Post 415.

SCHOOL started back this week. I watched Ziya on her first day, following the teacher on her computer, thinking her energy seemed like she had already had enough. I couldn’t blame her. It’s a pandemic and she’s been isolated at home, doing school by herself in our living room for 13 months. Her energy felt like it could start strong, but would surely run down. Looking on, I thought I need a strategy to get her through the next two and a half months of homework, assessments and scaling up of preparation for SEA next year. 

Her marks dropped last term, but so did her class average, and I wondered how to respond. Does quarrelling work? Does that actually motivate? Is there even a magic formula? Is it about more lessons? We went for the long talk about working hard to be proud of yourself, and developing good habits to do well. She’d been through a lot of changes in her family, and had gone through various stages of managing, and it would only be normal for everything to which she had to adapt to have had some impact. 

She was doing everything she should for school, but seemed disconnected from it, like she was attentive, but on automatic while there. Perhaps, not learning among other children left her less motivated. Perhaps it has been harder to separate her school-self from herself at home. I have adult students saying how much harder it is to study without UWI’s library to go to. I’m tired teaching students over a computer and I imagine her just as tired of learning from a screen all day. Perhaps, she is just ten and these are unusual circumstances and this is her best. 

As parents, we are all negotiating the balance between our children’s emotional and mental health, their individual strengths and challenges, and the demand to step up to what school exams still require. I’m thinking about the students writing SEA in two weeks, and the stress even their parents must be feeling. How much to push in a pandemic, and with what costs to our children? I’m thinking about how I’m functioning less well, without quite knowing why. I also think my university students are barely keeping up. 

Studies conducted over 2020 around the world suggest that the home confinement of children is associated with uncertainty, depression and anxiety resulting from disruption in their education, physical activities and opportunities for socialisation. Children are more bored and less engaged. We may miss the signs of covid19’s impact on them. In a Save the Children study of 1,127 students in Latin America and the Caribbean (Dominican Republic and El Salvador), four out of ten children indicated that they needed counselling.

Alternatively, I’ve also seen children Ziya’s age spend vastly more time on their devices, playing games for hours and unable to socialise without them. Now that children are on their computers, phones or tablets, with internet access, they are also on various apps much more, all of which are designed to keep them watching, checking, scrolling or playing. 

These devices have likely helped them to cope, but I think they are also rewiring their brains. This generation is the youngest to have such access ever in the world and, as the Social Dilemma on Netflix shows, there are costs. We cut Roblox after Zi wanted to spend time just to keep up with the children who were playing more hours than her, and socialising there as well. The less she played, the less she seemed to have in common, and all that required adjustment too. We purposely got her outside as much as possible, and off her screen, so that the cumulative impact of being in front a device all day could be reduced. 

A year ago, at the beginning of the pandemic, I proposed in this column that maybe we should opt out of trying to achieve as normal, recognising that children may be holding it together just as we are, but may just be going through the motions, connecting in and out, as it feels that my own students at university are similarly doing. I want to be sensitive to what is happening even as I want both my students and Zi to learn. I’m looking at her on the first day of school, and wondering about the best approach to both her marks and her mental health as well as her school motivation and social relationships over the rest of the term.

Post 406.

What is our plan?

Given that “46,770 students at both primary and secondary level” have “never logged on to portals facilitating online learning,” according to the Ministry of Education, we have to ask ourselves what the impact will be in five years and ten years when primary schoolchildren reach adolescence, and those in secondary school become young adults.

School closures have impacted children’s access to food, mental health services and recreational activities. They have left children more vulnerable to witnessing or experiencing domestic violence and sexual abuse. Some children will recover, but a portion will never catch up; most likely those unable to cope with our approach to schooling and whose examination results already show low school-leaving skills.

In its August 2020 publication on Latin America and the Caribbean, “Education in a time of COVID-19,” ECLAC reports that “even before the pandemic hit, the social situation in the region was deteriorating, owing to rising rates of poverty and extreme poverty, the persistence of inequalities and growing social discontent.” Youth unemployment was high, hovering around 20 per cent in the region, and already considered to be eroding Caribbean young people’s psychological well-being, with young women experiencing higher rates of unemployment than young men.

Last year, the ILO also noted a lack of decent work opportunities combined with fair wages, social inclusion, social protection and labour rights. Young people were entering a world of insecure and informal work. The ILO warned that resulting discouragement and frustration can be linked to protests.

