader, Persad-Bissessar can’t lead the UNC to a national victory. There were fatal mistakes along the way over the last decade and the PNM campaign machine goes straight for her jugular, with a gendered violence led by the PM himself. This is a lesson for us and for the Opposition.

I was glad to see Tobagonians were not drawn into PNM scaremongering and constant references to the UNC playbook, which is about one degree of separation from the threat of the “Calcutta ship.” After seven years in power, whipping up such racialised fear feels desperate, for surely a win is possible on the basis of performance in power after all this time.

The next big question is whether a UNC-PDP alliance can sweep the country in the next election, for there’s a thick feeling of disconnection between people and the Government, and the pandemic is an electoral crisis for incumbents everywhere, but the UNC will need fresh, grounded faces at the helm.

Along with excitement at Tobago’s possibilities, we look longingly at the island’s ability to marshal different voices and leadership from within its communities in just a few short years. Trinidad’s politics are divided by geography, race, religion and class, and highly contentious. There’s no nationalist feeling to corral voter sentiment as there is in Tobago, where the debate about autonomy and feelings of being under Trinidad’s dominion provide such fertile ground. Loud mouths can easily gain traction here, the way Trump did in the US, as a cynical population searches for different leadership, and mistakes plain talk and bad manners for the honesty, transparency and common sense we need.

That said, there’s the problem of Watson Duke, who was actually charged with a sexual offence. Ralph Gonsalves is testament to Caribbean leaders’ ability to hold power despite such charges, and the PNM Women’s League’s constant defence of Dr Rowley’s sexist statements is a sign of how little we prioritise transformation in masculinities. This is a chink in the sheen of power in post-election Tobago.

In Trinidad, we are watching closely to see if a centre of greater transparency and better governance emerges, to see if the feeling that change is necessary and possibly stretches across our islands, and to see if a new generation can present itself as convincingly as an alternative to the old. And, of course, we celebrate with the people of Tobago.

Post 444.

I THINK a lot about our obligation to speak out on matters that impact our society, and how we hold ourselves to account. Public institutions can be our best defence against unfairness, but they have to be held to that potential and to our highest ideals. As my father would often say, “Who will guard the guard?”

The Equal Opportunity Act strengthens our right and ability to guard those highest ideals and hold us all to them. Its value and necessity are so apparent at this time as a progressive piece of legislation that should be protected and can be expanded toward an inclusive vision of equality.

It’s important that we uphold the ideals of the act in guiding decisions of employers, schools, landlords, state boards, medical-care providers and others, and relationships among the public and even among public officials.

The Equal Opportunity Act is empowered through two institutions: the Equal Opportunity Commission (EOC) and the Equal Opportunity Tribunal (EOT). Despite popular confusion, the two institutions are independent and distinct, having completely different leadership, boards, mandates, staff, budgets, space and purposes.

The tribunal does not provide the broader functions of the EOC, and the two institutions do not function as one. As one example, the EOC and EOT currently hold opposing positions with relation to sexual harassment, with the EOC outlining that it constitutes a form of discrimination on the basis of sex, because the sex of the person is the first and key reason why she or he is harassed by another person (regardless of her or his own sexual orientation).

The EOT disagreed, and the case is currently before the Court of Appeal. It is possible at times for the EOC and the EOT to disagree on interpretation of the act and other viewpoints. Fortunately, the justice system exists to provide checks and balances so that the spirit of the legislation is implemented to promote equality for all.

Guided by the act, the Equal Opportunity Commission represents a belief in freedom from discrimination, through uncompromised and strategic advocacy, civil society solidarity and partnership, public education, and investigation of claims of discrimination toward agreed resolution and redress. It is committed to expanding human rights. It is a people’s institution.

If you are experiencing discrimination based on inherent characteristics that are covered by the act (such as race, ethnicity, disability, marital status, origin including geographic origin and religion), the EOC will assess and establish your case, and can offer conciliation, without charge.

If you are not protected as yet under the act, and should be, the institution fearlessly advocates for inclusion, and supports your community’s organising, leadership and vision for a life without inequality or unfair exclusion.

The Equal Opportunity Tribunal is a court of law and its judge, who also serves as its chairman, is a High Court judge. It determines complaints and, where appropriate, penalises offenders for discrimination, victimisation or offensive conduct in the way of a civil court. Through this judicial function, it is also mandated to promote equal opportunities for people of unequal status.

