Feature speech at Network of NGOs for the Advancement of Women Young Woman of the Year 2012 Award Ceremony held at Crown Plaza, Trinidad.
Good evening Everyone and especially the Young Women nominated for the Young Woman of the Year 2012 Award. You are such an inspiration!
Thank you Hazel Brown for asking me to be here with you all today.
The biographies of these young women show immense individual ambition, self-confidence, initiative and creativity, as well as clear commitment to community, country and the environment. These are all the qualities that every parent, and especially every mother, would be proud to see in their daughters.
To these qualities and commitments, I want to add the idea of solidarity – and particularly solidarity with other young women across differences of class, ethnicity, geography, religion and sexual orientation. What kinds of solidarities do I mean? Why do they remain important?
Young women are doing well, you are doing well, but many young women still need us to lift as we climb.
Violence in our homes remains prevalent. In my classes with only about 80 students, the majority have either experienced violence against women or know someone who has. Violence stops so many girls and young women from imagining and reaching their potential and it remains a reality that a new generation must unapologetically confront on your own terms and in your own ways, but confront it you must. We know that violence and control get reproduced in within teen relationships, making it hard for girls to have boyfriends and also full decision-making about their movements, friends and freedom, and making it hard to negotiate condom and contraception use. If there is one thing that young women can do, its provide non-judgmental peer spaces for young women to be able to share their experiences of family and sexual violence from family, seek strength and sisterhood, and make choices that are healthy and right for them rather than for others, whether those others are parents or religious leaders or partners.
Part of this violence is the issue of child sexual abuse and incest, which like domestic violence, continues to predominantly affect girls in our society, reproducing silences that run throughout families and communities, silences that will not protect us, silences that leave us no less afraid. The Institute for Gender and Development Studies at the UWI, where I work, has embarked on a national campaign to raise awareness about child sexual abuse and incest, using the symbol of the blue teddy, and I want to encourage young women in the different kinds of work that you do – in dance, sports, arts and community organizing, to use your creativity and networks to help break the silence about sexual violence in our homes, as an act of solidarity with other young women who have grown used to a reality of shame and repression rather than transformation and freedom from anger, betrayal and fear.
In my classes, the majority of students – though thankfully not all – also know someone who has had an abortion. This is the reality within which young women are coming of age, and as a new generation, you need to continue the struggle for safe rather than unsafe options for termination of pregnancies as well as for wide, national access to contraception, education and counseling. Trinidad and Tobago has a high teenage birthrate, and I imagine, also a high teenage rate of abortion. I myself know a handful of young women in their twenties who have terminated pregnancies and each time I have wished that they had access to safe, legal medical options, to patient rights, to responsible doctors. Is your politics one that seeks to secure these options or not? While the decision is yours, the implications reach out to other young women who you may never meet, or perhaps may one day come to know and care about.
There are two other issues that I want to touch on before I move on. The first relates to proposed changes to the Marriage Acts of Trinidad and Tobago, and efforts to increase the age of marriage from 12 and 14 to, at minimum, 16 or even 18 years old. Young women have not been at the forefront of the national debate on this issue and it affects you. There are issues of religion, respectability and so on that shape how the marriage of young girls is understood, but most important are the views of young women and questions of the power inequalities in such relationships, girls’ ability to make such long-term choices at such a young age, and the impact that early marriage makes on girls’ ability to experience adolescence as a time when they come to decide who they are and want to be for themselves.
Finally, I must speak tonight about the recently passed but not yet proclaimed Children’s Act of Trinidad and Tobago. This extremely progressive and much needed Act decriminalizes sexual activity amongst minors, as it should – for there are other responses and solutions rather than the heavy hand of the law, but it also explicitly criminalises sexual activity against minors, children under 18 years old, when those activities take place between minors of the same sex. This denial of equal rights to young people – and young women – must not be allowed. It is absolutely discriminatory, it divides youth against each other, it leaves some children protected and makes others punished, it prevents open discussion about healthy, safe and authentic sexual desires and choices, and it reproduces a nation where some young women experience the privileges of full citizenship and others, from as young as twelve years old, do not. Young women, we need your voices to join with those who cannot safely and openly speak for or be themselves. That is what solidarity is about.
Solidarity is based on the vision that you hold for the world and I know you are all young women of vision. Is your vision that all young women grow up in families without physical or sexual violence, is your vision that they grow up in communities that don’t respond with silencing and shame, is it that young women grow up in a world where despite sex being everywhere, they nonetheless cannot speak openly about it to parents, teachers, religious leaders and other adults without following a script that says they must be chaste…because where does that leave them if they are not? Is your vision that no medical practice – especially those only performed on girls and women, will ever take place in unsafe conditions? Is your vision for a generation not divided by race, politics, class, religion or sexual orientation, but able to find those few precious spaces of common ground – despite our differences, on the basis of our equal human rights, our commitment to making sure that all in our society have the protections and freedoms that still only some benefit from? What is your vision for the young women least able to speak about their realities, those most judged, those most left to fend for themselves without the powerful, visible solidarity of their young sisters?
There are many groups of young women to speak about. I chose these groups today because we need to break silences about them, and we need amazing young women like you to be unafraid of doing so on behalf of your generation. Every generation of young women must challenge the generation of women and men before them to secure expanded forms of justice, peace, equity, freedom and solidarity, because our silences will not protect us in the ways that our solidarities will. So, while you young women are involved in such a diverse array of fields – agriculture, music, dance, jewelry, entrepreneurship, arts, sports, conservation, charity and community-building, I also want to push you to think about how your own work can transform the lives of those young women we speak about least and hear from least.
That’s why I speak about young women struggling through child sexual abuse and incest who need to no longer protect their families, young women who have terminated pregnancies and whose stories we need to hear rather than condemn, those lesbian young women who we pretend, in all our righteousness and even hypocrisy, do not exist, when all of them like you are simply young people who need to be given the chance to make the life for themselves that feels right and is based on self-confidence, self-love and the warm embrace of family and community belonging. A generation before me could sit uncomfortably in their chairs, but these young women will be no less afraid and I certainly am not afraid to speak with – and when necessary for – them…and in so doing for me, my vision, my nation and the world in which I want to live.
Solidarity is grounded in being unafraid, knowing that speaking with and for your sisters may not make you popular but it will make your politics thorough and true. And you are the generation of young women in the history of this post-slavery, post-indentureship and post-colonial society most able to do so. You all are educated, you are powerful, you are creative, you are driven and you are brave. You best know how to bring your bredren in to support your work because the work to right the world for young women is not women’s work, it is the work of a generation with the power, smarts and opportunities to make change. It’s not your job to get young men involved, it’s your job to demand they represent, standing next to and in solidarity with you. Nothing is stopping them and, don’t let anyone fool you, boys and men still have power they need to share and power they can contribute to the struggle to end violence, to recognise girls’ right to make decisions regarding their bodies and to end homophobia.
You best know how to reach out to those younger than you and you are already doing so. You are linked in with rural, religious, cultural, musical, agricultural, environmental, entrepreneurial communities that the Network of NGOs wouldn’t know where to begin to find. Those spaces that are yours are the same ones where these issues are lived and where the needs and rights of young women can be taken on.
Your time is not in the future, frankly it is now. It is for these reasons that we recognise and acknowledge the work of the Network of NGOs for the Advancement of Women, and in the spirit of the work of still to be done, recognize and celebrate you. Congratulations to all of you amazing young women and good luck with the work that you do.
Gabrielle Jamela Hosein
November 23, 2012.