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Post 228.

Almost forty years ago, Audre Lorde wrote, “we can sit in our safe corners as mute as bottles, and still we will be no less afraid”. Around the region today, women are posting sexual harassment, abuse and assault survival stories as part of the #lifeinleggings movement, precisely to overcome that silencing and fear.

The hashtag and postings were started by Barbadian women Ronelle King and Allyson Benn to highlight the pervasiveness of sexual violence. Can any of us say that we don’t know one woman who has experienced such threat, fear, harm and denial of choice, possibly many times?

They linked their initiative to Barbados’ 50th independence and, therefore, to the impossibility of ‘development’ without also ending gender inequalities. Caribbean states have paid scant attention to the realities of rape culture while reframing twenty years of lip service into a story of “too much focus on women”. Yet, the courage it takes to share these stories suggests that silencing remains more dominant than safe space for women’s truths about their relationships, families, communities and nation.

Breaking these silences remains a risk. Families are invested in hiding stories of sexual predation, telling women that it happened in the past or that it’s more important to just keep peace. People respond that, somehow, you must have looked for that because of your clothes, your job or smile. Others’ trauma at hearing what happened to you has to be managed, sometimes making it easier to say nothing. It’s common to not be believed or to be blamed or seen as bringing down shame or wanting attention or, worse, as a joke.

Now isn’t the time to say not all men rape, assault or harass. Women are not accusing all men, they are simply no longer hiding what actually happened to them. Women are not responsible for protecting themselves, for ‘men don’t molest decent girls’. These stories begin when we are children and modesty provides no safety. Women don’t want men’s protection, we want their solidarity. There’s one message that can change women’s #lifeinleggings, and that is that men’s sexual self-responsibility has no excuses.

From Bajan politicians to Guyanese indigenous women to Jamaican reggae singers to Trinidadian university educators to policewomen in St. Vincent to disabled girls across the region, every kind of Caribbean woman has stories. Imagine what it means when education, class privilege, fame, age, ethnicity or profession makes no difference?

Audre Lorde has written, “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you”. Almost forty years later, in support of #lifeinleggings, Tonya Haynes, in the Caribbean feminist blog, Code Red for Gender Justice, wrote,

“Women broke every silence. We spoke of street harassment: girl, yuh pussy fat! Principals who made no room for comprehensive sexuality education but slut-shamed girls who were themselves sexually abused. Rape by current and former partners. Years of sexual abuse by fathers, step-fathers, uncles, cousins. Stories of men who told us that they’re waiting for our four-year-old daughters to grow up. Men who offered jobs or rides or food or protection only to demand sex. Only to split our bodies open when we refused. Men who raped us because we are lesbian, because we are women, because we are girls, because they could. We exploded every myth about how good girls and good women are protected from this violence. That good men will protect us.  That all we have to do is call in our squad of brothers and uncles and fathers. We asked, and who will women and girls call when our fathers and brothers and uncles assault them? We affirmed that asking men to protect us from male violence is not freedom. All men benefit from male privilege and unequal relations of gender which disadvantage and devalue women and girls. We demand autonomy not protection! We split this island open for every woman and girl who has had her body split open. We split this island open and let all the secrets fall out”.

If you want to break your own silences, there is a #lifeinleggings gathering, on Saturday from 4-6pm, at the Big Black Box on Murray Street in Woodbrook. Go. Listen. Share. Let all our own islands’ secrets fall out.

Post 227.

A bill now before Cabinet proposes to raise the age of marriage for girls to eighteen years old. This is because the Children’s Act (2012) defines girls under this age as children, for whom marriage and motherhood constitute a violation of rights.

There will be brouhaha about this bill, but it follows a necessary global trend and, while imperfect, is worth supporting.

Some will say that marriage of minors is culturally or religiously sanctioned. Others will argue that the age of marriage and sexual consent should be set at sixteen years old, not eighteen, and that this is necessary to counter the sin and shame of unwed sex and motherhood.

