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 334.

“Vote for we and we will set you free”, sings David Rudder in the Madman’s Rant, parodying election-time sloganeering.

So said, so done. The campaign trail keeps it simple and typical: promises of more police car, to take the country far, to put the bandits away, to make criminals damn well pay, to abolish the tax, and to give we the facts.

It’s an easy myth to swallow because the alternative requires more of our attention and responsibility. We show up at rallies to nod at our heads at good speech, but don’t follow a story far enough to know when we are being hoodwinked, when we need to intervene, or when not everybody will be set free.

Take the National Workplace Policy on Sexual Harassment in Trinidad and Tobago. Symbolically laid in Parliament on International Women’s Day 2019, Senator the Honourable Jennifer Baptiste Primus stated, “For far too long, victims of Sexual Harassment in the workplace have borne pain and suffering in silence as the perpetrators of this disgraceful and unacceptable behaviour have utilised intimidation, victim shaming and abuse of power to get away with it, without facing any sanction or penalty. However, Madam Speaker those days are over”.

There’s much to celebrate about a policy, long called for by feminist activists, finally being drafted and publicized, but what about the details? Employers must keep a sexual harassment log documenting all incidents of sexual harassment at the workplace. The grievance procedure guidelines emphasise the role of a complaints committee and change management teams.

Now think of all the low-income women – young women, mothers, primary breadwinners, those supporting aged parents, illegal migrants – working in shops, restaurants and malls in Port of Spain, Chaguanas and San Fernando, or working as domestics cleaning and providing child care in homes, for whom the employer is the real perpetrator, as is so common.

To whom do they turn without losing their job? In this precarious economy, Madame Speaker, are their days of sexual harassment really over? Keep in mind that, despite parliamentary speeches, this policy is not yet approved by Cabinet, constituting more smoke than fire.

Take the recent legislation for the Sex Offenders Registry. Containing much that is useful for protecting society from specific kinds of sexual offenders, the Registry as it currently stands could further stigmatize groups of women, such as sex workers, who already come from the most vulnerable categories of women: the young, poor, sexually abused, under-educated, migrant and trafficked. Civil society groups made this otherwise overlooked and undervalued point to Honourable AG Al-Rawi.

Should good legislation do harm? When the bill becomes an Act, we will see whether this group is liable to further long-term penalty, entirely defying the purpose of a register, which is to protect the vulnerable, in the first place. Organisations such as CAISO have also pointed out that if the buggery law is upheld by the Privy Council, which the state is seeking, consensual anal sex would also not only remain a crime, but absurdly require such criminalized citizens also be registered.

Take the 2012 Children’s Act. As the age of consent to sexual relations is now set at eighteen years old, sexual and reproductive health service providers, such as the Family Planning Association of Trinidad and Tobago, now have to report incidents of penetration of minors sixteen and seventeen years old, even by others within three years of their age, even when it occurs by consent.

This means that providing confidential counselling services to teens over sixteen without reporting those cases to the police can now be a crime. This risk to service providers means that FPATT no longer provides the youth counselling it once used to, leaving a vast need now unmet. This same act, it should be noted, also decriminalized heterosexual penetration between minors while extending the punishment for such same-sex sexual relations among minors to, of all things, life imprisonment. So much for child rights.

NGOs will tell you that real transformations, rather than empty slogans, most matter. When politicians hit the platform to wax about their accomplishments, remember it’s easy to convince a population of a government’s successes when we are not bothered to follow details and when headlines are all corner block-talk seems to need.

Political participation and power mean paying attention to the fine-print of legislation, policies or budgets even when splashy campaigns deliberately distract. Vote for them, by all means, but know that only a madman would believe anyone but yourself is going to set you free.

Post 281.

For all its imperfections, the Guardian has been good to me. In 2012, Editor Judy Raymond offered to publish my diary about working motherhood. Since then, I’ve encountered many, mostly mothers, who were emboldened by someone writing about the quiet, isolated experiences and emotions that they have, but feared weren’t important or collective enough for public print.

Grandmothers have seemed to be my most regular readers. This often left me negotiating badass with good beti even while the radical example and words of older, wiser feminist foot soldiers, including those in hijab and those leading domestic worker unions, emboldened me.

