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.

 

 

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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.

 

Post 228.

A process that began with the 2004 version of a Draft National Gender Policy is soon to be completed. Those years have involved letters to the Editor, media interviews, press releases, strategy meetings, appeals to political representatives and officials, think pieces by columnists, and public actions. All of this to maintain that approval of a gender policy is one measure of a government’s commitment to gender equality.

I put this into national print record because, although a gender policy is a reflection of the state’s position on how equality should be pursued across all ministries, its roots lie with the global women’s movement, which began to pursue women’s and gender policies from the 1980s, and fearlessly criticized governments when those policies missed core issues, contained contradictory positions, or failed at adequate consultation. It was the global women’s movement that mainstreamed the idea that every state policy, from health to education to trade, has an impact on equality and equity, on women’s lives and on the relationship between masculinities and power.

Though an approved gender policy will be marketed by government as a sign of its leadership and liberalism, that story hides the subtext of relentless lobbying by women’s and LBGT movements, whose leaders have survived and been lost to cancer, who faced the harm that comes from religious and atheist backlash to feminist aspirations, and who ushered in another generation of activists by organizing them around policy advocacy.

Hopes have been dashed, such as when ex-PM Manning trashed the first policy draft, forcing Joan Yuille-Williams to backtrack, even though she had pulled the state and women’s movement together to create a progressive product that reflected clear thinking or 20/20 vision rather than a later Vision 2020. As a young activist, I was very critical of her capitulation, but the party machine and Manning’s authoritarianism prevailed. At the time, he infamously made a statement about not believing in ‘gender flexibility’ which can only be described as a denial of vast anthropological scholarship and actual reality.

Hopes were further crushed when the 2009 draft, which informs the one now heading to Cabinet for approval, said in bold type: “The National Policy on Gender and Development does not provide measures dealing with or relating to the issues of termination of pregnancy, same-sex unions, homosexuality or sexual orientation”. In other words, rights for the respectable. There were religious constituencies happy that discrimination and inequality were front and centre in a policy meant precisely to tackle how our beliefs about gender and sexuality reproduce discrimination and inequality; a holier-than-thou, bitter irony.

Marlene McDonald led the process to the 2009 draft. I found myself, also ironically, wishing for elder stateswoman “Auntie Joan”, who included women’s rights in a way that didn’t leave us so utterly kicked out of the door. In the last election, McDonald actually used the PNM Women’s Platform to attack Brenda Gopeesingh and Hazel Brown for the fact that a gender policy was buried alive by Kamla Persad-Bissessar, knowing full well that endless advocacy continued and that the women’s movement cannot be answerable for what Cabinet decides to do or not do.

Keep this very point in mind. The current draft is founded in unfair concessions to intolerance and sheer prejudice, and divides those who have rights from those who will not any time soon. As long as a gender policy fails to acknowledge the role homophobia plays in reproducing sexism, it is running in place. Further, the fact that the policy leaves abortion out of its notion of public health means it excludes thousands of women from its idea of the citizen public.

We will celebrate approval of a gender policy for we value every step forward. We will remember that it is not only a victory for state and party, but for feminist women and men speaking out all these years. However, we will maintain that the policy should leave no woman out because of her health choices, and nor any man or woman because of sexual orientation. We will not forgo all hope that one day an approved gender policy will be inclusive and just, and no longer subject to the Machiavellian politics of governing parties. Advocacy will and must continue.

*For a discussion of the relationship between sexism and homophobia, see this TEDx PoS talk:

Diary of a mothering worker.

Post 209.

At last week Wednesday’s forum, ‘Reflecting on Gender and Politics in the 2015 Election Campaign’, young people filled the room, many of them lesbian and gay, who I hope felt that the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at UWI created a safe space for public deliberation, for once not defined by their marginality.

The event was inspired by ‘the marginals’ in national talk about the election. How could we instead think about politics beyond polls and ‘the numbers’, to see multiple kinds of ‘margins’ in our landscape, especially in the deeply connected experiences of women and the LBGTI community? How could we encourage public reflection that no other site in the country would, precisely because feminist academia is founded on solidarity with these groups’ continuing struggles for equal citizenship? How could we build on civil society efforts to bring us together across political party divides?

There was the history of the Network of NGOs of Trinidad and Tobago for the Advancement of Women to build on. Twenty years of producing a Women’s Manifesto and trying to get campaigning parties to commit to its goals. Twenty years of funding women candidates in the hopes that they would see the women who helped to get them into power as an important constituency. More years of encouraging a women’s cross-party caucus, where women politicians could gather as allies, rather than adversaries.

There was also the history of organisations like Caiso, Friends for Life, Women’s Caucus, Silver Lining Foundation and I am One to support. More than a decade of advocacy to end discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. In 2010, Caiso produced a manifesto, ‘6 in 6’, which outlined six policy and leadership steps they hoped that the new government would take in its first half year in office. Five years later, with those all unfulfilled, whether in terms of police treatment of LGBTI crime victims, the creation of safe schools or the community’s greater vulnerability to homelessness, they were still challenging their marginality. Now as part of a new network of groups called Allies for Justice and Diversity, a rights-we-deserve-not-what-rights-we-are-allowed manifesto was again created in 2015.