The fact is the laws need to change. The civil marriage act specifies no minimum marriageable age. The Hindu Marriage Act, and Muslim Marriage and Divorce Acts, contain discriminatory provisions which enable marriage of girls at much younger ages than boys, reproducing a patriarchal view that girls do not need as much time for development of their independence and maturity before marriage.

But, there is more at stake. Child marriage is only one example of adult predatory masculinity, which can also be seen in girls’ rates of pregnancy, abortion, sexual abuse and incest, and HIV.

There have been small numbers of girls married at twelve, thirteen and fourteen as late as 2015. Seventeen 13 year-old girls were married in 2010 along with nine 14 year-olds. Between 2011 and today, twenty-one fourteen year-old girls were married. Overwhelmingly, of the 548 child marriages that took place between 2006 and 2016, the majority of those girls were married to adult men.

These are not relationships between equally adolescent minors. These are examples of relationships in which girls’ unequal age, power, and negotiating capacity are normalized. Were the situation to be reversed, where in one year twenty-six boys under 14 years old were married to mainly adult women, this would be appear to all as a theft of childhood, and molestation.

The symbolic significance of marriage blurs our understanding of child marriage rates as only one indicator of girls’ wider sexual vulnerability.

Turn to teenage pregnancy: Between 2008 and 2015, there were 35 pregnancies to girls twelve years old or younger, 2645 to girls between thirteen and sixteen years old, and 12 551 to girls seventeen to nineteen years old. “In these statistics, said the AG, “We have recorded the actual live births of thousands of children in circumstances potentially equal to statutory rape”.

In terms of sexual offense charges, between 2000 and 2015, there were 2 258 matters in relation to girls compared to two charges for sex with males under sixteen years old. As of July 2015, there were 559 cases related to sexual intercourse with a female under the age 14 years, 128 related to sexual intercourse with a person over 14 years and under 16 years without consent, and 45 related to sexual intercourse with a dependent minor. It is well documented that girls’ sexual vulnerability to adult men vastly increases between ten and fourteen years old, the very age around which child marriage debate pivots.

With regard to abortions recorded by public hospitals, between 2011 and 2015, there were 67 among girls thirteen to sixteen years old and 683 among those seventeen to nineteen years old. Finally, the HIV statistics are telling as girls 15-24 years old have almost always had higher rates than boys of their age. In 2014, girls accounted for 60% of infections among 15 to 19 year olds.

We need further research on these numbers and their meanings as well as on the prevalence and implications of adult men’s informal unions with girl children. Nonetheless, the overall trends are totally clear.

In a context where there is no national sexual and reproductive health policy, and no comprehensive sexual education in schools, girl children are overwhelmingly being targeted by men and boys older than them, in ways that impact their empowerment, self-determination, reproductive health, and right to live free from harm.

We must ask which is more important: protection of patriarchal ideologies, symbolic ethnic and religious laws, respectability politics and predatory masculinities or public will that presses political will to provide protections that girls urgently need.

Post 231.

In 1492, the current world order was established. The Caribbean was ground zero. Dispossession of indigenous peoples was the first founding act. Today, we in Trinidad all live on occupied land.

Across the Americas, indigenous sovereign nations, still living under (post)colonial rule, continue to challenge and refuse a global political economy built on invasion, decimation and extraction.

Indigenous people didn’t become extinct. They don’t belong to a time past, and their systems of governance, economic management and ecology are not quaint or outdated.

Indeed, indigenous communities across the Americas are at the forefront of waging struggles against corporate capitalism’s state-managed privatization of water and destruction of forests, precisely because they have kept alternatives alive all these centuries.

As you read, remember Indigenous Honduran environmental activist Berta Caceres, assassinated just this year for her defiance to mining and logging concessions and proposed dams.

Movements such as the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, now more than thirty years strong, offer real, living examples of dignity, autonomy and justice in which we can all find new forms of order, labour and exchange.

Given that indigenous people are still here, their claims to repatriation of land remain as valid in 2016 as they did in 1493. For them, colonization isn’t an event that happened, it’s a structure that organizes their lives today, as it does ours. Let us not feign innocence about our own entanglement in the continued disruption that occurs in indigenous people’s lives from the violation and violence of such occupation.

