Post 388.

New MP to the House, Vandana Mohit, shouldn’t have posted about covid19, the PNM and karma. She should also have been sensitive to the fact when you are an Indian woman making such statements about the PNM, those statements will be critiqued for their implicit targeting and alienating of Afro-Trinidadians/Tobagonians. Her use of religious language unmistakably played to Hindu nationalism, and her statement would have been received by a UNC base as politically deploying both racial and religious code. In such a tense post-election national context and at a time when mortality rates will rise, kuchoor was bound to result from such a message and its cheap political scoring.

That said, Senator Laurel Lezama-Lee-Sing also left my eyebrows raised. In response to then sitting PNM MP Maxie Cuffie’s atrocious and unrepentant framing of the UNC in terms of homicidal anti-blackness, with his reference to the party keeping the “knees of the UNC off our throats,” the PNM PRO’s entire response was, “The letter is under the hand of Mr Cuffie and therefore is not an official position of the People’s National Movement.” Nothing else came from the party, despite public backlash about its highly divisive and insulting contents. No apology, no recognition of hurt caused.

In comparison, Lezama-Lee Sing went to town on Mohit’s Facebook post, which was not an official position of the party, calling on her to “apologise to the nation for this nonsense, to recognise the error of her ways, and to commit…she will do better, that she will give more thought before spewing hatred and discord.” She continued, “The oath to which she will subscribe when Parliament convenes demands so much more…and we the people will accept nothing less.”

Both Mohit’s and Cuffie’s statements played on divisiveness and stoked a base. The response to them should not have rolled out a double standard, or impunity for one and blame for poor race relations on the other. It’s like playing a game you are pretending you are not playing, and we the people deserve better.

I think about this especially because Lezama-Lee Sing and Mohit are smart, articulate, hard-working, and ambitious young women with brilliant political lives ahead of them. By brilliant I don’t mean only in terms of their own career path, I mean in terms of their capacity as a younger generation less poisoned by the implicit biases entrenched in their political elders. I mean in terms of their potential to not just follow their parties’ bad habits, but to transform them.

These two, and the other young women (and young men) that are the bright stars of succession planning, hold our fate in their hands. Imagine if we could entrust them to not play the game so cynically and willingly, and rather play on their strengths and their genuine desire to see the country improve. They could usher in a shift from racial codes and logics that harm and dehumanise as part of normal political campaigning.

I admire both these young women. I want to see them, and others whose parliamentary record will emerge over these next five years, do well. Not simply on terms set by their parties, but on terms set by non-partisan hopes of “we the people.” Across race, class, dis/ability and sexuality, we need more of a generation willing to do better than those who came before so their transformational possibilities shine. Low voter turn-out and significant disillusion tell us this plainly. Mauvais langue cannot continue as our rallying go-to.

Thinking further about women in politics, I noted the PM’s swearing-in ceremony comments on August 19. Referring to Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly and Lisa Morris-Julian, Dr Rowley championed putting the nation’s children “in the hands of two mothers.” As Newsday quoted, “They are responsible now, not just for their own family, but the family of the children of TT.”

Motherhood requires an immense skill-set, which usually can never be cited on a resume, so it was intriguing to see it drawn into public life, and the nation cast as a matrifocal family; woman-headed though patriarchal.

But, Ashlee Burnett, young chair of the TT chapter of CIWiL, put it best, “The notion of linking women’s capabilities to serve by how well they can manage the home, not only reinforces a stereotype of traditional gender norms but it also takes away from the years of hard work and effort put into ensuring that they are both competent and the best for the job.”

The double-standard here again signals transformation much-needed by another generation.

Post 387.

There’s much to say about debates over race and ethnicity in Trinidad. What’s clear is the extent to which ideas circulating in our society take on a life of their own. They speak not only to the power of old, pervasive stereotypes, but the bed of trauma on which such views land, making their harm even more painful, and making conversations difficult unless there is mutual acknowledgement of such pain. 

For example, in her racist response to the UNC’s loss, Naila Ramsaran said “I hope Rowley starts putting contraceptives in their water supply”. Her comments echoed eugenist ideas of population control of the poor, primarily because of additional stereotypes of their burden on the state. These have been racialized in terms of Afro-Caribbean family systems and sexual practices since British colonial response to labour resistances of the 1930s, and the emergence of an idea of a state welfare. 

Contraceptives are not poison, and she didn’t threaten to put any in company products, but public condemnation justifiably moved from disgust at her demeaning of PNM supporters to fears regarding public health and the risk of genocide that deliberately poisoned products could pose to Afro-Trinidadian people’s lives. 

