Post 325.

YOUNG PEOPLE were the most joyous part of Saturday’s International Women’s Day march. Many were university students bringing their friends, their homemade posters, their radiant energy, and their sense of participating in their moment in history.

The goal was always to provide a space in our nation for younger generations to experience the safety and inclusiveness, yet fearless politics, of a global feminist movement long challenging violence, gendered divisions of labour, homophobia, and domination of women and nature. It was to carry a legacy, begun in San Fernando in 1958, just long enough and lovingly enough to hand it on.

It was to provide an example of wide public representation, creative expression, diverse concerns, and intimacy with the dreams and labour of home-grown Caribbean feminisms. It was to bring young women and men together at a time when we already know men can be feminist. Finally, it was to remind about the humbling lessons of cross-class solidarity, for we march without registration, without ropes, and always mindful of women workers’ realities. Just bring your message and come.

Riffling through our visual archives, young people’s posters show them far ahead of the ruling generation of obsolete men and complicit women, together holding back on their promise of equal and inclusive citizenship, and holding onto an old order that upcoming ages have already transcended.

In the decades of the IWD march, the issues have expanded from a focus on girls and women’s rights to include those of transgender persons – those who dis-identify with the dominant expectations of masculinity and femininity or the identities of male and female or the category of heterosexual.

Sounds like they just want to be human, observed my eight-year-old, something a parliament of representatives isn’t brave enough to see. Meanwhile, we too must keep learning to challenge our privileges in our leadership, improving our accountability to people with disabilities, First Nations’ Peoples and refugees.

Caribbean feminism was always the region’s most radical struggle to recognise us as human beings, however we choose to live and love as families, neighbours and citizens consenting and contributing to a greater good. And, some moments, it seems like that message rings clear.

Though today only a few hundred, in a decade there may be thousands marching. Just enough to open the corridors of power in our homes, schools, corporate boardrooms and Cabinet.

Nurtured amongst those who have come of age in TT’s most progressive big tent where Soroptomists march with ASJA Ladies who march with the National Union of Government and Federated Workers’ Women’s Executive Council who march with Womantra who march with CAISO who march with the Breastfeeding Association of TT who march with the UWI Guild of Students who march with the Silver Lining Foundation who march with the Single Mothers’ Association of TT who march with TTUTA, all carrying flags that call for gender justice.

The full list of organisations is much longer, showing a feminist movement that endures despite the precariousness of NGO survival. The Network of NGOs of TT for the Advancement of Women, Women Working for Social Progress, the Women’s Institute for Alternative Development, the Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Conflict Women, Mamatoto, the CEDAW Committee of TT, the Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action, the Family Planning Association of TT, the Association of Female Executives of TT, and more were all there.

These long-established women’s organisations held on through the decades to see another generation, that doesn’t even know their history or their name, spring fresh, certain and strong.

Women’s inter-generational mentoring of civic challenge to all the harms of patriarchal power, and radical impatience for a world already possible can be seen in those youthful posters.

There are many reasons to march. To protest or to add public power to public outcry. To build a movement. To inspire those who didn’t know they were imaginable and their dreams realisable.

To make our numbers a source of strength for when we return to everyday struggle. To simply take up public space. To find that woven into the labour, despair, risk, exhaustion and hard lessons are also community, hope, successes and joy.

When students come, on their own, it is a sign of the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times. They marched for better for themselves and each other, for better without violence or silence, fear or favour. The struggle continues. Next year, we will be here so they grow stronger.

 

 

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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.

 

Post 309.

Is justice for one, justice for all?

In the Caribbean, we have a way of dividing ourselves from each other, and from each other’s struggles. What if, instead, we thought that each of these struggles nurtured better chances for fair treatment for others. How might that make us invest in each other’s pursuit of rights, even when they seem at odds with our biases, fears or differences?

It’s a good question to ask in response to last week’s historic ruling of the Caribbean Court of Justice. Four Guyanese transwomen, Gulliver (Quincy) McEwan, Angel (Seon) Clarke, Peaches (Joseph) Fraser and Isabella (Seyon) Persaud, spent almost ten years challenging a charge and fine for “wearing women’s clothing for an improper purpose” in a public place. They spent four nights locked up for this minor crime. They pressed on despite the prejudice of the trial magistrate who lectured them about being confused about their sexuality and their status as men, and urged them to go to church.

This wasn’t the first time they had experienced the painful edge of a post-emancipation law, established in 1893 as another oppressive act of legal coercion. Such vagrancy and loitering provisions aimed precisely at denying freedom to Africans regarding their bodies, labour, gender, intimacies, religion and rights.

Indians, Chinese, Portuguese and others were also in Caribbean colonies by this time, with their own intersections of gender, sexuality, class and religion. All were now also brought again under the iron fist of colonial authority and its limits on our fundamental desires to be respected as self-determining individuals and, despite formidable hurdles, to be free.