The last weeks’ widespread public discussion about exclusion and discrimination provides much for us to recognise. The public wants institutions that show they care when it matters. It considers silence in the face of administrative injustice to be complicity, and its disappointment is vicious. We must be very clear where we stand, whether as individuals or an institution, when there is or even appears to be wrong. Public confidence is hard won and easily lost. We must guard ourselves.

The EOC offers much-needed reassurance because of its commitment to the act above all else, particularly when public trust in representatives, leaders and decision-makers feels strained and stretched thin. As a mother and citizen, I’d expect nothing less from such a public institution; a presence that steadies a sense of hope and a voice that continues to be heard.

The EOC’s work and mandate continues, buoyed by a population whose reaction reminds us how much it values fairness, and fearless commitment to human rights. The EOC denounces discrimination, but also calls for protection to LBGT people and on the basis of age and health status, thus broadening our human rights landscape and leading on the basis of the act’s vision.

Meanwhile, as a defender of human rights and with responsibility to a growing generation, I see the current lessons, and what it takes to gain and lose respect and trust from those looking to us from across the nation.

Post 443.

IN THE twilight zone that is the Caribbean, the courts in Barbados have ruled that there should be a time limit on who can be defined as a “former spouse” in applications for protection orders. 

Today, the Barbados Court of Appeal is hearing an application for leave to have their decision challenged at the Caribbean Court of Justice. 

A woman was in a cohabitational relationship with her partner, living together for 21 months. Partners in cohabitational relationships who live together but are not married are considered “spouses” under the Barbados Domestic Violence (Protection Orders) Act, known as CAP130A. 

Partners who were in cohabitational relationships are considered “former spouses.” Since 1993, both are covered under the act and can apply for an order of protection against a violent partner or former partner.

In the statute, there is no time limit set on “former spouse,” meaning an applicant doesn’t lose this status after any period of time, just as you can be recognised as a former prime minister for all of history following your tenure. 

After living together, and sharing a child, the couple began to live separately. Then they were “on again, off again” and the violence that characterised the relationship returned. Just three weeks before the incident that prompted the application for a protection order, the couple had been intimate. Beyond being a former spouse, the woman was also covered under the act as a partner in a visiting relationship. 

At the magistrates’ court, the woman was asked whether she considered herself a former spouse or any category of person allowed a protection order. She said no. 

Whether this was because she was young, nervous, traumatised or didn’t understand what she was being asked, the magistrate proceeded to grant a protection order to her child, but not her.

This decision made no sense. The circumstances were clear and uncontested – the woman was once in a cohabitational relationship and she was now experiencing violence as a result. The law was also clear, and the woman, as a lay person without expertise, should not have been asked to interpret a legal definition. Her lawyer appealed. 

It became more ludicrous at the Barbados Court of Appeal, which upheld the decision of the magistrates’ court in May, asserting that the act is ambiguous. 

Worse, the court suggested that the law is not “practical,” which it was out of order to do. The transcript between the male judges and her lawyer over this young woman’s right to protection from violence reads like this: 

Justice Belle: “When does a person stop being a former spouse?” 

Mr Hanuman (the woman’s lawyer): “When they die, sir.” 

Belle: “So forever…” 

Mr Hanuman: “Precisely.” 

Belle: “I would have a right to pay if my former spouse under the Domestic Violence Act, for anything that person does to me.” 

Mr Hanuman: “Precisely, sir, that is what the act…”

Belle: “You really think that that is practical, Mr Hanuman?”

Mr Hanuman: “Sir, that is what the law says, practically.” 

Belle: “That’s is not what it…that is not the intention of the law, Mr Hanuman, but anyway, move on.”

Protection of former spouses was precisely the intention of Barbadian lawmakers.

Yet the message from the courts? If your partner and you break up, but you threaten to kill her a month later, she cannot access state protection. 

Feminists in Barbados have pointed to victims who have been out of relationships as short as three weeks being denied protection. They have pointed to the intention of the 2016 amendment to the act to extend the classes of people considered victims of domestic violence, not limit them. They have called for public outcry and advocacy to right this misguided, bizarre and backward judicial wrong.

Practically speaking, former spouses can be at risk for months and years after a relationship is over. If there are children involved, threats, intimidation and violence can continue because the parties are in regular contact for years after. 

I once provided support for a woman whose former spouse harassed her for decades. She obtained a protection order without the court ever considering how long the relationship had ended. 