I began in Features, yet my sense of citizenship often led my diary to political analysis and advocacy. Slowly, as Ziya grew, I had space to think about more than sleeplessness, breastfeeding, baby steps and birthdays. Like most women, including ones whose educational and occupational empowerment seems to set them to achieve everything women could want, I worried about being a good mother, making ends meet and managing my career. This continues, even with just one child, having had to live with the loss of not having more.

Yet, I rebelled, writing in 2014, “Some days you spend whole conversations on love and sex. Other days you connect ethically and emotionally with other women over delays in passing procurement legislation, the state failure and corruption that has allowed illegal quarrying, and the social and economic costs of badly planned urban development. When women resist because representation remains our right and responsibility, some days our diaries will say nothing about husbands or babies”.

Still, the column wasn’t not focused enough on governance, in the style of my long-time UWI mentor Prof Selwyn Ryan. Indeed, I was composing fictional creation-stories, delving into the deeply emotional art of Jabs such as Ronald and Sherry Alfred, and Fancy Indians like Rose and Lionel Jagessar, and still mulling over marriage, fatherhood, primary schooling, connection to nature, and love.

I thought hard about genre and experimented with writing. The form of a diary is so often associated with women’s private thoughts and feelings, held close and secret with a small symbolic lock. Bringing this genre into the public domain was a deliberate act against male-defined Op-Ed expectations which position the oil sector, the constitution and politics as the serious topics of the nation.

For most people, managing family life, feeling safe in their homes, and negotiating aspirations and disappointments matter most and are the most pressing issues in their lives. The diary moved from Features, taking these concerns with it, and challenging divisions between public and private, and their unequal value.

The form also built on historical examples of colonial logs, and journals such as Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, which I read as a graduate student, but with substance grounded in emancipatory, Caribbean feminist observations and Political Leader-less, worker and citizen people-power.

Readers wrote to me, wondering if I was a PMN, a UNC, a COP, a knife and fork Indian, too Indian, and too feminist. Amidst calling for an end to child marriage, programmes to end violence against women, and policies to protect women workers from sexual harassment, I wrote twenty columns in which lesbians were named as part of the nation and region, precisely because no one else would, because every woman matters, not just the ones that meet patriarchal expectations, and because these women, who were not allowed to exist in law, would here defiantly exist in public record as having the right to be.

I learned that to write a diary, which wrestles with life, love, rights and justice, is to risk repetitive, aggressive attack. I owe Editor Shelly Dass public thanks for skillfully stopping Kevin Baldeosingh from using the Guardian to legitimize his bizarre and obsessive stalking of me in the press, always to harm.

I’ve grown, as has Ziya, in these pages. I’ve learned to look around the landscape, appreciating all its heartfelt and difficult growing pains, like my own, in ways I wouldn’t have otherwise.

Diary of a Mothering Worker departs from the Guardian, but will continue to walk good, gratefully carrying the lessons from Guardian and its readers’ years of nurturing wrapped in its jahajin bundle.

 

Post 269.

Carnival has always been about negotiation of gendered and sexual power. Think of jamettes long confrontation with middle-class and religious expectations of respectability. Think of a cross-dressing mas tradition long enabling performance of transgressive identities.

The charge has historically been directed at women ‘wining like that’ with century after century of commentators repetitively raging about (women’s) vulgarity and the potential for bam bam to make all social order bend over.

Ignoring the hysteria of such emasculated morality, women increasingly came together in movements tens of thousands strong to declare a desire for sexual freedom and pleasure, and an expectation of state responsibility for protection of these, as ‘rights’.

Commentators who bemoaned Carnival’s loss of political punch completely misread decades of bikini mas because they were not the mouth-piece for Afro-Trinidadian working class men in the tradition of pan and calypso. They missed the significance of year after year of multi-class and multi-ethnic bands of bubblicious women in agreement about such rights as a modern Caribbean feminist politics predating ‘Slutwalks’, ‘Life in Leggings’ or ‘Me Too’ responses to sexual harassment.