What does this mean for Africans, Indians and others in the Caribbean, who, by force and suffering, had to establish our belonging over time by coming to see ourselves as ‘indigenous’ to this region? How do our claims currently and wrongly displace Indigenous people themselves? How does our affirmation of our humanity maintain an imperial legacy?

This is an even more important question for those of us involved in social justice work. For, our legal and cultural investments in UN rights conventions, nation-state law, and democratization of land ownership (such as the Occupy movement in the Americas), all entrench settler colonialism, both others’ and our own. What, then, is our accountability to Caribbean indigenous people’s sovereign right to self-determination?

These are not intellectual musings, but real political questions. For a generation of Caribbean young people who, for the first time in history, are experiencing biodiversity and climate changes that may not be reversed within their lifetimes, alternatives to business as usual are evermore urgent.

That model, established in and expanded from this region, is not all that is on offer, and it no longer offers us what our futures fundamentally we need. This generation of Caribbean children can and eventually must move us from resistance to transformation. That shift requires us to decide what life and justice look like beyond the selves, narratives, relations, structures and possibilities built, like a chain link fence around us, since 1492.

There is no lack of realism here. Rather, there is clear gaze on a global political-economy that is neither timeless nor inevitable. There is clear reading of our potential choices in this place and time. Yet, having had fires of hope mashed down to ash from 1962 to 2015, many adults’ crumpled cynicism no longer remembers or prioritizes the necessity of upcoming Caribbean generations’ truly, globally, decolonial dreams.

No liberatory changes are possible without a vision beyond what is currently dominant, yet unsustainable. This generation needs radically transformative ideals as much as the clean air and water that adults have failed to sufficiently fight for. It needs world changing politics, and the life force of big collective and long-term ideas and movements, not merely individual and immediate workforce skills.

Why Trinidad and Tobago rather than Kairi? Why British government structures? Why shouldn’t we found just models for the world when an unjust model for the world was founded here from 1492?

We live amidst cosmologies that are deeply Caribbean, and must stop seeing our history as beginning and our futures ending with colonization. Colonization, here, isn’t a metaphor. It’s the governing principle under which indigenous people dream of land, life and solidarity. Engaging each other to imagine freedom outside of colonial terms is ethical, urgent and necessary.

Post 227.

Only five years old, and not quite brave, my sapodilla, Ziya, has begun walking forest trails, as Amerindian folk once did, later followed by Africans escaping the fate of plantation enslaved, then by Indians and panyols working on cocoa estates.

These are just beginnings, which have so far taken her to Avocat waterfall, Paria waterfall, Carmelita waterfall, Turure waterfall, Matelot waterfall and Rio Seco waterfall.  Some paths have been difficult, like the slippery descent down the hill in Matelot or the muddy circuitous route into the forest from Salibya.

All have required her to learn to quiet her spirit and focus on the next step. All have shown her exactly how tree roots hold whole hillsides together, as we use them for balance around curves and inclines. She can see how rain pools between theses roots, understanding then, as her shoes sink into the muddy forest floor, how such ecoystems stop topsoil from washing away.

Reaching the waterfalls themselves is to come upon cathedrals built over thousands of years. The water rushing down has been circulating the earth since before the mass extinction of dinosaurs, and has been flowing in those rivers for millennia.

To realize we have inherited an island paradise like this, where waterfalls spring throughout the Northern range as well as in Tobago, and that many generations of one people or another have stood right on these river rocks, swam in just these cascading crystals, and observed both their science and their spirit, feels huge and historical and humbling.

There is all this that is ours, like a right, except that it’s not a right of ours, but a right of nature. Ecuador was the first country to recognize the “rights of nature” in its constitution. Bolivia has initiated the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth. World leaders formally signed the Convention of the International Tribunal for the Rights of Nature in December 2015 in Paris.