Imagine for a second, then, that Gulliver, Angel, Peaches and Isabella showed unbelievable valor to end another vestige of colonial authority that continued to sharpen its blade right up until the twenty-first century. Imagine that, in doing so, they didn’t win a victory just for themselves or for transpersons or for gender diversity.

Step out of your biases, fears and framework of us and them for long enough to also see that their struggle edged forward free Caribbean people’s resistance to colonial rule, discriminatory laws and dehumanizing policing practices.

The highest Caribbean court struck down Guyana’s crossdressing law, arguing that it violates the Constitution of Guyana and is void. It found that the law invalidly criminalized intentions, not proven actions. It illegitimately defined some forms of clothing as objectionable. It lacked sufficient clarity for ordinary people to understand what conduct is prohibited. It gave police wide and almost arbitrary discretionary powers, creating real risks of victimization. It treated transgender and gender non-conforming persons unfavourably because of their gender expression and gender identity. Finally, the CCJ affirmed the validity of inclusion of advocates and social justice movements as interested parties.

The judgment affirmed a powerful promise that those most poor, marginal or powerless could, nonetheless, legitimately expect the system to defend them. As CAISO director Colin Robinson put it, “This is an historic ruling, particularly because it was brought by working class, transgender women who had the bravery and courage to seek justice from a system that does not usually work for them”.

Haven’t so many, particularly among the working classes, looked around and felt, as Isabella Persaud, one of the appellants said, “We are always treated like trash.” Their cause shares ground with Hindus, Muslims, Spiritual Baptists, Rastafarians, and poor Indians and Africans around the region who have turned to the courts for protection against being unfairly targeted or denied equality, respect and inclusion.

To quote the Hon. Mr. Justice Saunders, newly appointed President, “No one should have his or her dignity trampled on, or human rights denied, merely on account of a difference, especially one that poses no threat to public safety or public order.”

This line, and its logic, is one with which we all can agree, for it speaks not just to these four Caribbean citizens, but to each of us, and an ideal we surely must enshrine as necessary. Justice, however, isn’t only won in the courts. It’s also won in our nod to each other’s humanity in the streets. AS IGDS’ Angelique Nixon, acknowledged, “as important as laws are, we also have to do work to transform the culture to create more acceptance and tolerance” locally and regionally.

Regardless of who is expanding our access to justice, but especially when they are poor, working-class and beyond the pale of respectability, being Caribbean requires us to value the victory of those creating our regional future of greater justice and equality.

 

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 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 263.

I’m in Fiji for the Civicus World Assembly. Civil society organizations and activists from around the world have gathered to renew energy and redefine strategies for transforming injustice as experienced across the planet. Feminists from 350.org, Greenpeace Canada and the Pacific region are in conversation about the necessity of an energy transition to renewables, which must happen sooner rather than later, or a majority of species and people will suffer and die.

Hope may spring eternal, but data regarding climate change is grim. Within thirty years, all of us will know someone displaced by drought, hurricanes, rising sea levels, floods or conflicts that result from these.

I’m thinking of Dominica and Barbuda, and other Caribbean islands which, as close as next year, might produce climate refugees. And, I’m thinking of tiny, fossil dependent Trinidad and Tobago, not likely to change our oversized footprint whether for reasons of economic or ecological justice.

What’s the relevance of this discussion to us, not as potential small island state victims, but as small island state contributors to an oncoming crisis? “We must rise before the tides”, cautioned Brianna Fruean, Pacific Climate Warrior, but this seems impossible to achieve back at home where Shell and BP stalk gas fields like kings, and our PM prioritizes agreements in Houston over Paris in order to pay for our next dose of salts.

“Articulate the demand, even if it’s far away from being achieved”, responds May Boeve of 350.org, “Make policy makers do their job in solving these problems, but set the bar. Keep fighting”.

There are two fronts here. The first is the creation of alternatives – to plastic, to capitalism, to borders, to jails, to violence and to carbon dioxide production. We can also adopt green, de-growth, solidarity, commons and other sustainable approaches to wealth, work and wellbeing.

The second front is the challenge to the political and economic power reproducing a broken, unjust and immoral global economy. There are strategies such as compelling divestment of stocks and bonds from companies in the fossil fuel business, defense of public regulations, and taking environmental battles to the courts.

In a later panel, ex-CIVICUS Secretary Generals Miklos Marschall’s and Kumi Naidoo’s messages go further. We need radical hope, love, fury, imagination and solutions because when humanity faces big injustices, decent people have to stand up, say ‘no more’, and be prepared for civil disobedience against decisions that breed abandonment and anger by the billions.

