Post 316.

There are reasons why nations rely on reports such as the Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI), even though it has limitations. Not every measure of inequality measures up.

There’s the recently released Basic Index of Gender Inequality (BIGI) which focuses on three factors: educational opportunities, healthy life expectancy and overall life satisfaction. This index reflects a backlash that misunderstands gender inequality and why women’s disadvantage is historically highlighted, and that denies patriarchal ideals are the most powerful force organising such inequality.

It’s being touted as more fair to men, given that previous indexes set men’s status as a standard of comparison for women. Using men’s status as a standard is valid, but not perfect. Globally, women continue to fight to secure equal opportunities to men and equal status in law. For example, in the Bahamas, children can get Bahamian citizenship from their fathers, but not their mothers.

However, such measures also always needed to recognise that women’s struggles cannot all be compared to men’s. Women are specifically targeted by male sexual violence because they are women. Women are denied full right to determine what happens to their bodies and fertility in relation to sex and childbearing because their bodies are female and can reproduce. In other words, the rights that women seek are specific and legitimate because women are human beings with desires for freedom on our own terms.

That said, typical measures, which focus on political leadership, participation on boards, income levels, property ownership, and labour participation, remain valid. They show where power, wealth and decision-making lie.

They highlight how our beliefs about proper roles and rights for women and men, gender stereotyping, unequal responsibility for child care and family financial costs, and violence in homes and streets continue to disadvantage women.

These measures also show the extent of states’ recognition of such disadvantage. For example, although girls and women travelling by public transportation are far more vulnerable to assault and rape than men, nowhere does this reality inform transportation policy in Trinidad and Tobago.

The story behind numbers is complex. Measures, such as educational levels, show significant shifts. Across the world, women are entering tertiary schooling in greater numbers than men, despite the resilience of patriarchal beliefs which make masculine status in religion, family, politics, business, law and media appear normal and invisible or the least somehow justifiable and without consequences. In our region, it’s considered a ‘Caribbean paradox’, illuminating contradictions in the story that ‘women have already won’.

The BIGI guys argue that past measures which focus on women’s issues are ‘biased’ and not real measures of gender inequality. They argue that this index doesn’t show where men are at a disadvantage, such as harsher punishments for the same crime, compulsory military service and more occupational deaths. By definition, they argue, men can never be more disadvantaged than women in the gender gap index. However, it isn’t that the index is biased. It’s based on a correct understanding of patriarchy.

Men dominate prison populations, have higher levels of substance abuse, higher suicide rates, and higher murder rates because associations between manhood and strength, physicality, violence, toughness and more shape men’s choices, relations of control and power among men, and between men and women, and the standards by which men are recognised by others as men.

The BIGI’s basic premise is that its really men suffering from gender inequality. It’s no surprise then that the measure found “that men are, on average, more disadvantaged than women in 91 countries compared with a relative disadvantage for women in 43 countries”.

Their mistake is to see men’s issues as comparable to women’s when ideals of manhood both benefit and harm men at the same time. By contrast, femininity and all it represents – from softness to vulnerability to being defined as ‘the neck’ rather than the ‘head’ or the sex born to be penetrated – all remain low-status qualities and identities which men avoid.

The BIGI guys even argue that polygamy, an old system of male sexual privilege, harms men. Of course it does, but only as an issue of unequal power between older, higher status and younger or lower status men, not as a sign of men’s gender inequality in relation to women.

Focus on women is suddenly considered discriminatory, men are now considered the oppressed sex, and feminism must apparently, and without irony, earn acceptance by putting men’s needs first. Be skeptical of this argument, and data put out to justify it. This column begins to suggests why and how.

 

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Post 303.

A family can buy a sofa or a washing machine.

The sofa will benefit everyone, will be shared by all and will be in the collective interest. However, without a washing machine, the woman who has unequal responsibility for laundry will be laboring outside, with less time for sharing leisure with family, and unequal benefit from the sofa. Buying the washing machine will mean she has more time, and the whole family benefits from being together.

Of course, everyone could fairly share the household burden, but as life isn’t yet like that in Trinidad or Tobago, the financial decision both recognizes and addresses inequity, seeing its greater benefit to all. The sofa seemed like a development that could be equitably shared, but its wealth would not have been distributed that way.

