Post 330.

There are women in every neighbourhood in Trinidad and Tobago who have terminated a pregnancy at least once. From here, our support to current efforts to decriminalize abortion in Jamaica should be clear.

In T and T, women can risk jail and pay for a private medical procedure. If they cannot pay or because poverty, age, lack of information and partner violence prevented them from being supported enough in this life decision, they could end up in hospital with various harms caused from unsafe options, as more than two thousand woman do here every year.

Illegal terminations can also result in long-term risks to reproductive health. They can be so unsafe that they result in women’s death.

The World Health Organisation estimates that twenty-two thousand abortions are performed in Jamaica every year. Additionally, the Partnership for Women’s Health and Well-being highlights that, “Complications arising from unsafe abortion are among the top 10 causes of maternal mortality in Jamaica, especially among teenagers”.

Banning abortion has never stopped the practice. However, it endangers women. It is a human rights violation which mothers negotiate without recourse to a public health policy that meets their needs.

Illegality also discriminates against poor women, whose right to equal medical treatment, privacy, integrity of the person, and access to sexual and reproductive health services is threatened by a combination of economic and social injustice, and arbitrary and archaic law.

Although women across religion, race, class, educational level and relationship status seek terminations by the tens of thousands under conditions not of their own choosing, poor and young women remain most vulnerable. In the Caribbean. 70% of all unsafe abortions are carried out on women below 30 years old and women 15-49 years old have the highest rate of unsafe abortions globally.

Prevalence of partner and non-partner violence in women’s lives is high, and pregnant women and mothers are at highest risk. Women do not always ‘choose’ to get pregnant when surviving conditions of physical and sexual violence, including forced sex, and such violence may leave them further unable to cope with children.

We fail to provide effective, national sex education. We let women ketch with employers who won’t hire them in case they get pregnant. We turn our heads at self-employed women who have no access to paid maternity leave. We blame poor women for having children they cannot cope with and for terminating pregnancies because they cannot cope. Is this an approach grounded in care, justice and respect?

Women often know they are making the best decision they can at the time, yet criminalization keeps them in fear, shame and silence when they most our need compassion, support and courage. In Jamaica, a woman can be sentenced to life imprisonment for attempting to terminate a pregnancy, and accomplices or facilitators up to three years.

In Trinidad and Tobago, the Offences Against the Person Act similarly makes abortion illegal except in cases of risk to the health and life of a woman. In both countries, many doctors are unwilling to take the risk of interpreting the law, also leaving women vulnerable to doctors’ personal biases.

Jamaican Member of Parliament Juliet Cuthbert Flynn has bravely presented a Motion to the Parliament proposing de-criminalisation of abortion and its replacement by a civil law setting out conditions under which women would be able to access legal and safe termination of pregnancies. The call is to create a Woman’s Right to Pregnancy Act that allows a woman, after appropriate counselling, the right of termination within the first three months of pregnancy and thereafter, if necessary, to preserve her life.

This is necessary because it is just. At 12 weeks, a foetus is four inches long and weighs one ounce. It has all its organs, but none are functioning. It is not able to function fully independently outside the womb until 23 weeks. Aborting an embryo up to 12 weeks is not murdering a baby. In Jamaica, committed Christians have been speaking out in recognition of this call to recognize a mother as a human being with an inalienable right to decide what happens to her body.

This amendment could follow Barbados and Guyana where abortion was decriminalized in 1983 and 1995. Belize, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines have also expanded exceptions that allow for abortion. Jamaican parliamentarians and social justice advocates are to be congratulated for putting this issue on the legislative agenda.

Trinidad and Tobago can show solidarity with such leadership on behalf of women and families. Meanwhile, we watch Jamaica, expectantly.

 

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Post 233.

Adults, including Ministers of Health and Education, political party representatives, religious leaders, police and doctors, are screwing adolescent girls. Check your dictionary for a fuller definition, but here I’ll define screw as ‘to mess someone up’ or ‘to cheat someone out of something’.