Anyone who tells you that growth can get us out of the current ecological and, therefore, economic crisis hasn’t factored in the ecological or economic costs of extraction, consumption, pollution and species extinction, or must wake up.

The model is a necropolitics. It is killing us and our struggle must be to protect our children’s lives and future. “With our quivering voices we sing our children to sleep, unsure of what they will wake up to”, sings a young performer. What will we do when, increasingly, this becomes true?

Solutions and accountability trackers exist everywhere. They need commitment and collective civic pressure. For this reason, CIVICUS ended with a Declaration on Climate Induced Displacement in order to build a broad-based call for commitment to keep the increase in global average temperature well below 2 degrees Celsius and acknowledge climate change’s unprecedented impact on migration, human rights, equality and self-determination.

In a fierce whisper, St. Lucian Kendel Hippolyte’s poetry reading from the previous day’s Commonwealth Writers’ Conversation comes to me:

“i woke one morning and the Caribbean was gone.

She’d definitely been there the night before, i’d heard her

singing in crickets and grasshoppers to the tambourine of

the oncoming rain.

i thought: she can’t be gone. If she is gone,

what is this place? With her gone, who am i?”

I’m listening, breathing in quietly. There’s still time. Back home in the Caribbean, I can still know who I am.

I am the power of the demand.

Post 257.

22904775_10155261138313893_3108246652631663436_o

Get up. Stand up. Speak up.

“To achieve the full and equal participation of women and men in our national and regional development as competent human beings, and not property or real estate, then we have to stand up for gender justice”. Lyrics to make a politician cringe, delivered, as they rarely are at UWI’s graduation ceremonies, by Dr. Hazel Brown.

The podium was a platform for advocacy in common-sense style. Her walk to the microphone suggested frailties that come with age, but her words were tough talk from a tireless soldier still in the trenches. She wondered aloud how being conferred an honorary doctorate would help her to achieve long-pursued dreams for women’s rights, consumer rights, transformational leadership, and fair distribution of wealth and power to meet household needs. That’s the damn question self.

How do the degrees we receive, handed like a baton from the past to the future, become our fighting words and weapons against corruption, mismanagement, violence and inequality? “My greatest disappointment during my years of advocacy has been the lack of consistent, purposeful organizing by people like yourselves, in this room, in areas of active citizenship. There’s much talk, but there’s not enough of the necessary action that is required around the advocacy and for social justice”, she cautioned another generation.

Fifty years in the work of social change and people’s empowerment, and goodly Dr. Brown’s greatest disappointment is the well-schooled, well-heeled and well-robed who, by our thousands, are responsible for today’s perfect storm of fossil fuel dependence, increasing insecurity, and near institutional collapse; all avoidable if we mobilised our degree like a hammer and sickle, a small axe, a bilna, or a broom for the sweeping changes we long need.

Few know that Hazel started at UWI and left, finding organisations like the Housewives Association of Trinidad and Tobago, and later the Network of NGOs of Trinidad and Tobago for the Advancement of Women, a better academy for a woman of action. I can’t disagree.

Invest enough time supporting and learning from fearless activists and you emerge with lifelong intimacy with and commitment to standing up and speaking up, rather than remaining silent. You don’t conceive the work, and its demands and risks, as somebody else’s responsibility. I’m not convinced we’ve yet dreadlocked that fierce will to be truculent about transparency and justice, in the face of elite decision-making, into a UWI degree.

This can’t be top-down. Students have to demand of themselves that they learn to get up, stand up and speak up. Three weeks ago, I made my own students count all the readings they had not done and told them to give back one dollar for every one. Their education is an investment, and when they waste it the way WASA wastes water or the way the THA can’t account to the Auditor General and doesn’t care, they commit the crime that has left our Heritage and Stabilisation fund woefully empty. They directly take what could have bought another hospital bed in another Ministry’s budget, or paid another social worker to help the almost 20 000 school children seeking counseling.

Because I’ve been thinking about budgets in an economic crisis, I was dead serious about how blithe indolence is almost like tiefing. They were more offended at my demand for their pocket money than horrified at their entitlement, but how will we produce graduands who won’t waste one more public penny?

So, what are we conferring on Dr. Brown? Is it promise of solidarity? Is it institutional backing? Is it commitment to households, consumers and communities, rather than alignment with the tripartite box of labour, government and industry? Will this mean that a university dominated by men will bring its bois to back Dr. Brown in her decades-long call for a national gender policy?

Being close to her advocacy for over twenty years has taught me more than my degrees. There are not many people from whom you learn something activist, strategic, global, grounded, historical, feminist, and community-centered every time you sit in a room with them. The honor acknowledges her contribution to knowledge for Caribbean transformation. It should give her the power to be able to call on a university graduating women and men of action.