Post 275.

Women, this week, speak your truth.

March through Port of Spain on Thursday 8th March at noon, continuing a 60-year tradition started first by Christina Lewis in San Fernando. Rally from Whitehall and around the Savannah on Saturday 10th March at 3pm with others painting posters, T-shirts and banners, and highlighting the challenges of women’s realities and our demands for long-due women’s rights.

Gather with your male allies to build movements, sisterhood and safe spaces around women’s issues and their solutions.

And, if you cannot be there, know that we have not forgotten you.

Maybe you’re a grandmother looking after grandchildren whose parents are incarcerated, managing just enough for passage to school and food. You’re an institutionalized woman or girl, the majority of whom have experienced childhood abuse and may now be deeply missing potential for healing.

You’re on your feet six days a week in retail stores in Tunapuna, High Street and Chaguanas Main Road, and the low wages and long hours mean you’re conserving your energy and money for waged work, work at home and managing another week. You’re the daughter primarily responsible for care of your aged or unwell parents, and don’t leave them more than you have to.

Your husband has been laid off or one of the hundreds killed by gun violence, and you’re in the kitchen after work and on weekends catering to make ends meet. You’re in treatment for cancer, but without enough strength to walk.

You’re one of tens of thousands of women living with intimate partner violence in the last decade, and you experience body pains, lack of confidence and an inability to concentrate, and it just feels too much to do one more thing in public. Maybe the bruises or the threats against your life are so bad, you’re unwilling to leave wherever you are now safe.

You’re on shift in the police force, in the army, at KFC or as a domestic worker in someone’s home. You are cleaning your temple, church or mosque as part of women’s work, keeping you away from organizing to advance struggles solely in your name.

The struggle for women’s rights is founded on common truths. Right here, on average, men make about $15 000 more than women per month. National-level prevention programmes and a coherent state strategic plan to end gender based violence do not exist. Girls’ rates of HIV infection, child sexual abuse, teenage parenthood and economic insecurity remain higher that boys. These are real harms, negotiated with great risk and backlash. Still, girls and women dust off and cope, survive and improve.

If you can’t gather, open up to your neighbor, your trusted religious elder, or your partner, so that hearing compels them to turn empathy to solidarity. Tell your co-workers, your boss, your support group so that they can commemorate your resilience. Make your survival visible on your Facebook or Instagram profiles so that you refuse shame and silence, and so that we can affirm the conqueror in you. Honour unrecognized women who are the foot soldiers holding families and nation together.

However, you can, press for gender justice, for a national gender policy, sexual harassment legislation, better services for trauma victims, ratification of ILO Convention189, and an end to corruption that steals from our children’s mouths and backpacks, and from their very dreams for a better future.

Visit the Facebook page, International Women’s Day Trinidad and Tobago, for a list of events meant to educate and empower. Whether you march or you finally leave or you speak up for yourself or you break a long held silence or you celebrate another day that you grow strong, you can stand up, speak up, get up.

Imagine and create a world in which girls and women feel collective power to make change that comes from boldly speaking our truths. However you can, this week, this is what you can do.

 

 

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Post 227.

A bill now before Cabinet proposes to raise the age of marriage for girls to eighteen years old. This is because the Children’s Act (2012) defines girls under this age as children, for whom marriage and motherhood constitute a violation of rights.

There will be brouhaha about this bill, but it follows a necessary global trend and, while imperfect, is worth supporting.

Some will say that marriage of minors is culturally or religiously sanctioned. Others will argue that the age of marriage and sexual consent should be set at sixteen years old, not eighteen, and that this is necessary to counter the sin and shame of unwed sex and motherhood.

The fact is the laws need to change. The civil marriage act specifies no minimum marriageable age. The Hindu Marriage Act, and Muslim Marriage and Divorce Acts, contain discriminatory provisions which enable marriage of girls at much younger ages than boys, reproducing a patriarchal view that girls do not need as much time for development of their independence and maturity before marriage.

But, there is more at stake. Child marriage is only one example of adult predatory masculinity, which can also be seen in girls’ rates of pregnancy, abortion, sexual abuse and incest, and HIV.

There have been small numbers of girls married at twelve, thirteen and fourteen as late as 2015. Seventeen 13 year-old girls were married in 2010 along with nine 14 year-olds. Between 2011 and today, twenty-one fourteen year-old girls were married. Overwhelmingly, of the 548 child marriages that took place between 2006 and 2016, the majority of those girls were married to adult men.

These are not relationships between equally adolescent minors. These are examples of relationships in which girls’ unequal age, power, and negotiating capacity are normalized. Were the situation to be reversed, where in one year twenty-six boys under 14 years old were married to mainly adult women, this would be appear to all as a theft of childhood, and molestation.