Gender responsive budgeting, or GRB, brings exactly this lens to national budgets. It recognizes that women and men unequally experience development and wealth.

Globally, even women who work in the labour market put in more unpaid care labour than men on families, children, the elderly and the ill. This affects their career advancement, incomes, employment choices and expenditures. Women are also more vulnerable to a wide range of forms of violence, which affects how they experience transportation, and their needs from health and social services.

On average, in Trinidad and Tobago, women earn about $100 000 less than men each year, and they own significantly less property in their own name. Agricultural funding increased from $.054 billion to $.078 billion, but grants and programmes that rely on land ownership won’t be as accessible to women, even if they seem to benefit everyone.

This is because our beliefs and values about manhood and womanhood are not add-ons. They shape every aspect of our lives – from how we labour in our households to the decisions we make at home or in the Ministry of Finance to our work in the economy.

What are the implications of a budget that doesn’t recognize this?

Stimulating the construction sector, in which 80% of workers are men, puts wealth directly into men’s hands.

An apparently gender-neutral stimulus strategy could worsen women’s economic dependence on men, reduce their power in negotiating money and household decisions, and increase their vulnerability to violence.

A ‘game changing’ government should track the disbursement of such resources and their impact because money shapes gendered power relations. A GRB approach would transparently trace whether revenues and expenditures improved gender equality and justice, fail to do so, or make it worse.

No government ministry systematically tracks, from planning to implementation, whether every dollar is advancing equal benefit from public funds among women, men, girls and boys. Fuel subsidies are not sustainable, but responsible fiscal policy should anticipate how its social costs will land on man-woman relations, and children’s lives.

Allocations to the health sector dropped from $6.02 billion to $5.69 billion, and we have to see where was cut, but a balanced budget often transfers burdens for care of the sick to households and women, from having to stay with patients while they wait two days for a hospital bed to greater reliance on private tests for quicker diagnosis.

The Petrotrin lay-offs will cause extreme social dislocation and economic insecurity. Yet, the national strategic plan to end gender-based violence is still not approved or resourced by government. How will it ensure the Petrotrin refinery closure doesn’t worsen intimate partner violence and injury? Increased fines for child abuse are mere lip-service.

The maid and gardener jobs to be created by Sandals are globally considered stable, but low-income and dead-end, without opportunity for upskilling or advancement. Indeed, women still dominate in such low status work in the service sector, and this doesn’t change such labour market distribution.

In contrast to a gender-blind budget, and small spending targeted to women or men, GRB would ask:

What is the labour, health, mobility, security and equality situation of women, men, girls and boys? How will all budget proposals impact their specific and persistent vulnerabilities? What data will track and measure this impact? Are there any proposals which, from a GRB perspective, should be changed or accompanied by other necessary strategies? How can government be held accountable for proper implementation of this ‘better budgeting’ approach?

A Finance Minister should be able to explain his understanding of gender inequities in the national family, and how his budgetary decisions account for these. Just as it takes understanding of and commitment to gender justice to decide on a sofa or washing machine.

Post 294.

In a society still recovering from the inhumanity of slavery and indentureship, our most important commitment is to non-violence, in all forms and in all relations. Non-violence isn’t just about not beating. It’s far more than refusing physical brutality or harm.

Non-violence is about seeing the God in another, recognizing them as born into the world with their own specific struggles and their own divine breath and heart, just like you. I suppose it’s been better said as, let he or she who is without sin cast the first stone. Therefore, with the same sense of its righteousness, put down your stone.

Each of us carries secret sins that we know would change how others treated us if only they knew. This includes the most pious, who have the hardest to fall and the most to hide, for the only way to distance yourself from the others whose imperfections, mistakes and faults seem so obvious and true, is to cast them as therefore less deserving than you.

What if we started differently? As all deserving equal rights and justice, as all deserving compassion and care, as all deserving the right to be, and to be safe and loved, in the ways which we want for ourselves.

I thought about this hope, and how it will be held aloft as our highest ideal at Saturday’s Pride Parade, which will be held at Nelson Mandela Park in Port of Spain, from 2pm.

