Post 252.

An historic victory was won last week when child marriage was prohibited by amendments to the marriage laws of Trinidad and Tobago. This was a victory for the women’s movement, supported by male allies and working across race, class and religion, despite how fraught that can be. I was relieved both PNM and UNC MPs voted for an amended law. I was sorry the change failed to happen under Kamla Persad-Bissessar as early as 2010.

The call first came from the Hindu Women’s Organisation (HWO) more than six years ago. Organisations such as the IGDS and FPATT became involved by 2013. Lobbying expanded over the last two years, as a coalition of civil society organizations, including Womantra, CAISO, the Network of NGOs of TT for the Advancement of Women, the Association of Female Executives of Trinidad and Tobago (AFETT), the YMCA, CAFRA and more, was brought together by Folade Mutota and WINAD.

It was discriminatory for girls to be marriageable earlier than boys. There was no contemporary reason for this other than girls’ sexual vulnerability at a younger age. The solution isn’t marriage, it’s transforming such vulnerability to older male sexual predation. That this was overwhelmingly an issue affecting adolescent girls points squarely to how gender inequality leads to denial of full self-determination at a much younger age for girls than boys.

The majority of these marriages were between girls under sixteen, and boys and men who were, at times, much older.  This is not the Ram and Sita or Romeo and Juliet story of two teen secret lovers nor of their unwed adolescent sexual experimentation nor of family protection of two secondary students supported to finish both this and tertiary schooling.

Largely working class girls, perhaps with limited educational support or options, and definitely limited prospects for occupational advancement, were experiencing the greatest vulnerability to early sexual initiation by adult men, who usually also had low educational or occupational achievement.

Marriage may have seemed like a secure economic option because an older man promised to look after them. Perhaps, they were seduced by a feeling of adulthood that sexual relationships bring. Maybe they were in love or escaping oppressive and insecure family conditions, or they got pregnant and marriage seemed the next step. It’s likely they didn’t have a clue about the compromises, conflicts and responsibilities that come with partnership with a hardback man.

Rather than “the destruction of family life”, what was destroyed was the legal access of adult men to teen girls. This was necessary if we recognize how gender, religion and class unequally impacted thousands from lower-income families.

There were recommendations that teenagers over sixteen, but within three years of age, be allowed to marry. Such an exception had merit. That the exception didn’t make it to the legislation is a complicated story about the AG vs the HWO and the coalition.

What happens to the babies of unwed mothers? Families and partners can still love and support them such that teenage girls finish schooling, can secure their own income and can decide what they want out of their lives. A change to the marriage law in no way affects this.

If lack of respectability associated with unwed pregnancy is a major fear, then the solution is to give girls knowledge, support and access to contraception.

Adult hypocrisy, rather than “strict family values”, is at stake here for no one wants to girls to have sex, whether by choice and desire or by grooming and predation, without the threat and likelihood of dire consequences. So no one wants to prepare them to protect themselves if they do. When they are made pregnant, everyone can treat them as if they are responsible for the shame. The solution can’t be marriage to the same adult man who didn’t know or care enough to use condoms or protect a teenage girl’s future freedom in the first place.

Too early pregnancy isn’t a more important issue than too early marriage. Like child sexual abuse, they are consequences of adult failures to acknowledge girls’ sexual vulnerability and empower even poor girls to secure better options. If we care as much as we say, all the other work must now gain momentum.

 

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Post 139.

Girl Guides Rock

Photo: Nikki Johnson

It was the Girl Guides who rocked the International Women’s Day (IWD) march, held on March 8 in Arima and organized by Ida le Blanc and the National Union of Domestic Employees (NUDE).

Under midday sun, these young women carried us forward on their songs. Caught up by their camaraderie, all I could see was them making the right steps to becoming the faces of future Caribbean feminisms.

An earlier generation of committed women’s rights advocates was there, women like Jacquie Burgess, Hazel Brown, Rhoda Reddock, Folade Mutota and others. Those younger than me, Marcus Kissoon of the Rape Crisis Society, long time reproductive rights activist Nicole Hendrickson, and UWI students Stephanie Leitch and Sommer Hunte, were in the intergenerational mix. Besides the women, there were men from the OWTU, Shiraz Khan representing Trinidad Unified Farmers Association, and more.

We were continuing the path cut by women like Daisy Crick and Elma Francois, Thelma Williams, considered the ‘mother’ of the OWTU, international socialist and pan-Africanist Claudia Jones, Christina Lewis, of the Caribbean Women’s National Assembly, who first started International Women’s Day commemorations in Trinidad in 1958, and Clotil Walcott, founder of NUDE.

These were women who knew that neither they, nor we, could get weary until labour held the reins of power, legislated the rules and wages that created decent conditions of employment, and transformed the kinds of injustice that affected all workers and especially women, unequal workers in their own homes, in other people’s homes and in the lowest paid sectors of the economy.

Fifty years after our first IWD march, commentators were proclaiming feminism’s demise. Once needed, now obsolete. Once outspoken, now silent. Once everywhere, now abandoned. Such ‘post-feminist’ premature ejaculations should have been kept zipped up. Around the region, my generation and those upcoming are unapologetic about diverse and critical feminist-movement building.

From Barbados, Tonya Haynes of Code Red for Gender Justice and CatchAFyah. Sherlina Nageer of the Red Thread Women: Crossroads Women’s Centre and Vidyaratha Kissoon of the International Resource Network, both working from Guyana. Malaika Brooks-Smith-Lowe of Groundation Grenada. Angeline Jackson of Quality of Citizenship and Tracy Robinson, an LGBT rights scholar-activist, both based in Jamaica. Kenita Placide of United and Strong, St. Lucia. Nikki Johnson of the OWTU in Trinidad. Our own activist teaching with students of the Institute for Gender and Development Studies, UWI, St. Augustine. Local LGBT organizations like CAISO and Women’s Caucus.

Alissa Trotz in Toronto. Jahajee Sisters, with their cross-race, anti-violence work in New York. US based scholars like Angelique Nixon, working with communities in Haiti, while challenging sexism and homophobia. Caribbean feminist writers and artists from my generation are fire-starting through words, music and culture. We don’t just work in one organization, but across many kinds. And, we are more. Many more.

We are here. We are not afraid. Our numbers include men as our allies. Our feminisms are rooted in our legacies and in contemporary realities, as defined by the power of the World Bank, yes, but also by those domestic workers marching in Arima.

One day, politicians and Muslims will openly march with sex workers who come out of well-known brothels to demand their lesser-known rights.  One day, farmers and unionists will walk with lesbians, gays and transgender folks desiring equality, because the struggle for emancipation cannot end with inhumanity.

Generation with generation, in spirit and in solidarity, across race and across the region, those Girl Guides need to know that such politics is theirs to carry forward in their power to lead. One day, I hope we will add their names to this long march of history.