Think of those that happened last year in Port of Spain in relation to police brutality, but which were also combined with feelings of exclusion, joblessness, idleness and anger. Think of the fact that men who commit crimes tend to start young, including in terms of handling weapons, and consistently have literacy challenges.

In this context, the most important issue for an emerging generation is an expected increase in major gaps in educational outcomes, including for migrant children and children with disabilities. Rural children will also experience greater exclusion, and this is a group with typically high rates of primary school dropout in Victoria County and secondary school dropout in the county of Caroni.

We can expect decreased literacy rates, examination passes and certification. We can anticipate increased risk of criminal behaviour as illegal and informal livelihoods become accessible options, and we should expect higher vulnerability to conflict and violence among this generation.

For some of those children, such education gaps translate directly into risk of joining gangs, substance abuse, and incarceration for young men. They mean greater risk to sexual violence, early pregnancy, HIV and prostitution for young women. This isn’t happening to those with family and financial security or with internet and computer access, it’s happening to those children who were already most at risk because of an existing gap.

We have long known the effects of poor educational access and inclusion for children across the region. From Belize to Jamaica to Guyana, peace-building programmes all provide basic literacy and certification, life skills and conflict management, and livelihood options that offer alternatives to the illegal economy or dire, intergenerational poverty.

Missing school is correlated with higher rates of school dropout, and reduced lifetime earnings. What is ahead of us is also an impact on the national economy and GDP, which can deepen a recession and exact a long-term cost in both productivity and social cohesion.

I’m suggesting we plan now for how we are going to engage in risk prevention, treating the digital divide as an educational issue, but also an issue of peace and equality. If the global data suggests what I’ve described is a likely scenario, we can plan for five and ten years ahead, not waiting for adolescent pregnancy or crime to rise.

There’s an educational crisis that’s immediate, because tens of thousands of children have not accessed months of schooling, and have no increased capacity to do so in the near future. There are obvious remedial efforts required, and extensive support to parents which can enable them to protect and educate their children as much as those with access and privilege. It will be expensive to roll out a strategy targeting these students and their families. It will be more expensive, selfish and short-sighted not to.

We can plan now, knowing that these risks are real, and must be addressed. We are looking in the eyes of a potentially lost generation and these children are looking back at us, hoping we will commit to a solution.

Post 405.

Now facing one of the driest economic seasons in 25 years, we need revenue generation, but also strategies to conserve both state finances and the sustainability of our communities. Covid19 led to quick decision-making, in relation to virtual courts, that could save $80 million. It also led to timely and merciful release of prisoners. We can choose the right strategies. As always, it is a question of political will.

Prison reform is one of those strategies, and there are decades of good recommendations to implement. Incarceration is costly to both governments and GDP, but it also costs families and communities of those who are never able to rehabilitate their lives, heal from childhood or family trauma that put them at risk of criminality in the first place, get drug treatment, safely escape the risks posed by gangs, or find legal decent employment.

As old slave colonies, Caribbean countries made early investments in prisons. Indeed, for enslaved and indentured workers, plantations were prisons. As a recent regional Caribbean report, “Survey of Individuals Deprived of their Liberty: Caribbean 2016-2019” (IDB 2020), outlines, it is therefore not surprising that, today, “six of the 15 countries with the highest incarceration rates worldwide are Caribbean islands.”

This includes The Bahamas, Barbados, Guyana, Suriname, and TT. Yet, incarceration has not made us safe. The Bahamas, Guyana, Jamaica, and TT “all have homicide rates more than three times the global average.”

Notoriously, our prisons also have high numbers (between 23 per cent and 50 per cent) of non-convicted people who may be first-time offenders or committed for non-violent or petty drug offences. If you have ever known anyone on remand, there are no social programmes, goods which must be bought at the prison are expensive for families, violent and non-violent offenders may be housed together, and court delays mock the right to justice on time.

In fact, prisons are hardly part of producing greater justice at all. The majority of those imprisoned are poor men with unemployment rates higher than the general population. They have been failed by unhealthy but dominant masculine ideals, by schools which they leave with lower rates of literacy and fewer livelihood skills, and by nations that accept class and race inequalities, and their harms, as the status quo. It is no coincidence that jails are full of poor people rotating in and out of hell.

