Post 237.

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On Carnival Friday last year, my sapodilla was on stage singing her calypso competition tune, ‘Mosquito’. Zika was an oncoming threat and we wanted to combine musical commentary on a serious issue with humour, to step away from trends where women and girls are the voices of public lament, while men and boys the kings of humour and word play.

So, her verse, ‘Health Ministry spray/cannot save the day/plus recession biting them too’, was meant to highlight collective responsibility for mosquito-borne diseases, ecological concerns about insecticides used by the state and their impact on insect biodiversity and, at another level, the multiple ways big issues bite both state and society. She came second, promptly putting her prize money in her piggy-bank.

Following this, the song reached the ears of a national park ranger in the US who, just this week, sent Ziya her own Biscayne National Park Junior Ranger badge because her song is going to be introduced into their kids’ camp. In her mailed package, Sapodilla also got a fossilized shark tooth which she proudly put in her treasure box. You never know where calypso can reach.

Today, she’s on stage again, with ‘first-class lyrics for so/ but not about no mosquito’. This time, she’s telling a true story about our dog Shak Shak who, terrified by Old Year’s Night fireworks, ran away and was lost for several days. In the song, she looks for Shak Shak everywhere. She goes by the church, all they tell her is that prayer always works. She stops by the shop owner, but he’s only helping his customers. The police are too busy looking for tief. She calls up the Prime Minister, he tells her to put her request in a letter. She goes up Mount Hololo, which is near us, and even Tobago, which is far, but no Shak Shak.

The end of the song finds Shak Shak hopping a drop to the beach for, of all things a vacation, leading to the double-meaning in the punch-line which observes how ‘Shak Shak reach!’, a local turn of phrase for when someone ends up where you don’t expect, whether in terms of geographical extremities or rapidly improved circumstances by opportunistic means.

In reality, our terrified dog was picked up at the side of the road by a nice couple, whose car she jumped into when they stopped to check on her. As they were on their way to Las Cuevas, Shak Shak went with them and spent several days liming, likely happily, on the North Coast with their family, all while we searched and worried. When they returned to Santa Cruz, and saw the posters, Shak Shak was brought home, looking well rested and well refreshed from all the crisp sea and mountain breeze.

A fireworks-terrified lost dog is such a common story, and the beloved pothound so many children grow up with is such a common memory, how could we not turn this escapade into kaiso? Of course, as kaiso must, Shak Shak gets portrayed in the figure of the wayward quick-stepper, successfully breaking biche before order is restored, for isn’t that what the bravado of calypso requires of even the most timid of real-life characters?

Zi herself is a timid character. She’s produced by her dad, Lyndon ‘Stonez’ Livingstone, whose Razorshop roadmix of MX Prime and UR’s ‘Full Extreme’ is now on radio replay. Still, this singing on stage business, though just in her school hall, is a reach for her as well. Might she come first this year? Given where ‘Mosquito’ and Shak Shak ended up, you never can tell.

Post 236.

Over the last three decades, the rise of bikini mas has been considered a sign of Carnival’s loss of politics.  In this view, gone was the costuming skill and performance that defined mas itself, to be replaced by wining skill and body display, with the heyday of top male bandleaders replaced by bottom and ‘Carnival is woman’.

The feminization of Carnival was an unrepentant fall from high mas, and women’s ‘vulgarity’ was obsessively interlocked with the downfall of decency and order in the wider society. This easily fit the misbegotten myth that all the world’s troubles would be solved if only women never misbehave.

Women disagreed by the tens of thousands.

The past thirty or so years of bikini mas, which is now typical for an entire generation of young women, could therefore instead be thought of as a massive women’s movement taking cultural form, indeed ‘taking over’ Carnival, to continue traditions of self-affirmation, resistance to subordination, and renegotiation of the rules of public space.

Observers of the ‘jamette’ tradition point to the fact that women in Carnival always combined the folk politics of ‘playing mas’ with the gender and sexual politics of ‘playing yuhself’ in ways that were typically disallowed to women, and that women took both these politics into their challenges to the state.

What’s evident over the last decades is that such ‘jamette’ performance has crossed racial, religious and class differences amongst women, becoming national, and therefore even more disturbing for men as diverse as Sat Maharaj, Tim Kee, Keith Rowley and Father Harvey, with their patriarchal passion for women’s responsibility, decency, dignity and prayer.

Women’s annual occupation of the nation’s streets over Carnival, to experience sexual control, bodily pleasure and freedom from respectability, predates anti-‘slut shaming’ or ‘slut walk’ marches in the North by decades. Unexpectedly, bikini mas helped powerfully cultivate contemporary women’s opposition to rape culture, or a society where sexual domination of women and their vulnerability to sexual violence is seen as natural and normal. Though globalized, this creative expression of women’s rights is homegrown.