‘Carnival is woman’ on the one hand was about commodifying and marketing women’s bodies as the nation’s economic stimulus package, but on the other it marked a decisive shift to a contemporary social order in which jamette resistance had become fully nationalized.

TTPS’ public position on consent in Carnival is the jamette’s desire and right to sexual autonomy and freedom from sexual violence, both denied by the very foundations of colonial authority, now articulated by law.

It’s a historically significant signal of change and power not to be by-passed, a legacy of Carnival becoming woman, now penetrating into state authority. It should stop anyone from declaring that Carnival is no longer political because the renegotiation of power in the democratic density of a ram fete or in the middle of rough wine on the road is politics itself, from rather than in ‘yuh pweffin’.

A debate with all expected hullabaloo followed the police press statement. Iwer declared, “If you look at all the history about Carnival, we never had an issue with anybody wining on anyone”. Not true. Thousands of women can tell you about fellas not taking a ‘no’ or a ‘move away’, others pulling your wrists or your waist when you on the road for Jouvay, needing to roll with a crew of fellas for protection, and playing mas within ropes and with security precisely to be free of being pursued and grabbed.

Fay-Ann’s concern was about the right to consent being abused by ‘a lot of women in the stations’ falsely claiming a man tried to wine on them, though reports of sexual violence have never worked that way. Machel was criticised for his instructions before his management instructed him to back back. The police were above the fray and dead clear. It’s assault to touch someone without her or his consent.

Police Service Asst. Supt. Michael Jackman went further than advising permission to wine: “Even when a person is already engaged in dancing or wining or gyrating with another person, with a partner, a friend, family member or stranger, at some point in time that person says, “Okay, I want to stop”, and they indicate that verbally or by action, that action may be by stepping away or saying, “no”, verbally, “I had enough”, then the person who they were engaged with at that point in time ought to respect that decision and stop”. In his statement were echoes of Explainer’s ‘Rasta Chick’, Singing Sandra’s ‘Die with My Dignity’, Destra’s ‘Wrong Bam Bam’ and even Sharlene Boodram’s, ‘Ask It’.

Wining is an old jamette language now brilliantly informing interpretation of law by police brass. The body talks, and the lesson is to become literate in woman-centred traditions of lyrical and waist skill, or Dan is the man in the van on his way to make a jail.

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Post 262.

Joy without Justice

The real tief head is when a company has a sexual harassment policy in place, and yet a victim can’t get justice. It says a lot about the risks of speaking out about sexual violence as a working, even professional-level, woman. The risks are that a series of power plays occurs which mean that an incident that may have actually happened gets buried under messy and even irrelevant information. In the end, a victim may be left without the safety of proper protocols and maybe even without a job.

The idea that claiming sexual harassment is an easy win against men is, of course, a myth. Claims of sexual harassment are always going to cost women who make them, whether to their professional or public reputation or to their chances of career success or simply to their emotional resilience. Even if you are telling the truth, even if you are believed, even if you can show complete innocence, even if correct processes are followed, there is no way that claiming sexual harassment will not come at a cost to you and you alone.

It may be that your work performance gets dragged into the corporate conversation or a smear campaign follows you in an attempt to restore the hierarchy and order which your complaint challenged. It may be that an independent committee established to assess your complaint gets disbanded, on spurious grounds that feminists are biased against men, for example, and an individual substituted to complete the process simply doesn’t convey the same sense of trust to you or, later, the public. It may be that your bosses believe you, but their advice is to not make it a big deal, given the costs, stress and gossip about you and the company. And, so, your vulnerability isn’t decreased, it’s just mismanaged.

What’s amazing is how one badly handled incident sends a hopeless message to a nation of women that there’s little reason to tell the truth in your own self-defense against sexual harassment. It also tells other women to mind their business and keep their distance in case the smear hits them too or in case HR messiness takes over and choosing the right side becomes a minefield even angels fear to tread.

There’s a close connection between men’s institutional and economic status, authority and power, and women’s experiences of sexual harassment that makes this issue of both gender inequality and gender-based violence, even where the details are slightly different across an entire planet full of cases.