Disturbingly, family problems – from domestic violence to a need to look for work during adolescence, abandonment or separation of families or being expelled from home – were key issues that prisoners had in common. As the IDB report emphasised, “Inmates who grew up in deprived settings – characterised by family violence, drug and alcohol abuse by parents or caregivers, incarceration of family members, early separation from their household, and criminal gangs in the neighbourhood – were more likely to commit a crime and showed higher levels of recidivism.”

It is so serious that “41 per cent of inmates surveyed in the six Caribbean countries were recidivists” and “40 per cent of prisoners that recidivated were imprisoned within a year of their release. In Guyana, Barbados, Suriname, and The Bahamas, roughly a quarter lost their freedom again in less than six months.”

This is a direct outcome of insufficient prison rehabilitation and reintegration programmes, pre- and post-release support, incentives for employers, and programmes that keep prisoners connected to families. Most incarcerated people have children, and children with incarcerated family are at higher risk themselves. In four countries, Barbados, Jamaica, The Bahamas, and TT, such cyclical incarceration began with juvenile detention. If we can protect adolescents from risk of criminality, and even adolescent ownership of firearms, and adopt non-carceral solutions, we can stop the cycle.

This requires investment in prevention in at-risk communities, which is also less costly and more humane than the social damage, and police suppression, of crime and violence. It also requires that we recognise how the violence and overcrowding among inmates create further conditions for violence, as men adopt hyper-masculine identities to survive, ally with gangs for protection and then are indebted upon release, and return to their families with anger, mental ill-health, and experiences of violation.

We must ask ourselves whether we value punishment, like the plantation whip, so much that we will continue an approach that increases incarceration and crime, or whether we will do whatever it takes to make our small societies safer, more just, more peaceful and more loving at this difficult time. Read the report. It’s clear what we ought to do.

Post 404.

I keep wanting to write about joy, to ask people what gives them joy, and to remind us that joy is needed as much as food and shelter. I imagine each of us finds kernels of joy that give our days meaning, connection and purpose, and I’ve been wondering what those are. There’s something missing in our analysis if we don’t observe and value those kernels for the way that we draw on them to endure aches, self-esteem challenges, scarcity or depression, particularly in these difficult times.

For myself, over this year, when so many have struggled with money, lockdown, injustice, and covid19’s stress on relationships or our own mental health, I’ve learned to pay more attention to my partner’s desires for joy, understand them as a priority, and more fully recognise joy as the substance of our goodwill, care and co-operation.

She’s lovely and beautiful, but I can get lost in my own world, and I’ve had to do a lot of learning about not taking joy and its necessity for granted. I’ve begun to notice those moments more, and to try to create them, observing that we can withstand so much, but not if joy is missing.

It takes mindfulness to consciously attend to what makes us or those we care for feel good. It takes effort to look at negative possibilities and to find or make small lights of joy, like a candle’s warm flicker in the dark or like the deyas we light daily to give small fire to our intentions as we navigate frustrating or unfulfilling realities. Amidst the troubles of our CO2-laden world, joy is like oxygen, like ocean breeze, like the songs of frogs on cool nights when you are sitting quietly and feel safe.

Attending to joy isn’t the same as being solution-focused because we are nowhere near achieving the solutions we need in the world nor even within our imperfect selves. It is more about what enables us to find life worthwhile along the way there. It’s not about escapism or simply being positive either. Rather it’s about how we negotiate sadness and happiness, and what we balance on the scales each day.

In one of many conversations over the last months, my long-time comrade and fellow columnist Colin Robinson mentioned wanting to choose to spend his remaining time in ways that brought him joy, laughter and togetherness. I listened carefully. Indeed, the work of trying to create a better world is meaningful, even if overwhelming, but joy is a different kind of momentous triviality; hardly an achievement and, yet, incomparably rewarding.

I find joy that enables me to feel my heart beating in the smallest of experiences, such as putting Zi to bed at night or having opportunities to tell her I am proud of her, now that we are home together all day.

In the midst of humdrum shopping, we would often catch her or her friends dancing (without consciously realising) to the music playing in stores. One explained that it’s because dancing (apparently wherever there is music) brings children joy. More power to them, just watching filled my heart.