The problem isn’t only the racism of individuals on social media today, it’s the ease with which these racist logics circulate, appearing as accessible truths to understand others, but also to undermine them, and it’s their power to take on a life of their own.  

I don’t think the UNC intended its ad, for example, with a poor African child to be racist. I think the UNC was targeting poor Afro-Trinidadian voters who have been abandoned by the PNM, those willing to kick floodwater at Fitzgerald Hinds, those living in the marginalized communities of Chaguaramas and Sea Lots, and those who are the targets of the PM’s committee established after the protests in July.

They were not wrong to target these voters, in fact it’s necessary, but their targeting took up widely available narratives that are reductionist and misleading, and become racist representations. The same emphasis on poor Afro-Trinidadians at the bottom of the social and economic hierarchy comes from some local Black Lives Matter voices, and from those calling for an end to the Concordat because schooling disparities leave young Afro-Trinidadians poor and excluded. 

The idea of Africans at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder is an Afro-Trinidadian discourse that non-Africans hear, and may also believe, and it combusts into a life of its own as it moves across ethnicity and when it is then taken up in simplistic or opportunistic ways or should not be taken up at all.

So, the conversation isn’t whether the UNC or PNM, or Indians or Africans or anyone else, is totally racist. It’s not about a contest to list offensive political advertisements or statements, or post social media screenshots. 

Both parties have played on racial logics for decades, and swathes of the population heard and felt echoes of these logics as, at best, race-baiting and, at worst, as deliberate racism. These perceptions are the reality we have to unpack and confront, for it is here that layers of historical narratives, stereotypes, fictions and exclusions step in, creating disagreement over both history and the present, and a sense that the other does not prioritize our hurt or healing. 

What is critical is that different groups may hear these logics differently, sometimes may not hear them at all, sometimes may not consider them valid perceptions, or may see them as inconvenient but historically-accurate truths. 

Ideas we hold and convey about ourselves and each other are filled with dangerous myths, which at some times are expediently wielded and at others deeply wounding, bringing many to conversations about race with deep sense of pain. Political parties will play all this as long as it exists. We will have solid bases for accusing each other of racism, and blindness to it, as long as such logics live and breathe in our shared terrain.

There are continuous examples of victimhood because racial, gendered and classed ideas determine our grasp of history, validate shortcuts for explaining distrust and inequities, create both platforms and silences, and establish group identities and boundaries that can be conveniently exploited for political power.   

Where these discourses come from, when they can be drawn upon, why they remain effective, what truths they capture and hide, and what harms they continue to enact are necessary conversations to have as people making one nation out of the challenges of such complexity and contradiction.  

Post 386.

Last week, I suggested there would be nine to 13 women in the Lower House. Now, that number is 11, with only two of these being Indo-Trinidadian women, not one of whom is from the PNM despite claims that the party is nationally inclusive.

TT’s parties need to show their commitment to more equitable representation of women (across race, disability and sexual orientation) in ways that increase their numbers in the House, where the nation’s decisions are made. At 26 per cent as of today, we have actually moved backward, and there is little to celebrate about a near shatter-proof glass ceiling in 2020.

Such marginalisation of women is ever more important as the world faces health and economic crises that will exacerbate gender inequalities, but is blind to such inequality as a substantive issue.

Globally, men are 75 per cent of parliamentarians, 73 per cent of managerial decision-makers, and 72 per cent of executives of global health organisations. As UN Women points out, disaster preparedness and recovery plans also rarely include women’s needs and interests, and tend “to be developed with little or no sex- or gender-disaggregated data and little input from national gender equality representatives or women’s organisations.”

The PNM’s manifesto, our guide for the next five years, similarly highlights the low priority given to ending gender inequality. The manifesto was based on the Prime Minister’s Road to Recovery Committee, comprising 14 per cent representation by women, two of whom represented the public service, with one of these acting as secretary to the committee.

The long active women’s movement was completely excluded despite the fact that, on the ground, women provide the majority of care as front-line workers in hospitals, schools and community organisations, and as carers of the ill, aged and children at home. Women also work in the hardest-hit sectors such as accommodation and food services, retail trade, administrative activities, and the informal economy, already predominate in the lowest income brackets, and will be less able to benefit from economic stimulus plans because of their greater responsibility for unpaid care work.

None of this is acknowledged anywhere in the manifesto. It is oblivious to a sex-disaggregated picture of the economy, the extent to which it shows unequal distribution of income, ownership, labour and opportunity, and the explicit need to address this as part of national recovery.

