Post 247.

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Seen from the air, Guyana’s forested beauty is epic. The plane’s shadow buzzed over the treetops like a gnat, insignificant in afternoon sun and in comparison to such wondrously vast tree cover.

In between, bare red rock or white sand pockmarked the surface where old forest had been razed. Mining, quarrying or logging is making some rich in the present while leaving children in the future without this inheritance, for all your generation has to give is this one precious planet.

Such wounds seem small from the plane window, but are matters of life and death, of community traditions and contemporary rights, for Indigenous women continuing to resist in Guyana even as I write.

The taxi driver couldn’t figure out where all Guyana’s money went, for a country with gold, diamonds and timber should be the wealthiest in the Caribbean. ‘It don’t make sense’, he told me.

Not in Trinidad either where our resources made some rich while leaving the place poor: hospitals dirty, public transportation insufficient, prisons over-crowded, landfills unregulated, families violent and schools failing a third of the youth.

Given deals struck with Exxon and other companies, will Guyana’s oil just pass through the country like a dose of salts? If only others could learn the Trinidad lesson that wealth makes you shallow, wasteful, corrupt and consumerist as a nation; changes values so that the main ethic becomes private gain; and erodes attention and commitment to public responsibility, public utilities and public space.

As we drove, I tried to reconcile a Guyana I knew as a teenager when my mother joined Caricom.  At the same time back then, I moved to Barbados to start secondary school at Queen’s College, leaving Trinidad to become, first, a nowherian and, later, a regionalist.

It’s as a regionalist I listened to Christopher Ram, after a television interview in a neglected studio building, talk about his time in the Grenada Revolution and the hurt he still carries at its death.

It’s hard to imagine a generation from across the Caribbean traveled to Grenada to contribute to one island state’s aspiration to get independence right. It’s difficult to identify how much that aspiration was crushed and never quite returned. From Jamaica to Guyana, you can meet people who know what the fire of hope feels like and who carry the failures of that political experiment like the loss of a loved one, in their mind’s eye when they look into distance.

Arriving in Georgetown, there were areas I didn’t recognize. ‘We get modern’, said the driver, ‘we almost like foreign’.  There are better-lit highways, burgeoning suburbs, big cars, money laundering and ostentatious religious buildings. At best, the poor people, who remain the majority, struggling with VAT and joblessness, can hope to one day inherit the earth, but not tomorrow, next year or the next decade.

Such a dream deferred isn’t good enough. So, it’s important to cast our lot with those who remain indefatigable, rather than defeated, often women, often feminists.

One of them is Vanda Radzik, who drew the University of Guyana and the Women and Gender Equality Commission together to launch the collection, ‘Indo-Caribbean Feminist Thought’, which I edited with Lisa Outar, a Guyanese born feminist scholar.

I first met Vanda thirty years ago, as I became aware of the anti-violence, ecological sustainability and economic empowerment work of the Guyanese women’s movement. Today, I’m simply and inadequately, like that small plane over such vast terrain, carrying these women’s legacy, trying to always remember and learn from their dream for a different future.

Similarly, the book collection’s premise is that Indo-Caribbean feminist thought requires us to look back as part of gathering our resources for the work ahead. The ways we imagine alternatives to all forms of oppression are richer when they draw on multi-ethnic, woman-centred, solidarity-based legacies of indentureship. This is the real wealth that arrival bequeathed.

The book is being launched in Guyana this week, and on Tuesday at 6pm, in UWI’s Law Faculty Auditorium, in Trinidad. All are welcome, for all these complex and tenuous threads, from Guyana to Trinidad to Grenada to elsewhere, some of which you may be gently holding over all these decades, are woven together there.

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Post 226.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post 205.

Last Friday, the University of Guyana finally launched its own Institute for Women, Gender and Development Studies.

Working at a gender institute myself, I could anticipate its limitations and opportunities. There is only so much small staff with activist passions, but with priorities of teaching and research, can do in a society with big gender problems. However, such an irreplaceable space also provides the kinds of consciousness-raising, mentorship, and commitment to women’s rights and progressive men’s movements that our societies surely need.

Having once joined at the beginning of a graduate programme that changed my own life, it was a reflective moment to be in Guyana, almost twenty years older, and hoping that as many students as possible will have the empowering experience I did.

I felt the same respect and awe for the work ahead as I got to know Renuka Beharie, coordinator of the fledgling Institute for Women, Gender and Development Studies at the Anton de Kom University in Suriname. She did not even have a full time secretary, but, after many hours and much sacrifice, I could only imagine how many would think of her the way I do about the pioneers in Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and beyond who similarly built the gender studies institutes that generations of us will inherit.

Sometimes people wonder about the point of spending money to travel to events that seem to achieve little or signal only an uphill battle, but I was struck by the sense of regionalism sparked each time we meet up and connect to our work across borders and seas.

