Post 326.

The government is proposing amendments to the Sexual Offences Act which would put a National Sex Offenders Register in motion. Civil society organisations have been welcomed into the process, and have argued for a rights-based and restorative justice approach to this legislative proposal.

Registries enable convicted offenders to be tracked so societies can take preventative actions to protect vulnerable groups.

It’s clear that traffickers, pimps, consumers and producers of child pornography, and repeat sexual offenders, particularly against children, present a risk that emerges from opportunity, impunity, and the need for greater integration of information, social services, policing and border security.

But, for some other convicted offenders, being put on a register may not be the best approach. Some categories of offenders, such as sex workers, should be understood in terms of their vulnerabilities, not as a risk to society. Sex work doesn’t have to be decriminalised for such protection, though this is definitely needed. Rather, those convicted under this category in the Sexual Offences Act can be exempted.

Putting up convicted offenders’ names in every police station to name and shame may result in increased vulnerability as children and those who report are blamed for the effects to families’ names, and blamed for convicted sex offenders’ difficulty working and living after they have completed their sentences. Indeed, reporting is still low when whole families know about child sex abusers in their midst because of fear of scandal and a belief that such matters should be kept private.

Civil society groups have argued that the register should be private, but fully available to protective services, social services, the judiciary, immigration officials and more. As well, CAISO: Sex and Gender Justice, as part of a wider coalition, has suggested that a ‘duty to verify’ by employers, religious authorities, school authorities, sports groups and day care centres, for example, is better than a public list and similarly ensures that children can be protected from offenders. These groups should request confirmation whether or not those with such potential access to children are on the register. This, rather than full public accessibility, should be built into the amendment.

Civil society groups are also arguing for clear protocols for the judiciary – where sentencing takes place and where it is decided which offenders would be registered. For example, a teacher who fails to report out of fear for her life would have a case to be kept off the register but the list is potentially very broad and it’s not clear where the onus is placed. Should an abused mother have to make a case for why she should not be convicted and put on a register or should the courts have clear guidelines that specify that registered offenders should be those that present a clear risk? These matters can be dealt with through a special division of the court, applying and extending model guidelines for dealing with sexual offences, and use of psychological assessments.

The register’s power to prevent sexual offences is limited by low rates of reporting and lower rates of conviction. As civil society has observed, one in five women will experience sexual abuse from someone other than her partner in her lifetime. Of every 75 women who do, only 12 (16%) will report it, 6 (50%) will have those reports become a legal case, and only one conviction (17%) will result. This means that trust in the system of policing and prosecution must be strengthened such that victims and others are prepared to report. It means that the rates of successful convictions must improve or else only a minority of sexual offenders will actually make it on the register. Currently, the majority of sexual offenders will remain unaffected by this valuable amendment.

Thinking about the rates of intimate partner sexual violence, which is reported by between 3% and 16% of women, were the system of justice to work as it should and both reporting and convictions match prevalence, it would mean that tens of thousands are registered – without mandatory rehabilitation upon conviction being part of the process.

Strengthened protocols and protections that encourage reporting, integration of experts in psychological assessments, comprehensive sex education, and widespread gender-based and sexual violence sensitisation across all ages have been recommended by civil society.

A register alone cannot change beliefs normalising child sexual abuse and sexual violence against women. Integrated institutional response, clear protocols, monitoring, and a commitment to gender equality are necessary for it to be effective in ways presented to a public desperate for solutions.

 

 

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Post 325.

YOUNG PEOPLE were the most joyous part of Saturday’s International Women’s Day march. Many were university students bringing their friends, their homemade posters, their radiant energy, and their sense of participating in their moment in history.

The goal was always to provide a space in our nation for younger generations to experience the safety and inclusiveness, yet fearless politics, of a global feminist movement long challenging violence, gendered divisions of labour, homophobia, and domination of women and nature. It was to carry a legacy, begun in San Fernando in 1958, just long enough and lovingly enough to hand it on.

It was to provide an example of wide public representation, creative expression, diverse concerns, and intimacy with the dreams and labour of home-grown Caribbean feminisms. It was to bring young women and men together at a time when we already know men can be feminist. Finally, it was to remind about the humbling lessons of cross-class solidarity, for we march without registration, without ropes, and always mindful of women workers’ realities. Just bring your message and come.