There’s also a close connection between male power and the lack of sexual harassment legislation or widely-adopted sexual harassment policies. It’s not that there are no progressive men in power in business or politics, It’s that prioritizing the right ways to deal with sexual harassment requires changing whole organizational cultures on the basis of women workers’ rights, and that requires commitment, leadership, extra effort and the will to challenge a bro-code governing well-connected and powerful men.

Anybody can sexually harass anybody, but this is power men unequally wield because, at least in Trinidad and Tobago, on corporate boards and senior management, they outnumber women, and in political party hierarchies as well as parliament and Cabinet, they outnumber women. And, indeed, when sexual harassment remains primarily an issue of men’s power over women, even women are likely to reproduce the lens of the powerful, and victim-blame too.

In a season of pastells and parang, widespread and messy experiences of gender-based violence mean that not everyone has access to comfort, security, trust and fair outcome.

Amidst Christmas merriment, there are women living in fear despite holding protection orders. There are women afraid to speak up about inappropriate behavior in their offices or on streets. What will be our gift to them, for without institutionalizing effective protections for those more vulnerable, we are being tightfisted with our sharing of both justice and joy.

Post 256.

I won’t belabor the blatant objectification of women in the Prime Minister’s block-talk guffaw that “a golf course is like a woman, you have to groom her everyday otherwise it turns into a pasture”. Objection means seeing or referring to someone as a commodity or object, you know, like a pasture. Or, seeing women as an object of male sexual desire, you know, like sexual offenders’ practice of grooming girls to enable their acquiescence to sexual predation.

On national TV, of the many things we saw is that even Parliament isn’t a workplace where women are safe from sexist jokes by powerful men. Tells you a lot about the likelihood of that kind of discomforting bro-code language and power being similarly wielded across our nation’s workplaces in addition to its street corners. It also tells you a lot about the myth of women achieving all they want. You could get your education and your career, but you are out of order to expect ideals of manhood to change in acknowledgement of the fact that you are not just meant for men’s bedrooms, groomed.

However, above all, it’s his unapologetic impunity that makes me want to throw a teacup in Dr. Rowley’s direction.

The guy is a UWI graduate, a grandfather, political party leader, and the most influential elected official in the land. Parliament was in a supposedly serious debate about responses to an economic crisis which is extremely likely to exacerbate intimate partner violence as household insecurity increases. And, finally, a woman is neither like a golf course nor a pasture, because she is a person.

Impunity is freedom from punishment for harm caused, and its pervasive, making you wonder if all women and girls should arm themselves with a driving iron to unhesitatingly use in response to sexist language, harassment and violence. The extremely low conviction rates for domestic violence and sexual assault tell us much about the extent of that impunity, for there are no real consequences for wrong-and-strong men. In the context of such state-enforced gender inequality, Dr. Rowley’s lack of real accountability further asserts, hope for solidarity and expect salt, for bad man doh account to women and doh give no apology.

Ironically, in the same week, the ‘me too’ campaign circulated across the lives of millions on the planet. Started by activist Tarana Burke ten years ago, the words are meant to show that girls and women who have survived sexual abuse and exploitation are not ashamed and are not alone. Revived as a social media status, women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted disclosed their own survival, with far too many in Trinidad and Tobago either adding their post or reading others with which they could identify.

I had been lucky enough to attend the third match between the Sri Lankan and West Indies cricket teams last week Friday, but unlucky enough to see Sam, a longtime cameraman, and sexual assaulter from my youthful newsroom days, there also. I pointed him out to Ziya and told her what he had done so she could know, her mom is educated, employed and empowered, but look at what impunity looks like because he never faced consequences. Yes, ‘me too’.

Last year was swept with ‘Life in Leggings’ stories from Caribbean women harassed and harmed. Then, as now, I find myself asking the ‘what about the men’ question that occupies everyone when girls are doing well because they worked hard, but not when women are being dehumanized and threatened. Don’t men want a world where no girl or women has to again say ‘me too’? Isn’t speaking out for approval of a national plan to end gender-based and sexual violence, or for higher conviction rates for sexual offenses, or across the board workplace and political party sexual harassment policies also men’s responsibility? Isn’t also publicly insisting on better from Dr. Rowley?