I had heard Hazel Brown talk many times about wanting the government to establish a Commission for Women and Gender Equality, and found a 2010 pre-election newspaper clipping where the PM promised she would. Yet, it felt so much more real when I met the commissioners in Guyana, who continued to hope to bring women together across party lines, who were pushing the government to approve a national gender policy, and who spoke openly about the fact that the new government’s appointment of only 30% of women to state boards, with some boards having no women at all, wasn’t good enough.

On the flight there, I sat next to a young woman, twenty years younger than me, who was so passionate about her work with the Trinidad Youth Council, and who said all the right things about good organizing, that my heart lifted, and I self-consciously felt myself filling the shoes of those older activists who go to civic meetings and talk about how nice it is to see all the young people there.

Having been nurtured by a progessive youth movement, and seeing how many from there continue to exercise leadership however we can, I was certain of the passionate possibilities for a young woman interested in social change, the guidance available, and the power of her oncoming experiences.

As we talked, it turned out she had never heard of this person, Hazel Brown, something I didn’t think was possible for any activist, youth or not, in T and T. Here was a wake up call for women’s and youth movements, a reminder we must make an extra effort to reintroduce every generation, especially of young women, especially of activists, to the makers of our too-quickly forgotten history. I wondered if you asked fifth form students around the country to name one women’s rights activist, who they would name, and if no one, why.  What would that say about the value of such women’s work in our country?

I invited the young woman to an evening gathering of NGOs, hoping that being in the room with women like Vanda Radzik, Jocelyne Dow, Karen de Souza and other Guyanese stalwarts in the struggle for Caribbean women would in turn spark her connection to Caribbean feminism’s regionality.

That one day in Guyana rested on my mind throughout my first class at UWI this week. How did you end up here I asked? Students wanted to understand feminisms, their rights, themselves and power relations in their families. Gender studies institutes were founded, and continue to be, to provide precisely the knowledge that each generation, discovering injustice, finds that they need.

Post 190.

Election season. Hard-to-meet politicians on the street. Shaking hands and influencing people.

You decide you won’t let it be that easy. Too much injustice out here. You want to know exactly what this politician promises to do. You’re clear on your issues and you’re clear that these issues deserve serious answers.

So, you not staying quiet. Let politician skin teeth some next time. You rewriting the campaign script to show what people really saying. Families bawling. So you not feeling to be nice, but you plan to be powerful, not impolite. Now is to hear the people, not hush them, to earn each vote with honesty and humility. You not going to be dismissed because you defending rights.

Anyone who has ever been frustrated by long-term, avoidable, injurious governmental failing can surely identify with being so fed up and angry.

Now imagine that that same politician starts feeling badgered by you because he won’t answer your question, and it’s clear you not giving up or getting intimidated.

Annoyed, he calls you “an idiot” and “a little piece of shit”, and threatens, for others to hear, that he could “slap her ass…just for the fun of it”, that he could have you stripped by “some of my women”, because you keep interrupting his media interview with your demands to know what he’s going to do about so many mothers dying from childbirth.  He tells you to “shut up” and “eff off”. His later press release claims you provoked him into such violence. Shame.

Now imagine your name is Sherlina Nageer and you are confronting Guyana’s Minister of Health, Dr. Bheri Ramsaran, to hold his government accountable for providing safe, professional and respectful sexual and reproductive health services to women, a struggle being fought for decades and not yet won. You see exactly how fighting for women’s rights risks abuse, threats and intimidation.

Now, imagine this story is yours. Maybe because the tragic loss of first time mother, 24 year old Keisha Ayers, who died days after a C-section in Mount Hope hospital was finally too much. Maybe because it finally happened to someone you love.

Wouldn’t you then hope that the way that the politicians deal with ordinary citizens, the way that powerful men speak to women, the way that mothers are mistreated in the health system, the way that women’s deaths fail to provoke high level public recognition and response, is seen for what it is, drawing solidarity from all citizens across our region?

In 2013, Barbados had two maternity related deaths. One in 1100 women faced risk of maternal mortality. Jamaica had 40 deaths, but 1 in 540 women faced risk of maternal mortality. Trinidad and Tobago had 16 deaths, and a 1 in 640 chance of maternal mortality. Guyana had 40 deaths, with 1 in 150 women facing risk of maternal mortality, the highest rate in the English-speaking Caribbean. It matters that those numbers are falling, but that matters less than the women still unnecessarily dying.

Amidst our own wrong-and-strong election season, Sherlina Nageer, Trinidad and Tobago sends our solidarity to you in Guyana. As the petition written by young Caribbean feminist organisations, Code Red for Gender Justice and Womantra, stated, “We call on our state managers to denounce acts of violence wherever they occur. We caution our politicians throughout the region that their silence on these offences against its citizens speaks volumes to their commitment to gender justice and the rights of women. If they will not speak out due to a lack of political will, we will speak out in the knowledge of what is right.”

Sign the petition at: https://secure.avaaz.org/en/petition/All_Caribbean_people_Solidarity_with_Sherlina_Nageer_all_womens_human_rights_defenders/

On Wednesday 29 April, Ramsaran was fired: http://www.stabroeknews.com/2015/news/stories/04/29/ramsaran-fired/