Post 391.

As a young woman entering Caribbean feminism in the 1990s, I was inspired and guided by the Trinidad and Tobago chapter of the Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action (CAFRA TT). I learned as much from listening and watching these sharp, wise and conscious Caribbean women as I did from university. They weren’t easy, but those rose coloured days are full of memories of seemingly-older women gnashing at oppressive relations just as much as sharing a laugh, perhaps as a survival strategy, over the foolishness of it all. 

They loved the ‘tea parties’ I found quaint, believed in the power of letters to the editor, were firm that women’s groups worth their salt were grounded in paid membership and active members, and held the broad aspiration of justice for women and men everywhere. 

Conversations included global struggles, labour struggles and women’s struggles. There were often cross-ethnic conversations with differences in experience and opinion, and they navigated a slew of strong personalities that didn’t always get along, often debated and even disagreed, but were highly protective of each other. I learned the basic decency of this feminist ethic of refusing to attack each other publicly the way that men do. I saw both their tensions and undercurrents, and commitment to collaboration through it all.  

From 2003 to 2016, Tara Ramoutar was National Representative of the TT chapter of CAFRA. This column honours her contribution to Caribbean feminist movement-building.  A small, sharply astute and fiery woman, I admired her quiet leadership, her quick movements and her ready laughter. 

Tara’s family grew cane, rice and garden vegetables. Her father would listen to parliamentary debates on the radio, and they would discuss everything from politics to sports. It highlights the paucity of stereotypes that insufficiently recognise how rural and agricultural Indian families nurtured children’s vociferousness and challenge to injustice, and supported Indian daughters’ participation in Black Power and labour movements in the 1960s and 1970s. 

Tara tells a story of a march from Paramount Building in San Fernando, in March 1974 around 10 o’clock. Instead of putting on her school uniform, she told her mother she was going to join the OWTU, ending up directly facing a barrage of policemen with shields, bayonets and tear gas, and getting home near night. Imagine secondary school girls choosing to march with workers, and parents accepting a daughter so outspoken against authority. 

In the 1970s, Tara began working with the Transport and Industrial Workers’ Union, and developed a consciousness of women workers’ struggles with low wages from local businesses and factories, from Bata to Neal and Massy car plant, Amalgamated Industries, and other companies long closed. Women were encouraged to become shop stewards, branch presidents, and treasurers in the union, building their sense of strength to end poverty, violence and inequity. Shaffira Hosein, past shop steward with the Bank and General Workers’ Union and CAFRA member, tells a similar story of the close networks among union and feminist movements.  

From there, Tara joined Concerned Women for Progress, formed by such women as Patricia Mohmmed, Pat Bynoe, Rhoda Reddock, Gaietry Pargass, Carol Gobin, Cathy Shepherd and Linda Rajpaul, which highlighted issues facing women farmers, and women’s health and reproductive rights, and which held the first forum on rape. With women like Cynthia Reddock, Tara helped to form the Consumer Protection Movement, focusing on concerns such as food prices, and helping to write its constitution. She was in the Cuba Friendship Association with Michael Als, James Millette, and Vincent Cabera. 

By the time CAFRA was founded in 1985, first coordinated by Rawwida Baksh, structural adjustment was crippling Caribbean industries, workers and women. Mentored by Cathy Shepherd at CAFRA TT, Tara went on to be the small-built Indian woman I saw at the helm throughout many of my early feminist years. 

In a 2014 interview on IGDS’ YouTube page, Tara called for us to continue conversation with each other directly, in the way that once strengthened and consolidated women’s groups and which, despite or perhaps because of social media, we need more than ever today. 

For her, CAFRA’s work is also to continue to build consciousness in women so they can chart their own course and never be afraid of anything.  

Women’s contribution to social movements is often forgotten, and many can’t name women like Tara, or anticipate histories and politics like hers. Her contribution is vivid in my memory, and remembering contributes to our multi-ethnic legacy. 

Tara Ramoutar, comrade and sister in struggle, please accept my heartfelt respect. 

Postscript.