Imagine you are an adolescent girl in Trinidad and Tobago who becomes pregnant and decides you cannot manage pregnancy or parenthood. First, what is happening within your body is completely separated from ideas such as consent, choice and rights, as if T and T is not a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Second, you have been denied proper education about sexuality in schools, though it has been established for decades that this is one of the state’s best tools in tackling vulnerability to forced sex including child sexual abuse, high risk of HIV and STDs, early pregnancy, and difficulty negotiating contraception in sexual relations. You also face stigmatization buying contraception, making it less likely that you will do so.

Third, if you become pregnant, you will be prevented from staying in school with your community of peers, and will be sent elsewhere, as if your pregnant body is a source of contamination. Nurses will treat you like pregnancy is your punishment for having sex or having it forced on you. And, indeed pregnancy is your cross to bear regardless of your economic or psychological ability to cope. At least when a house burns down with a baby inside or when the newspaper says your murdered son had turned gangsta, everyone is clear who to blame.

Fourth, if you decide your mental health cannot cope and seek to procure a safe termination, rest assured that the best gynecologists in the country will not to help you, as they consider their own reputations, job security and freedom from criminalisation, rather than advocate for the law to be changed. When you find a good doctor, who bless her or his heart, will help you rather than judge you, you risk being charged by the police, and condemned by religious people more concerned about their beliefs than your care or welfare.

And, if you cannot find a gynecologist who will safely perform a procedure that women have sought for millennia, you can always bleed your way to the nation’s hospitals where about 3000 women a year will end up as a result of complications from unsafe abortions. Or, possibly, become a statistic: 10% of maternal deaths are the result of illegal abortions in Latin American and Caribbean.

For this reason, important clarifications are required.

Pro-choice policy isn’t pro-abortion. It is pro-women-not-dying, and pro-fetuses-not-being-found-buried-in-the-backyard. Fully legalising abortion does not escalate its numbers. Countries where abortion is legal generally have lower rates than those that don’t. Abortion is not a religious issue, unless the woman seeking to terminate her pregnancy is religious and this shapes her decision. It is not a ‘sensitive topic’ unless you are intimately connected to the pregnancy. Then, sensitivity is definitely required.

A referendum is not the way to secure safer and better-managed terminations; it’s a way to play politics and crush its possibility, for religious folk who are also pro-choice will be made to choose a side by opportunistic, patriarchal leadership. Charging women, including minors, and doctors will not stop abortions, it simply makes them more risky.

Abortion is, in fact, not illegal in our Common Law when it preserves a pregnant woman’s mental or physical health, preventing her from becoming a “physical and mental wreck”. Doctors should know this. More than half of the population supports expanded legalization, e.g. in cases of rape and incest. Calls for more discussion will not help mothers seeking terminations, decriminalizing abortion will.

Finally, important clarification is required of the Trinidad and Tobago Medical Association, and its PRO Dr Liane Conyette who is quoted as saying, “As doctors we are charged with protecting the life of all our patients, mothers and their unborn children alike, both of whom have rights that must be considered”. It is unclear where the TTMA sourced its position on the rights of unborn children. Do those rights begin at conception or later? What are those rights? Was this position collectively agreed on? Where is it written? What are the costs of this position for teenage girls?

Girls are cheated out of public education they need; public health procedures that should be safe; public programmes to empower them in the face of sexual violence and sexual exploitation by adults; public legislation that seeks to support their choices and needs; and a public that values girls and women’s lives, especially those who are poor.

The details of this week’s news of a sixteen year old who sought an abortion shouldn’t occupy us as much as the fact that there are many other minors in such precarious situations, and no end in sight. This is what it means to be screwed by adults and authorities, none of whom are publicly on their side.

https://www.guttmacher.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/pubs/IB_AWW-Latin-America.pdf

http://newsday.co.tt/news/0,226655.html

http://www.trinidadexpress.com/20160418/news/time-to-talk-about-abortion

http://www.newsday.co.tt/news/0,19661.html

 

 

Post 231.