At the march in Barbados, which occurred without any violent response, a generation of young people came with their messages. One, by a trans woman, plainly and powerfully said, “reclaiming my humanity”. She’s right, it’s the same thing that protestors are doing in response to unjust police killings. It’s the same thing that’s sought in leaving an abusive partner. It’s the fundamental achievement for enslaved African people that is commemorated on Emancipation Day.

Another poster said “sexual orientation is not a choice”. This is good to remember next time we judge our brother or sister, or son or daughter, and refuse them familial love, because of who they are. I’ve thought about this many times, that the choice is less theirs than it is ours, to refuse to be the sinner who casts that first brimstone, knowing that such violence is only a sign of our own imperfection. Whatever your House of God, you are loved no more or less than folk who are LBGTQ+.

Such recognition should make you sit in your pew, or pray on your knees or perform aarti with a little more humility.  As one sign put it to those living in Barbados, “There’s nothing wrong with you. There’s a lot wrong with the world you live in”.  What’s wrong is that we think a respectable façade gives us enough legitimacy to deny another’s humanity, and to do so violently if we so choose, simply because they don’t maintain the respectable façade we do.

On Saturday, it would be beautiful to see LBGTQ+ people free to be themselves without the condemnation of others who should not cast the first stone. It would be beautiful to see religious folk and leaders march in solidarity because they see the God, and the divine breath and heart, in those it’s easy to hypocritically judge.

You may think that manhood and womanhood are under threat, but it is your own humanity, the God in you, that is at stake. One final sign said, “love thy neighbor as you wish to be loved”. On Saturday, the Pride Parade will express a collective wish simply to see this divine aspiration together achieved.

Post 225.

Most people don’t expect grandmotherly women in hijab to be leaders in Caribbean feminist movement building. Last Sunday’s Symposium on ‘Children at Risk’, which was collaboratively organized by Madinah House, the TML Ladies Association, the National Muslim Women’s Organisation of Trinidad,  and National Islamic Counseling Services, showed the limits of such typical expectations.

I have huge admiration for these experienced and committed women, whose consistent work to challenge and create alternatives to patriarchal domination and its harms might not seem to fit their respectability and religiosity as much as their other efforts to manage teas and celebratory functions for hajjis and hajjahs.

Yet, the history of such woman-centred public engagement dates back to the 1930s when Muslim women began to deliver lectures to mixed audiences, become members of elected mosque boards and councils, hold meetings to develop women’s groups, and participate in debates on a range of topics including, “Be it resolved that Muslim women deserve an equal social status with men”.

From the 1950s, within the Indo-Trinidadian community, the Young Muslim Women’s Association, the San Juan Muslim Ladies Organisation, and the Islamic Ladies Social and Cultural Association began to be established. The ASJA Ladies Association was represented at the first world conference on the status of women held in Mexico City in 1975. Muslim women also have a history of pushback against partitions narrowing their space for prayer in the masjid, and challenges to their exclusion from voting in organizational elections when they perceived their association or jamaat being a “boys’ club” for far too long.

Muslim women have also long been part of Caribbean feminist response to issues such as violence against women. Madinah House, a temporary shelter for women and children escaping domestic abuse, which began operations in 1999, and is run by Muslim women, is one such example.

Beyond services are also advocacy and consciousness-raising within the Muslim community and nationally, in collaboration with the wider women’s rights movement, to encourage men to more greatly share domestic work, to call for greater commitment to ending child abuse, and to insist on collective responsibility for families free from violence.

Sunday showed such larger work to break silences about the reality of incest, neglect and abuse in children’s lives, and to provide concrete understandings of vulnerability and risk.

Supported by the US Embassy, the symposium brought a range of powerful women to the mic, including Lt. Colonel Shareda Hosein, originally from Aranguez and now retired from the US Army. Sit with your children, listen to what works or doesn’t in the family, write down what should change, and commit to it as parents, she suggested.

The indomitable Natalie O’Brady, General Manager of the Rape Crisis Society of Trinidad and Tobago/Coalition Against Domestic Violence, reinforced the importance of stable homes, and parental time and attention. These are fundamental to child protection, resilience and rights.