Tara passed away on Saturday 19 September 2020. I was lucky to visit her, with with Rhoda Reddock, on Friday 11 September when she was sitting up, recognising us and chatting happily, with familiar brightness in her eyes. May she rest in peace.

In response to this column, Alissa Trotz sent me these two pieces from the In the Diaspora column. The first on another working-class, Indo-Caribbean woman, Basmattee “Desiree” Dharamlall, who crossed boundaries of all kinds in her life. And, the second on the revolutionary and healing promise of courtesy, a nearly forgotten skill in a time of social media, and one with which I’m sure a woman like Tara would agree.

Post 319.

The Break the Silence Campaign, familiar to most because of its blue teddy bear symbol, enters its tenth year in 2019. Focusing on raising awareness about the prevalence of child sexual abuse and incest, providing training about these as issues of gender-based violence, and building communities around empowerment of children as part of prevention, the campaign has indeed seen silences broken.

There’s more reporting now than before, confusing our understanding about whether the rates have risen, or just the reporting, but confirming our position that too many children continue to be harmed.

There have been 11, 787 reports of children in need of care and protection since proclamation of the Children’s Authority. Over 2016-2017, there were 4, 232 reports of child abuse and maltreatment, averaging 353 reports per month. In relation into sexual abuse, girls are harmed at four times the rates of boys, but the rates of neglect and physical abuse are nearly the same, and in fact slightly higher for boys than girls.

At the Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action (CAFRA) meeting yesterday, researchers highlighted childhood abuse, including sexual abuse, as a significant denominator among perpetrators.

Perpetrators also spoke about lacking healthy, involved and connected father figures. This doesn’t mean blaming women-headed households, which are managing the balance of both being freed from toxic masculinities while being burdened with unequal responsibilities.

It also doesn’t mean that it takes fathers to be fatherly figures or influential role models. It takes men in boys’ lives who care, enable them to feel accepted, and loved “like a son” so that boys don’t get used to “always walking around with hurt feelings as a young boy”.

CAFRA’s data is part of larger project to shift  cultural norms in order to end gender-based violence as it affects men, women, boys, girls, and especially those from marginalized groups defined by disability or sexual/gender orientation. This makes sense once you understand how striking the data is, and how complex explanations for it and solutions to it have to be.

In 2016, 3, 312 reports were made to the national domestic violence hotline, 150 to Rape Crisis Society, and 1, 141 to the TTPS. Why do hurt people feel safer to seek comfort from a stranger on the end of a phone than to reach out to the relevant authorities?

How were those lives lived after that call? Did the violence in that caller’s life end, and did it end with a perpetrator’s conviction for the crime of violence or with counseling as a path to accountability? Was there healing? Was there greater safety in our islands with as much as 1, 240 breaches of protection orders between 2009 and 2017? What happened to the children?

In the eighteen months between January 2016 and September 2017, ninety-nine women were murdered, but 857 men. As we think about the rates of boys and men murdering other boys and men in our society, who connects such killing to what we describe as domestic violence, or the ways that power is wielded in families that lead to experiences of trauma, harm and a will to hurt.

Even more significant, who has made the connection between child sexual abuse, neglect and physical abuse in boys’ lives, and their later actions that cause trauma, harm and death?

Currently, there is no national, state-led approach to prevention, prosecution and healing – including something as simple and necessary as age-appropriate curricula for primary schools that aim to change a culture that normalizes gender-based violence and forms of family abuse.

The Break the Silence Campaign is one example of a national focus on ending child sexual abuse and incest – which is so horrendous that it’s unbelievable we tolerate it enough as a society for it to exist. Any society that values family life above all else should have zero cases to report . What we have is a society that prioritizes fear, respectability, religiosity, discipline and silencing above children’s rights while children live amidst threat and vulnerability.

A decade on, the BTS campaign needs private sector and community infusion of support and investment so that it can continue to press against such silencing and violence for another ten years.

If we make the connections between child sexual abuse and incest, later domestic violence, and wider male violence and killing, we may prevent crimes before criminals are created. For the TTPS and its allies, this should be a priority, for it’s the more humane solution to the desperation of a shoot to kill policy.