On Wednesday, SALISES at UWI held a forum on participatory governance. With the opening line, “Let’s do this together” replacing the usual national sentiment of “Who we go put?”, the intention was to explore the best way to get state accountability, responsiveness and inclusion. Maximum leadership can screw with your constitution, institutions and political directorate for several generations, and this discussion wouldn’t be dogging us today had Williams himself been more democratic and less tolerant of corruption.

The audience suggested pushing for the right of referendum, indeed making it so through a referendum. A network of citizens was formed to create an alternative, people-driven ‘Green Paper’ on Local Government Reform based on the idea that neither had the government process adequately referenced past reform reports nor adequately involved another round of true consultation. The Constitutional Reform Forum has been at this for about 15 years. Still, no point getting mad and marching in the streets, said Michael Harris, the only lasting revolutionary accomplishments are ones that entrench institutional change.

The pervading atmosphere was one of intellectual-elite cynicism about positive developments within officialdom. Indeed, speaker Reginald Dumas noted that he received no response to his offers to advise current bureaucrats and permanent secretaries about what public service professionalism required.

In the past few years, anyone watching Caribbean countries at international negotiations would have seen Foreign Affairs officials championing their own bias, for example against reproductive rights, rather than international conventions which determined the official position. And, if a PS decides homophobia will never be challenged in policy, with no accountability to civil society, the status quo shall be so.

On the other hand, there was passion, driven by painful love for this place and its people. Kirk Waithe, Head of Fixin’ T and T argued that we have failed to demand the government we deserve, reproduce white collar crime and petty corruption to oil the workings of the business community, and have created an environment where you can justify earning $34 million for nothing, because of a technicality, and walk around as brazen as Adolphus Daniell, while small time ganja smokers turn hardened criminals in jail.

He’s right of course. You want change, target the mismanagement, payments and losses happening by the millions, and force disclosure of information.

Remember how Bhoe Tewarie fought the JCC over development of Invader’s Bay, arguing that the state had a right to withhold legal opinion from the nation, despite representing ‘we the people’, and paying for those opinions with our money. Remember it took the Freedom of Information Act to publicise Marlene McDonald’s ongoings, because the PM was willing to overlook what he knew we had not yet proved. Remember how those vacuous ‘Happiness’ campaigns netted Ross Advertising 20 mil. in 2014 alone, although in 2012 and 2013, there was no provision for such expenditure in the company’s corporate communications budget.

Every lost dollar becomes a missing hospital bed, a potholed road or an under-equipped school, while somebody either becomes or can now command ‘Benz Punany’.

As a feminist advocating for issues which will not get mass support in protests, letters or votes in any near decade, all this talk of local government reform and referenda seems necessary, but far removed. Kamla Persad-Bissessar resorted to referendum talk, though human rights should not be determined by a popularity contest. In Bahamas’ referendum in 2002, citizens voted against giving women’s spouses the same right to citizenship as men’s spouses. This was changed by legislators, finally, last month.

We need institutional and constitutional change, and to be corruption watchdogs. Even parliamentary Joint Select Committees need more teeth, observed Ashaki Scott. Yet, we also need to challenge the invisibility or illegitimacy of some issues, or a hierarchy amongst them.

‘Women’s issues’ are citizenship issues central to any politics of inclusion, and their effects filter through the economy, politics and family. LGBT issues are not special interest issues once you understand how constructions of gender and sexuality harm all our lives. To ‘do this together’ is first about widespread justice in village councils, religious communities, health centers and police stations, for  all who, as Lloyd Best describes, wish to become proprietors of our landscape and governors of the dew.

 

Post 228.

A process that began with the 2004 version of a Draft National Gender Policy is soon to be completed. Those years have involved letters to the Editor, media interviews, press releases, strategy meetings, appeals to political representatives and officials, think pieces by columnists, and public actions. All of this to maintain that approval of a gender policy is one measure of a government’s commitment to gender equality.