Women are mentioned on two pages of the manifesto, where they are characterised in terms of motherhood, welfare and vulnerability. Advancing gender equality, as a goal and responsibility of democratic governance, is not integrated across economic planning, agriculture or housing.

Some women will benefit from plans outlined. However, given that women are a minority of manufacturing business owners, own account employers, contractors or construction workers, for example, means there will inevitably be inequality in women’s direct inclusion and benefit from the manifesto’s plans. Gender-blindness in the recovery committee led to invisibility or insignificance of such outcomes. That said, the one civil society representative, who should have raised this issue seems to have focused on ensuring that single fathers are mentioned five times.

The manifesto includes a commitment to “implement policies which improve the lives of women and children such as the National Policy on Gender and Development,” but doesn’t speak to approving the policy. This may continue the status quo where parts of a draft policy, not formally approved by Cabinet, are being implemented, creating significant policy and public confusion.

The manifesto also commits to fund shelters, transitional facilities, and strategies to end gender-based violence. This is welcome. Thus far, shelters, victim and witness support, and the GBV Unit have received vastly insufficient funding to meet public need. The Government will also be formulating a second national strategic action plan to end gender-based and sexual violence, after letting the last one lapse for four years. Here, resourcing the plan, so the Government puts money where its manifesto says it will, is key.

UN Women (in Policy Brief #18) calls on governments to 1) ensure that decision-making bodies are gender-balanced, 2) harness existing gender equality institutions and mechanisms in the pandemic response, 3) ensure that gender equality concerns are embedded in the design and implementation of national covid19 policy responses and budgets in ways informed by sex-disaggregated data, and 4) include and support women and women’s organisations in covid19 response decision-making.

None of this was promised, and is yet to be seen. I’ll wait to celebrate when we see basic commitment to, as the UN puts it, “building back better” than before covid19.

Post 385.

For three decades, there have been calls for more equal representation of women in Parliament, our nation’s highest decision-making body. This has never been taken seriously despite ritual lip service to women’s rights and gender equality.

Most citizens just want a leader, regardless of sex, who is committed to fairness and who won’t become corrupt. There’s also significant public scepticism about whether women improve the policies and legislation that are introduced.

We haven’t seen most elected women make transformational differences across the Caribbean. Some have. Billie Miller in Barbados and Gail Teixeira in Guyana fearlessly legalised women’s right to safe termination. Joan Yuille-Williams uniquely championed the draft National Gender Policy, before it was crushed by Patrick Manning, and left without approval to this day.

Often, people also want elected women to exercise greater independence in the face of their political leaders, other men, and the kinds of sexist and homophobic political culture they blithely entrench. Yet, from childhood, women are deeply socialised to conform to and uphold male power and patriarchal standards. They are demonised, stereotyped, discredited and sidelined when they don’t. This operates in Cabinet and Parliament just as much as it does every day in our families, workplaces, places of worship and communities.

Women and men are socialised by and often share the same beliefs, but face different and unequal risks for challenging them. Simply being a woman in public life is a risk, and given the authoritarian style of party leaders, women are much more likely to tow the party line and to prove their loyalty, a quality long associated with femininity.

Last week, I highlighted victim-blaming by the PNM Women’s League, and their defence of violent masculinity. As Colin Robinson pointed out on Sunday, such loyalty may also extend to being a “respectable” mouthpiece for sexist and homophobic politics on the hustings, rather than opting to “go high” as women across party divides.

Women are also likely to prioritise respectability that other powerful men, such as those controlling religious constituencies, will accept. For to do otherwise is peril. My deep disappointments about Kamla Persad-Bissessar were, among others, that she failed to end legal child marriage, approve a national gender policy, and create a Children’s Act that wasn’t discriminatory, all to keep patriarchal religious leadership on side the UNC.

Will this election bring any change? What do voter trends and predictions regarding “marginal” constituencies mean for women’s leadership and gender equality?

The PNM is fielding 14 women candidates. With expected wins in Arima, Arouca/Maloney, St Ann’s East, Tobago West and D’Abadie/O’Meara, they can count on five women on the PNM side. Tobago East is being contested by Watson Duke so Ayana Webster-Roy may or may not make the sixth.

None of these are Indian women, which speaks to this group’s lower inclusion in the party as well as the fact that five of them are being fielded in constituencies they can’t win: Siparia, Oropouche West, Fyzabad, St Augustine, Couva North, Chaguanas West, and Princes Town.

Of the 14 women candidates, eight are sacrificial lambs. Indeed, one can argue that women candidates were primarily placed in losing seats. This is typical globally, and is also one of the reasons for women’s lower levels of public office.