The symbolic significance of marriage blurs our understanding of child marriage rates as only one indicator of girls’ wider sexual vulnerability.

Turn to teenage pregnancy: Between 2008 and 2015, there were 35 pregnancies to girls twelve years old or younger, 2645 to girls between thirteen and sixteen years old, and 12 551 to girls seventeen to nineteen years old. “In these statistics, said the AG, “We have recorded the actual live births of thousands of children in circumstances potentially equal to statutory rape”.

In terms of sexual offense charges, between 2000 and 2015, there were 2 258 matters in relation to girls compared to two charges for sex with males under sixteen years old. As of July 2015, there were 559 cases related to sexual intercourse with a female under the age 14 years, 128 related to sexual intercourse with a person over 14 years and under 16 years without consent, and 45 related to sexual intercourse with a dependent minor. It is well documented that girls’ sexual vulnerability to adult men vastly increases between ten and fourteen years old, the very age around which child marriage debate pivots.

With regard to abortions recorded by public hospitals, between 2011 and 2015, there were 67 among girls thirteen to sixteen years old and 683 among those seventeen to nineteen years old. Finally, the HIV statistics are telling as girls 15-24 years old have almost always had higher rates than boys of their age. In 2014, girls accounted for 60% of infections among 15 to 19 year olds.

We need further research on these numbers and their meanings as well as on the prevalence and implications of adult men’s informal unions with girl children. Nonetheless, the overall trends are totally clear.

In a context where there is no national sexual and reproductive health policy, and no comprehensive sexual education in schools, girl children are overwhelmingly being targeted by men and boys older than them, in ways that impact their empowerment, self-determination, reproductive health, and right to live free from harm.

We must ask which is more important: protection of patriarchal ideologies, symbolic ethnic and religious laws, respectability politics and predatory masculinities or public will that presses political will to provide protections that girls urgently need.

Post 115.

Ziya is two, but she’s clear about sex, her body and reproduction. That gives her a language to ask questions, assess knowledge, think about herself, identify her rights and break silences around all too common phenomena such as child sexual abuse.

If you ask her how babies are made, she’ll say that the daddy puts his penis in the mummy’s vagina, that a liquid comes out with sperm, that the sperm go up the vagina to mummy’s tummy where it “makes friends” with mummy’s egg (this part she came up with, not me), and a baby grows before coming out through mummy’s vagina. She’s seen natural births on Youtube. She knows where she came out of from my body, in the driveway no less. She’s got basic information to answer her question of where she came from, and she has gone on with life like it’s no big deal.

She also knows what to say if anyone touches her vagina or bum bum. We tell her to shout ‘No! I will tell my mummy’ and I tell her that if she feels she needs to, scrap it out as much as she can. When she throws a tantrum, she’s all flailing arms and legs, hitting everything in sight, acting like Scoobie Doo’s nephew Scrappy Doo. I tell her to hit and kick just like that if she has too, and we practice so that, if it ever happens, asserting herself won’t be new. Girls, and boys, need to be empowered from early to powerfully defend themselves from abuse.

The other day, she said to me, ‘Mummy, I have a nipple on my vagina’. I said, ‘that’s your clitoris’. She asked, ‘what’s it for?’ I had to laugh. I said, ‘it’s for you to feel good and you will discover how later on’. I’m not going to feed her nonsense about her genitals being only for reproduction and not for pleasure, because whatever hypocritical adults think, she’ll naturally discover that just as all children do.

She’s got to learn to own and love her body completely if she’s going to be the most capable of making it through life in ways that are healthy and chosen. She takes all this in stride, like learning anything else. It makes you wonder why we act like this stuff is taboo.

When we are not open about sex, when children do not learn to name the most vulnerable parts of their bodies, and when we pretend that children are too young for facts about reproduction, we are perpetuating other silences too.

We wouldn’t give children a lack of clarity about geography or history, why do that about sexuality? Don’t we want them to understand themselves better or to tell us when something is happening to them that they don’t agree to? We are also acting as if children are not living in an adult world already, learning more than we realize about it and figuring out how to talk about it through what they overhear or from TV.

Stone likes to tell me that all this is all well and good, but wait until Ziya starts school and other parents who don’t want their kids to know about their bodies or sexuality complain about Ziya’s upfront explanatory honesty.

What can I say? In a world where sexual violence is everywhere, and where children are not safe, this is one girl who is going to all the information she needs to know. Words, truth, self-knowledge, safety and power are her right and I’m going to help her to make it so.