Post 346.

Finance Minister Imbert caught my attention at the words “gender issues” in the 2020 Budget Speech.

Over the last three years, the Institute for Gender and Development Studies, UWI has been amplifying the women’s movement’s call for gender-responsive budgeting (GRB). We’ve been collaborating with state agencies, and hoped that the Ministry of Finance would step up to lead this process. Leading from the top is absolutely essential for nothing happens in fiscal policy-making, good idea or not, unless the Finance Minister says so.

So, Mr. Imbert got me excited. Thus far, he didn’t seem to understand gender or its relevance to budgeting, throwing responsibility over to Planning, and making fiscal decisions about cuts to tertiary education or spending on construction as if these wouldn’t differently affect women and men’s access to income and opportunity, or at least as if he didn’t care to know what their impact was.

A turn to gender responsive budgeting could put Trinidad and Tobago on the map with countries such as India, Austria, Canada, and the Ukraine. I was almost ready to congratulate the Minister as much as he congratulates himself.

Alas, not a word about GRB.

Rather, what followed in the speech is a good example of superficial take up of “gender issues”, which reduces gender to women and women to welfare, and provokes both backlash to feminism and misrecognition of valid women’s needs.

Following his speech, commentators felt compelled to champion the fact that “single fathers” and men need access to daycare facilities too. Implicit in this is the assumption that men need champions of “men’s rights” the way that the women’s movement appears to have successfully fought for recognition of women’s issues. Implicit in the public emphasis on exclusion of men’s issues is the assumption that the vast range of women’s issues were wholly solved in two meagre proposals.

In contrast, the fact is that Caribbean feminists have always argued that safe and affordable daycare facilities need to be available for poor families and “single” parents. They have also, always, followed data on experience on the ground when making recommendations regarding the different needs of girls, boys, women and men.

If you jump up clutching straws without knowing this, however, you’ll get headlines for appearing to right a wrong against men, rather than wrongful take up of what the women’s movement has instead been advocating all along.

It’s so ironic, even the invisibility of women’s issues and advocacy remains invisible. The role of male allies in highlighting this – rather than a separatist male-centred politics – remains as urgent and necessary as ever.

However, hastiness to give primacy to “discrimination” against men means that the much sought after “male voice” is unlikely to use his widening platform as an opportunity to insist on solidarity with and greater visibility for women’s historical call to count and value the work of raising families, to support low-income homes with accessible day cares and after-school centres, to think about the economy in terms of work-family balance, and to find solutions that encourage men and women to more equally share the labour of family and community care.

“Single mothers” carry an unequal burden of time, care, educational, emotional and financial responsibility for children, and are the poorest and most vulnerable category of families in the region. Providing free or affordable daycare would profoundly impact their lives by enabling them to earn a living or pursue additional education knowing that their children are safe. It would profoundly protect children too, as children’s risk to child sexual abuse and neglect is made worse by being left in the wrong hands when better options are unavailable.

However, such day care should be available to all low-income families. Low-income couples may also need such support, particularly if they have elderly or ill parents they are also looking after. Even poor women in partnerships may stay home with their children, partly because child care is so risky and unaffordable, ultimately undermining their own earning power in the future. Fathers with primary responsibility also face challenges to their ability to work while securing reliable child-care.

This has been the women’s movement’s position all along. Men may feel they are excluded in the budget, but the reality is that women’s issues have never received sufficient recognition in state policy and budgets and still do not today. A gender responsive budgeting approach would solve this problem and build solidarity. Truth is, when it came to gender, disappointment soon replaced excitement as I listened to the Finance Minister’s budget speech.

 

 

 

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Post 334.

“Vote for we and we will set you free”, sings David Rudder in the Madman’s Rant, parodying election-time sloganeering.

So said, so done. The campaign trail keeps it simple and typical: promises of more police car, to take the country far, to put the bandits away, to make criminals damn well pay, to abolish the tax, and to give we the facts.

It’s an easy myth to swallow because the alternative requires more of our attention and responsibility. We show up at rallies to nod at our heads at good speech, but don’t follow a story far enough to know when we are being hoodwinked, when we need to intervene, or when not everybody will be set free.