Children’s Authority staff and clinical psychologist, Vandana Siew Sankar, highlighted that neglect and physical abuse is almost equally distributed amongst girls and boys, with their greatest vulnerabilities occurring before they are four years old, except in cases of sexual abuse, which become more common, especially for girls, with the onset of puberty.

Director of the Gender Affairs Division, Ms. Antoinette JackMartin pointed to the establishment of a Central Registry on Domestic Violence, precisely to address a need for accessible statistics.

Finally, Sharifa Ali-Abdullah, whose work to develop the Children’s Authority of Trinidad and Tobago is legendary, emphasised that we should take seriously the likelihood that oncoming economic decline and unemployment will increase the incidence of child abuse, which already spans from extreme and exceptional to everyday and normalized in the thousands of cases that come to the attention of the Authority, and which are largely inadequately addressed by social services.

These efforts to prioritize prevention of violence against women and children; to provide woman-run, woman-centred and community-supported services; and to publicly bring a message fundamentally grounded in a right to live free of domination, threat and fear are strengths on which the regional women’s rights movement was built over the last decades.

Consistent with such a history of Muslim women’s pious, yet path-breaking contributions to a Caribbean feminist vision, Sunday again offered lessons and inspiration.

Post 215.

Last week, Vernon Ramesar of iETv interviewed me about hostility to feminism.

I first explained that part of the problem is that North American stereotypes are often imposed on our home-grown, centuries-old social movements. Instead, we should see feminist struggles as grounded the ways that big systems of slavery and indentureship provided the foundation for issues of sexual violence, unequal wages, or the ideal of male breadwinners and female housewives, which Caribbean women continue to negotiate today.

Not watching much further past this point in the interview, one guy wrote in response: “Gosh. I dislike when women highlight how much of a victim they are. ‘Look at me. I’m a victim since slavery. Treat me special and give me everything!’”

I was intrigued by this mangling of the message, and its hostility. Feminists don’t ask for special treatment, just what is fair. We don’t want everything, only what is just. So what is going on? Is explaining that persistent inequities still exist, and that justice inspires us to challenge them, the same as claiming victimhood?

No. Does analysis of beliefs and values about manhood and power, in religion, family, law, media and the economy, automatically mean that women are being cast as completely powerless? Here, too, the answer is no. So, what else is going on? Accusing women of claiming to be victims, when that is not what they are doing, is an act of silencing them from articulating the conditions of their oppression, which are real.

Feminism gets the biggest backlash here. That’s because, for us, it isn’t that everyone is always individually responsible for their place in power. Unequal relations aren’t just about women’s attitude. There is agency, meaning capacity to make decisions, but there are also ways that women’s opportunities and choices are delimited by, for example, the unsafe conditions for securing termination of pregnancies, the low numbers of sexual assault cases successfully prosecuted, or the greater risks women face at the point of leaving abusive relationships.

Yet, what feminism is navigating is a historical moment dominated by the tyranny of agency and denial of the big political-economic systems that still penetrate women’s lives. We hear it all the time. “Women have the vote, they have rights, what more do they want? If women didn’t dress this way or go there or say what they did, that wouldn’t have happened. You all want equality, but want special treatment, like men to hold open doors, make up your mind. Feminism is passé, women have to stop hearing there are obstacles to them achieving. Now the playing field is unbalanced because women and feminists have biased society and state against men.”

In other words, the hand that rocks the cradle is both ruling and ruining the world, and men are suffering at women’s hands, from violence, from economic exploitation and from women’s domination of family arrangements. Sound like more twisted mangling of feminist arguments about women’s subordination?

There is an ironic slip of hand here: the stereotyping of feminism in ways that force closure of victimhood to women and, simultaneously, its frequent and increasing opening to men as the new, legitimate victims.

The result is a denial of patriarchal power, combined with appropriation of feminist concepts to articulate a backlash. It’s like billionaires in the US claiming that there is a class war against the rich, using the very concept “class” that was created to name economic inequality.