Riffling through our visual archives, young people’s posters show them far ahead of the ruling generation of obsolete men and complicit women, together holding back on their promise of equal and inclusive citizenship, and holding onto an old order that upcoming ages have already transcended.

In the decades of the IWD march, the issues have expanded from a focus on girls and women’s rights to include those of transgender persons – those who dis-identify with the dominant expectations of masculinity and femininity or the identities of male and female or the category of heterosexual.

Sounds like they just want to be human, observed my eight-year-old, something a parliament of representatives isn’t brave enough to see. Meanwhile, we too must keep learning to challenge our privileges in our leadership, improving our accountability to people with disabilities, First Nations’ Peoples and refugees.

Caribbean feminism was always the region’s most radical struggle to recognise us as human beings, however we choose to live and love as families, neighbours and citizens consenting and contributing to a greater good. And, some moments, it seems like that message rings clear.

Though today only a few hundred, in a decade there may be thousands marching. Just enough to open the corridors of power in our homes, schools, corporate boardrooms and Cabinet.

Nurtured amongst those who have come of age in TT’s most progressive big tent where Soroptomists march with ASJA Ladies who march with the National Union of Government and Federated Workers’ Women’s Executive Council who march with Womantra who march with CAISO who march with the Breastfeeding Association of TT who march with the UWI Guild of Students who march with the Silver Lining Foundation who march with the Single Mothers’ Association of TT who march with TTUTA, all carrying flags that call for gender justice.

The full list of organisations is much longer, showing a feminist movement that endures despite the precariousness of NGO survival. The Network of NGOs of TT for the Advancement of Women, Women Working for Social Progress, the Women’s Institute for Alternative Development, the Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Conflict Women, Mamatoto, the CEDAW Committee of TT, the Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action, the Family Planning Association of TT, the Association of Female Executives of TT, and more were all there.

These long-established women’s organisations held on through the decades to see another generation, that doesn’t even know their history or their name, spring fresh, certain and strong.

Women’s inter-generational mentoring of civic challenge to all the harms of patriarchal power, and radical impatience for a world already possible can be seen in those youthful posters.

There are many reasons to march. To protest or to add public power to public outcry. To build a movement. To inspire those who didn’t know they were imaginable and their dreams realisable.

To make our numbers a source of strength for when we return to everyday struggle. To simply take up public space. To find that woven into the labour, despair, risk, exhaustion and hard lessons are also community, hope, successes and joy.

When students come, on their own, it is a sign of the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times. They marched for better for themselves and each other, for better without violence or silence, fear or favour. The struggle continues. Next year, we will be here so they grow stronger.

 

 

Post 309.

Is justice for one, justice for all?

In the Caribbean, we have a way of dividing ourselves from each other, and from each other’s struggles. What if, instead, we thought that each of these struggles nurtured better chances for fair treatment for others. How might that make us invest in each other’s pursuit of rights, even when they seem at odds with our biases, fears or differences?

It’s a good question to ask in response to last week’s historic ruling of the Caribbean Court of Justice. Four Guyanese transwomen, Gulliver (Quincy) McEwan, Angel (Seon) Clarke, Peaches (Joseph) Fraser and Isabella (Seyon) Persaud, spent almost ten years challenging a charge and fine for “wearing women’s clothing for an improper purpose” in a public place. They spent four nights locked up for this minor crime. They pressed on despite the prejudice of the trial magistrate who lectured them about being confused about their sexuality and their status as men, and urged them to go to church.

This wasn’t the first time they had experienced the painful edge of a post-emancipation law, established in 1893 as another oppressive act of legal coercion. Such vagrancy and loitering provisions aimed precisely at denying freedom to Africans regarding their bodies, labour, gender, intimacies, religion and rights.

Indians, Chinese, Portuguese and others were also in Caribbean colonies by this time, with their own intersections of gender, sexuality, class and religion. All were now also brought again under the iron fist of colonial authority and its limits on our fundamental desires to be respected as self-determining individuals and, despite formidable hurdles, to be free.

