Post 354.

Yesterday was December 10th, Human Rights Day, and the final day of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence. I’ve used these weeks to share statistics, but also emphasize that real women’s lives are at stake. I’ve highlighted youthful student activism so that we acknowledge that violence, such as sexual harassment, persists in the lives of another generation, including in the educational spaces where girls have supposedly taken over.

In this final column marking 16 days of advocacy, I want to amplify the call, made by domestic violence shelters, for sufficient state support.

Within these sixteen days of activism alone, a woman battered by her former partner could find no room at any shelter. She and her children were traumatized and had nowhere to go on the night they fled. Following this, Conflict Women and the Coalition Against Domestic Violence organized a forum to assess the state of shelters.

The forum confirmed that Trinidad and Tobago currently has seven shelters. The oldest shelter is closed for renovations, and is still fundraising in order to open again. Right now, it receives a government subvention enabling it to offer counseling and other services, but no crisis refuge.

Two shelters closed over this year due to lack to financial capacity. One of these closed its doors for the first time in twenty years because it too has to fund raise for renovations as well as daily costs of running both services and a shelter. In these 20 years, it received a government subvention twice, both more than five years ago. It too now provides reduced counseling, medical, legal, transportation, educational and other support, but no shelter.

Among the four shelters still open, one has scaled down to 50% of its intake of survivors, from 25 women to 12, because of financial constraints. It receives no government subvention and is entirely community-supported. This is not a celebration of entrepreneurial spirit, it’s a sign of its perpetual state of crisis.

Even with subventions, over 90% of operational costs to run a shelter (building maintenance, security, food, counseling, legal aid, and transportation) must be raised through continual fundraising efforts. By contrast, 1 million dollars would cover all operational costs for the 3 shelters for 1 year.

To put this in perspective, 1 million dollars is only five times more than Minister Colm Imbert spent on confetti to open the Uriah Butler/Churchill Roosevelt Highway Interchange. Just 5 times the cost of Colm’s confetti, which was immediately blown away, would enable three shelters to provide emergency accommodation for more than forty women survivors and their families for an entire year.

And, even that isn’t enough. Roberta Clarke, President of the CADV, has pointed out that, by some international standards of one family space per 10 000 persons, Trinidad and Tobago should have at least 130 family spaces provided by shelters. The proposed government-run shelters, promised but not yet operational, can accommodate up to 18 women and their families. One is targeted toward men.

Even with these shelters opened in Trinidad, they would not meet these standards or women’s needs for emergency safe housing or subsidized transitional housing. They may not adequately meet disabled women’s needs, and will still not enable enough women to keep their families together when fleeing with boy children over 12 years old.

Finally, though a single shelter in Tobago is finally being planned in conjunction with the state and the NGO, Women of Substance, even that will not be enough. Across the country, more than 10 000 DV protection orders are sought each year, 11 000 women are estimated to be living with violent partners, and 1 in 10 women cite “nowhere to go” as a reason they stay. It’s also a reason they return.

Shelters are absolutely essential for women and their children fleeing for their safety and lives. They protect against immediate homelessness. They provide traumatized women and children with safety for up to six months, and continued care long after.

Just 1 million dollars and more coordinated formal arrangements with state ministries that provide essential services could save women from repeated violence, and improve children’s life chances for generations. Understanding this reality, shelters are urgently calling for adequate and consistent state resourcing as we move into another year in which we can expect there will be male partners who batter and kill women.

As shelters close their doors or open their doors to fewer women, women could die for lack of options to escape. Political will can change this fate.

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.

 

 

Post 328.

What if?

What if women, so tired of seeing other women and girls threatened, controlled, harassed, abused and killed, took vigilante justice into their own hands? Every man who harmed and killed their partner was now at risk of being violently injured by a gang of ordinary, angry women with pipes, poui, batons, broomsticks, bilnas and more.

Women who couldn’t stop the partners of their daughters, sisters, mothers and friends would find this gang of women and they would enact the kind of punishment which sends a message to all that women will no longer be passive in the face of such impunity. What if the gang of women began to grow as more joined and any violent man became vulnerable to being beaten by masked women secretly connected across the country in defense of those so failed by our justice system?

Any man abusing his partner or any other woman could be found out and dealt with immediately, violently and collectively. Would those men begin to feel afraid? Would violence against women decrease as such punishment acts as prevention? Would women across communities begin to feel as if they were empowered to make such violence end?

What if women began to do this, would it really be so bad? How would they be judged in the court of public opinion, amongst those who resist violence of any kind as a solution, amongst those for whom morality is defined by law, amongst those who have dreamed of just this scenario many times, amongst those inspired by these women to pick up a pot spoon or an iron pan to stop the next lash? And, when it comes to this gang’s judgment to kill perpetrators of violence against women, what decision would you support?

What if? This is the provocative question put to the audience at UWI’s Department of Creative and Festival Arts play, Baddesse, directed by Brendon La Caille, and featuring a powerful cast of young actors.

There were many things I appreciated about the play. The cast of young women played assertive and complex characters, showing themselves as both experiencing violence and refusing passivity to it, yet conflicted by its many contradictions. Indeed, the relationships and negotiations amongst the young and badass women, of different ethnicities, were some of the play’s richest material.

Yet, the production was much more, creating several settings in which violence is discussed, enacted and resisted. We are taken into the bedroom of a politician and his wife, herself an women’s rights advocate, psychologist and battered woman. We are taken on set where the glamourous host, who represents the character of a flamboyant gay man in a way stereotypical of Caribbean theatre, addresses this issue, bringing the audience into the conversation.

We are shown commercials, created for the production, that show how violence becomes normalized as part of consumption of popular culture. We are taken into the safe house of the women’s gang, whose leader is called ‘Black Widow’, and where we get intimate insight into the difficulty of embarking on this dangerous path – out of trauma, frustration and anger, despite the fact that she is a police officer.

The play constantly draws in the audience through use of the theatre space and through direct engagement with audience members. You don’t know if to cry, sometimes despite yourself you want to laugh and mostly you watch the production heart-broken that this is where male violence has led women – to desperate self-defense when there seems to be nowhere else to turn.

In Trinidad and Tobago, 30% of women reported physical and/or sexual IPV in their lifetime and 6% in the last 12 months, 19% reported lifetime non-partner sexual violence, 11% reported economic partner violence, and 35% reported emotional violence in their lifetime with 12% reporting emotional violence in the last twelve months. The 2018 Women’s Health Survey also found that approximately 11,000 women are likely to still be in abusive relationships. Conviction rates following reports is grossly low.

Where is justice in such a society? Indeed, this is what stands out in the play’s well-researched script. Black Widow herself grew up witnessing and experiencing violence. The final scene, played using Arts in Action’s long-established ‘hot seat’ facilitation approach, features an abuser confessing to the trauma of his own father’s violence. Where so many abusers were once victims, their killing cautions even the most angry about vigilantism.

Go see the play. Strong women. Serious questions. It runs April 12-14 at Cheesman Bldg on Gordon Street, St. Augustine.