We saw the force of such opposition when Asami Nagakiya was murdered and the groups Womantra and Say Something called for the resignation of the PoS Mayor. We have seen it in continued ‘not asking for it’ campaigns across the region, in a younger generation of women publicly refusing old men’s bad habits of victim-blaming, and in diverse support for #lifeinleggings’ call to break silences about sexual harassment. It’s part of Say Something’s current ‘Leave me alone’, ‘Leave she alone’ campaign, in collaboration with Calypso Rose, which encourages women to share “experiences of street harassment and violence during Carnival and also of positive moments when you felt defended or protected by your Carnival community…whether as revellers or frontline workers and service providers”.

The rise of bikini mas is complex. Women’s increasing income and economic independence are major factors. Desires to be affirmed as beautiful as black and brown women, not just as ascendant students and workers, is another. Expansion of women’s spaces for friendly sexual ribaldry, such as the maticoor, into the public domain is a third, bringing with it challenges to the hypocrisy of male privilege, which allowed men all kinds of license while keeping women in check.

There are also contradictions. Costs of bikini mas participation mean that class shapes access to these moments of freedom. Many women continue to play within ropes, reproducing historical ways that upper classes cut themselves off from others, while signaling the reality of sexual harassment which all classes of women continue to fear. Additionally, the marketing of hypersexuality over these very decades has reinforced hierarchies of beauty and the policing of women’s bodies in ways that complicate the radical potential of bikini mas to throw off pressures women face, embrace self-pleasure without judgment or justification, and defy nation-state commodification.

Against nostalgic anxieties, bikini mas has enabled serious woman politics of all kinds to take up space in Carnival. It is the largest movement of women to take to the streets in the country, bringing diverse aspirations for an equal place as gendered and sexual beings. And, it has cultural capital, empowering anti-violence activists’ demands that both men and the state better behave.

Post 235.

The PNM’s media machine experienced a disastrous week of damage control in relation to PM Rowley’s words, “I am not in your bedroom, I’m not in your choice of men. You have a responsibility to determine who you associate with, and know when to get out, and the state will try to help, but then, when the tragedy occurs, and it becomes the police, the police must now go the extra mile…”

The AG said that Mr. Rowley said nothing wrong, how the PM speak is how he does speak, and that it was true that a person was “equally responsible” for his or her situation. Fitzgerald Hinds said, without irony, that he didn’t understand gender sensitivity, but he didn’t see any offense in telling women they should leave when they begin to see signs of violence, despite the fact that many women don’t leave because of economic insecurity, children or straight-up fear.

The OPM awkwardly angled the story in terms of the PM offering “empowering advice to our women” so that women could “make smart choices”. Though, these choices do not include safe and legal termination of pregnancy in situations where violent relationships may make women feel another child will mean less ability to leave.

The press release then listed Gender Affairs Division programmes which have long been in existence and are unrelated to Dr. Rowley’s leadership, and pointed to the Community Based Action Plan to End Gender Based Violence in Trinidad and Tobago, which has not yet been approved, and needs adequate resources from F&GPC to succeed.

All Mr. Rowley needed to say was, he understands how traumatized people are feeling about violence against women, he’s sorry his comments may not have been phrased in the most sensitive way, it wasn’t intentional, and he’s prepared to grow and improve in his engagement with gender-based violence, as we all should. All the spin would have been unnecessary. We are all fallible. We can all practice accountability.

Nonetheless, the problem isn’t Mr. Rowley.  It’s pervasive myths about violence against women that feel like common-sense: that women deserve it when they are abused or killed and their bad decisions are where accountability lies.

However, women have no responsibility for male violence. Men’s enactment of violence is entirely their responsibility and occurs in situations where they are taking control of a woman, not losing control of themselves. We should nonetheless consider that male violence takes place in a wider context where male supremacy is considered normal and natural. This kind of gender inequality shapes what boys learn about manhood and power as they become adults, leading to invisibility of male domination and violence except in situations where it becomes severe.

Second, women do not get into relationships with men who are abusive. Abuse develops over the course of relationships and may start when women get pregnant, the more children they have, when they become economically dependent, when they get their own jobs, when men lose their jobs, when women try to leave, and when they take out protection orders.

Third, gender-based violence is a societal, public health and citizenship issue when women’s inequality, and their greater vulnerability to violence defines their experience of belonging to the country. Intimate partner violence is only one kind of violence that women experience by the thousands each year. Yet, state response to violence against women has never been adequate at the level of policing, social services, anti-gender based violence training in schools, and in the court system. The protection order system needs to be completed revised. Programmes for perpetrators or men who want to address their own violence, or its potential, need to be in place.