I’m yearning to have different conversations than I usually do, to ask migrant women what are the joys we can amplify, to ask women who became unemployed over covid19 and who I know are struggling what are the joys that we can help ensure, to ask all those with difficult stories what are the joys that we can instead emphasise.

I’m trying to move from problems and their analysis, and from what needs to be transformed to instead delve into what gives us hope, brings happiness, and can be powerfully drawn on. I’m not coming with recommendations or neat conclusions. Instead, I’d like to listen, sharing in gratitude, and learning from what I hear.

Post 397.

I had been quite disturbed a few weeks ago when I overheard a conversation between Ziya and a friend. They were discussing Donald Trump and whether he had Covid-19, at a time when his purported infection, vaccine experiment and full recovery were campaign fodder. One said that she heard he had it, the other said that he could be lying, and I thought what a world in which to be growing up, when children have no idea if adults, and leaders, are telling the truth.

Over on Saturday night for Ziya’s 10th birthday sleepover, the little friend sat with us watching Kamala Harris’ speech. Zi had been excited about the campaign and the debates, and knew early on that there could be a Dougla like her as the first woman Vice President, making US history. She was aware that my family in the US had been feeling unsafe, fearing a triumph of Trump and ascendancy of the ‘white right’. 

We had even discussed what that phrase meant one night, and I had ineptly explained what politically left and right referred to, going back to Karl Marx and, from there, muddling the rest from working mother exhaustion. 

So, it had been a few weeks of discussions whenever her antenna picked up snatches of campaign news and opinion, like a nine-year old version of BBC news. And, it was big tears the night of the vice-presidential debate when I made her go to bed because it was late. 

As we watched Harris’ victory speech, I was immensely relieved that there was an articulate, tough and well-raised woman speaking directly to children, regardless of their gender, whose words could be believed. I was gratified as a mother that they could have this memory at such an influential moment in their development as girls, whether Indian-descended or from the Caribbean, from the African diaspora in the Americas, or from migrant communities. 

Whenever a woman anywhere cracks a glass ceiling, it should be celebrated for that crevice has been opened up for others to join in breaking it. That there are still firsts for women today is astounding, but, in every country, there are still such old, resilient limits for girls and women to insistently crack. 

When that woman is also connected to the Global South – to both India and the Caribbean, when she understands contemporary immigrant experience – which so many of our migrating family members have lived, when she is able to speak knowingly about the systemic violence of US anti-blackness, and when she looks like she could be family to any of us – which is very Trinidadian, there’s a more intimate sense of connection to her achievement. 

Then, there was Harris’ message about standing on the shoulders of those that came before, and their struggle, determination, strength and vision. “Dream with ambition, lead with conviction, and see yourself in a way that others might not see you, simply because they’ve never seen it before,” she said, while girls wearing rabbit-eared bandows and playing with party balloons, watched from our living room.

At the time when the internet sexualises adolescence more than ever before, when hypersexualised Netflix movies like “Cuties” show terrifying trends in how girls are being impacted globally, a mother could do with moments like this; with a powerful woman talking about climate justice and racial justice. At a time when US pop culture continues to overwhelm the region’s local content, an alternative message to girls that isn’t about beauty, brands or bling provides a much-needed respite.

From the experience of Obama, we know that the Biden-Harris term may be defined by less virulent forms of US imperialism, anti-immigrant policy-making, white supremist backlash, man-made climate destruction, and wealth concentration amidst impoverishment of working-class families, but these will not be ended by two centre-left individuals in four years. Though, as we have seen with PM Mia Mottley, there are possibilities to inspire and pivot the world toward more sensible and caring leadership, to mend some trauma, and to soften a public discourse which, so much like ours, has become mired in the inane and insulting. 

Women’s political leadership always secures a symbolic shift, but the substantive difference of the next four years will emerge through partisan negotiation, lobbyist pressure, and the strength of activist movements’ demands. It’s clear that the presidential campaign will be for Harris in 2024. Between now and then, Zi will enter adolescence and encounter inevitable disappointments, but may also learn to continue to choose hope, decency, science and truth.  

Post 395.

SEA results last week were an unwanted wake-up call. Until now, before Ziya started Junior 4, I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to school. She always did well enough, though there was room to improve. She was well behaved even if dreamy in class. She was always creative, curious, conversational and observant, and I was never worried. Mostly, I wanted her to be happy.