The UNC is fielding 12 women candidates. Of these, four are likely wins: Chaguanas East, Siparia, St Augustine and Tabaquite. Three are not clear: La Horquetta/Talparo, Moruga/Tableland, and Toco/Sangre Grande. There’s ethnic mix among those who can win. The five put in unwinnable seats are mainly non-Indian.

If these numbers hold, nine women will be in the Lower House, with possibly four more. Together, at the most, that makes 13 of 41, or 32 per cent. Of these, two will be Indian women, far fewer than either their numbers or qualifications deserve, suggesting a complex mix of racialised and gendered push-and-pull factors at play.

Increasing the numbers of women in politics remains a symbolic and substantive goal. Women, who are half of the population, deserve to be more than one-third of decision-makers, particularly in a country where they have dominated tertiary education for the last 20 years, and are certifiably more qualified by the thousands. If men historically hit this glass ceiling up to today, there would be a national outcry about entrenched male marginalisation.

For women to advance greater gender equality and social justice in policy, law and society, as we hope they will, Caribbean scholarship shows they need a critical mass of much more than 30 per cent, they need the freedom to vote by conscience rather than in ways beholden to a political leader, and they need a groundswell of citizens and male political allies, for whom equality, inclusion, non-discrimination and human rights matter, to be the wind beneath their wings. This election will not achieve that, illuminating the limits of our democracy.

Entry 384.

Gender and sexuality often become weaponised in electoral campaigns, providing a chance to observe contesting values in democratic life.

Women, and particularly young women, remain vulnerable to attacks on the basis of their bodies, dress, marital and parental status, and sexuality. One man, in the year 2020, thought it appropriate to ask on Facebook, “Should unmarried women with children be allowed to contest the general elections?”

This highlights how much patriarchal conjugality, and wifehood, police women’s citizenship. Such a question is not innocent. Women were once considered to be unfit for employment if unmarried mothers. They had to fight to vote, and run for office, because they were considered to be represented by their husband, as his subordinate whose responsibility was to rock the cradle, not rule the world.

Take the social media attack on UNC’s Toco/Sangre Grande candidate, Nabila Greene. It’s actually irrelevant what women, and young women, do in private, legal and consensual entanglements. It’s irrelevant whether they do it married or unmarried, with same-sex partners, naked or covered in money.

Undermining women’s aspirations for political leadership, through breaking their trust and violating their privacy, is a deliberate containment of their democratic participation. And, it works. It’s one disturbing reason why there are fewer women in political leadership today.

Decades of feminist activism, against sexism in leadership, double standards regarding respectability and “slut” shaming, has enabled a generation of young women and men to grow up aware that shame should be placed on perpetrators of “revenge pornography” and those who turn to personal attacks on women’s gender and sexuality to win.

UNC PRO, and herself a young woman, Anita Haynes was “on the money” when she responded, “What I have seen is that for female candidates, in particular, the attacks are always personal. They always attempt to put us in positions to have us confirm or deny things from what could be from your private life.” There was “nothing in the video that debars someone from holding office. The goal there is to shame someone…And that shame will prevent you from running and will prevent you from representing your people.”

By contrast, Camille Robinson-Regis, playing old-school marm, described the video as raising questions about the moral compass of a person who engages in this kind of conduct and as raising “serious questions about the person’s ability to exercise sound judgment.” The chairman of the PNM’s Women’s League missed the opportunity for a non-partisan message, to all young women entering politics, that women should be judged by their qualifications, contribution, capacity and potential, and that all parties should hold to this standard. Isn’t this precisely what a Women’s League should stand for?

In other lead-up moments, there were two instances of homophobic electioneering, first in San Juan/Barataria, and then in the recirculation of an old Jack Warner diatribe from 2015. The less said about Warner, the better.

In response to the first instance, PrideTT called on all parties to refrain from personal attacks based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity/expression, asserting that these have “no bearing on their ability and qualifications to do any job in T&T.” Homophobia is widespread and real, yet I was impressed by the Nur E Islam’s disavowal of its power to exclude good citizens from office, particularly if they are practising Muslims. These are the community-level nuances of democracy in action, not captured by polls.

Two final examples highlight continued tolerance for gender-based and sexual violence, which are not yet considered so abhorrent that they deny men political legitimacy. An interim protection order was granted against candidate Winston Peters by a woman who publicly stated she feared for her life and has made a report to the GBV Unit. This time, PNM’s Robinson-Regis defended Gypsy, saying the allegations were not an election issue. Then, there are Watson Duke’s charges of rape and sexual assault.