In magistrates’ courts as well as in domestic violence legislation across the region, the risk to former partners is well recognised. If judgments from magistrates’ courts were written, there would be clear case law. Why would this suddenly be questioned? 

And so we find ourselves today with a wary eye on the Barbados Court of Appeal and, later, on the CCJ.

Post 442.

FOR MANY years, UWI students in my Women’s Studies class opted to do their popular actions, meant to raise awareness about women’s rights, on issues related to menstruation. Groups of young women and men created petitions to the Guild of Students for free distribution of pads and tampons in women’s washrooms. They held open-air workshops outside of the library on health challenges associated with menstruation, and natural remedies. They created games about myths and facts, awarding winners menstruating vagina cupcakes, designed with multi-coloured icing and quite delicious. 

These were opportunities for students to practise peer education, particularly on issues miscast as private. Menstruation provides an excellent example of such casting. Its intersections with public discourses of shame, workplace demands, health-sector response, poverty, and access to clean water and sanitation facilities are largely invisible. 

We still consider public talk about periods to be too personal, despite half of the population bleeding every month for most of their lives, with implications for their school participation, health, employment and costs of living. 

These student actions didn’t lead to sustained activism, but I thought of them seeing feminist organising finally emerge. Today, Feminitt Caribbean, founded by Ashlee Burnett, is showing such leadership, with a Safe Cycle project which includes public education and period kits which provide three months of period products plus tools, resources and information for 120 young people. 

The project tackles myths and stigmas that can make people who menstruate feel unsafe, alienated and ashamed. It’s keen to engage men and boys in education efforts, recognising that they are excluded from information about menstruation too early on.

It highlights the challenges of period poverty, which is when young people can’t afford pads or painkillers or healthy food that prevents anaemia, or don’t have equitable access to clean running water for menstrual hygiene, particularly in rural or low-income areas. 

Finally, the Safe Cycle project will undertake a needs assessment of the 120 young people to identify and support those who need help accessing gynaecological care to enable them to have safe cycles.

For these young activists, including Sapphire Alexander, who created the digital initiative Caribbean Feminist; Amy Li Baksh, who produces eco-friendly period products through her small business the Lily Pads Project; and Feminitt’s current team of Chanelle Beatrice, Jade Sullivan, Saidi Moseley and Alexandria Sanchez, as Burnett puts it, “Being able to have a safe cycle is a human right. It is a slice of having good health and well-being.”

Expanding our understanding of women’s needs as human rights is essential as is seeing menstrual equity as an issue of gender, sexual and economic justice, and even as part of rights of disabled people. Meeting these needs through the recently launched Safe Cycle Care Bank in east Trinidad ties strategic advocacy, to shift beliefs and policies, to practical needs best met through service provision.

The Safe Cycle Care Bank is a Feminitt collaboration with Deidra Engaging and Nurturing Teens (DENT), which is led by youth activist Deidra Williams, who is based in Five Rivers, Arouca, where the bank is now established and from where it hopes to extend to Couva and Point Fortin, for example through partnerships with the local government councillors, schools and village councils. 

The bank built on the Safe Cycle Report, authored by Burnett, Shalinee Bahadur and Chanelle Beatrice and gorgeously designed by Xala Ramsesar. Over 2021, Feminitt collected 25 stories from people who menstruate, 330 contributions to a Twitter chat in collaboration with WE-Change Jamaica, and 509 responses to a survey administered through social media to menstruating people living in TT. The report uses the term “menstruating person” to be inclusive to transgender, intersex and non-binary people who experience menstruation. 

It concluded that period poverty is prevalent here. Nearly half of the sample knew or thought they know someone who could not afford period products and just under a third were unable to afford such products themselves. An average of $100 was spent on period products per month, per person. About 20 per cent of respondents indicated missing school or work because of lack of menstrual products.

Recommendations include a sexual and reproductive health hotline, free period products and improved comprehensive sexuality education which tackles wider taboos regarding women’s bodies and sexual and reproductive rights. 

We continue creating greater consciousness about gender equality until, one day, movements take it up, often with young feminists leading the crowd. These young women, with their systematic and collaborative action on period poverty, would make my past students very proud.

Post 441.

ZI TURNED 11 on Monday so I’m entering the pleasures and perils of pre-teen life, and the parenting moments it brings. 

The magic of childhood still lingers, with its uncontrived excitement, effervescent emotions, bubbling energy and honest words from a still blossoming heart. A child in a room of adults still transforms it somehow into an opportunity for being kinder, and sharing in laughter and wonder. 