The fact is that its women’s refusal, whether on the street, in gyms, in offices or in relationships – not choosing of men – that often provokes violence. And, state officials need to be clear that women are at risk at work, in transportation to and from work, and when they become unemployed and are searching for work. Women are already choosing to leave when they can, and being stalked, harassed and even killed because of it. Right now, “empowering advice” from the PM simply is not what all these women need.

Post 234.

I’m appealing today for a collaborative approach to and funding for systematic research on child marriages in Trinidad and Tobago. Such research would cost about TT $300 000 and could be easily funded by any person, family or business with an interest in the life opportunities of girls as well as an interest in seeing research underscore public debate.

Frankly, given their investment in this issue, this is research that could and should be collectively funded by organisations such as the Maha Sabha, ASJA and others who wish to see what the facts of girls’ experience say, and it would roll out with broad representation including women’s organisations and others on a research advisory committee which would ensure lack of bias and methodological rigor. Will to work collaboratively as adults would show a true commitment to the best interests of girls, as hundreds have been married while still adolescents.

“Religious autonomy” cannot be a legitimate basis for fighting legislative change to the legal age of marriage without a systematic understanding of what the experience of these minors has been in Trinidad and Tobago. Does such autonomy, largely the privilege of male religious leaders, really trump greater vulnerability to violence or more limited self-determination amongst girls now contractually bound to relationships that may not be in their best interest? Is avoiding unwed motherhood a valid reason for marriage even if it turns out these girls cannot negotiate their rights and needs as women should be able to within their relationships? Alternatively, is it true that, amongst the majority of these girl children, their educational aspirations haven’t been compromised and, indeed, they have the freedom for personal self-development of others their age?

The response to this question has been that girls in Trinidad have not been married as ‘children’, but as teens, though I’d argue that distinction is problematized by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which we are a signatory, as well as by contemporary norms around adolescence, which recognize how important this period of self-development and setting one’s own aspirations are for girls’ capacity to negotiate gender relations in later life.

The second response would be that, yes, early age marriage is better than unmarried motherhood even if it’s not better for the girl. The third response would be that teenage mothers benefit from stable household arrangements, though it’s not clear if they gain this through marriage as much as parental care.

Rates of domestic violence, across the entire country, suggest that marriages are not the site of safety and protection they are idealized to be. There’s enough data to suggest that they are also a site in which women experience subordination and inequality. Does pregnancy, which may occur because of lack of information about contraception or lack of ability to negotiate safe sex, imply readiness for managing marriage?

Global data on girls married as teens is unequivocal about its harm to their power and choices. In Trinidad and Tobago, there is only anecdotal evidence, and small qualitative studies of older women. No one has systematic, cross-religious data to either counter international studies or to clearly detail how marriage is experienced by girls married at 12, 13, 14 or 15. What we are left with are girls’ bodies and sexuality as symbolic markers of a poignant narrative of religious resistance to colonization and legal non-recognition. It all seems to be about everything, but the girl.

While the data on abortion, pregnancies, HIV and early marriage present a picture worth disentangling, they point to the early sexualisation of girls and a range of life-long implications. It would be great if multi-faceted interventions, which include school-based sexual health education, would thus be part of religious organisations’ advocacy.

I’m supportive of an exception from sixteen for both girls and boys, with a limit of three years age difference, which is consistent with the Children’s Act. I’m sympathetic to the outcry against the quick switch from 3/5 to simple majority. I’m not sympathetic to prioritizing religious authority over girls’ best interest. And, I’d welcome collaboration to produce research which establishes, first and foremost, what the contemporary experience and implications of marriage have been for girls. If you agree, please contact me.

Post 233.

I’d argue that political and economic elites have greatest responsibility for the persistence of corruption in Trinidad and Tobago. It’s true that state officials, from the most petty to the most powerful, are involved, whether for a bottle of scotch, a bag of cash, a big cheque or small house. It’s also true that citizens of all classes engage in corrupt behaviour, illegality and disregard for law.

However, the scale and impunity of corruption differs vastly among classes, and there have never been convictions of ‘big fish’ or for white-collar crime. The impact of such impunity in a context of economic inequality means that if the big boys can get away with unbridled greed, then the small man thinks it is right to give it a try as part as one of many survival strategies. Even with patron-clientalism, corruption among the wealthy hits impoverishment among the poor more severely. Hypocrisy about this at the top is real.