I put this into national print record because, although a gender policy is a reflection of the state’s position on how equality should be pursued across all ministries, its roots lie with the global women’s movement, which began to pursue women’s and gender policies from the 1980s, and fearlessly criticized governments when those policies missed core issues, contained contradictory positions, or failed at adequate consultation. It was the global women’s movement that mainstreamed the idea that every state policy, from health to education to trade, has an impact on equality and equity, on women’s lives and on the relationship between masculinities and power.

Though an approved gender policy will be marketed by government as a sign of its leadership and liberalism, that story hides the subtext of relentless lobbying by women’s and LBGT movements, whose leaders have survived and been lost to cancer, who faced the harm that comes from religious and atheist backlash to feminist aspirations, and who ushered in another generation of activists by organizing them around policy advocacy.

Hopes have been dashed, such as when ex-PM Manning trashed the first policy draft, forcing Joan Yuille-Williams to backtrack, even though she had pulled the state and women’s movement together to create a progressive product that reflected clear thinking or 20/20 vision rather than a later Vision 2020. As a young activist, I was very critical of her capitulation, but the party machine and Manning’s authoritarianism prevailed. At the time, he infamously made a statement about not believing in ‘gender flexibility’ which can only be described as a denial of vast anthropological scholarship and actual reality.

Hopes were further crushed when the 2009 draft, which informs the one now heading to Cabinet for approval, said in bold type: “The National Policy on Gender and Development does not provide measures dealing with or relating to the issues of termination of pregnancy, same-sex unions, homosexuality or sexual orientation”. In other words, rights for the respectable. There were religious constituencies happy that discrimination and inequality were front and centre in a policy meant precisely to tackle how our beliefs about gender and sexuality reproduce discrimination and inequality; a holier-than-thou, bitter irony.

Marlene McDonald led the process to the 2009 draft. I found myself, also ironically, wishing for elder stateswoman “Auntie Joan”, who included women’s rights in a way that didn’t leave us so utterly kicked out of the door. In the last election, McDonald actually used the PNM Women’s Platform to attack Brenda Gopeesingh and Hazel Brown for the fact that a gender policy was buried alive by Kamla Persad-Bissessar, knowing full well that endless advocacy continued and that the women’s movement cannot be answerable for what Cabinet decides to do or not do.

Keep this very point in mind. The current draft is founded in unfair concessions to intolerance and sheer prejudice, and divides those who have rights from those who will not any time soon. As long as a gender policy fails to acknowledge the role homophobia plays in reproducing sexism, it is running in place. Further, the fact that the policy leaves abortion out of its notion of public health means it excludes thousands of women from its idea of the citizen public.

We will celebrate approval of a gender policy for we value every step forward. We will remember that it is not only a victory for state and party, but for feminist women and men speaking out all these years. However, we will maintain that the policy should leave no woman out because of her health choices, and nor any man or woman because of sexual orientation. We will not forgo all hope that one day an approved gender policy will be inclusive and just, and no longer subject to the Machiavellian politics of governing parties. Advocacy will and must continue.

*For a discussion of the relationship between sexism and homophobia, see this TEDx PoS talk:

Post 185.

HazelBrwownStamp

It’s the stories that I love.

Stories told by women who spent decades pressing for social change, and stories of solidarity by men sometimes almost twice my age. Stories that challenge myths that women of two generations ago were less radical than now and myths that feminist men didn’t exist throughout our history.

I love the stories of activists who came before because they bring our history to life, to their own lives, with laughter and commiseration, with passion and pain, with irony and unexpected twists, making us learn more about successful strategies or forgotten beginnings or our responsibilities to our future.

I love their stories because these efforts, connections and memories are our legacy, as much as the lasting reforms they created, or gains which we must still protect, are our legacy. They are a legacy because too often we think that it takes people who others consider political leaders, or people with university degrees, or those who seem to have more privilege or power to challenge everyday injustices.