Weighing in, Womantra and allied feminist organisations called on “all political parties to give an undertaking that persons who are accused of domestic violence and sexual offences, including sexual harassment, will not be nominated as candidates pending their exoneration by the relevant authorities.” If nothing else, understand young women’s fear that these could be the men who hold power over them and to whom they must pay respect, like those abusive uncles who somehow retain their place and authority in the family.

Elections provide historic ground for struggles over citizenship and democracy. Such struggles are always interwoven with public deliberation and negotiation over gender and sexuality.

Post 383.

The school term finally ended, one like no other in our living memory. The experience our children had will connect them as a generation for the rest of their lives.

Ziya’s school taught classes every day, covering some math, English, Spanish, social studies, music and PE. The children learned a lot, both about distance and connectivity.

As a working mother, I was grateful. It’s challenging to work and parent simultaneously, and school provided a few well-organised hours of focus. I’d listen with one ear while the teacher chided the class for not knowing all the words to the anthem, reminded them not to eat at the computer, repeated the importance of learning to listen, and tried to instill all kinds of manners. With their voice present daily inside my home, I grew grateful for how much teachers contribute, freshly appreciating their daily commitment to filling gaps in our parenting. Teachers, like nurses, should be better paid than CEOs.

Meanwhile, soon after knocking water over her laptop and frying its electronics, Zi became computer-proficient. She could type, upload her assignments and check her own e-mail. Suddenly, she understood e-mail. I loved seeing her upskill even as I noted our own entanglement in the expanding digital divide.

There’s no doubt about it, computer and internet access are a privilege, and will deepen systemic class distinctions in exam results and school places. They will exacerbate unequal opportunity for children globally, which is why access to the internet is increasingly considered a human right. Our children are in a world so different from our own childhood.

One evening, when she was resisting a rule I had insisted on, Zi even threatened to put me out of the “Zoom meeting.” It was like a newspaper headline marking a historical moment. We were lying on her bed, not actually in a Zoom meeting, and I could only shake my head at post-covid19 lingo for punishment for giving trouble. Imagining the new vocabulary that will define school chatter and news-carrying in September makes me smile.

Zi loved dressing up in clothes she chose, attending class in shorts, eating breakfast leisurely, having lunches together, and being near to us all day. She missed her friends and wandering the hall in her school terribly, but when term opens, it will be clear that there was much we gained during this time.

Prior to schools closing, she was racing from school to extracurricular activities to her grandmother’s or her dad’s, and then home. It seemed we were always arriving back late from my work hours and hustling to bed, or getting home and spending the evening doing homework. The whole week felt like a rush. It was a joy and labour of love, but pace.

Being freed of traffic, experiencing school without stressful demands and the anxiety of tests, inventing ways to occupy herself on evenings, and simply staying in one place seemed to enable her to mature and mend. We cooked, gardened, took walks, and it genuinely felt like she exhaled. She just needed to come off the treadmill and its breakneck haste.

I began to think about the costs of our emphasis on achievement. Seeing her now, more loving, independent, settled and calm, I know her heart would not have grown as much at the speed she was functioning, with the rotation of activities she was doing, or with even the number of people she was interacting with on a weekly basis.

You have to know your child. Some need greater stillness and quiet, time between transitions from one place to the next, less pressure and fewer personalities, and the room they are given becomes filled with emotional growth.

I wonder how many children are like her, keeping up and even thriving, but with inner needs that our world undervalues or speeds past. I think about the children whose aggression would subside, whose silences would break open, and whose capacity to navigate difficult feelings would improve if they had to manage a little less for enough time, could fit into themselves, and, without fear of failure, slow down and breathe.

I’m in awe at how little I understood this, perhaps because there seemed simply no chance to stop until everything ground to a halt. I’m alarmed by the fact that I would have pressed her through, which at the same time would have held her back. What she lost in schoolwork, she found in her heart. After a term like no other, it’s the lesson I’ll remember.

Post 382.

Out on the streets, they call it murder.

Yet, authorities have been deafeningly silent on state violence as the real destruction of law and order. Meanwhile, criminalized and predominantly Afro-Trinidadian communities led the nation in decrying unjust state killings, even as their insistence on all citizen’s rights and humanity was met with tear gas and live bullets.

Seeing mistrust on all sides, I’ve wondered where we find common ground in the midst of national divisions of class, race, geography and party. Thinking even of my own analysis, I asked Akosua Edwards and Nichola Harvey-Mitchell, women recently appointed to lead an official response, what words might bridge those divides with hope.

