Post 411.

ALTHOUGH I am home with Ziya, there are days when she barely sees me. It’s hard to imagine as I make meals, wash dishes, sweep up her pencil and eraser shavings on evenings, supervise homework, and sort out ten-year-old difficulties. Yet it’s not quality time and I fear that this rare opportunity to be together, brought on by the pandemic, will soon pass, and I will have missed moments we could have had. As for so many parents, long hours of work and then exhaustion are like the flow of high tide, taking over time.

When you are not there, you don’t even know what you miss or what you should have been there for, and I think about the sacrifices Ziya makes for my life. I spend so much time preoccupied with violence or other issues, sometimes I can’t switch off early enough to give an hour for us, not to rush her through dinner or to bed, but to listen, counsel and give caring the priority it deserves. She appears quite independent, but needs me more than I may recognise. For those giving to their communities or contributing to social change, there are costs to their families that no one sees.

I had spent International Women’s Day focused on the facts of women’s lives, glad to engage the public in ways I hope helped to inform and inspire. IWD is such an important date for women; we commemorate the history of women’s struggle, the successes of their achievements, the world created through their labour, and the injustices still to transform.

It’s a day when my family shouldn’t expect me to be present, given its usual manic pace. However, events ran late and I missed the Walk Out for Women, an action organised in Port of Spain by Act for T and T, Conflict Women, Womantra, CAISO, Network of NGOs and other organisations to highlight calls for safer transport, a national plan to address gender-based violence, and greater emphasis on peace-building strategies to counter our increasingly violent society.

From the Caribbean Women’s National Assembly in 1958 to the Network of NGOs and CAFRA in the 1990s, each year, women carry the baton.

Whereas I would have rushed into town, everything slowed down. Instead of hustling up Zi as I usually do, I had time to hear her practise piano and see her delightedly play, fleeting gifts I would have otherwise missed. I chided myself that she’s my most important work because she’s a girl growing in a world in which gender equality does not exist.

Changing that world matters; raising a girl to navigate its harms and deceptions, emerge with confidence, and feel connection to her potential as much as to her feelings matters just as much. I suppose I’m better at the first than the second, though finding the right balance takes hourly intention and self-forgiveness. It was a reminder to value, not just public leadership work, but the loving labour of the private sphere, where gender socialisation can be challenged, where social norms are changed, where girls will find their greatest safety and be guided through to resilience.

At home instead of marching to Woodford Square, I found Zi in a home-made scrub extravaganza sourced through the internet. Her latest jar, a green concoction of sugar, salt, food colouring and essential oils, was filled with even greener glitter, the kind that washes down drains and rivers, and into the ocean, killing fish who think it’s food.

Parents can monitor viewing hours and block content, but won’t see every video their child watches. So we sat down and had a long conversation about the internet; how it presents dangers without providing warnings, how children don’t yet have the capacity to sort its good and bad messages, how it doesn’t show the potential harms and consequences of what others present, how adults will deliberately or irresponsibly mislead children, how content isn’t monitored for age appropriateness the way it used to be for television, how anyone can post anything, however fake or predatory, and how she shouldn’t believe or follow whatever she sees.

It was nearly an hour of serious reasoning with a little girl who thinks she knows what America is like from Youtube. It left her better able to protect herself from immensely perilous online and offline worlds she hasn’t begun to understand.

I fell asleep thinking about activism, mothering, costs and priorities. Another March 8 spent dreaming of a different world, and recognition of women’s rights and responsibilities.

Post 373.

Our next crisis is one of food. At the end of March, Minister Paula Gopee Scoon assured that there was a six month food cover, and that food shortages would not be an issue. Supermarket owners instead signaled that food prices will continue to rise and predicted supply shortages. Agricultural economists pointed to a two to three month cover – this isn’t unusual when supply chains are working, but when they are not, shortages are to be expected.  Newspaper headlines have already highlighted that people are having difficulty putting food on the table.

The UN’s World Food Programme has predicted that the number of people suffering from acute hunger will double, to 265 million. More than the numbers, however, it’s their language that hits home, describing an oncoming catastrophe as “as hammer blow for millions more who can only eat if they earn a wage. Lockdowns and global economic recession have already decimated their nest eggs. It only takes one more shock…to push them over the edge”.

There are multiple shocks to the region, from a decline to tourism to energy revenues. We are weeks from hurricane season and potentially devastating flooding, including of farmers’ fields. Venezuelan migration will continue, putting additional pressure on diverse population needs in Trinidad and Tobago. It’s an issue of supply chains, but for Trinidad and Tobago, it’s also an issue of excessive food imports, declining foreign exchange, decreased family income, and the long devaluation of local agriculture.

Here at home, 194,000 people make a living on minimum wage. If some of those jobs will never recover after this initial impact of COVID-19, how will people afford to eat? 

Labour and livelihood are directly related to food provision. In this context, women will experience the hammer blow hardest. They dominate in the lowest-paid jobs and there are fewer women in higher paying sectors. Given that women also undertake the majority of childcare regardless of whether they are employed full time, all those calling for the economy to open, while children remain home, seem blind to the cost and value of childcare, and women’s unequal responsibility.

Women are clustered in the service, hospitality and retail sectors where jobs will contract as consumer demand decreases. Many women also depend on the informal economy as self-employed or own account workers with little  financial protection – whether they are domestic workers or free-lance in the once-lauded ‘gig’ economy. Those that were in more secure jobs will receive contracts of shorter duration that cut costs on their health and other benefits as employers aim to save money. Those who were able to send remittances, often mothers, may now be among the millions of unemployed in the US, directly impacting children’s welfare.

When men also experience lower wages and unemployment, thousands of unresolved court cases for child maintenance will result in less support to women who still need to send children to school and provide sufficient nutrition.

So, the food crisis is gendered in terms of vulnerability of income and responsibility for food provision. Mainly, this situation has been seen as an historic opportunity – to cut excessive imports, to establish more autonomy from US agricultural outputs, to diversify outlets for regionally and locally grown food, to strengthen intra-Caribbean agricultural trade, and to reduce food waste.

In the meanwhile, at times of difficulty, women and girls become more vulnerable to exploitative options such as transactional sex, borrowing money, staying in violent relationships or going into debt to pay for food.

With greater dependence on food hampers and donations over the next year, there is also risk of shifting families to non-perishable, nutrient-poor, heavily processed foods, which are high in fats, salts and sugars, instead of fresh vegetables and fruit. This threatens to increase diseases such as diabetes, further deepening responsibility for care of ill family.

Women already labour longer hours than men both in the economy and at home – that means fewer hours to earn an income amidst greater responsibility for children. Calls for everyone to plant food gardens are good, and necessary, but also impose an additional responsibility on women as breadwinners, nurturers and food producers. This fits the myth that Caribbean mothers can work miracles and it enables blame when they can’t cope.

Multiple voices are pitching good, often long-proposed, food solutions. For each of them, issues of gender – defined by roles, responsibilities, and inequalities in access to resources and power – must be given a place at the table when we face what is being called ‘third shock wave’, which is hunger.