Yet, stories by indomitable citizens of all classes and creeds remind us that is not true. These are stories by people who get up and do, working together to provide help or change unequal rules. Such collective love and labour by citizens is also ‘politics’ because it aims to defend their dreams for an emancipated nation and region, and their commitment to equality, independence and rights for women. These stories remind that the struggle for government by the people and for the people is not new.

Fearless Politics: The Life and Times of Hazel Brown is just the conference for those of you who also love everyday stories of those around us who got up and did, just like we do or wish to. The public is invited to attend and participate in this gathering to honour a woman who has spent four decades tirelessly fighting for social change, along with hundreds of others whose names should not be forgotten. But, helping us to remember is precisely what stories do.

Hazel’s own stories include sitting in Port of Spain City Council meetings when she was a child as she waited for the Mayor to sign her report book, because in those days the Council sponsored children’s education. It is here she began to understand government, reminding us maybe we should take our children to watch these meetings as part of their civic empowerment and critical education. Her story of running for election in the 1970s along with women of the Housewives Association of Trinidad and Tobago is a lesson in strategy for those thinking about politics today.There’s hope in working with women to buy, iron, exchange and affordably sell used schoolbooks. Then, heartbreak in her plan for a solar powered radio station that was undermined and never came to be. And there will be more than her stories.

Speaking on Saturday are long time activists in areas from women’s health to community and consumer rights, from sustainable food provision, including solar cooking and grow box agriculture, to women’s political participation and leadership, and from Baby Doll mas to the National Gender Policy.

This conference is for anyone who wishes to know more about struggles for social justice, artists and cultural workers interested in social transformation, activists of all eras and issues, and citizens whose dream for our world remains greater equality, justice, sustainability, cooperation and peace.

Come for stories about roads walked and paths still to be cut, in the spirit of our fearless legacy. This column was published prior to the conference, Fearless Politics: The Life and Times of Hazel Brown. Videos, photos and other conference information are available on the IGDS website and Youtube page. http://sta.uwi.edu/conferences/15/fearlesspolitics/index.asp. https://www.youtube.com/user/igdsuwistaugustine

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Post 170.

After rainy season, Ziya, her Amerindian godmother and I are going to roam the country taking selfies. Also taking the practice of being ‘independent ladies’ seriously, we are stopping at sites where colonial names replaced Amerindian ones and bad ass posing next to those signs with the little remembered Amerindian ones held high. Why?

I had wanted to give Zi a map of the country with as many of the original names as possible, replacing the Spanish, French, British and other names that were imposed through conquest. I wanted her to see her belonging beyond its colonial representation. To understand that this place where the contemporary meaning of ‘dougla’ was invented and could be positively claimed, only existed through the historical meeting of Indians and Africans on once indigenous people’s lands.

That those names have disappeared from our knowledge remains a colonizing act, one claimed as our right at the birth of our independent nation, one for which we remain responsible today.

Because that map doesn’t exist, Zi, her godmother and I were going to make it ourselves, not as a flat, sepia etching as if Amerindians only existed in the past, but as if they continue to live and breathe in the making of Zi’s own memories. For how does teaching an Indian-African mixed girl to connect her navel string to the Mother Trinidad and Tobago of her indigenous godmother enable her to love here differently?

If she became Prime Minister, might she value Parliament’s grounds more for its Amerindian rather than Westminster heritage? If she became a judge, how would she adjudicate future Warao land claims?  As a citizen thinking about highway development, how would she understand the significance of the skeleton found in Banwari Trace being known as the “Mother of the Caribbean”?

Planning this decolonizing adventure, I’ve been reflecting on Eric William’s words that there is no Mother Africa nor India, England, China, Syria or Lebanon, only Mother Trinidad and Tobago, an Amerindian Mother still not called by her original woman’s name.

And, in questioning Mother Trinidad and Tobago’s genesis as conceived by the men who doctored her birth, I’ve also been reflecting on who Mother Trinidad and Tobago has been allowed to be by those who since ruled.