Political and economic elites also have the most informal and formal influence on legal and institutional protections or their lack, for in all kinds of familiar ways, their business is interlocked with each other and the state.  They may not be able to make public officials or the state bureaucracy work as efficiently or modernly they would like, but the story of a ‘culture of corruption’ is far more stratified than the narrative of  ‘all of us are equally responsible’.

Some have more connected contacts than others and some can gain more than others – it is they who have both more to lose and more responsibility for ending the kind of corruption among their friends to which is regularly turned a blind eye.

Frankly, for the political parties, their financiers and their middle and upper ranking beneficiaries, the entire purpose of the state appears to not be about managing the social contract, but to legitimize and launder questionable personal gain.

This isn’t too surprising. Postcolonial societies like ours were founded on the intersection between elites, government and white-collar crime, known as colonialism, and the virtually unchanged state as we inherited it historically provided the managing infrastructure.

I therefore think its worth tempering a story about the role all of us have to play in curbing corruption with one that demands greater responsibility from those with greater privilege and power, as well state officials at all levels. Keep in mind that, in Trinidad and Tobago, confidence in the police and the justice system is half of the world average, and because people feel ‘advantage’ is the order of the day, nobody trusts anybody.

It’s in this context that Transparency International released its Corruption Perception index on Wednesday. Trinidad and Tobago scored 35, with freedom from corruption being 100, and our score was four points lower than in 2013.  Our public sector is increasingly perceived to be corrupt.

This is a global problem, not defined by race, political party or religion. Indeed, resource rich countries are at highest risk of corruption simply because so much wealth creates greater opportunity for public resources to be twisted into private gain at all levels of the state and society. Such wealth may provoke corruption, but tackling state officials’ and institutions’ failure, and failure to hold political and economic elites accountable, might give trust and truth more currency.

The Trinidad and Tobago launch drew different perspectives about how to curb corruption; the proverbial, ‘What we go do?’ question that persistently plagues us in relation to government and state. Some suggestions were for the reintroduction of ethics curriculum in schools. Some felt that corruption was so widespread in our society that it was everyone’s responsibility to not be enticed to pull strings, use contacts or grease palms in their dealings, whether with the Port Authority or Licensing or in securing contracts.

Other suggestions pointed to promised procurement legislation and official structures for monitoring compliance and breaches as well as the necessity for whistleblower legislation.  Ever hopeful, the Trinidad and Tobago chapter of TI has planned trainings with a range of state officials, from the Auditor-General’s office to the Ministry of Planning.

The bottom line is that we are doing poorly.  Without an urgent shift, the only outcome is greater inequality.

Post 232.

Regrettably, it is uncertain whether Tuesday’s Senate vote on the Miscellaneous Provisions (Marriage) Bill 2016 will actually lead to protection of girls from too-early marriage. The Bill has to be passed by the House of Representatives before it becomes law, and it will likely be passed now that the AG has framed it as only needing a simple majority, which the PNM can provide.

However, having been passed, it is likely that a constitutional case will be kick-started to establish whether or not constitutional freedoms were violated and whether or not the AG was correct to tactically switch from a 3/5 to simple majority passage.

No one can tell at this point whether such technical considerations regarding constitutional law will lead to the amendments being overturned or upheld. In the end, it will become about a battle between UNC and PNM, and religious patriarchs versus the state. The best interest of girls, whether or not they represent a minority of marriages, will disappear from priority.

The UNC, under Kamla Persad-Bissessar, helped to create this disgusting situation. In government, the party courted and relied on religious conservatives, and was unwilling to risk ire of this small but vocal segment for a more progressive approach to women’s and girls’ rights. In last Wednesday’s debate, they brought in temporary senators to present perspectives, clearly vetted by the party, which the wider population found shocking and partially misinformed, particularly in terms of why the Children’s Act’s (2012) “Romeo Clause” rightly decriminalizes adolescent sexual relations.

The UNC’s approach was to friend up all sides simultaneously, thereby showing only supreme self-interest. On the one hand, Persad-Bissessar has said she herself supports raising the age of marriage to eighteen years old. On the other, the party brings in men who oppose that position, under the guise of inclusion and representativeness. Such mixed messaging sparked concern, certainly in the women’s movement, that sending the Bill to a Joint Select Committee would lead to it being buried there or watered down to assuage patriarchal interests.

Keep in mind that the legal age for girls to marry is eighteen years old in India and Iraq, and sixteen years old in Pakistan and Egypt. So, let’s be clear that there is no single Hindu, Christian or Muslim perspective on the legitimacy of marrying girls at fourteen or sixteen years old.