For me, childhood is a time for emotional, ethical and social development, for less homework and more play or extracurricular activities. I would have home-schooled if I could and dreamed of a school where learning was a joy, not experienced as pressure or terror. Having had mostly average marks until I began university, I also believed Zi would excel when she found her passion and was ready. You have to trust each child to grow in her or his own way. Children are not cogs in a machine.

I was clearly being naïve, and only just woke up to the reality of the SEA machine. One that sorts those kept in the system from those flung to the floor, however unfair its process or conclusion.

There’s so much to say about this exam, from children’s tears when they don’t get into their first choice school (as so many won’t), to the narrow testing of learning styles that will always limit our assessment of their intelligence, to the 20 per cent list built on a clique of religious or familial contacts, to the confusion of parents when similar exam marks result in very different school placements because these are shaped by convoluted and obscure metrics.

There were so many parents who had to convince disappointed children they were still smart and well-rounded, that they knew their work better than one exam on one day showed, and that there was still reason to be proud. It was a little heartbreaking to see children’s shame after trying so hard. I realised that to try to protect Zi from that, momentum begins now.

So enters the juggernaut of after-school lessons. Lessons teachers are booked already, two years before the exam. Many students will drop everything for lessons seven days a week in the months before. You can barely find any lessons teachers available if you wait until Junior 5. It’s like the system slowly pulls you in if you want to survive. That’s the reality I’m now preparing for, wondering how to do my job and make the much-needed revision time on afternoons, whether after-school activities will still be possible, and whether the decisions I’ll make will be the right ones.

We consider SEA to be an opportunity to learn resilience in anticipation of the difficulties of the real world, and a hard lesson in why and how to beat books. Months of practice tests won’t make students smarter, but they do set the foundation for future skills in writing exams. In some schools, teachers will provide extra lessons for their classes for free. Others, crossing inequalities of income, will search around for ones they can afford. Others will try on the basis of what our public education system provides, both its good and bad, its teachers who empower and those who insult, its schools with connectivity and those without. We will see the impact of this year of covid19 in SEA results as much as two years from now.

I’m writing this because I’m noting how my own teaching and learning philosophy is compelled to shift. There’s a technique to excelling in these life-shaping moments, and drilling and repetition is key. I don’t think this is what connects children to their own self-esteem or humanity, or see their place as stewards of our nation’s ecology. Some become unable to cope with the stress or get bawl up week after week for not hitting the marks they need.

The threat of failure casts a long shadow, though many do come through and thrive. Often, they arrive at university with fears of making mistakes or speaking out, and a need for detailed instructions rather than a capacity to work things out for themselves, and must develop a whole new skill set for self-directed learning, collaboration, and solution-focused thinking.

I’m also tracing the SEA story backward, like bread crumbs, two years before the highest marks make front page and students’ placement becomes public record. Amidst budget debates, if you talk to parents struggling with results as well as those beginning to gear up, concerns are really about their children’s lives.

Post 392.

The Children’s Authority’s press release on September 20 is a red flag regarding children’s increased vulnerability. Abuse rates were already high prior to covid19.

On January 29, the TTPS Child Protection Unit reported a 137 per cent increase in criminal acts against children, including a 45 per cent increase in violent offences such as cruelty, between 2017 and 2019, years when the economy slowed and unemployment soared.

Similarly, in its 2018/2019 report, the authority highlighted “an increased number of children lacking care and guardianship…and children in need of supervision…While for Trinidad, sexual abuse, physical abuse and neglect continue to be the highest categories of reports of abuse, in Tobago, sexual abuse, neglect and children lacking care and protection were the highest categories of abuse received.”

The highest number of cases were reported during April-May and during October, with an average of 361 reports recorded per month.

Children 10-13 years, and children in the areas of San Juan/Laventille, Tunapuna/Piarco and Couva/Tabaquite/Talparo in Trinidad, and in the areas of St Andrew and St Patrick in Tobago, were at highest risk. In terms of reports, sexual abuse accounted for 23 per cent and neglect, 20 per cent, but note that ten per cent of children lacked care and guardianship and another seven per cent were in need of supervision.

Girls experienced significantly higher rates of sexual abuse than boys (34 per cent to ten per cent), and boys experienced slightly higher rates of neglect than girls (23 per cent to 17 per cent). Strangely, the authority doesn’t sex disaggregate perpetrator data, but, historically, sexual abuse of girls by uncles, cousins, fathers and other trusted men is a consistent risk. Girls are most vulnerable to abuse in the homes where they are now confined.

