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 352.

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Sometimes, the university is the best place to be. There is a chance to teach skills encouraged in few other places, and to simultaneously nurture a hard reading of reality, a utopian demand for freedom and acts of principled courage.

This is particularly true for young women and men challenging gender and sexuality norms, and learning about the continued necessity for Caribbean feminist struggles to end violence and inequality.

Our society is hardly friendly to these struggles, they are barely taught in any syllabus, and progress remains slow, disciplined by the status quo and contained by the backlash. Despite the apparent educational success of girls, such struggles therefore remain just as relevant today.

Ask the students of IGDS Ignite, a feminist undergraduate mentorship programme focused on inciting another generation of students to spark and lead activism which changes the conditions of their lives and advances gender justice.

Last week Thursday, I walked into the Ignites’ “Chalkback” event held in the university’s quadrangle. Organised as part of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence, the student-led action built on an earlier Instagram campaign, @catcallsofuwi, which highlights sexual harassment on the UWI St Augustine Campus.

The idea for @catcallsofuwi was brought to IGDS Ignite by Kelsie Joseph and Tia Marie Lander, second-year students who were introduced to activism in their Men and Masculinities in the Caribbean course, and who were inspired by the @CatCallsofNYC campaign. The UWI student campaign currently has 1275 followers, mostly 18-24 years old, 77 per cent of whom are women. Between November 26 and December 2, there were 1565 interactions on the page and 3854 accounts reached.

This is a youthful example of Caribbean cyberfeminism, or using technology and social media to break silences, share stories, and build community around gender and sexual justice. As the university commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Black Power Revolution, started on the campus, our business can’t be nostalgia, but keen attention to the makers, messages and media of radical organising today.

I approached a 40-foot sized chalk-drawn game covering the middle of the quadrangle. Its steps connected sites on campus to stories of sexual harassment highlighted on the Instagram page.

I took the box-sized dice the students made and rolled, following the number of steps to a space which the students titled, “Security Booth.” “Come inside nah sweetheart, I want to take you home,” was the first quote, highlighting experiences of discomfort, rather than protection.

And, so the game went with each square fictionally labelled with a location and each highlighting real sexual harassment experienced by young women students as they pursue the very education which the society is worried is a threat to manhood everywhere.

At the Student Activity Centre: “Are you your mother’s only child? Can’t have nobody else sweet like you.” In the quadrangle: “I would slurp you like a cup of callaloo.” At Engineering: “I need to know where I could get a sweet reds like you to marry.” On the LRC Greens: “Baby girl, I heard ladies with bowlegs have something sweet between them.” At the Faculty of Science and Technology Greens: “Nice a–, I would tap that.” At the Faculty of Humanities and Education: “De thing buff boy, wah yuh have in there?” At the Centre for Learning Languages: “That pu— looks fat, I could f— it.” In the parking lot: “See you, I going to kidnap you.” At Daaga Hall: “Smallie with the nice bottom.” At the Teaching and Learning Centre: “You’re perfect size and wife material, I just want to tek yuh away.”

As I played, the game felt more disturbing, and more real. Girls have faced this in public spaces their whole lives. Seeing how we’ve failed to protect another generation, prioritise prevention, and end perpetration should renew our sense of responsibility.

IGDS has long used games to teach, encouraging chalk graffiti and poster as well as social media campaigns, and emphasising interactive peer education, even when it seemed frivolous, like students should have instead been studying books. IGDS Ignite aimed to reach them out of the classroom, and to enable undergraduates to have both support and independence to invent and lead generational advocacy for themselves.

Mentored by graduate students, rather than faculty, this is what activist succession planning requires. Adults have to learn to trust youthful judgment. Graduate students grow through providing guidance. Undergraduates experience the right to address their own realities.

In doing so, they create the transformations needed for the university to really become the best place to be.

 

Post 349.

The Darryl Smith fiasco seems like a model example of cover up after cover up. The fact that there’s still no commitment on behalf of state officials or political leadership to provide the truth of the matter, leaving more questions than answers, signals lack of commitment to ensuring that sexual harassment is a form of injustice that will not be tolerated or excused.

This is not surprising, if this was an issue taken seriously, political parties would all have their own sexual harassment policies, but the fact that these are as far away as legislation glaringly shows exactly how much impunity is an accepted reality.

We’ve heard about faults in the process of producing the report, but not that we can rely on the government and ministry to ensure that the public knows what really happened. It’s like the apparent faultiness of the report, which is based on the argument that Mr. Smith wasn’t given fair hearing, is more important than whether an employee of the ministry experienced sexual violence, which is what sexual harassment is, at the hands of a still-sitting Member of Parliament.

It’s like the lack of clarity about whether Michael Quamina was advising Mr. Smith or the ministry is as excusable as the $150 000 of public funds spent without accountability for the correctness of the process or its outcome. Who will ensure that the public knows the truth?

At this point, the hope seems to be that the whole thing will blow over and no answers will ever have to be provided. Sexual harassment legislation, if it ever comes, will not address this present injustice so the call should be for immediate answers as much as for longer term solutions. Those solutions include legislation, but require much more.

As the Equal Opportunity Commission, in its Guidelines on Sexual Harassment in the Workplace, has rightly stated, “It should be noted that criminalising sexual harassment does not address the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace as it does not speak clearly to employers, does not advise them of their duties, nor does it provide recourse to the victims.The criminal law does not achieve these goals”.

The public service now has a sexual harassment policy which requires the state to embark on widespread effort to create buy-in so that state agencies understand their responsibility, not only to victims, but also for creating workplace cultures that prevent such sexual violence in the first place. The key to preventing sexual harassment is for employers and managers to adopt a zero-tolerance position. This position is represented by having trained harassment response teams, inclusion of sexual harassment protections in collective labour agreements, informal and formal grievance procedures, and counselling support.

All these are necessary, but still not sufficient. While sexual harassment may be committed by an individual of any sex, largely it is a form of gender-based violence perpetrated by men, whether in workplaces or on the street. Primarily, it’s what Jackson Katz would refer to as male violence against women, often younger or more vulnerable or with fewer economic options. Ultimately tackling this issue requires change in men’s engagement with gender-based violence – whether as perpetrators or as allies in creating change.

The Prime Minister should have used this moment to explicitly state that sexual harassment is a form of labour exploitation that his government is committed to preventing, and can be held accountable for in terms of its leadership on this issue. The AG should have committed to legislation that doesn’t leave women mired in the limitations of a whistle-blower process.

I was surprised at accusations of women’s complicity in this injustice, and would like to instead take a break from demanding women’s responsibility for fixing everything and welcome men’s role in speaking out and taking action on these issues in a way that sees real, measurable change.

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 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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