In a country where ‘the marginals’ decide the victor, it made sense for a post-election forum to bring together marginal groups to document their overlapping analyses and strategies, as they both contested how ideals of masculinity and femininity shape the lived realities of political life. Sexism cannot be ended without also ending homophobia, and advancing emancipation requires us to fearlessly document, understand and defy an unjust status quo. Where else then, would we discuss the homophobic bullying and stereotyping experienced by gay male candidates, from the population, their own political parties, and our headline-hungry media? Where else would we share how campaigning is experienced by women as they negotiate the significance of their family roles, femininity, and sexual respectability for their acceptability as representatives and leaders? Where else would the nation’s first transgender electoral candidate affirm her right to all the rights of citizenship, including public office?

As an act of university solidarity, and to strengthen the alliance between women’s and LGBTI rights advocates, Nafeesa Mohammed, Khadijah Ameen, Sabrina Mowlah-Baksh, Luke Sinnette, Colin Robinson and Jowelle de Souza were all on one panel. Watching representatives of the PNM and UNC sit with these citizens, knowing their parties had unjustly abandoned them in their National Gender Policy drafts and in the Equal Opportunity Act, I hoped that the young people there could see that legitimacy and space is created incrementally, relentlessly, despite setbacks and disappointments. There was more than fifty years of activist history of holding the baton in that room, from Hazel Brown in her 70s to Afro-Trinidadian, lesbian, working class young women in their 20s. A generation coming after me should know that a path continues to be cut for them to run.

On election night, Dr. Keith Rowley, said that he is the Prime Minister of all of us, and “that we are all in this together”. We lead him by our example. Those young people came because they aspire for an equal place. Acknowledgment of that is what ‘all in this together’ means for politics in our nation.

Post 204.

I am writing today to support the LBGTI community in their hopes, raised every election amidst platform speeches about a better future. These hopes are for what others already have, equality and freedom from discrimination. The kind of rights enslaved Africans and indentured Indians dreamed of and fought for, the kind of rights those Africans and Indians who became our post-independence shipmasters now deny, forgetting history then and charting us on the wrong side of history now.

What can our political leaders say to these members of our families and nation when they are not safe to be themselves? How much are our political leaders their leaders too? Or is it okay to lead the nation for the benefit of some, and to simply defer sharing that experience of citizenship to all?

When asked about her position on ending discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, by for example amending the Equal Opportunity Act, approving the National Gender Policy or removing draconian provisions in the Children’s Act that legalise life imprisonment of young people engaging in same sex experiences, Kamla 2015 said, ‘let the people decide’. When asked, the PNM leader, Keith Rowley, said the party never discussed the issue, though that is not exactly true. Both leaders decided that there are no political gains in pursuing full equality amongst citizens. ‘Suffer on’ is their message to those asking.

Imagine it is 1815, and enslaved Africans are asking those leaders in power for the same rights that they have. Imagine them saying, we’ve never discussed it. Maybe later. Suffer on.

Imagine it is 1915, and indentured Indians are asking country leaders for equal citizenship, and they respond, let the plantation owners decide, for giving you full citizenship is too controversial right now. Maybe one day. Suffer and wait.

Imagine it is 2015 and those African and Indian leaders are now playing the mas of colonial masters, able to deny rights and willing to do so, while those of you who have rights and enjoy full equality, quote religious text or tradition or family belief, to get on happily with unequal power.

Every election is a chance to create more inclusion, to lead in ways that are principled rather than simply popular, to articulate a vision for another generation to truly understand, evermore, what it means to be one people, one nation.

In frustration, voting citizens in the LBGTI community have created their own manifesto, one where non-discrimination isn’t negotiable or denied. Just six of the twelve actions they call on are for:

  1. All national officials to vocally support inclusion and dignity for all, including LGBTI members of the national community, and denounce discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender.
  2. Pilot a life skills programme for LGBTI young people made homeless by discrimination.
  3. Lower to 16 the direct eligibility age for social welfare for young people abused by their families.
  4. Implement school-based initiatives and policy that prevent and protect young people from violence and bullying in educational settings.
  5. Repeal paragraphs 20(1)(c), 20(2)(c), and 20(3)(c) of the Children Act of 2012, which came into force on 18 May 2015 and specifically target young people of the same sex for criminalization and life imprisonment for sexual exploration with each other.
  6. Equip and charge the Victim & Witness Support Unit to support LGBTI complainants of domestic and bias violence.

Representation, school tolerance, state services for victims, and children’s care are what citizens are saying they hope to vote for. These are not unreasonable dreams for inclusion. Of Keith and Kamla, who will first stop repeating, ‘suffer on’?

There are many issues in this election, with the economy, crime, corruption and the environment being the most important. Yet, these issues of sexuality and gender are ones show whether our leaders understand what it means to lead us all, equally, regardless of the political costs because the costs will not be ones citizens are instead made to bear. Regardless of race or religion, this is a value we should share.

I listen to rallies, read manifestos, and see worn words without commitment to full equality. Why vote for such leadership when our hopes matter so little to them in 2015?