Children with special needs are always more vulnerable because they are more dependent, and less able to break silences about their conditions and experiences. Migrant children are a new category still insufficiently integrated into our social services, and at risk for sexual exploitation.

The numbers show children’s complex and stressful circumstances. Sexual abuse reports increase up to 16-17 years, but physical abuse reports decrease. Reports of children in need of supervision increase significantly at 14 years while reports of neglect go down after 13 years old.

Given that “children in need of supervision,” “lacking care and guardianship” and “neglect” comprise the most reports (except for children 14-17 where sexual abuse is the most reported form of abuse), it is not surprising that mothers account for 40 per cent of perpetrators, for they have unequal responsibility for child care and financial provision under more severe conditions of economic stress and poverty, both of which have increased as the economy contracted since 2015.

This brings me to this week’s press release. In it, the authority reminded parents to “ensure children are left in the care of trusted and responsible adults” and that “older children should not be given the responsibility to supervise younger ones.” This is hopeful, but nearly pointless to say when daycares and schools are closed, and many parents do not have the luxury of working from home.

Across the country and at different levels of employment, women’s jobs are at risk because they have no one to stay home and look after their children. Children are being left at home by themselves or with older children because parents have no better choice, not simply because they are irresponsible.

State decision-making always affects the most vulnerable, in this case economically insecure and single-parent households, and children. This occurs whether such policies intend to or not, and whether state officials acknowledge this impact or not. Covid19 public health decisions have increased children’s vulnerability to abuse. Gender-sensitive and child-sensitive decision-making would have required these very officials to forecast this likely scenario and build in a response.

Child abuse is not a virus, but it is a public health issue for it impacts thousands of children each year, harming their mental, emotional and possibly physical health, and literally reproducing such harm over a lifetime and even generations. We cannot finger-wag at parents who cannot cope with the effects of the economic, social and policy crisis created first by the crash of a petrostate and now by the pandemic.

What we need is a state that will spring into action to ensure options for children’s safety with the alacrity it responded to our risk to covid19, and with the sense of these as intersecting vulnerabilities. The authority highlighted an existing problem which will only worsen. Whose responsibility is it to prevent the rise in reports typical of October? I fear for our children.

Post 389.

I’m writing this on the first day of primary school, as I start the school year working and mothering from home. I started out the morning feeling like we were on top of the world’s crisis and able to ascend it like mountaineers on the Himalayas, and by midday was significantly humbled.

Even with practice from last term, and better ideas of how to organize Zi’s time and mine, it’s still demanding.

I now pack Zi a lunchkit so that I won’t be in the kitchen in the middle of work hours, and there’s a table in the living room with access to a computer and connectivity. It’s as enabling an arrangement as possible, which is why the stress I’m experiencing, despite all these privileges, is so important to acknowledge.

Losing my work space, and being unable to switch my mind fully to work, has unhinged my focus, productivity and ability to think. Half of my brain is minding child all day, and ten work hours are not as efficient, and yet are more tiring. I leave my desk earlier to spend more time with Zi because she needs more social interaction. She’s entering Junior 4, so her workload will increase, as will the time I’ll need to put to her homework and revision.

It’s been months since I wrote a column with the luxury of one uninterrupted hour, and so I get up earlier or stay up later to find some quiet. By December, my sentences may read like computer code.

Even with schedules carefully explained and daily chores outlined, one eye has to be on their roll-out. Did you drink enough of the water I packed? How much of the sandwich did you eat? I said to read for half an hour, wasn’t that just 15 minutes? This is how you did your chores? Without extracurricular activities, the hours stretch.

Unless children spend excess time on a device, time has to be filled. As every parent knows, too much quiet is highly suspect, suggesting some surreptitious activity, and little happens without parental supervision even while work simultaneously calls. Unless you are in a two-parent household, an unequal burden of care means hour-by-hour attention in two different directions. Even in two-parent households, many women will put in more care work, with impacts on their mental health, work capacity, other responsibilities and exhaustion.

Last term, Zi deeply missed time with other children, reminding me how much childhood is meant for social development, and outside physical play. I have to figure out how to manage our isolation, because this second time around will likely wear her down. Even if we create a bubble with a school friend, as parents looking out for our children’s well-being, how to ensure safety from risk?