Akosua responded, “My hope lies in seeing the wider community recognize that we cannot enjoy a decent life in Trinidad and Tobago if so many of our communities feel as if they are ignored. The other feeling of hope comes from seeing the talent, potential, heart, fight, the warriors and the longing coming from the members of the community. I know and have seen those who are willing to show up, to lead, to shift. They are there. They can do more with the right support and tools”.

“The young warriors are now saying we are no longer accepting victimhood or accepting the stories that we have been hearing about ourselves, we want to create our own story and we are asking for support. If you are unwilling to support us, we will find a way and that way may involve some uncomfortable situations and truths. I am hopeful because many of who I call the warriors on the ground want a to live a life of dignity and self-respect right here in Trinidad and Tobago. Let’s tap into this want. This moment is urgent and my hope comes from the fact that our responses will be from a space of being grounded and being ready to listen and act. This is not an event; this is a process. A process takes time and support.”

Nichola agreed, “We cannot give up on the young people, the community and the country. We have created and can nurture confident, competent, empowered youth leaders who know their skills, ability and potential. They may think question whether they are smart because they didn’t go to the best school, but when you give their raw talent an opportunity to shine, we know that they can be great.”.

“The people who are protesting must be given an opportunity to express their frustration, but the solution must come in a structured way with timelines and expectations. Others must be patient, because it takes time to transition and we are all humans with different backgrounds, history and environments to live in. You never know until you walk in someone else’s shoes. After we empower children, how do we get them jobs?  Change is not immediate. We have to be there for the long haul and sustainability. We need an agreement on what Trinidad and Tobago looks like for all of us, a common vision that keeps us together. As a country we need to have tolerance and patience to make the changes we want to see”.

Tolerance, patience and truth. Dr. Rowley blamed 2004 when he was criticized for channeling state funds to “young Africans” and he blamed Life Sport, both of which pointed fingers at the UNC. He didn’t mention that, since the 1961 Crash programme, these communities have been subdued by police and kept as dependent safe seats. He side-stepped how hyper-inflation of CEPEP and URP budgets under Patrick Manning funneled increased income for illegal guns, and how militarization of policing, begun from 2002, set the turn to excessive force today. He was silent on Minister Imbert’s de-funding of the Citizen Security Programme, which was effectively facilitating greater peace.   

These are not under-resourced communities, at least not in comparison to vast swathes of the country, including much of rural Trinidad. However, over decades, money was disbursed in ways that didn’t adequately address trauma, strengthen community autonomy, create the schools that children need, and provide sustainable alternatives to gangs. On the one hand, police violence was the trigger last week. On the other, there have been decades of harm.

With power presenting one reality and the disadvantaged retaliating against another, truth and decency mean that it matters who and what we believe. This generation needs alternatives to deep divisions, and more honest political narratives. If such moral outcry is to matter to us all, hope is necessary.   

Post 381.

As election season blows in, many of us, perhaps a growing number, continue to hope that political parties will fight a clean campaign. I think particularly of young people, voting and perhaps paying attention for the first time, and the example they will see. I think of the young women being trained by the Caribbean Institute for Women in Leadership (CIWiL) and their fears they have about the greater risks they face as future candidates when the fight for power gets dirty.

In hoping for a clean battle, ordinary citizens have a tool to hold parties to account. It is a Code of Ethical Political Conduct, first created in 2014 and revised last year in time for the Local Government election. The Code is available on the website, www.politicalethicstt.org, and provides a basis for complaints to a Council for Responsible Political Behaviour, comprising citizens and political parties.

I joined the Council last year, as a representative of the Network of NGOs of Trinidad and Tobago for the Advancement of Women, and have learned a lot since. The Code encourages peaceful, free and fair elections, tolerance and respect for human rights. It secures parties’ commitment to refrain from practices that promote divisiveness and violence. All political parties – including emerging and small ones – should be a signatory to the Code, which means that they agree to uphold the integrity of the electoral process in their own campaign and in that of their rivals.

This may sound like a lot of nice, but ineffectual words except they refer to real challenges we face. In the last weeks, we have seen personal attacks on candidates in San Juan/Barataria, allegations of biased hamper distribution in some constituencies, racially-opportunistic posturing by sitting MPs, and even months of instability in Guyana created by lack of electoral integrity. The goal is to stop descent into hate and violence through building consensus on some basic ethics to which we can all agree.

All over the world, codes such as these are used by citizens to report abuses of persons and power, and to argue that basic decency should not be collateral damage of politicians’ ground war. From a broader perspective, we should do whatever we can wherever we can to promote peace, for a more politically peaceful society is also one with greater peacefulness in communities and families.