It’s in this context of the UNC’s unwillingness to do the best thing for girls that the AG may have wrongly made his tactical switch. The fact that the need for a 3/5 majority was included in the December 19, 2016 version of the Bill is itself a sign that he and the drafters recognized that there were constitutional implications.

The expediency with which those paragraphs were removed was bound to be seized on by the UNC as the AG playing politics with law. So, the AG may have to take his chances in court, at taxpayers’ expense, risking having this key amendment overturned on a technicality, at girls’ expense. I applaud his willingness to push through this legislation, and here the UNC has not one moral leg to stand on, but the AG’s decision has made the process more politicized and messy.

Speaking of messy moralities, the UNC is now using language of “respect for family life” in its constitutional counter punch, showing instead no respect for globally-established, detrimental effects of early-marriage on girls, and global conventions to which we are a signatory. It is unbelievable that girls’ individual life chances are still being subordinated to those of the “family” in a way that is not applicable to boys, with party leadership ignoring such legal inequality.

The Miscellaneous Provisions (Marriage) Bill 2016 simply seeks to raise the age of marriage to eighteen years old. Women’s organisations have argued that possible amendments should have included an exception allowing both girls and boys to marry from sixteen years old, with counseling and parental permission or, instead, a magistrate’s permission given with these adolescents’ capacity, choice and best interest in mind.

As this debate moves to the House, the nation must insist that girls’ self-development and rights are our priority. If you agree, make those 41 MPs represent you. This legislation is overdue.

Post 231.

As I wrote last week, I visited communities where people were forcibly removed from their neighbourhoods, where stalwart ANC activists now live in poverty without pension or insurance, where jailhouses were rocked by such systematized racism it makes you feel ill to think it was all real and not that far in the past.

Now, too little conversation appears possible between White, Coloured and Black Africans, for each occupies such a specific connection to this history that it seems almost impossible to walk in another’s skin. ‘What do you think of South Africa?’, one White woman from Johannesburg asked me. ‘The injustice has never been adequately addressed’, I said, ‘its effects seem to over-determine the lives of many blacks, and inequality appears so stark between racial groups’. ‘Yes’, she responded, as if we were having two different conversations, ‘now that Black people are doing so much better, Whites are having a hard time finding work.’ Her answer deflected engagement with so much of what I saw, for racial and economic inequality remain deeply interlocked in vastly structural ways, whatever a minority of individual and neoliberal gains.

Amidst these contradictions, I wondered what it would require for South Africans to end such a conversation understanding each other’s analyses and agreeing on fundamental truths, without belittling or disrespecting the other.

President Obama said as much in his end of term speech this week, that defeat is forgetting our better selves, our dreams for justice, our call to speak to each other in ways that avoid intent to wound. Whatever the blood on his hands in relation to bombings in Pakistan and his failures to reign in Wall Street impunity, whatever the imperfections of his decisions, like Mandela, he will be remembered for the dignity he brought to public deliberation.

We need far more of that here, for there is a vast chasm between what is required, whether from politicians and state officials or columnists who prefer to pelt small-mindedness rather than fill their word space with hope or strategy. Who will dust off injured good will and find the language and action necessary for a public to remember it can collectively create greater good, and know which best steps are next?

Last year was hell for women, men too, but, the numbers mean more than their simplistic comparison, for many more women are at risk specifically within relationships and in their homes, because they are women and in ways specific to women. Cynicism, meannness, backlash and attacks, however phrased as a bully’s style of jokes, fail to remind us weekly of our best selves and what we need to succeed beyond tears and terror.

This generation needs voices that not only educate, but also inspire by providing maps for us to find courage and effectiveness rather than bulldozers that crush spirits for a dollar a word. To do less is to fail to publicise voices defined by purpose and principle as much as distinction, humility and care.

In this time of anger and despair when everything, both large and small, seems to have become insurmountable and unsolvable, whether it is our levels of violence or our grinding economic slow-down, we have to do better than attack in any direction. We have to, instead, quietly do the work that brings in others in creating incremental improvements in every direction.

I left a troubled country that still dreams of its better self and am bringing home with me a reminder that those dealing in debasement cannot move us ahead, cannot give us the language of such dreams. There will be the difficult conversations, ones we still haven’t found language for, ones in which we disagree. Yet, each of us can do less to erode social trust and public truth if we speak and act for accountability and with humanity.

Mandela’s words have thus traveled home with me: “Let us refrain from chauvinistic breast-beating; but let us also not underrate what we have achieved in establishing a stable and progressive democracy where we take freedoms seriously; in building national unity in spite of decades and centuries of apartheid and colonial rule; in creating a culture in which we increasingly respect the dignity of all”.