In this emerging global governance framework, organizations and communities can take legal action against states and corporations in defense against destruction of our oceans and forests, water, soil, seeds and air.  Indigenous people are leading the way, as they continue to push back against a contemporary economy that relies on profits from resource consumption and depletion, and is now destroying life everywhere.

There is zero reason to wait for everything to fall apart to begin to properly protect the only sources of fresh water, fragile biodiversity, and freely bequeathed beauty that will sustain us for generations to come. With declining returns from oil and gas, which will continue to decline in net value when we factor in increasing environmental costs and the coming efficiency of renewable energy sources, nature is ever more precious.

Vandana Shiva, globally-renowed Indian scientist, started her ecological journey as a child following her parents in the Himalayas. “Everything I need to know I learned in the forest”, she says, “Today, at a time of multiple crises, we need to move away from thinking of nature as dead matter to valuing her biodiversity, clean water, and seeds. For this, nature herself is the best teacher”.

While she walks, Ziya’s learns other lessons. Those who also walk these trails leave every imaginable form of garbage along the way, stuffing juice boxes in tree stumps amidst moss and mushrooms, leaving Styrofoam boxes floating amongst rivers’ fishes.

Dozens of hiking businesses wretchedly fail to collectively keep clean the very trails from which they earn incomes. Zi clambered her way right to Turure’s rockface only to see it wholly defaced by graffiti, with names like scars showing violence without shame. Forestry Division exercises no real role or power here, so whole piles of garbage are dumped or left, and not one soul seems to care.

What does this teach about us as individuals, and about the state’s long-term public message, infrastructure and plan regarding waste management and nature? As Native American, Chief Seattle long warned, what befalls the Earth, befalls the children of the Earth. “Take only memories, leave nothing but footprints” are his words. As we leave, I wonder if there is enough will to ensure a future where Zi walks untainted trails with her own five year old.

Post 229.

I spend a lot of time asking questions about numbers. The low numbers of women in political leadership and why such inequity seems to matter so little. The high numbers of women in low-waged, insecure, nonunionized, informal work, and why such clustering seems to change too slowly or barely at all. The low numbers of women who own property in their own name, only about 15% in Trinidad and Tobago, and how that limits their options in life. The high number women who experience any form of violence, from sexual harassment on the street to death at the hands of intimate partners, and the explanations that seem sufficient amidst popular perception that equality has been already won.

Those numbers reveal clear realities. Equality has not been won. Decades of women’s work has been allowed to have only partial effect on dismantling institutionalized male domination and the status afforded to dominant ideals of manhood. The pace of securing rights and justice is indefensibly slow. We desperately need transformational leadership to stop us from repeating these mistakes of the past.

What makes such leadership transformational is not simply its individually empowered or empowering qualities. It is that it is committed to working to end all hierarchies on the basis of sex, gender or sexuality, and their role in reinforcing asymmetries of access to or allocation of status, power and material resources. It is that it recognizes these asymmetries are deeply entrenched in political parties, elite business culture, the economy and households, as well as in law, religion and media.

Transformation doesn’t mean strategizing to get to the top, but using whatever power you get to lessen the pains and losses of the majority in public life. It means recognising that class doesn’t protect any of us from destruction of the commons, whether in relation to public drinking water, public hospitals, public safety or an ecology that our children are systematically being denied. All of us, in the end, live downstream of the poisons, whether social problems or environmental pollution, that we do not fix today.

I’ve become impatient at how little social, economic, environmental or gender justice we seem to achieve. How infrequently those with the most power act decisively to democratize this small place, in the widest sense of what that means to each of us. I struggle to remain optimistic while watching influential anti-feminist discourses, which first denied women’s right to choice, freedom and authority because of ‘tradition’, morph into more contemporary anti-feminist discourses, which now deny that women need more choice, freedom and authority than they have.

Masculinism is the currently popular, if empirically wrong, position that “men are in crisis and suffering because of women in general and feminists in particular”, with the solution involving “curbing the influence of feminism and revalorizing masculinity”. We have seen this in “ongoing attempts by institutions and individuals to maintain conditions of women’s inequality”, from successive prime ministers to successive adult men married to girl children under sixteen.