The Council starts election monitoring three months prior to 5th anniversary date of the last election, or three months before an election is normally considered due. It monitors political parties, candidates and supporters’ adherence to the code, often on the basis of citizens’ complaints of violation of the Code to the Council web page, or the email info@politicalethicstt.org.

I’ve been impressed and guided by the complaints that come in, which show how many citizens value fairness, are appalled by demeaning language and disgusted by corruption, and believe that candidates’ gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and religion should not be attacked or a basis for discrimination.  

The Code also prohibits use of rewards, such as money and groceries, to induce citizens to join a party, attend a public meeting or vote for a candidate. I wrote my PhD on, among other things, election campaigning in a marginal constituency in 2002, and I can tell you, with full certainty from over a year of fieldwork, that inducements were common practice then, particularly for a party in power with access to welfare and other resources.

Poor voters would be threatened with loss of CEPEP or URP jobs if they didn’t visibly campaign. Poor people are smarter than politicians though. For all of them would talk about wearing the shirt and waving the flag, before voting how they choose. In a sense, this is why political parties get desperate and resort to all kinds of shadowy strategies – particularly when it is a close call, as in this election, and when momentum builds to do anything you must to win.

The Code enables us to not simply be voters, but to informally govern the hustings and to assert the terms and conditions by which competing parties should abide. It gives us power during the campaign and not just at the ballot box. It says that ‘we the people’ are watching. The Council has no legal teeth, but ethical words and deeds should not have to be enforced with a heavy hand. They should be a symbol of all that a party stands for, and being regularly reminded of that expectation by a cross-section of citizens should suffice.

Post 380.

Decades of advocacy to end gender-based violence have led to some changes worth commending. The latest step is the Domestic Violence Amendment Bill which expands protections for children, the elderly, persons with disabilities, and some dating and visiting relationships. 

Debated in the Senate on Monday, it was assuring to see support on both sides for preventing domestic violence and protecting victims. Senator Wade Mark himself mentioned that amendments proposed by the UNC in 1999, which would have allowed police to enter a home without a warrant to stop domestic violence, were not supported. Over twenty years, global and regional advocacy continued to press for a response that prevents and protects, changing legislation all over the world, creating new norms, and making this the now accepted and required response. 

The Bill also removes the need to preserve the institution of marriage from the Court’s consideration in determining the terms of a protection order. After decades of women being told by police and magistrates to try to make a violent relationship work, for the sake of marriage and family, advocacy also created greater recognition that this repugnant norm should no longer have legal teeth. 

In their speeches, Senators, Khadijah Ameen, Hazel Thompson-Ahye, Sophia Chote, Anthony Vieira and Charrisse Seepersad, spoke in favour of expanding protection to those adults sharing a home who are not related by consanguinity or affinity, meaning blood or marriage. 

The Alliance for State Action to End Gender Based Violence has argued such expanded protection would reflect the diversity of those sharing domestic spaces today. In the oncoming economic contraction, many unrelated persons will have to share homes as they are less able to afford rent or expenses on their own. All persons who ordinarily or periodically reside in the same dwelling deserve equal access to protection by law from domestic violence.

The AG described this as a “Pandora’s Box”. In Greek mythology, Pandora’s Box released great and unexpected troubles on the world when opened. “How will we draw a line on who is a member of a household?”, he asked. So, the brouhaha is not over provisions, but over definitions. 

Here, the role of legislators is not to determine which consenting adults can or cannot be members of a household, but to protect those who are. This is why Colin Robinson, in his column, argued that “member of a household” could simply be changed from “a person who habitually resides in the same dwelling house as the applicant or the respondent and is related to the applicant or respondent by blood, marriage or adoption” to a person who shares the house and/or is related by blood, marriage or adoption. It’s hyperbole by the AG to make inclusion of an ‘or’ the cause of many unforeseen problems. 

The consequences are well-foreseen by the AG, and they relate to changes to what he has identified as 23 pieces of legislation, such as related to immigration, sexual offenses and children.  He’s repeatedly said he is “urgently” waiting for Jones v. TT to be decided by the Privy Council so he can get guidance on amending these laws. 

This is a bit of balderdash. The AG can amend all these laws without waiting for the judgment, and Parliament has the authority to pass all such amendments if it boldly chooses the right side of history. 

A Privy Council decision will compel the AG to make those changes. It will lord over any legal challenges, protecting him from having to defend these evolving norms himself. The Pandora’s Box isn’t ours, and it isn’t about legal conundrums. It is his, and it is entirely political. 