Imagine for a second, then, that Gulliver, Angel, Peaches and Isabella showed unbelievable valor to end another vestige of colonial authority that continued to sharpen its blade right up until the twenty-first century. Imagine that, in doing so, they didn’t win a victory just for themselves or for transpersons or for gender diversity.

Step out of your biases, fears and framework of us and them for long enough to also see that their struggle edged forward free Caribbean people’s resistance to colonial rule, discriminatory laws and dehumanizing policing practices.

The highest Caribbean court struck down Guyana’s crossdressing law, arguing that it violates the Constitution of Guyana and is void. It found that the law invalidly criminalized intentions, not proven actions. It illegitimately defined some forms of clothing as objectionable. It lacked sufficient clarity for ordinary people to understand what conduct is prohibited. It gave police wide and almost arbitrary discretionary powers, creating real risks of victimization. It treated transgender and gender non-conforming persons unfavourably because of their gender expression and gender identity. Finally, the CCJ affirmed the validity of inclusion of advocates and social justice movements as interested parties.

The judgment affirmed a powerful promise that those most poor, marginal or powerless could, nonetheless, legitimately expect the system to defend them. As CAISO director Colin Robinson put it, “This is an historic ruling, particularly because it was brought by working class, transgender women who had the bravery and courage to seek justice from a system that does not usually work for them”.

Haven’t so many, particularly among the working classes, looked around and felt, as Isabella Persaud, one of the appellants said, “We are always treated like trash.” Their cause shares ground with Hindus, Muslims, Spiritual Baptists, Rastafarians, and poor Indians and Africans around the region who have turned to the courts for protection against being unfairly targeted or denied equality, respect and inclusion.

To quote the Hon. Mr. Justice Saunders, newly appointed President, “No one should have his or her dignity trampled on, or human rights denied, merely on account of a difference, especially one that poses no threat to public safety or public order.”

This line, and its logic, is one with which we all can agree, for it speaks not just to these four Caribbean citizens, but to each of us, and an ideal we surely must enshrine as necessary. Justice, however, isn’t only won in the courts. It’s also won in our nod to each other’s humanity in the streets. AS IGDS’ Angelique Nixon, acknowledged, “as important as laws are, we also have to do work to transform the culture to create more acceptance and tolerance” locally and regionally.

Regardless of who is expanding our access to justice, but especially when they are poor, working-class and beyond the pale of respectability, being Caribbean requires us to value the victory of those creating our regional future of greater justice and equality.

 

Post 280.

I sat three rows from Theresa May when, as part of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, she apologized for Britain’s role in criminalizing same-sex conduct in former colonies. “I am all too aware that these laws were often put in place by my own country,” she said, “They were wrong then and they are wrong now.”

Apologies by Britain should come hard and fast, for colonialism itself, the slave trade, inconceivably vast economic extraction and impoverishment, antidemocratic laws kept in place by a ‘savings clause’, and more.

This apology should not be diminished, for it results from courageous and sustained global South struggle, across at least thirty-six countries. Nonetheless, as Justice Rampersad pointed out in his April 12th decision, changing discriminatory laws is a matter for emancipatory Caribbean jurisprudence. We didn’t need the British empire’s ‘benevolent’ mission of colonising and civilising. We don’t need a 21st century version of civilising now.

On the same stage that morning, Jamaica’s PM Andrew Holness spoke, quite brilliantly, highlighting what sustainability, prosperity, inclusiveness and security mean from a Caribbean perspective in which equity and accountability among nations count.

In an earlier response on having gays in his Cabinet, Holness said, “I think that the first step is that the State protect the human rights of every citizen, regardless of sexual orientation or inclination”.  This was a major shift in public position from Bruce Golding’s infamous “not in my Cabinet” statement, and highlights increasing openings for equitable and accountable Caribbean leadership.

Here at home, President Weekes herself has said, “I think in terms of the State and the law all citizens and all persons under the protection of our jurisdiction should have equal treatment whatever their gender, whatever their sexual orientation, whatever their race we need to have absolute equality across the board in terms of State obligations and constitutional rights”.