His words may seem harmless, but they land on a nation full of girls and women still struggling to break silences about harm, and still hoping for men’s solidarity. Lack of consequences is part of something much greater, that gets far more dangerous. That is why a Prime Minister’s impunity must be taken seriously.

 

 

Post 240.

On International Women’s Day, one radio call-in discussion debated whether women and men’s biological differences meant that they are supposed to be unequal. As if equality requires biological sameness or, for women, that they be like men. As if our differences as women and men legitimize the status quo of unequal value, power, status, rights and authority.

This backhanded involvement in engaging women’s rights issues is worrisome, yet common, and often unchecked. For example, Single Father’s Association of Trinidad and Tobago (SFATT)’s march is themed men against “all violence from all to all others”, which seems common-sense, valid and laudable. For, who isn’t against all forms of violence, and who isn’t glad to see men taking action?

Yet, behind this seemingly progressive engagement is unchecked denial of women’s empirical realities and long-sought transformations.

In one comment on the march, Rondell Feeles, head of the group, wrote, “So why are so many PUBLIC ADVOCATES intent on separating the issue to deal with domestic violence against women only, when statistics have shown that both children and men are victims of the same. Are we saying violence in the home is unacceptable to one party but acceptable to everyone else in the family? A HOLISTIC Issue warrants a HOLISTIC Approach”.

First, public advocates don’t “separate” the issue of domestic violence against women, they bring an analysis of how our notions of manhood and womanhood shape power and vulnerability, and take into account the fact that women suffer serious injury and death in disproportionate numbers at the hands of male partners. This means that while both men and women may be violent in domestic relationships, the consequences are different, requiring recognition and specific strategies.

Second, statistics show that girls and boys also experience violence in gendered ways, not only in terms of physical and sexual abuse, but in terms of perpetrators and silencing. Third, no one has ever said that violence in the home is unacceptable for women, but acceptable for everyone else. This is a ‘straw woman’ set up solely to knock down.

Women are being murdered in increasing numbers, with the majority related to intimate partner violence. Women and men have been calling for an end of violence against women, not only in relation to domestic violence offenses, but also in relation to violence as it daily affects women traveling by taxi, on the street, at work and in other public places. Violence is committed at very high levels against women because they are women.

What’s gained in presenting activists as exclusionary? What’s at stake in calling for a focus on psychological and emotional violence, for example, when severity of injury and death show women’s inequality in terms of harm from their relationships? What’s at stake in focusing on violence by all when all are not equally perpetrating violence, nor are the harm and increasing rates of murder from DV offenses equal? Finally, what’s at stake in SFATT insisting that men are the “greatest victims of violence in Trinidad and Tobago”?

The overwhelming murders of men, which occur primarily by men, are horrific and must be stopped. Men also face violence in heterosexual relationships and it can be hard for them to report it and seek help.  Yet domestic violence by women and men also show distinctly different patterns. For example, women’s violence to men usually ends when the relationship ends. Male partner violence generally escalates and becomes most dangerous then.

SFATT has been arguing that women are as violent to men as men are to women, citing CAPA data which shows that, between 2010 and 2016, 56% of the Domestic Violence murders were of women and 44% were of men. However, this data doesn’t say those murders were at women’s hands, and it can’t be assumed.

CAPA data also shows that, between 2010 and 2016, women reported 100% of the sexual offenses, 80% of the assaults and beatings recorded, 82% of the breaches of protection orders, 66% of threats recorded, and 72% of the cases of verbal abuse. The data suggests that women experience fear, threat, injury, severe harm and death to a greater extent where they should be safe in their families, relationships and homes.

The bait and switch at work here goes like this: It’s separatist to focus on violence against women. So, let’s focus on violence against all. However, let’s emphasize where the real violence is. It’s not against women. Men experience the real sexism and are the real “victims”. Too much attention has been given to women. It’s time for that “discrimination against boys and men” to end. It’s time to focus on men.

It’s a myth that sufficient resources have ever  been put to ending violence against women. Activism by men’s organisations to end such violence remains welcome and necessary. What we hope for in these efforts is true solidarity.

For a fuller discussion, see my presentation on IWD 2016 at the SALISES Forum: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pTVhzYKF88