More girls are graduating from UWI? More women are managers? Didn’t we have one woman Prime Minister? Aren’t women the backbone of political parties? These numbers tell us little about why legislation, draft gender policies, budgets and gendered bureaucracies haven’t become transformational leadership tools in women’s hands. They also tell us little about why manhood remains defined by privilege when it is everyone’s work, not simply women’s, to make the world less violent, less exclusionary, and less unfairly waged for women.

As Caribbean scholars point out, “Ongoing projects of nation-state building that promote allegedly gender free notions of nationalist cohesion should be contested and unmasked as skillful projections of modern masculine political power”. Note, secondly, “a welfarist modus operandi of ‘what you are doing for women’” cannot substitute for “addressing the more critical question of ‘how we are creating systemic change for women’” and their communities.

The numbers regarding women’s lives do not show a transformed reality. Individual empowerment and charity aren’t enough when beliefs and structures still protect inequality. Referenda and consultations that go nowhere are excuses, for rights are not won through popularity. Transformational leadership isn’t an idea. It is a necessity yet to be achieved.

Powerful women out there, who’s ready?

Post 227.

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

Trinidad experienced mass African enslavement for a much shorter time, much later and in smaller numbers than Barbados, Jamaica and Haiti. Largely the population of enslaved Africans expanded after 1793 when both white and mixed planters, from the French West Indies, settled in Trinidad, bringing Africans with them as part of their property. Many of these planters were frightened by the attacks on slavery being waged in Haiti, then called Saint Domingue.

Their fright was justified. Haiti’s struggle to free its almost half a million enslaved Africans was inspiration for emancipation struggles throughout the region, including in Trinidad. Saint Domingue produced shocking prosperity for plantation owners and for the French empire, more than anywhere else in the Caribbean. Torture, terror, rape and genocide produced such wealth. This is why revolutionary leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines’ famous speech, for Liberty or Death, defined the hopes and dreams of the once enslaved. On January 1, 1804, Haiti declared independence as a black republic, the first country to do so and to abolish slavery.

I try to connect this powerful place in world-making with the streets of downtown Port au Prince, lined by vendors and market women, making a life like the black survivors of Marley’s music, amidst dust, and in places, rubble and garbage. It’s hard to acknowledge Haiti’s impoverishment while trying to shed all the stereotypes we’ve inherited of its desperate poverty, but we must.

Haiti’s hardships aren’t incidental to its anti-colonial or contemporary story. They are absolutely central. In 1825, France forced it to pay 150 million gold francs in reparations to French ex-slaveholders. Even with the amount of reparations reduced in 1838, Haiti didn’t pay off its debt until 1947. The 20th century of US occupation and domination required resistance to another era of disempowerment for which the full story is hardly acknowledged or told.

Yet, obviously Port au Prince is only one small representation of a whole country, and if I raise my eyes to the majestic green mountains encircling the city, it’s clear that Haitian realities are also full of forms of dignity and beauty. These are what we should make an effort to see. In Vodun spiritual symbols, reminding us that a people’s art articulates the genesis of their freedom. In community relationships, ever-present entrepreneurship, food provision, literature, scholarship and uniformed school children.

It’s strange to gather here, as an Indo-Trinidadian amidst a panorama of others from the region, and to realize that we of the contemporary Caribbean, particularly descendants of enslaved Africans, are indeed the hope and dream of departed ancestors who imagined another world and who made it possible with their labour and blood.

Reading about Haiti was educational, but it took stepping on this ground for me to connect to the caution to never forget. This is the history that should define us as a region. Walk away from these words remembering the name Anacaona. At 29 years old, she was a Taino chief, or cacica, around 1500 in Haiti when the Spanish executed her by hanging for resisting subjugation. She refused to exchange concubinage for clemency. Walk away remembering the names Victoria Montou, Sanite Belair and Marie-Jeanne Lamartiniere. Sanite Belair was a sergeant in the army of Toussaint L’Ouverture, and refused to wear a blindfold at her execution. Marie-Jeanne Lamartiniere, also a soldier during the Haitian Revolution, fought in traditional men’s garments. Cécile Fatiman was a Haitian Vodon spiritual leader who presided over a ceremony at Bois Caïman, which is one of the sparking points of the Haitian Revolution.