And now that children over eight, in a private car with their parent, must be masked, even taking a drive has become claustrophobic.

All new realities with which children must discover how to cope. Beyond my walls are women who cannot work from home, and have nowhere to leave their children, with no plan from the State nor from employers. Working women with children with special needs. Women whose partners may be essential workers and who, therefore, cannot leave children with grandparents as they used to, because their family is now a risk. Women working from home, with more demanding child care responsibilities than mine, whose employers may not be understanding. Women without the quality of online teaching that Zi will get, who will have to work, care, teach, revise, and balance everyone’s needs at the same time. Women who are not working, whose children do not have internet and computer access, and those who may be living in violent conditions or with others whose behaviour is unsafe. For many of them, this was Day 1 too.

The majority of UWI students are women, and some of these mothers may be in my classes. As I prepare to teach, I’m thinking about Ziya’s context for learning, and adapting to theirs too. This term will be a daily learning experience of how to be more organised, care for families’ health, and stay sane.

I keep telling myself that none of us know how to do this well, or at all. It’s like regular parenting: mostly you improve because you’ve made mistakes.

On just Day 1 of this challenging school year, as a working mother, I’m recognising how much survival will require realistic expectations of ourselves and each other.

Post 388.

New MP to the House, Vandana Mohit, shouldn’t have posted about covid19, the PNM and karma. She should also have been sensitive to the fact when you are an Indian woman making such statements about the PNM, those statements will be critiqued for their implicit targeting and alienating of Afro-Trinidadians/Tobagonians. Her use of religious language unmistakably played to Hindu nationalism, and her statement would have been received by a UNC base as politically deploying both racial and religious code. In such a tense post-election national context and at a time when mortality rates will rise, kuchoor was bound to result from such a message and its cheap political scoring.

That said, Senator Laurel Lezama-Lee-Sing also left my eyebrows raised. In response to then sitting PNM MP Maxie Cuffie’s atrocious and unrepentant framing of the UNC in terms of homicidal anti-blackness, with his reference to the party keeping the “knees of the UNC off our throats,” the PNM PRO’s entire response was, “The letter is under the hand of Mr Cuffie and therefore is not an official position of the People’s National Movement.” Nothing else came from the party, despite public backlash about its highly divisive and insulting contents. No apology, no recognition of hurt caused.

In comparison, Lezama-Lee Sing went to town on Mohit’s Facebook post, which was not an official position of the party, calling on her to “apologise to the nation for this nonsense, to recognise the error of her ways, and to commit…she will do better, that she will give more thought before spewing hatred and discord.” She continued, “The oath to which she will subscribe when Parliament convenes demands so much more…and we the people will accept nothing less.”

Both Mohit’s and Cuffie’s statements played on divisiveness and stoked a base. The response to them should not have rolled out a double standard, or impunity for one and blame for poor race relations on the other. It’s like playing a game you are pretending you are not playing, and we the people deserve better.

I think about this especially because Lezama-Lee Sing and Mohit are smart, articulate, hard-working, and ambitious young women with brilliant political lives ahead of them. By brilliant I don’t mean only in terms of their own career path, I mean in terms of their capacity as a younger generation less poisoned by the implicit biases entrenched in their political elders. I mean in terms of their potential to not just follow their parties’ bad habits, but to transform them.

These two, and the other young women (and young men) that are the bright stars of succession planning, hold our fate in their hands. Imagine if we could entrust them to not play the game so cynically and willingly, and rather play on their strengths and their genuine desire to see the country improve. They could usher in a shift from racial codes and logics that harm and dehumanise as part of normal political campaigning.

I admire both these young women. I want to see them, and others whose parliamentary record will emerge over these next five years, do well. Not simply on terms set by their parties, but on terms set by non-partisan hopes of “we the people.” Across race, class, dis/ability and sexuality, we need more of a generation willing to do better than those who came before so their transformational possibilities shine. Low voter turn-out and significant disillusion tell us this plainly. Mauvais langue cannot continue as our rallying go-to.

Thinking further about women in politics, I noted the PM’s swearing-in ceremony comments on August 19. Referring to Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly and Lisa Morris-Julian, Dr Rowley championed putting the nation’s children “in the hands of two mothers.” As Newsday quoted, “They are responsible now, not just for their own family, but the family of the children of TT.”