Having been involved in LBGTI rights advocacy since about 2005, I didn’t expect to hear such public declarations in my lifetime. I have a beautiful memory of CAISO’s 2010 campaign, conceptualized in many ways by Colin Robinson’s politics of claiming belonging to a nation of ‘many bodies’, and the dual flying of national and rainbow flags high in the air at massive UNC rallies.

It wasn’t an easy space, and the PNM campaign trail would have been significantly worse, for those were the infamous ‘big C’ days, but to publicly declare equal citizenship involved great courage. There are forgotten foot soldiers, among many, who have moved popular culture forward over the last decade.

I thought about all this in relation to Guardian’s front-page expose on Michelle Lee-Ahye. There’s much to disparage about ‘rescuing’ someone from social media smearing, and doing this using her partner’s photos, in a still homophobic society and without consent. There’s much to say about the problems of prying into the private lives of women in public life though that’s long been debunked as illegitimate, irrelevant and sexist.

However, more important, was the public backlash to the newspaper, rather than Lee-Ahye’s choices. Many were clear that her sexuality was a non-story, and were outraged it would be headlined, supposedly and misguidedly for her protection. Being a woman-loving woman, or any woman who has sex outside of heterosexual marriage, might be a basis for idle gossip, but it doesn’t tarnish her achievement of gold nor does it reduce her right to privacy. That this could be expressed as a widely held view was an unintended, progressive outcome of that story.

In 2005, I couldn’t predict all this. Advocacy felt exhausting and ongoing without any progress. Even seeing hundreds proudly, joyfully gathering with rainbow flags over these past weeks was unimaginable as late as 2010.

Hope has been reborn in me. Yet, the evictions and firings of LBGTI citizens following Justice Rampersad’s decision signal continued need to tirelessly press back against continued vulnerability, believing that together we can actually aspire and achieve.

Post 279.

An attuned ear hears a shackle when it falls. It’s a surreal sound, when an instrument of inhumanity hits the ground broken, clanging with its iron weight of history. Instinctively listen for the heart-piercing exultations of emotion that echo out powerfully. Also be stopped still by a black hole of quiet horror that you may yet again hear that shackle clink close around a human body.

If the pores on your skin raised, as did mine when I heard Justice Devindra Rampersad’s judgment on Thursday, it’s because I never anticipated that a shackle’s fall could sound and feel like the force of a supernova when it collapses, its vibration sheer disintegrating your heart, leaving you in breathless tremors and shaking tears.

The boldness of the judgment and the interval of freedom it created for the first time in hundreds of years, like a slash in colonial space-time continuum, can’t be anything but celebrated.

There are thousands of bodies in the nation which had been existing in fear, shame and silence and which, for the first time, felt included, protected and free. It is like the future time-traveled and arrived to rock the vibrational field of the present, in a way so many citizens dared to dream, but despaired they wouldn’t live to see.

Justice Rampersad’s judgment in Jones v TT ruled that Sections 13 and 16 of the Sexual Offences Act, which criminalize buggery, or acts of anal sex, and same-sex genital touching, are unconstitutional. He held that the “savings clause”, which retains the legality of colonial law despite our republican status, doesn’t apply. This is because, in 1986, the Sexual Offences Act was repealed and “replaced”, thus creating new, post-1976 law.

Also new law was created with the unprecedented extension of penalties for buggery from 5 years to 25 years and creation of a new prohibition, titled “serious indecency”, and explicitly meant to criminalise lesbianism for the first time (by legislating that only men could have sexual access to women). In other words, this is new law, not simply a re-enactment and continuity from 1925.

Second, he argued that even if the savings clause could hold, its intention was to continue and preserve protections of citizens’ rights in the move from colonial subjection to independent nationhood, not deny rights, discriminate or victimize. In this case, relying on the savings clause as justification goes against its spirit.

Additionally, he agreed that Jason Jones’ right to privacy was denied, observing that such privacy had not been conceptualized in early colonial law, but was now an accepted ideal. Use of the savings clause to deny that right again defies its intention.