I too, as Maya Angelou writes, live what was once a hope and dream. I thank Haiti’s people for reminding me that like other Caribbean citizens today, history has given me great responsibility.

We in the region, regardless of our ethnicity or nationality, owe a debt to Haiti, one that we should repay by protecting and pursuing an egalitarianism that still doesn’t exist, whether among genders, sexualities or classes, or whether between our small states and global corporate power, or whether between we ex-colonies and the IMF. In 1804, declaring sovereignty meant ending slavery. What would such a declaration mean and require of us today?

 

 

Post 225.

There’s a painting by young artist, Danielle Boodoo-Fortune, which I recently bought for Ziya. It’s Zi’s first painting, meant to provide a utopian image of her childhood and the memories I’m seeking to create at this time. The painting is set in a dense, colourful and magical garden. Both the sun and the moon seem simultaneously present, and above the lush undergrowth, a forest in the background appears to meld into the sky.

There are two central figures. A little girl with a big afro and wide eyes looking around and, behind her, a woman with long, straight hair gazing directly out of the painting as if warning others that they are being just as carefully watched. Unless your intentions bring care and safety, better to stay afar. Birds sit on their hands, and both figures have small tree branches growing from their heads, beginning to sprout leaves.

Almost unnoticeable, these branches are the curious detail that draws me in most. It’s hard to tell where the natural environment ends and begins, and the human bodies are not entirely separate, but also part of this environment, just as we all are.

Our bodies are deeply interconnected with the ecosystems in which we live, and perhaps if we thought more like trees, we would be more aware of water conservation, biodiversity, returning nutrients to soil, sustaining wildlife survival, adapting to seasonal patterns, and living for preservation for seven generations, rather than through our current modes of harm.

Every chance I get to escape, I try to spend in some quiet intimacy with our islands’ forests and rivers. And, now five years old, Zi is beginning to walk rivers and reach waterfalls with me. I can’t think of a more important site for establishing identity, relationship, aspirations and belonging.

I’d like Zi to go to university, but some part of me would know she found the right path if she was able to live by ideals of permaculture that treasure reproducing forests, food, friendships and family. She could entirely eschew the materialism that keeps us in an outmoded economic model and exhausts us over the course of a long rat race. We work to survive, but seem to have forgotten what we are living for.

Marking both Corpus Cristi and Indian arrival in 1845 should return us to the soil here in this place in which we are leaving our footprints over time. Zi’s planting her first small garden of lettuce and seasonings, in a recycled cardboard box that can decompose somewhere in our garden, adding carbon to the nitrogen we will layer on the soil from kitchen vegetable cuttings.

For me, coming into adulthood as an Indo-Caribbean woman is about protecting a little dougla daughter from harm, exiting the hierarchies, prejudices and structures that alienate us more than connect us, and teaching my sacred girl how to survive and thrive. I can’t think of another more important lesson that Indian women brought with them on those ships. All this while, we’ve been working out how to make an authentic life for ourselves, and if not ourselves for our children, with greater freedom, knowledge, meaning, wellbeing and peace.

I spent the last few days talking with mainly women from around the region about gender and ecological justice, and their inseparability. When debt leaves little fiscal space, what are our options for solidarity economies, and other approaches that transform our economic and ecological vulnerabilities, drawing on our environmental, cultural, historical and gendered kinds of resilience?

Given that the environmental crisis is the absolutely most important issue of our children’s generation, these are the real questions for which we should be seeking collective answers. All big answers start with small steps, and there is art to remind Zi of the simple, profound significance of learning through quiet, thoughtful observation how to become one with the trees. As a mothering worker marking another year of life this weekend, and seeking wisdom for the new year ahead, this is where our footprints and memories will be.

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