Senators were not oblivious to this, nor to their own parties’ complicity, which is why recommendations to expand protection were voted against by 16 PNM senators with 9 UNC senators abstaining, and only 4 Independent Senators, Anthony Vieira, Paul Richards, Sophia Choate and Charisse Seepersad, voting in favour.  

Yet, the call for a larger definition of “member of household” is not only about same-sex relationships. What we watched on Monday was the way that intent to deny protection to those relationships left others also excluded. It shows our deep interconnection with each other, and the jeopardy of thinking some can be denied rights without consequences for us all. 

The Pandora’s Box isn’t the risk of opening broad inclusion of domestic relationships. It is the release of the harms of discrimination, of sacrifice of some citizens for votes, of cowardice by representatives who well know what is right.  

In the Greek story, all that was left in the box was Hope. So, we continue to advocate for state response to all victims’ needs, and for a culture of tolerance, rights and peace, knowing that this is what we must do so legislators that today deny necessary provisions, tomorrow will agree.

Post 379.

When a woman experiences partner violence, her neighbours, friends and family can report even if she does not. Often, neighbours and families witness or experience violence or its threat because of their relationship or proximity to a victim. The more we all report is the more we empower police to respond and can hold them accountable for doing so.  

Reports of domestic violence do not require women to seek a protection order to ensure their safety. Threats and violence by partners and relatives are also criminal offenses, and police can immediately investigate and charge perpetrators.  

As the Coalition Against Domestic Violence has stated, “It is time that the police develop and implement a zero tolerance policy for domestic violence. If a serious offense has been committed or is threatened, the police must act independently, whether the victim cooperates or not”. 

Proposed amendments to the Domestic Violence Act include provisions for undertaking risk assessments. Upon reports being made, a risk assessment should be undertaken so that police can predict whether lethal harm is likely. A protocol should then be in place which connects with the courts, psychiatric intervention, and social services.  Police should also check perpetrators’ history of violence.

As Conflict Women’s recent press release reminded, Michael Maynard was charged with rape and released on bail in 2018. In February this year, after a history of violence, he killed his 8-year old daughter, Makeisha.  In response to a report by her mother, police were willing to go with Tricia Ramsaran-Ramdass to remove her belongings from the house. The TTPS press release states, “She never did, but instead, moved back into the same home with her spouse until her death on June 9th”. 

Perpetrators, not victims, should be removed from a home. Nonetheless, we must keep in mind that leaving a home does not guarantee that violence will end. Women are at greater risk when they begin to leave or have left, and threats and intimidation continue long after they attempt to end relationships. 

In the case of Tricia Ramsaran-Ramdass, she was fearful of a partner who killed one woman already. It had been years of torture. Her family was also vulnerable. Such terror can lead women to return to abusive partners repeatedly. 

Love, hope, forgiveness, guilt, loss of self and self-blame are always enmeshed in such decisions, but such complexity should never distract from the fact that responsibility for violence always lies with the perpetrator and, in many cases, his controlling practices, his beliefs in traditional gender roles and male dominance, his history of witnessing, experiencing or expressing violence, and triggers such as substance abuse.  

The proposed amendments also allow police to seek emergency protection orders electronically through judicial officers, enabling them to be granted quickly. They allow Interim Orders to be granted after the second hearing where adjournments are being sought by the court and/or respondent.  In 2017-2018, over one-third of more than 9000 applications were dismissed, 72% of adjournments were related to the unavailability of the magistrate, and only 29% resulted in a protection order. 

The amendments address the needs of victims who appear repeatedly at court and leave without even protection on paper. Expanded beyond cohabitation and marriage, the amended legislation will enable some persons in visiting and dating relationships to seek protection orders.

There are expanded protections for children, including those who are witnesses to domestic violence. Mandatory reporting to police is now required if domestic violence is being perpetrated against vulnerable groups, such as the elderly or persons with disabilities. Such reports should also be able to be made to the Division of Family Services and Children’s Authority. 

The Alliance for State Action to End Gender-based Violence, comprising over 20 civil society organisations, including The UWI, continues to call for the amendments to protect all persons who experience violence in a domestic context, regardless of family status or gender. To continue to exclude some from protection is to define who can share domestic space or have relationships. That is not the point of the DV Act. It should provide protection without discrimination. 

My condolences to the family of Tricia Ramsaran-Ramdass, 37 years old and mother of one. We should all commit to preventing such violence in whatever way we can. These amendments will be debated in Parliament next week.

The GBV Unit and Special Victims Department are important, but as yet underfunded, steps in the right direction. Where police and judiciary can improve, the only headlines should be about how much is possible and how soon.