Regarding the Act itself, its violation of Sections 4 and 5 of the constitution were already acknowledged by parliament in 1986. It is possible to infringe upon individuals’ constitutional rights, under Section 13 of the constitution, but the burden is on the parliament to fully justify its necessity, which it has not done. Passage of legislation by 3/5 majority, however procedurally legitimate, isn’t enough.  Religious or majority view and public opinion isn’t enough. Political expediency is far short of enough in the face of signed international conventions and global and liberalizing standards of dignity, decency, equality and human rights. Claiming parliamentary prerogative isn’t enough, or might be enough in Britain where no constitution exists so parliamentary law is highest authority, but not in Trinidad and Tobago where the constitution should be supreme.

In other words, Jah bless our republican status and the possibilities for future-facing Caribbean jurisprudence. Why rely on British law when we have our own constitution? Why still carry habits of prisoners when we are freed from such imprisonment?

Without the savings clause as a defense, the 1986 Act was always unconstitutional and unjustified, and unreasonably and arbitrarily denied rights to privacy, family, intimacy and equality to all citizens and couples. Its legitimacy was founded on its own fiction and presumptions, like the emperor with no clothes.

To write that race, colour, gender, age or sexual orientation is not all that encompasses a person’s soul nor their value to society or themselves is to wield something other than the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. This is the ultimate dream of Caribbean emancipation.

For this to occur in real life and in our generation is overwhelmingly beautiful, and feels cosmically huge. On appeal, we hope the disturbing metallic edge of manacles, re-clasped on those who call for our love, is not something we have to hear. To them, do not turn a deaf ear.

Post 252.

An historic victory was won last week when child marriage was prohibited by amendments to the marriage laws of Trinidad and Tobago. This was a victory for the women’s movement, supported by male allies and working across race, class and religion, despite how fraught that can be. I was relieved both PNM and UNC MPs voted for an amended law. I was sorry the change failed to happen under Kamla Persad-Bissessar as early as 2010.

The call first came from the Hindu Women’s Organisation (HWO) more than six years ago. Organisations such as the IGDS and FPATT became involved by 2013. Lobbying expanded over the last two years, as a coalition of civil society organizations, including Womantra, CAISO, the Network of NGOs of TT for the Advancement of Women, the Association of Female Executives of Trinidad and Tobago (AFETT), the YMCA, CAFRA and more, was brought together by Folade Mutota and WINAD.

It was discriminatory for girls to be marriageable earlier than boys. There was no contemporary reason for this other than girls’ sexual vulnerability at a younger age. The solution isn’t marriage, it’s transforming such vulnerability to older male sexual predation. That this was overwhelmingly an issue affecting adolescent girls points squarely to how gender inequality leads to denial of full self-determination at a much younger age for girls than boys.

The majority of these marriages were between girls under sixteen, and boys and men who were, at times, much older.  This is not the Ram and Sita or Romeo and Juliet story of two teen secret lovers nor of their unwed adolescent sexual experimentation nor of family protection of two secondary students supported to finish both this and tertiary schooling.

Largely working class girls, perhaps with limited educational support or options, and definitely limited prospects for occupational advancement, were experiencing the greatest vulnerability to early sexual initiation by adult men, who usually also had low educational or occupational achievement.

Marriage may have seemed like a secure economic option because an older man promised to look after them. Perhaps, they were seduced by a feeling of adulthood that sexual relationships bring. Maybe they were in love or escaping oppressive and insecure family conditions, or they got pregnant and marriage seemed the next step. It’s likely they didn’t have a clue about the compromises, conflicts and responsibilities that come with partnership with a hardback man.

Rather than “the destruction of family life”, what was destroyed was the legal access of adult men to teen girls. This was necessary if we recognize how gender, religion and class unequally impacted thousands from lower-income families.

There were recommendations that teenagers over sixteen, but within three years of age, be allowed to marry. Such an exception had merit. That the exception didn’t make it to the legislation is a complicated story about the AG vs the HWO and the coalition.

What happens to the babies of unwed mothers? Families and partners can still love and support them such that teenage girls finish schooling, can secure their own income and can decide what they want out of their lives. A change to the marriage law in no way affects this.

If lack of respectability associated with unwed pregnancy is a major fear, then the solution is to give girls knowledge, support and access to contraception.