Take the National Workplace Policy on Sexual Harassment in Trinidad and Tobago. Symbolically laid in Parliament on International Women’s Day 2019, Senator the Honourable Jennifer Baptiste Primus stated, “For far too long, victims of Sexual Harassment in the workplace have borne pain and suffering in silence as the perpetrators of this disgraceful and unacceptable behaviour have utilised intimidation, victim shaming and abuse of power to get away with it, without facing any sanction or penalty. However, Madam Speaker those days are over”.

There’s much to celebrate about a policy, long called for by feminist activists, finally being drafted and publicized, but what about the details? Employers must keep a sexual harassment log documenting all incidents of sexual harassment at the workplace. The grievance procedure guidelines emphasise the role of a complaints committee and change management teams.

Now think of all the low-income women – young women, mothers, primary breadwinners, those supporting aged parents, illegal migrants – working in shops, restaurants and malls in Port of Spain, Chaguanas and San Fernando, or working as domestics cleaning and providing child care in homes, for whom the employer is the real perpetrator, as is so common.

To whom do they turn without losing their job? In this precarious economy, Madame Speaker, are their days of sexual harassment really over? Keep in mind that, despite parliamentary speeches, this policy is not yet approved by Cabinet, constituting more smoke than fire.

Take the recent legislation for the Sex Offenders Registry. Containing much that is useful for protecting society from specific kinds of sexual offenders, the Registry as it currently stands could further stigmatize groups of women, such as sex workers, who already come from the most vulnerable categories of women: the young, poor, sexually abused, under-educated, migrant and trafficked. Civil society groups made this otherwise overlooked and undervalued point to Honourable AG Al-Rawi.

Should good legislation do harm? When the bill becomes an Act, we will see whether this group is liable to further long-term penalty, entirely defying the purpose of a register, which is to protect the vulnerable, in the first place. Organisations such as CAISO have also pointed out that if the buggery law is upheld by the Privy Council, which the state is seeking, consensual anal sex would also not only remain a crime, but absurdly require such criminalized citizens also be registered.

Take the 2012 Children’s Act. As the age of consent to sexual relations is now set at eighteen years old, sexual and reproductive health service providers, such as the Family Planning Association of Trinidad and Tobago, now have to report incidents of penetration of minors sixteen and seventeen years old, even by others within three years of their age, even when it occurs by consent.

This means that providing confidential counselling services to teens over sixteen without reporting those cases to the police can now be a crime. This risk to service providers means that FPATT no longer provides the youth counselling it once used to, leaving a vast need now unmet. This same act, it should be noted, also decriminalized heterosexual penetration between minors while extending the punishment for such same-sex sexual relations among minors to, of all things, life imprisonment. So much for child rights.

NGOs will tell you that real transformations, rather than empty slogans, most matter. When politicians hit the platform to wax about their accomplishments, remember it’s easy to convince a population of a government’s successes when we are not bothered to follow details and when headlines are all corner block-talk seems to need.

Political participation and power mean paying attention to the fine-print of legislation, policies or budgets even when splashy campaigns deliberately distract. Vote for them, by all means, but know that only a madman would believe anyone but yourself is going to set you free.

Post 226.

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There’s that Sunday afternoon spent folding still-warm children’s clothes when the next piece you lift and shake out is so small in your hands that you know it is now outgrown. It’s a moment hard to even mention to others, it seems so insignificant, so inevitable and so ordinary. This isn’t the first time you’ve changed the sizes that fill the drawers. The just-born sleepers were soon replaced, the onesies were eventually considered too tight, the two year old’s T-shirts became too short. All began to look like they had shrunk when really a small, warm body had lengthened and filled.

Maybe you stopped and looked deep into your memory then, just as now. Maybe you crushed those clothes to your nose, closing your eyes and breathing in their smell, just as now. Maybe you suddenly heard a clock chime the passing of weeks or months or years, but it’s hard to remember if those moments held your breath as much as this one. Now, you are standing by yourself, surrounded by bright yellow humidity, your hands holding the crumpled clothes as if you could stop the reverberations of that chime from disappearing.

All you can think about is how we measure time by seconds and minutes, by light and dark, by rotations of the earth and the moon. These are discussions easy to have with others, for they are established through scientific, public and impersonal measures. What you mention to only a few are the little marks on the inside of the wooden cupboard door that record changes in height with whatever marker was available, sometimes red, blue or purple. There was such excitement about those recordings. Big efforts to stand tall with heels against the frame, wide eyes looking up as if to see if the mark had to move places before its even made. Pride and display at the smallest of changes and everyone agreeing on the relationship between those calculations and pure joy.