An 11-year-old appears so grown-up in one instance and then so playful in the next, baby qualities bouncing about, tumbling with growth spurts and hormone changes and features that seem to mature by the day. The pandemic brought that home in a way that long workdays would have eclipsed. It took me a year to make lemonade (or lime juice), as they say, for I realised how much of her growing up I was missing and how much more of me she needed. I learned a lot about mental health and how our brains differently develop and cope, and how easy it is to miss signs of what’s going on with our children’s cognitive, social-emotional and expressive lives amidst the manic rush between home, school, homework, dinner and bedtime on repeat every day. 

When the pandemic began, she was just nine, and a completely different child. We rightly focus on children who need schools to reopen to resume their education, improve their nutrition, provide access to a trusted adult, and create valuable peer socialisation. Zi flourished at home, freed from the stress of traffic, with time to sleep later on a morning and chance to be herself without pressures of bullying. It was a privileged opportunity to feel calmer and safer by us being so consistently together.

I got to know her anew, over lunchtimes and afternoon walks and middle-of-the-day hugs, recognising challenges she’s navigating which I hadn’t noticed and making new decisions about mothering for which I wouldn’t have ever given time. I changed my priorities and responsibilities, increasing my attention to care and cutting back on much else. It made me grow. 

There’s an older adolescence that has also appeared, and interest in an adult world that she and her friends are yet unprepared for. We spend a lot of effort censoring regular pop music for its language and hypersexuality, and these days a regular YouTube playlist is a minefield of problematic socialisation. We are constantly checking for the clean version of songs.

Videos that show up either feature women (or Lil Nas X) writhing nearly naked or, alternatively, depressed and angst-ridden white American music stars. There’s a lot of conversation to have with teens about sex and sexuality, what’s age appropriate, stereotyped and commodified, real and empowering, and what messages are being sold to children. 

Sexuality brings both power and pleasure as well as risk and danger, and girls are most vulnerable to harmful consequences of early sexualisation as teens. They also enter a stage when they become more conscious of their bodies, weight, hair and skin colour, and how their appearance relates to acceptance by peers. 

They are seeing cyclical ads convince women they need to have long eyelashes, and I’ve watched as Zi’s emerging sense of femininity is shaped by the creation of insecurities and the expectation of self-improvement through consumption. 

As the recent Facebook study also confirmed, social media adds to girls’ challenges with self-esteem and anxiety. When you talk to girls, you realise how much they don’t like about themselves or how unsure they are about growing breasts and the onset of menstruation, developing a sense of responsibility and perhaps a sense of shame about both, and how adolescence is both very much like yet so different from our own decades ago. 

We try to use words that emphasise being fit and strong, not thin, and the mental health necessity of time outside, rather than on a device.

Not yet in secondary school, we also started preparing Zi, less for SEA than for pubescent crushes, having friends and cousins of diverse sexualities, and recognising that friends may begin experimenting with identities that cross and redefine old boundaries of “he,” “she” and “they.” From here, it’s like teaching life skills as much as critical thinking ones, a strong sense of self as well as an open, non-prejudiced mind. 

It’s been a year of learning about the world through her eyes. 

Welcome to 11, Zi. May you show us how much still must be changed as we show you how to love who you are inside.

Post 440.

WEARY CITIZENS are weathering a seemingly biblical combination of flood, locusts and plague. All, including the pandemic, are linked to climate change in some way. 

COP26, happening now in Glasgow, Scotland, might feel far away, but it connects directly to these realities at home.

This is the United Nations’ annual climate change conference and COP stands for Conference of Parties, which refers to the signatories of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, a 1994 treaty which includes TT among its 197 parties. 

Activists of many kinds, from indigenous communities to vulnerable nations, use the conference as a chance to push governments beyond talk to action through marches, protests and building of massive citizen demand.

Climate-justice activists are continuing to call for reduced fossil dependence and carbon-dioxide emissions, conservation of forests and oceans, protection of biodiversity, and transformation of our global economy from one that relies on growth through excessive and environmentally harmful production and consumption. 

Farmers, fisherfolk, those in the tourist industry, those living in flood-prone areas, the poor and hungry, women, students and youth of another generation in our region are facing an “existential threat.” This is the one issue around which billions of us could rally because we depend on an Earth in balance for our very lives.

