Post 292.

Imagine your little one in a pre-school graduation. The room is decorated with sparkly “congratulations” signs and balloons. The children are fresh-faced and lovely.

Reading Rainbow Preschool from San Fernando has been doing this for 23 years. Ziya had a school celebration when she moved on, but it wasn’t Americanized, as is fashionable now, with gowns and caps and all.

Here, at my first time attending a formal ‘graduation’ of this kind, there weren’t any gowns, just lacy white dresses, socks and shoes for girls, and little boys in crisp white shirts, black pants and black ties. It was classic Caribbean propriety for children, the kind that makes respectable grandparents feel all is still right with the world.

I was there as a guest speaker, following in the footsteps of school principals Patricia Ramgoolam and Dr. Michael Dowlath, politicians such as Razia Ahmed and Gillian Lucky, and past Mayor Gerald Ferreira.

Sitting to my left was Reverend Joy Abdul-Mohan, who not only spoke at the first graduation, but who suggested the school motto: Do the best…to be the best.

On my right was boxing world champion Ria Ramnarine. Her story of pursuing martial arts as a young girl, despite family wishes, is legendary. In an excellent skit, little Ria pretended to knock out her opponent in the cutest way imaginable, with the whole room of parents beaming with pride and laughter. Later, her biography was recited while she received her gold belt.

One scene depicted a courthouse where lawyer Kamla Persad Bissessar, dressed in yellow, and Justice Paula Mae-Weekes, in robes, disciplined bad driver ‘Motilal Baboolal’. In other scenes, Shanntol Ince, paraolympic swimmer, and Jean Pierre, acted out their winning athletics, receiving awards while tiny presenters described their achievements.

For the past two years, the Institute for Gender and Development Studies (IGDS) has helped organize a march for International Women’s Day. Scene Three was this march for women’s rights, gender equality and an end to violence against women. There were about eight children who all received placards handed out by a teacher, encouraging their learning about protest for peace and justice.

The first march took place exactly sixty years ago in San Fernando. I knew that we were continuing its legacy, but I didn’t believe I’d ever see feminist struggles taught in pre-school. Tears kind of came to my eyes.

On stage, Reverend Joy and two IGDS faculty, Professor Rhoda Reddock and myself, were interviewed by, of course, little Akash Samaroo and Khamal Georges.

The children’s lines consisted of actual text from the press. The little girl, whose costuming made her look uncannily like me, recited March 2018 data on one in three women experiencing violence in their lifetime. She provided accurate analysis, focusing on gender and economic inequality and failure of services.

On stage, little Joy was dressed in her make-believe priest’s collar. Humorously, Reverend Joy herself looked exactly the same. I was won over by the idea of a preschool graduation all at once, if this is what they would be.

Children portrayed beauty queens, and iconic singers such as Daisy Voisin, Drupatee Ramgoonai and Calypso Rose. Impressively, ignoring homophobia, Michelle Lee Ahye was also honoured and adorably displayed by a girl with braids, and a flag for a cape, highlighting that women’s achievements really can most matter.

In my talk, I celebrated five other women whose steps we should also follow.

First, Anacoana. Haitian Taino queen and mother who fought the Spanish to her death. She was only 29 years old. Second, Queen Nanny of the Maroons, an Asante who escaped plantation slavery and is considered to have freed another thousand enslaved Africans in colonial Jamaica. Third, Claudia Jones, born in Belmont, the mother of Notting Hill Carnival, and so influential in the international Communist Party that she’s buried to immediately left of Karl Marx, Communism’s founder.

Fourth, Dr. Stella Abidh, the first Indo-Trinidadian woman to become a doctor despite Presbyterian clergy’s protestations against women’s advanced education. Her father was a unionist and County Council representative who supported her dream. Fifth, Ruth Seukeran, former San Fernando Councilor and political organizer whom few know was one of the speakers at the first international women’s day march, oranised by Christina Lewis and the Caribbean Women’s National Assembly, in 1958.

Pre-school education is more powerful than I credited, and the ideas more progressive than I’d ever hoped. Sparkly congratulations to pre-schools who put such love and commitment to making not only children and parents, but path-breaking women, honoured and proud.

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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.

 

 

Post 226.

As we approach end-of-year local government elections, and political parties’ women’s arms are mobilized in campaigns, rallies, and constituency offices, it’s a good time for such political bodies to flex some muscle and establish their expectations.

The domestication of political party women’s arms, sometimes called auxiliaries or leagues, is well documented across the region. Women’s arms are primarily drawn on in the lead-up to elections, then usually side-lined after, rather than being at the decision-making table in terms of appointments to Cabinet, boards and other state posts, and in terms of policy positions to be pursued. They are warm bodies needed on the streets to validate parties’ and candidates’ moral legitimacy, community relevance, and vote-enticing sensitivities to women.

It’s a powerful time, particularly for working class women, who know they are playing a crucial and visible role, and who bring that valuable nexus of cooking, cleaning-up, and campaigning skills and contacts when the battle for votes hits the streets. While usually male financiers stand on the side-lines making and breaking deals, I guarantee that campaign-, rally- or constituency-level momentum is not possible without largely lower and middle-income women’s and housewives’ labour, for they perform the majority of organizing work behind the scenes.