Adult hypocrisy, rather than “strict family values”, is at stake here for no one wants to girls to have sex, whether by choice and desire or by grooming and predation, without the threat and likelihood of dire consequences. So no one wants to prepare them to protect themselves if they do. When they are made pregnant, everyone can treat them as if they are responsible for the shame. The solution can’t be marriage to the same adult man who didn’t know or care enough to use condoms or protect a teenage girl’s future freedom in the first place.

Too early pregnancy isn’t a more important issue than too early marriage. Like child sexual abuse, they are consequences of adult failures to acknowledge girls’ sexual vulnerability and empower even poor girls to secure better options. If we care as much as we say, all the other work must now gain momentum.

 

Diary of a mothering worker.

Post 209.

At last week Wednesday’s forum, ‘Reflecting on Gender and Politics in the 2015 Election Campaign’, young people filled the room, many of them lesbian and gay, who I hope felt that the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at UWI created a safe space for public deliberation, for once not defined by their marginality.

The event was inspired by ‘the marginals’ in national talk about the election. How could we instead think about politics beyond polls and ‘the numbers’, to see multiple kinds of ‘margins’ in our landscape, especially in the deeply connected experiences of women and the LBGTI community? How could we encourage public reflection that no other site in the country would, precisely because feminist academia is founded on solidarity with these groups’ continuing struggles for equal citizenship? How could we build on civil society efforts to bring us together across political party divides?

There was the history of the Network of NGOs of Trinidad and Tobago for the Advancement of Women to build on. Twenty years of producing a Women’s Manifesto and trying to get campaigning parties to commit to its goals. Twenty years of funding women candidates in the hopes that they would see the women who helped to get them into power as an important constituency. More years of encouraging a women’s cross-party caucus, where women politicians could gather as allies, rather than adversaries.

There was also the history of organisations like Caiso, Friends for Life, Women’s Caucus, Silver Lining Foundation and I am One to support. More than a decade of advocacy to end discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. In 2010, Caiso produced a manifesto, ‘6 in 6’, which outlined six policy and leadership steps they hoped that the new government would take in its first half year in office. Five years later, with those all unfulfilled, whether in terms of police treatment of LGBTI crime victims, the creation of safe schools or the community’s greater vulnerability to homelessness, they were still challenging their marginality. Now as part of a new network of groups called Allies for Justice and Diversity, a rights-we-deserve-not-what-rights-we-are-allowed manifesto was again created in 2015.

In a country where ‘the marginals’ decide the victor, it made sense for a post-election forum to bring together marginal groups to document their overlapping analyses and strategies, as they both contested how ideals of masculinity and femininity shape the lived realities of political life. Sexism cannot be ended without also ending homophobia, and advancing emancipation requires us to fearlessly document, understand and defy an unjust status quo. Where else then, would we discuss the homophobic bullying and stereotyping experienced by gay male candidates, from the population, their own political parties, and our headline-hungry media? Where else would we share how campaigning is experienced by women as they negotiate the significance of their family roles, femininity, and sexual respectability for their acceptability as representatives and leaders? Where else would the nation’s first transgender electoral candidate affirm her right to all the rights of citizenship, including public office?

As an act of university solidarity, and to strengthen the alliance between women’s and LGBTI rights advocates, Nafeesa Mohammed, Khadijah Ameen, Sabrina Mowlah-Baksh, Luke Sinnette, Colin Robinson and Jowelle de Souza were all on one panel. Watching representatives of the PNM and UNC sit with these citizens, knowing their parties had unjustly abandoned them in their National Gender Policy drafts and in the Equal Opportunity Act, I hoped that the young people there could see that legitimacy and space is created incrementally, relentlessly, despite setbacks and disappointments. There was more than fifty years of activist history of holding the baton in that room, from Hazel Brown in her 70s to Afro-Trinidadian, lesbian, working class young women in their 20s. A generation coming after me should know that a path continues to be cut for them to run.

On election night, Dr. Keith Rowley, said that he is the Prime Minister of all of us, and “that we are all in this together”. We lead him by our example. Those young people came because they aspire for an equal place. Acknowledgment of that is what ‘all in this together’ means for politics in our nation.