Governments, such as our own, which is why PM Rowley is there, are more concerned about money. Barbados’s PM Mia Mottley declared the Earth in a state of “code red,” warning of the decimation of islands such as Dominica, Antigua and Barbuda, and low-lying Barbados if global temperatures and, therefore, sea levels (from melting glaciers) continue to rise. She called their impact on the region a “dreaded death sentence.”

The money, described as climate finance, is to come from the richer nations responsible for the bulk of the greenhouse-gas emissions heating the planet and should help poorer nations to cut their own emissions and adapt to the losses from catastrophes predicted from global warming. 

Those bigger, wealthy countries have failed to contribute what they promised – US$100 billion a year from 2009-2020. They have also mainly promised to cut to zero net carbon emissions between 2050 and 2070; too little, too late. 

TT’s promise is to reduce our greenhouse-gas emissions in three sectors by 15 per cent, and by 30 per cent in the transportation sector, by 2030. This is unambitious, at odds with activist hopes and the planet’s needs, but not much worse than those from governments elsewhere. 

Our own PM’s speech highlighted establishment of a solar renewable-energy project to provide 30 per cent of our power needs by 2030. Barbados plans to have 100 per cent of its energy consumption come from renewable sources by the same date. Barbados also plans to stop the sale of petrol and diesel by 2030, replacing them with electric power, biofuels and better mass transport. That’s ambitious. 

We are slowly phasing to electric vehicles and there is a policy for transitioning the workforce to a low-carbon economy, and investments in green hydrogen to provide feedstock for the petrochemical sector. There is also a state committee to increase oil revenue as well as explore carbon capture and sequestration of industry-generated carbon dioxide. 

Carbon sequestration is considered valuable because there is too much in our atmosphere, but there’s significant debate about this strategy. Some activists argue that it’s a technique for continuing to burn fossil fuels, not reduce overall use. As a polluter-based economy, it’s the State’s technical solution for the fix we are in. 

Following his speech, the PM is meeting with Shell and BP in London on development of the Manatee gas field, highlighting the irony of our fossil-fuel dependence, dire failure to imagine alternatives to a near-obsolete economic model, and committed drop into the CO2 bucket. 

Anyone interested in survival should be prepared to support what climate-justice activists continue to do. Question government plans. Demand transparency and participation. Present alternatives. Refuse to be fooled by policies on paper. Draw attention to endemic poor implementation. Protest. 

Challenge a leader who lambasts those refusing an aluminium smelter or seeking to preserve a coastline in Tobago or Toco. Those are exactly the moments that count on the ground, showing how little the government sees these as popular struggles to protect coastlines, air and water for our future generations. 

COP 26 reminds that there is one message for us. Before it’s too late, defend the planet at all costs, whether politicians like it or not.

Post 439.

“If this continues without any control, we will all pay the price for the destruction.”

– Luisa Laita of the Aishara Toon Village, quoted in the South Rupununi District Council’s 2018 report on Wapichan environmental monitoring. 

THE REPORT highlights how extractive industries violate rights to life, health and a healthy environment, food and water, cultural identity, freedom from forced displacement, equality and non-discrimination, and community consent, information and redress.

What are extractive industries? Goldmines in Guyana, oil and gas extraction in TT, bauxite mining in Jamaica and planned copper and mineral mining in Haiti are but some examples.

These industries are worsening the global climate crisis and threaten natural resources for food, water, fishing, farming, and both traditional and climate-resilient livelihoods.

As the Wapishan point out, such violation of human rights and the right of nature also causes community-level distress, trauma and spiritual pain. Indeed, courts are increasingly recognising the rights of rivers and forests as living ecosystems.

The Caribbean’s voice on these issues was heard for the first time at yesterday’s historic Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) hearing on the Impact of Extractive Industries on Human Rights and Climate Change in the Caribbean.

The hearing was proposed by Jamaican activist and women’s- and human-rights lawyer Malene Alleyne and environmental filmmaker Esther Figueroa, to resist rising fossil-fuel extraction and mining activities across the Caribbean. Such human-rights strategies are gaining momentum globally and regionally.

Two constitutional cases were filed against mining projects in Jamaica. There’s a landmark case challenging fossil fuel plans in Guyana. In The Bahamas, environmental organisations have challenged approval for oil drilling.

There are also wide challenges to the Environmental Impact Assessment process, such as in Trinidad and Tobago, for lack of public participation in decision-making, lack of access to information and failure to take social and environmental costs into account.

People once thought environmental degradation and climate change were not bread-and-butter issues. Now we know they are connected to food prices, drought, hurricanes and flooding, and forced displacement. Usually the poorest are the ones hardest hit. These actions are therefore in defence of an equal right to life and a future for us all.