Motherhood requires an immense skill-set, which usually can never be cited on a resume, so it was intriguing to see it drawn into public life, and the nation cast as a matrifocal family; woman-headed though patriarchal.

But, Ashlee Burnett, young chair of the TT chapter of CIWiL, put it best, “The notion of linking women’s capabilities to serve by how well they can manage the home, not only reinforces a stereotype of traditional gender norms but it also takes away from the years of hard work and effort put into ensuring that they are both competent and the best for the job.”

The double-standard here again signals transformation much-needed by another generation.

Post 386.

Last week, I suggested there would be nine to 13 women in the Lower House. Now, that number is 11, with only two of these being Indo-Trinidadian women, not one of whom is from the PNM despite claims that the party is nationally inclusive.

TT’s parties need to show their commitment to more equitable representation of women (across race, disability and sexual orientation) in ways that increase their numbers in the House, where the nation’s decisions are made. At 26 per cent as of today, we have actually moved backward, and there is little to celebrate about a near shatter-proof glass ceiling in 2020.

Such marginalisation of women is ever more important as the world faces health and economic crises that will exacerbate gender inequalities, but is blind to such inequality as a substantive issue.

Globally, men are 75 per cent of parliamentarians, 73 per cent of managerial decision-makers, and 72 per cent of executives of global health organisations. As UN Women points out, disaster preparedness and recovery plans also rarely include women’s needs and interests, and tend “to be developed with little or no sex- or gender-disaggregated data and little input from national gender equality representatives or women’s organisations.”

The PNM’s manifesto, our guide for the next five years, similarly highlights the low priority given to ending gender inequality. The manifesto was based on the Prime Minister’s Road to Recovery Committee, comprising 14 per cent representation by women, two of whom represented the public service, with one of these acting as secretary to the committee.

The long active women’s movement was completely excluded despite the fact that, on the ground, women provide the majority of care as front-line workers in hospitals, schools and community organisations, and as carers of the ill, aged and children at home. Women also work in the hardest-hit sectors such as accommodation and food services, retail trade, administrative activities, and the informal economy, already predominate in the lowest income brackets, and will be less able to benefit from economic stimulus plans because of their greater responsibility for unpaid care work.

None of this is acknowledged anywhere in the manifesto. It is oblivious to a sex-disaggregated picture of the economy, the extent to which it shows unequal distribution of income, ownership, labour and opportunity, and the explicit need to address this as part of national recovery.

Women are mentioned on two pages of the manifesto, where they are characterised in terms of motherhood, welfare and vulnerability. Advancing gender equality, as a goal and responsibility of democratic governance, is not integrated across economic planning, agriculture or housing.

Some women will benefit from plans outlined. However, given that women are a minority of manufacturing business owners, own account employers, contractors or construction workers, for example, means there will inevitably be inequality in women’s direct inclusion and benefit from the manifesto’s plans. Gender-blindness in the recovery committee led to invisibility or insignificance of such outcomes. That said, the one civil society representative, who should have raised this issue seems to have focused on ensuring that single fathers are mentioned five times.

The manifesto includes a commitment to “implement policies which improve the lives of women and children such as the National Policy on Gender and Development,” but doesn’t speak to approving the policy. This may continue the status quo where parts of a draft policy, not formally approved by Cabinet, are being implemented, creating significant policy and public confusion.

The manifesto also commits to fund shelters, transitional facilities, and strategies to end gender-based violence. This is welcome. Thus far, shelters, victim and witness support, and the GBV Unit have received vastly insufficient funding to meet public need. The Government will also be formulating a second national strategic action plan to end gender-based and sexual violence, after letting the last one lapse for four years. Here, resourcing the plan, so the Government puts money where its manifesto says it will, is key.

UN Women (in Policy Brief #18) calls on governments to 1) ensure that decision-making bodies are gender-balanced, 2) harness existing gender equality institutions and mechanisms in the pandemic response, 3) ensure that gender equality concerns are embedded in the design and implementation of national covid19 policy responses and budgets in ways informed by sex-disaggregated data, and 4) include and support women and women’s organisations in covid19 response decision-making.

None of this was promised, and is yet to be seen. I’ll wait to celebrate when we see basic commitment to, as the UN puts it, “building back better” than before covid19.