Post 338.

In 2019, the issues that have long faced women continue to be part of sustained struggle. The hope in this struggle are the many women, especially young women, fearlessly pursuing gender, sexual and reproductive justice around the region.

I’m meeting some of these women for the first time, feeling hope from their potential. I’m introducing you to them because the names of Caribbean women activists often disappear along with recognition of their labour.

I was at an Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) event recently, featuring companies and banks with progressive policies regarding women’s employment and leadership, sexual harassment, and work-family balance. Someone in the audience asked what led to these policies. The private sector speakers answered that society has changed, customers are choosing socially (and environmentally) progressive profits, and a younger generation is looking for jobs in companies that align with their ideals.

Society didn’t just change. Feminists labored for decades, despite being stereotyped and maligned, to mainstream the transformations that appear to have just happened over time and that, ultimately, benefit us all.

Societies don’t just change. Women, and feminist men who are allies, labour to make those changes to women’s rights, LBGTI human rights, rights to safe and legal terminations, rights of sex workers, and rights of girls and women to live free of male harassment and violence. They labour to make the changes to parenting policies, including extended paternity leave, that we take to be common sense today.

Such labour takes whole lives, is often voluntary, and can be exhausting, impoverishing and invisible. The private sector takes up this work when the social shifts have already happened, but rely on feminists’ everyday investment to take the risks and resist persistent social support for male domination, heterosexual privilege, traditional gender roles, and women’s unequal burden of care.

So, let me introduce you to Ifasina Efunyemi, a Garifuna woman, who co-founded Petal, Promoting Empowerment through Awareness for Lesbian and Bisexual Women, a Belizean organization that creates safe spaces, promotes healthy relations, and provides training that supports economic empowerment. Every year they hold a forum on International Women’s Day with different themes from gender-based violence to social security and the age of consent.

Meet Robyn Charlery White, co-founder and Director of Herstoire Collective, which promotes sexual and reproductive health and rights, works through digital advocacy, creates safe spaces for women and girls to access information and services, and teaches St. Lucian school age girls about menstrual health. You wouldn’t believe how little secondary school girls are informed about their bodies, fertility and sexuality, mostly because of parents’ silence, and the impact of such disempowerment.

Patrice Daniel, from Barbados, co-founded Walking into Walls in 2012. It’s an on-line space (which you can Like on Facebook) that documents gender-based violence against women and girls, their own narratives and stories of violence, and feminist activism to end such violence. In its own way, this crucial record of the most gutting of women and girls’ realities aims to highlight and challenge the norms that make male violence so normal in the Caribbean.

In Jamaica, Shantae Porteous works with Women’s Empowerment for Change (WE Change). Focusing on empowering lesbian, bisexual and transwomen, their work includes using culture and arts to heal from abuse. She’s also part of I’m Glad I’m a Girl Foundation, which has been lobbying to provide sexual and reproductive health services and information to girls thirteen to seventeen. Ironically, the age of consent is sixteen, but such services cannot be legally accessed without parental consent before eighteen. For almost ten years, the Foundation has also organised a feminist-led camp for girls that includes conversations on puberty, self-confidence and financial management. Boss mix, right?

You may think that the big issues are migration and trafficking, climate-related disasters, and poverty, but these are unequally suffered by the most vulnerable or stigmatised groups in our societies; teenage girls, persons living with HIV/AIDS, trans women, poor women, and survivors of insecurity and violence.

What do these and other young women need to continue creating hope? Funding, capacity-building, meaningful partnerships, volunteers, allies, political will and state collaboration, spaces to gather, succession planning, and opportunities to become financially sustainable.

It may not be visible, but another generation is labouring to protect and advance women’s human rights, and free women, girls, men and boys from patriarchal authority. In the spirit of regional solidarity, I’m billboarding their courage because the story shouldn’t be that societies just somehow change.

If anyone tells you the future is feminist. Now, you know their names.

 

 

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Post 307.

When UWI students protested their vulnerability to robbery and rape on campus, we witnessed the brutality of overly-weaponised police unnecessarily roughing up two young dreadlocked male students, pressing their faces to the ground with their knees on their necks, and then throwing them in the back of the police jeep in order to later charge them for protesting feelings of insecurity to crime.

There didn’t seem to be any sense of irony that that dealing with such feelings of insecurity through repressive state force misses what a younger generation is legitimately telling both police and the nation about our own institutional failures. It was clear that police escalated the situation and that their training to deal with illegality – whether student protests or gang turf wars – is a single-minded and excessive hypermasculinity that strikes back to strike fear in the hearts of anyone out of order.

I thought about students’ lack of familiarity with strong-arm policing, and their naïve investment in police benevolence. Students believe they have a right to pursue a neoliberal dream of individual study, advancement and success as if the society isn’t falling apart around the borders of the campus.

Rather, students have to recognize that such a dream is a myth. Individual advancement is threatened night and day by wider social alienation, by widespread gender-based harm, by state institutional failure, and by systemic inequality and injustice – and this will reach students through threat of all kinds, whether robbery or rape, on campus just as anywhere else.

I’m not saying there isn’t more that the campus could do, but that fear and insecurity are social and economic problems, requiring institutional responses from an integrated justice system, and collective citizen investment and involvement in everything required for such transformation.

I thought too about how those very students probably don’t think too much about such policing as the modus operandi in poor and insecure communities, and the necessity of their solidarity with them, having experienced what that m.o. looks and feels like when the “good”, versus ghetto, youth get violently put in place.

We are all horrified by the murder rate and widespread fear of armed robbery and random shootings. We understand justification for shooting back at criminals who shoot at police. We understand that police are defending law-abiding citizens, and even wealthy non-law abiding and corrupt elites, with their working-class lives and families on the line. We understand that police share our fear as individuals and experience even greater occupational fear.

However, there is more to this seductive, simplistic, narrative. Where do individual badmen come from? Do they emerge in our society from nowhere? Is the gun-talk of “a war they want…a war they will get” going to change the disturbingly low rate of convictions or the shockingly slow pace of the justice system which institutionally reproduce the problem? Will it solve the fact that crime also continues because those responsible for patrolling streets and borders also are those running blocks or, as Rudder would put it, letting the guns and cocaine pass? Will it solve the fact that men in prison have higher than average rates of illiteracy or that they come from poorer households and communities, and schools failing children or, often, from situations of familial neglect and abuse?

In countries where crime has been reduced and jails emptied, has it been through being “rottweilers of aggression”? What of the fact that prison creates criminals by mixing men convicted of smaller offenses with gangs to whom they must show loyalty both in and, later, outside of jail in order to survive inside and, later, outside? As the restorative justice movement has long warned us, the fact that prisons officers, and police officers, are at risk of death is a problem exacerbated by how we imprison.

Anti-punk policing seems like the solution we have been waiting for, but fighting firearms with more firepower may leave us without sustained pursuit of real solutions. UWI students should know, only those solutions will offer greater safety. Who else in their generation will make them happen? As students should also now know, police can very quickly and forcibly turn against you, no matter how good a student you are, how respectable your family or how just your protest.

Students must invest in a creating a different society as part of investing in themselves, for peace is not the imprisoned security of greater surveillance and more guns, nor a society where support for police killings intensifies a spiral of excessive violence without end.

Post 257.

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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.