Alleyne and Figueroa’s request to the IACHR describes “the destruction of biological diversity; pollution and the contamination of crucial ecosystems; the erosion of food and water security; and the devastation of rural livelihoods and traditional ways of being.

“The impact on Indigenous, Afro-descendent and rural communities is near apocalyptic given their dependency on the natural environment for physical and cultural survival. In Guyana, for example, gold mining operations are destroying forest cover and causing extreme mercury pollution in rivers traditionally used by Indigenous Peoples for food and drinking water.”

For Guyana’s Indigenous Peoples, there is also state failure to recognise customary lands and their boundaries.

“In Jamaica, the near 70-year-old bauxite-alumina industry has wiped out entire rural communities; destroyed prime agricultural lands; and contaminated rivers, causing fish kills that dislocate the livelihood of fisher folk.”

A 2019 World Bank study on Marine Pollution in the Caribbean concluded that in the Eastern Caribbean, TT contributes the largest industrial-pollutants load to the marine environment.

The annual cancer risk from consuming fish from the Gulf of Paria is almost six times higher than international standards. According to Fishermen and Friends of the Sea, to date, those responsible for the 377 recorded oil spills between 2016 and 2019 have never been held liable.

In Haiti, Kolektif Jistis Min and the Global Justice Clinic published a 2014 report documenting issues of forced displacement in predominantly subsistence-farming communities in northern Haiti where mining companies hold permits.

The hearing’s objectives were to show the impact of extraction on economic, social, cultural and environmental rights and its threat to Caribbean ecosystems, emphasise the dangers of non-participatory decision-making by Caribbean states, and advance a necessary vision for “a new earth-centred, rights-based approach to development in the Caribbean in Harmony with Nature.”

As well, the hearing intended to highlight outdated laws, weaknesses in monitoring and enforcement, corporate flouting of regulations, obstacles to information and failures to provide sufficient redress to affected people, who lose their livelihoods, homes, health, crops and access to drinkable water.

As one Jamaican in Figueroa’s film about Cockpit Country put it, “I see it as not only an ethical but a theological responsibility to preserve and protect the environment.” To return to Luisa and yesterday’s hearing, if we don’t support all available strategies to resist extraction, we can all expect to pay the price.

Post 438.

AMONG our political elites, man, woman and dog attacking man, woman and dog.

It’s remarkable to see how gender and womanhood have been being flung in this fight. Let’s start with Dr Rowley.

“The way she loves the accolade of being the first woman prime minister, one would think that she would behave properly and with a modicum of respect for the first female President, her superior,” he lambasted, invoking the Opposition Leader and the President’s womanhood as definitive of their public identities, roles and relationship.

For Persad-Bissessar, this gendered accolade was always a double-edged sword.

Rowley could have said the Opposition leader was being disrespectful or any of his usual litany of insults.

However, he highlighted her sex and the sex of the President as a disciplinary tactic. It is one thing to fail as a politician and a next to fail as a woman, and to be the first woman in the nation to do so.

The PM deliberately tapped into debasement of females who don’t know how to behave with deference and propriety in public. When schoolboys fight, we shake our heads. When schoolgirls fight, we bawl that all broughtupcy in the world has collapsed.

When two public officials, one already “inferior,” are pitted against each other and their sex is made the basis of comparison, it’s a gendered weapon in a war of words.

PNM PRO Laurel Lezama-Lee Sing called the Opposition Leader “an embarrassment to women,” again invoking her womanhood and expanding the wielding of gender by referencing all other women in the nation, who may have been foolishly considering an issue of how today we have no Commissioner of Police, for the first time in our history, and missed the relevance of femininity to the public call for answers.

The PM’s “imps, pimps and chimps” line again brought both gender and sexuality into political mud-slinging. Pimps are usually (but not only) men who (sometimes violently) force women to have sex for their profit. But what does prostitution have to do with 19 parliamentarians? Who is or are the whores? Aspersions of licentiousness and immorality land implicitly.

In his latest salvo, the PM described the Opposition Leader as an “abusive man,” continuing, “It’s like some of them fellas outside there…if I can’t get you I go mash it up. If I can’t get you I go kill you. I will mark your face with a knife…I go throw acid on you. That is what you are seeing there.”

This was a move from womanhood in disrepute to the kind of violent and depraved manhood that brought historic crowds to the streets in protest just earlier this year. This was highly cynical from a man who has blamed women for their choice of men, without apology.