Independent Mother Trinidad and Tobago hasn’t been allowed to be lesbian, for example, which is why women’s desire for other women is criminalized, not since colonial times, but from as late as 1986 when the jackets in Parliament decided that the sole purpose of this Mother’s sexuality was to service a mister or face a jail.

And, except for between 2010 and the present, Mother Trinidad and Tobago has been dominated by men, mostly elite, mostly African and Indian, mostly against their Mother championing too much feminism. So, from 1956 to today, Mother Trinidad and Tobago continues to end up in public hospitals from unsafe abortions along with thousands of other women.  Even with a grandmother holding prime ministerial power, Mother Trinidad and Tobago can’t yet get a gender policy approved or sexual orientation explicitly protected in the Equal Opportunities Act or reproductive rights.

In a little girl’s reconceiving of Mother Trinidad and Tobago on more feminist, more indigenous terms, for she may have only one mother, but she has a godmother too, in telling her that being an independent lady isn’t about your relationship to men and money, but to emancipation, and in making selfies that frame all this in Ziya’s inherited mix, you’ll be surprised at the political potential for the young to imaginatively play with the power of self-definition, even in relation to citizenship.

Post 153.

Why pursue what many consider a lost cause? Battles that seem like they are no longer or never were worthwhile, ones you can expect to be opposed by the majority or by Goliaths around you, ones about which too few seem to care.

Should you simply abandon struggles you are unlikely to win, and re-strategize for the ones ahead? What about when your vision seems unpopular and justice appears impossible? Does it still matter if it’s considered only a minority issue?

Being a part of Caribbean feminist efforts to advance women’s political leadership or end violence or secure the right to safe and legal abortion, I often encounter women and men who think that feminism has no value because gender inequality is natural, normal and inevitable. Then there are others who, inronically, think that feminism is now outdated and worthless because women have all they should already.

Some just think the work needed is too hard and too uphill, but you don’t pursue a principle because it’s popular or easy. You don’t give in because pervasive but inaccurate stereotypes misread what is possible and still necessary.

You stay and fight for change, however large or small, whether opposed by the majority or the dominant because your analysis of rights means that you know the world cannot stay as it is, that wrongs should not occur with impunity and dishonesty, that inequalities reflect on our own humanity.

I seem to support a whole spectrum of supposedly lost causes. They razed the mangrove for Movietowne anyway. The women’s movement supported Mrs. Persad-Bissessar and got a Cabinet with only 10% of women anyway. Both parties shelved the Draft National Gender Policy anyway. Both agreed to extend the criminalization of same sex encounters between minors from ten to fifteen years to life imprisonment anyway. The Partnership is going ahead building the Debe to Mon Desir extension of the highway anyway.

So much for approaches that won’t sacrifice the environment for the economy. So much for equality, even when the PM had enough mandate to set history. So much for government that deals with the problems of boys and men on the basis of policy. So much for ending legalized discrimination justified by nothing other than hypocrisy regarding sexuality. So much for transparent and accountable infrastructural development.

So, why stay?

Our society comes from enslaved and indentured workers who ended globally oppressive systems with nothing but endless resistance, despite every setback. I wouldn’t have any rights if, all over the world, women and men who experienced defeats didn’t dust off and press on, giving me legislation I couldn’t live without today. I’ve learned from social movements on everything from workers’ rights to wildlife protection to abortion that, even if it takes decades, public opinion can be changed. And, I’m clear that when we walk away, gains don’t just stand still, they are systematically eroded away. Benefit from those who came before without giving similarly to those still to come? Not me. No way.

Seemingly lost causes carry the damage from larger, longer battles for emancipation or responsible government or sustainability. Democracy isn’t only about majority rule, it’s about the power of the majority to protect against unfair persecution of minorities. And, you will be surprised to see who can be inspired to care, just through connection or emotion or strategy.

You might see a lost cause. I see a handful of people defending our dreams until others, who have the right numbers at the right time, lovingly, thoughtfully and mightily make those dreams come true. I’m here however I can be until they do.