Such capacity and power shouldn’t just amount to ‘helpfulness’, but instead accrue analytically sound, badass might. Women’s arms are expected to stay within the boundaries of acceptable issues and rights for women, avoiding, for example, advocacy regarding the right to love of lesbian young women and the basic decency of safe terminations for others seeking abortions, despite their illegality.

The definition of womanhood they enact is linked to wifehood, motherhood and grand-motherhood, rather than to women as an independent constituency of sexual, economic and political beings, who, by now, should substantively occupy at least half of all political decision-making positions in the country.

They symbolize the moral centers of their party, selflessly concerned about and responsible for maintaining respect for the status quo, social order and public good, even when a gender policy is desperately needed to guide state programmes and spending regardless of whether some religious leaders realise that or not.

Within them, women learn when to stay quiet and when to speak, when to know their place, how to appropriately assert power, and how to not annoy men and elite women in the party with their non-negotiable challenges to class hierarchy, sexism, sexual harassment, homophobia and corruption, both in the party and in the society. While men present the risk of political and sexual indiscipline, the women’s arm is steadfast and loyal, like a good wife.

In this context, imagine the almighty commotion in political parties’ yard if women’s arms were seen as too fearless, too feminist and too fierce in their collective defense of women’s interests, rather than doing it nicely, despite women being currently documented as clustered in low-wage and insecure work, facing higher levels of unemployment and earning on average half of men’s wages in the economy. All good reasons for righteous rage.

Yet, there is potential for women’s arms and the women leaders they bring together to exercise power differently, in ways that are decisively committed to transforming unfair gender relations, not because party elites approve, but because its real women’s lives we are representing for here, and we are not giving party structures a choice about whether to respond. We are giving them targets, measurables, deadlines and penalties. Women’s arms should be that autonomous, unapologetic force within a political party that calls those with the most power to account for their advancement of gender equality internally, nationally and regionally.

If this occurred, there would be 50% of women amongst senior ranks, not just women clustering at the bottom. Party school would consist of training, mentoring and strategizing on how to empower women to act as transformational leaders and build male allies who defend solidarity rather than supremacy. Especially when we know a major obstacle is fear of men losing control over their women, and generally having less collective power in a society where women gain access to positions and roles which were previously the exclusive domain of men (Vassell 2013).

Given that fear, which adds to a climate where it can be risky to support girls and women instead of elite men, it wouldn’t be up to individual women to secure such progress, but up to the commitments embedded in the structures and processes of the party. No one should then resort to the easy explanation that ‘women are their own worst enemies’. Rather, the most influential party elites, particularly the men, would be assigned to ensure such progress, and come to account at the next women’s arm meeting.

What such a women’s arm would be is a strong, women-led, social movement, which successfully holds the state and political-economic elites accountable for our economic conditions, our gendered realities, the failures documented in Auditor-General’s reports, and the continued vast, avoidable destruction of our island ecology. For, the role of a women’s arm is to represent for women, particularly working class women, understanding their everyday struggles, needs, rights and dreams, using the power of the party. And, that’s what they should assess. The extent to which they secure sexual harassment and gender policies, economic and political empowerment, and gender parity within the party and nationally, without fear of that being seen as too radical, or, worse, imposition of a special interest concern.

There is inspiration for such an approach to women’s arms from across our region’s history. Thus, party school should teach about women in the Haitian, Cuban and Grenadian revolutions, in public resistances to slavery and indentureship, in riots over bread and water, in struggles to change laws regarding marriage, violence and labour, and in challenges to male dominance in organizational leadership.

It would highlight that Afro-Caribbean women have long been mass movement leaders and Indian women were never obedient, quiet and docile, but as far back as indentureship, were individually and collectively seeking economic and sexual autonomy. It would tell you about women such Audrey Jeffers, Daisy Crick and Christina Lewis, even Gene Miles, who blew the whistle on party corruption, reminding us today that we still have no ‘whistleblower’ legislation.

It should share the strategies women used to make abortion legal in Barbados since 1983 and in Guyana since 1995. It would highlight the story of the Jamaican PNP Women’s Movement which, in 1977, evolved from being an ‘auxiliary’ to the PNP, to an ‘independent’ grouping within the Party with progressive leadership that addressed a wide range of issues facing women. They recognised “the importance of organising women as an independent lobby or pressure group capable of transforming itself into an agency for fundamental change” (Beverly Manley). It would seek examples from Costa Rica and Panama, where women have pushed their parties to develop, implement and monitor a gender strategy that is integrated into party development frameworks.

Holding the party accountable for achievement of political, economic and sexual equality, equity and empowerment is the rightful agenda of a women’s arm. The substance of such an agenda would impress and attract many women voters, strengthening the negotiating power of a women’s arm when needed.

Make sure that muscle on the campaign trail results in such power after, with Local Government councilors understanding that they should give back for what they gained. “We do not wish to be regarded as rebellious” said Bahamian Dame Doris Louise Johnson, “but we would point out to you that to cling sullenly or timidly to ancient, outmoded ways of government is not in the best interests of our country”.