What you’ve probably not shared with anyone at all are the moments when the clothes in the basket, just bigger than the size of your hand or the length of your forearm, signal the dusk of one age and the dawn of another. One pink and black, long-sleeved pajama feeling like sweetest sorrow materialized, for all the times it was worn were precious, but not so much as when you experience them as fleeting, as you do now.

Right then, all you can think about is how you quietly measure time by centimeters, socks that migrated to the dolls’ dress up box, vocabulary changes, capacities like braiding hair or tying shoelaces, and clothes grown too small. What a curious clock, with these strange indicators, whose chime brings you back to the present only to cause you to slip away to the past precisely because you are aware you have reached a once only-imagined future.

Caught between the magical and mundane, you are even a little self-conscious that someone might come in and look at you sideways, for standing mid-way in the room, bizarrely cupping a tiny cotton outfit to your face, like an oxygen mask. Even if you explained, they might not understand, agree with or honour your symbols for changing seasons and for shifts that don’t affect anything as important as commodity prices, though they still you in your step, renewing your sense of priorities.

This is every day, every week parenting. Nothing extraordinary or special. Yet, I know I’m not alone. I know children whose mothers saved a lock of their baby hair, who forty years later can unfold their first baby clothes.

There must be others like me, who have stood amidst clean laundry, wondering where the years went, with something in hand more beloved than expected because of how fast those years have flown.

I know there are others, caught up with jobs, deadlines, extra-curricular activities, chores, meetings and concerns about the state and economy, who also realise that it’s the meanings we hardly quantify or discuss in newspaper Op Eds that can appear in fading shafts of afternoon light as what really matters. Those warm clothes, warmly and lovingly held, no longer found where they used to be.

Post 121.

I was surprised to hear her experience, though I suppose I already knew inside why we need to attend to the truths of women’s lives.

In my Women’s Studies class, we were reading Catharine MacKinnon’s classic piece on consciousness-raising.  A woman quoted in the article said, ‘I am nothing when I am by myself…I only know I exist because I am needed by someone who is real, my husband, and by my children. My husband goes out into the real world. Other people recognize him as real, and take him into account….I stay in my imaginary world in this house… The work I do changes nothing; what I cook disappears, what I clean one day must be cleaned again the next…”

A housewife in my class, articulate and passionate, read this excerpt to us because it described how she feels every day.  Then, she began to cry. Don’t worry, forget it, she said, dismissing her feelings and her voice.

Not in my class. Knowledge should touch not only our minds, but our hearts. It should rattle the cages we peer through. It should teach that our silences will not protect us, and it should turn our fears into language and transformation.  Invisibility and inequality hurt, and we can also get cut by the shards when we shatter those glass walls. It’s totally okay to cry.

Another woman suggested that the first not let anyone undervalue her contribution as a mother to her family and to society. However, it is not that housewives must discover self-validation from within themselves.  It is that our values must change.

Housewives live in a society where their labour has no visibility and no value. CSO does not count the number of hours spent on cooking, cleaning or caring for elderly or children. It is as if the care economy, for which women remain unequally responsible and without which the waged economy would collapse, does not exist. The government has no clue what the these many thousands of hours and skills add to Gross National Product (GNP). Yet, we know they have value because a price can be put on that work when it is not performed, mainly by women, for free.

When a woman leaves the paid workforce to mind children, she cannot put any skills she uses or gains on her resume. She is not only considered unemployed, she is considered a cost.  That’s damn untrue. The majority of housewives are home-based, non-unionized, unwaged labourers for whom negotiating access to power, status and resources may not be easy. 

Housewives subsidize the cost of reproducing workers for the economy. This is why unions used to fight for a ‘family wage’, not only because men were seen to be the family breadwinners, but because those producing and being paid are like a two for one deal.  

Of course, the women in the class then began to debate whether housewives should get ‘wages’ from their husbands, whether there was an income to which they were due. These wages are not a sign that the wife is the husband’s employee, but that his income includes her contribution. After all, the hand that rocks the cradle, labours, sometimes night and day.  

The personal is political precisely because it points us beyond our own individual experience to women’s shared social and economic realities. Consciousness-raising aims to enable women to find the words to identify the annihilation they must resist, make the connections they need so that they always struggle collectively, and enable even, or especially, housewives to name the problems that rule the world, and which must still be changed.