It was also highly consistent in its blame on the population and women, and a warning against choosing someone who will kill you, stab you and throw acid on you, politically speaking.

It’s like we are all, or perhaps just us women, witnessing a woman being battered for being a woman, rather than pressured because of a brouhaha. The violence of the analogy was desperate, even for Dr Rowley.

The reference to “domestic” abuse is again deliberate, for this is the domain of women and one we are called on to protect. In such times, the solidarity of women against degeneracy and abuse is necessary to save us all.

It makes sense, then, for him to urge women to “stand up and support their female counterparts instead of bringing each other down,” like Persad-Bissessar.

We all know that women who bring each other down are “our own worst enemy.” The PM even brought up her failure to protect young girls from child marriage, throwing in the whole kitchen sink. But what does that have to do with the CoP?

Finally, Nizam Mohammed described the President, who is not a mother and was not appointed because of her representation of or identification with mothering or reproductive issues, as expected to connect with the public in a “motherly and exalted” fashion.

Idealisation of “good motherhood” here is bizarre to say the least.

I’m not defending the Opposition Leader or the UNC. There’s atrociousness on all sides. Rather, I’m observing how sex, gender (often femininity), and sexuality are being politically mobilised.

Such logic, like much of what I have highlighted, reveals the labels and stereotypes still targeted at and governing women in political life.

Post 437.

I WAS hoping that the Minister of Finance would finally begin to speak about gender-responsive budgeting (GRB) and acknowledge the need for gender-responsive recovery. 

Particularly in the context of the pandemic, political will in TT needs to catch up with a world increasingly applying a gender-sensitive approach. This means assessing the differential implications for women and men of any planned action to ensure that women and men benefit equally and inequalities are not perpetuated.

There are two main benefits of GRB. First, in making budgetary decisions, the minister relies on and shares sex-disaggregated data, recognising that women and men participate in the waged and care economies very differently. 

As I have described in relation to the last three budgets, without this, fiscal decision-making ignores the responsibility of economic development to improve gender equality and ignores the costs of gender inequality to overall wealth creation and distribution. It’s like targeting the growth of specific trees while dismissing knowledge about the overall ecosystem of the forest.

We should hear a budget speech, and further details in the budget debate, that clearly outline basic numbers. For example, the unemployment rate for women and men; the rates at which women and men participate in different economic sectors such as agriculture, energy, construction, service and retail, car importation, and tech and digital services; their rates of participation in the informal economy; and the ratio of women to men as first-time homeowners as well as owners of small and medium businesses. 

It was important to hear whether women’s employment was harder hit by the pandemic, in what sectors, and how this shaped economic stimulus decisions.

This enables us to track the dollar value of incentives, tax breaks and funds allocated in terms of its results for both women and men. 

This is the second thing about GRB – it encourages a results-based approach. 

Currently, we can’t say how the minister’s fiscal plans aim to affect women’s entrepreneurship or participation in the economy. 

Next year, we won’t have a target or benchmark to appraise this year’s announcements. How will we know who benefited from the emphasis on these key sectors? How will we know who was left behind?

The digital divide remains gendered in terms of ownership of digital assets such as computers, and in terms of access and use. Globally, this has been key to women’s inability to equally propel and benefit from the digital revolution, and to access digital services. 

Women in our economy are more likely to have microbusinesses that depend on their own labour, rather than employees. They have less access to credit to expand, often lacking sufficient assets for collateral. 

Women still predominate in insecure, informal and low-waged five Cs: cleaning, catering, clerical, cashiering and childcare. 

I would have welcomed incentives for childcare-centred (and predominantly women-owned) businesses, given that daycares and preschools, unlike even bars and casinos, have remained completely closed since March 2020, decimating women’s livelihoods and savings while increasing the pressures on women’s unpaid care. 

Accessible childcare services are directly linked to women’s employment, and public investment in quality care services can create more jobs than investment in construction, precisely because it frees so many women who are self-employed, seeking jobs or creating wealth to do so without unequally gendered constraints. 

This stuff isn’t rocket science and is being undertaken globally. Australia’s annual Gender Budget Statement explains how the budget is contributing to gender goals. Other countries publishing such statements include Bangladesh, Canada, India, Japan, Morocco, Rwanda, South Korea, and Spain.