Some women, even those concerned about women’s rights, may also misread feminism as claiming victimhood. The distaste and fear of being similarly labelled means that they too wield a stereotype they wish to avoid. They want to see women as powerful, networked, capable, tenacious, strategic and inspired. But, focusing on women’s personal power won’t simply erase when and why their power is devalued, denied or taken away.

Feminism has always been about women’s consciousness, aspirations, communities and capacities, and how these have been resisted by racism, classism and patriarchy.

It has long been about transforming masculinity from both benefiting from and being hurt by these systems. It has always been about facing victimisation with vision. Today, these remain valid, reasonable intentions for the Caribbean despite distortion and opposition.

• The interview can be viewed at grrlscene.wordpress.com.

Post 206.

Is the sudden loss of the word ‘gender’, in any Ministry title under the Rowley government, a sign of gender equality’s oncoming policy demise?

This new invisibility, which reverses decades of state practice and Caribbean advocacy, isn’t a matter of letterhead. It shows lack of familiarity with Caribbean history, misunderstanding of why ‘gender’ was made independently visible, and a step out of time with the UN Sustainable Development Goals for 2015 to 2030, to be adopted at the General Assembly meeting in New York in just two weeks.

Some have argued that, under the last administration, ‘gender’ was in a Ministry title, but “nothing” effective was tried or achieved, so why keep it in? But, “nothing” achieved, or more to achieve, is more, not less, reason for gender equality’s visibility while following through on the budgetary allocations, and cross-ministerial policies and programmes that its inclusion signals.

Others have argued that disappearance of a Ministry, with visible leadership for integrating women’s empowerment and gender equality across all planning, is a message that the government is serving all. But this “serving all” defense assumes that women and gender represent special interests. Not true.

Everyone’s entire lives, including how we access power, are shaped by ideals of masculinity and femininity, across everything from the economy to schooling. And women are not a special interest group, for what happens to women similarly affects everything from the economy to schooling. To fix the problem of boy’s educational underachievement, end women’s subordination and the low status of femininity. Same for sex inequality in the labour market which affects the health and wealth also of men and families.

Except where efforts are well integrated, a single Ministry still needs to push technical recommendations and expertise across other parts of government, which might be adopting agendas based on inaccurate analyses, personal biases or unfamiliarity with global conventions.

There are also major problems with subordinating gender equality to ‘social development’ or ‘family services’; a move that regresses to pre-1975. Gender equality and women’s empowerment are their own goals, whether or not they advance a state’s ‘development’ or ‘family’ agenda. What if the development plan includes an ‘Export Processing Zone’ where goods are made, but unions are forbidden, and what if the majority of workers are women? Here their right to organize as women workers, for everything from day care to decent conditions, will be at odds with a development plan.

Gender equality may also be at odds with ‘family services’, particularly where women’s resistance to all forms of male domination in religion or violence in the family, or the right of LGBT citizens to equally choose who they love, or the justice of providing safe and legal access to pregnancy termination as a public health policy, is cast as a threat to the ideal of ‘family’. Women’s rights are human rights to be pursued regardless. They are not reducible to service provision, nor justified by women being “half our resources”, nor legitimate only for heterosexuals, wives or mothers.

Caribbean feminists fought since at least the 1970s to get gender visible at a ministerial level. Jamaica led the world with a Women’s Desk in 1973 and decade after decade of regional struggle and advocacy won a Bureau, then a Division and finally a Ministry. There was data and logic backing this, for Caribbean states are historically patriarchal and the Ministry of Gender was to be the radically transformative site for internal reform that had inched past the glass ceiling right to the top, to struggle there for change.

How will a Ministry of Social Development and Family Services fill the mandate of a Ministry of Gender Affairs to challenge patriarchal beliefs, values and organization of power, as they create sexism and homophobia, in and out of the state? Can we expect the ministry to stop ungendered priorities flinging wrong resources in wrong directions, costing the treasury? Will the Minister lobby within Cabinet for gender equality, as if that is a headline mission of her Ministry, not simply a division under the manners of social welfare and family?

What’s in a name? At minimum, a public commitment to women’s rights and gender equality. What has been lost? Disappointingly, Cabinet-level representation, leadership and accountability.