In the PM’s Recovery Report, women are merely treated as a welfare category, not as a group involved in wealth generation under gendered constraints. A “woman’s perspective” on the budget is considered to centre on consumption and issues of food prices and VAT, subsidies for utilities, exemptions and rebates for the poorest of households, and direct social protection. 

However, women are not an economically vulnerable group because they are less capable, but because of unequal responsibility for families, sex segregation in the economy, gendered fiscal policy (think of the infusion of funds for big construction projects in every budget), and persistent gender norms. 

Fiscal policy either addresses these inequities or assumes them to be an unproblematic status quo. 

The 2020 UNDP Gender Social Norms Index demonstrated that 50 per cent of men worldwide think that, in times of scarcity and crisis, employment should be prioritised for men. 

Disappointingly, without sex-disaggregated numbers or targets underscoring his budget, for yet another year it appears the Finance Minister feels the same.

Post 436.

IF THERE was ever a time that the centre seemed unable to hold, it is now.

The Police Service Commission has fallen apart, pulling the Prime Minister, the AG, and the Office of the President into its implosion. The Opposition has launched accusations of interfering political whispers, and we are left to be amazed that basic processes related to state administration could result in such spectacular failure. And the lawsuits, which feature a “who’s who” of lawyers, some who seem to love headlines, are simply adding to costs to be borne by impoverished taxpayers.

Still, public reporting of the messiness has been instrumental in highlighting the importance of decision-making and transparency by chairpersons of commissions and boards, and the accountability that must be necessarily insisted upon by other members. We’ve gained some insight into the tensions and debates that were taking place, commission members’ refusal to acquiesce without sufficient information or agreement, and their repugnance at a high-handed leadership style of commission governance.

Weeks ago, we were having another debate about boards in the face of the NGC fiasco and the agreement by Minister Imbert to grant an indemnity to the board of directors of the National Gas Company. The board misspent hundreds of millions of dollars to keep Atlantic LNG Train 1 operational. There’s now a legal debate about whether the indemnity could hold in court, the extent to which it raises red flags about poor judgment and what, in the end, will be anyone’s accountability for the risks taken with our shrinking financial resources.

Ordinary citizens would be just as interested in the details of this imbroglio for better understanding how the inner workings of boards, usually far from the public eye even in relation to public business, provide immense insight regarding who raises alarms, when decisions are questioned, whether political influence is in the mix, what role political patronage plays, and how public interest is or isn’t protected.

When the minister comes to tax you at the cash register or in your home, think about the $440 million lost with impunity. We can expect no action against the board. This is a government that appointed Malcolm Jones to the Standing Cabinet Committee on Energy during (and before dropping) the Petrotrin case against him to recover nearly $2 billion.

I don’t know how else to say it. While you are struggling to buy rice, flour and cheese in this pandemic, while your savings are depleted, intolerable amounts of public funds are wasted by ruling elites. Where do the cuts then happen? To scholarships for university students and GATE funding for graduate degrees. To stable jobs in the public sector which are increasingly becoming reduced to short-term contracts and insecure labour. To salaries for nurses who have not had a raise since 2013.

Over our history, boards and commissions whose responsibility is to protect public interest provide us with endless case studies of problematic processes and decision-making, ministerial influence, necessary whistle-blowing, and money lost to lawyers and legal opinions while the country seethes. Indeed, a few weeks ago, discussion at the Caribbean Corporate Governance Institute forum highlighted boards of state enterprises as well-known mechanisms for dispensing political patronage.

The question of board appointments also came up in relation to the TT Revenue Authority (TTRA). In the Government’s plan, the Finance Minister appoints six of nine members, and it’s claimed that the process will be fair and, by implication, non-partisan. Scepticism runs rampant, understandably. Even when board members are not directly appointed by a minister, ministerial priorities, warnings, interpretations and whims waft through the considerations taken into account by boards and commissions depending on staffing and budgetary arrangements, and the issues and relationships at stake. That’s just a common reality of our political system, and it ultimately costs us as a nation in integrity, civility and money.

When things fall apart and the centre cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. This leads to the last point I want to make. Governing elites may not see, but the trust of a wearied public has worn thin. Minister Imbert can be infamously quoted as saying, “They haven’t rioted yet.” However, where public institutions, representatives, boards and commissions fail to keep trust, provide value for money, and be transparent, people lose faith.

Be warned. Bringing its own dangers, such disgust can be convincingly harnessed by those mobilising on the ground as a Trump-style strongman, as desperate and dissatisfied voters see the potholes and the hunger, scandals and waste.

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