Post 369.

Forgiveness is a beautiful and powerful act of showing the capacity and strength to free oneself from an old hurt. This must be why Archbishop Jason Gordon was quoted as recommending forgiving your family “because the house is too small to hold unforgiveness on top of everything else”.

As many come to terms with being locked indoors with people who have hurt us in the past or may still in the future, figuring out how to survive psychologically requires emotional power, flexibility and insight – and good advice.

We could be home with sexually abusive adults or with homophobic parents. We could be home with partners quick to insult and anger or with cousins prone to lack of consideration. We could have been on the verge of divorce, but are now in each other’s face with our hate daily. We could be holding on to the date when we are all released to the outdoors by the state, but also living with uncertainty about the risks that then increase.

Now that we are in a prolonged period of psychological stress, perhaps from the sheer unfamiliarity of this time or from our disconnection with those closest to us or from depression that has fewer distractions, many may not know how best to cope.

Given the vast rates of everyday neglect, child sexual abuse and partner violence, affecting thousands of households and tens of thousands of lives, there’s a lot to forgive filling all the spaces in houses too small to hold unforgiveness.

Naïve pontification undermines deeply-held dreams of confronting harm and being heard such that the house includes trust and safety, sometimes for the first time in decades, and can expand beyond the meanness of hardened disappointment and cynicism

Our messaging, from pulpit to politician needs to be better. Forgiveness is an outcome, not a beginning. It is impossible where fear and hurt create the experience of both a desire for justice and its denial. It requires a process which can be painful and difficult, and simply espousing the value of forgiving can deepen self-blame among survivors for their inability to act normally and as if nothing ever occurred. Indeed, in complex ways, survivors often blame even themselves and forgiveness is a knotty process of disentangling from so much that creates fear, shame and silence in our relationships with ourselves as well as each other.

So, there’s an opportunity for pastoral care, psychologists and state press conferences. Be real with the population, recognising deep trauma that resides within the places where we are now confined. Respond with messages beyond updates on infection and calls for physical distancing, as crucial to life and death as an epidemiological approach may be.

Those daily press conferences can expand their communication with the nation and help many people who have never disclosed their abuse, who will now see their abuser daily, who are descending into dissonance about how to be themselves among those who don’t understand or accept them.

By guidance, I don’t mean a day of prayer nor do I mean telling people to forgive without also affirming their right to acknowledgement of harm, apology and consent to a new foundation for relationship.

It’s a good time to bring in our best psychologists – not pastors or priests or pundits or imams – to every press conference to provide focused coping strategies for individuals struggling in all these destructive households, in order to not assume some ideal (and fictive) loving and conflict-free nuclear family model as the target of COVID-19 emergency policy.

Now that we have been told to stay at home, families are caught in a public policy decision for which they may not have the guidance, process, tools, words or safety to cope. We need to be helped to do so for our old ways of walking away or not being at home until late or escaping to work or school or a bar or for exercise will no longer do.

All state press conferences should offer such coping strategies, assuming that homes are the very places where we may least want to be.

We shouldn’t start with the house being too small to hold unforgiveness. Forgiveness is a gift just as much as unforgiveness is a defence, and it takes communication, courage, love and truth to exchange them. As much as it is a beautiful ideal, we must now take seriously how to manage weeks, maybe months, in homes that have long had little room for so much of what we feel.

Post 359.

A gender-based violence (GBV) unit is being established by the TTPS. Expectations are high and likely beyond what police response can provide, because real solutions require that policing be integrated with legal amendments, social services, NGO partnerships, data-driven strategies, community buy-in, and cultural change.

Hope is that the unit can coordinate TTPS approaches to intimate partner violence, domestic violence and sexual violence in order to, among other goals, reduce the number of women killed.

Only about 7% of women report intimate partner violence (IPV) to the police. Of those that report experiencing partner violence in their lifetime, about 25% do not report. If the TTPS implements measures to make reporting easier, kinder and safer, such as through taking reports from victims at their homes rather than at a station, those numbers could increase. What happens then?

The whole system, from hotlines to victim and witness support services to shelters to the magistrate and family courts, will have to be prepared for a surge in demand when women believe that reporting could lead to real protection and conviction. We won’t be sure if increased numbers reflect a rise in violence or a decrease in fear and silence, but forecasting these scenarios by the GBV unit is necessary.

It’s the same with orders of protection. If around 10 000 are sought every year, what happens when better policing means they become easier to secure and more likely to be enforced through better record keeping of women’s reports, timely serving of summons, lethality assessments, and other follow up?

There were 579 breaches of protection orders in five years, 174 breaches in 2019 alone. If these men are going to end up in jail, and they should – for breaching a protection order is a deliberate crime, are we prepared to provide mandatory counselling for perpetrators, to implement a restorative approach, and to find ways of making these repeat offenders less likely to get back out of jail and kill? Women report fear for their lives when perpetrators are released, particularly when women are not informed by the prison system. Better policing is also going to require forecasting implications in relation to perpetrators.

The GBV Unit can do a number of things: continue to clarify the law for all police officers, not just those with oversight of GBV or DV crimes; continue to educate all police about established protocols with regard to domestic violence reports; recognize that police may be friendly with perpetrators, may be perpetrators and may discourage reporting; and include outreach to migrant women so they know that they can safely report GBV crimes, which are a violation of their human rights, without fear of deportation or greater vulnerability to traffickers.

The unit can also establish a case study approach to better understand how to reduce men’s killing of women who have applied for orders of protection, and make sure the Domestic Violence Register is being actively engaged. It should work closely with the Child Protection Unit, Victim and Witness Support Unit, and Family Court to share rather than duplicate data. It’s also possible that DV reports can anticipate child sexual abuse reports, and the Unit will need to understand the intersection of different forms of GBV in this way.

CAPA doesn’t currently make perpetrator data easily accessible. As we continue to emphasise understanding and ending perpetration, and not only telling women to recognize “red flags”, sex-disaggregated data that supports this advocacy is also necessary.

The Unit should not start from scratch. The Coalition Against Domestic Violence has already been working with TTUTA to develop and implement the school programme, “Education for Empathy and Equality”. The Sexual Culture of Justice project is producing a toolkit for the Police Academy with protocols for training new police officers on issues of LGBTI bias and gender based violence. It also highlights the particular vulnerability of transgender persons, which is part of the problem of under-reporting.

Caricom recently published procedures for collecting data on domestic violence which may eliminate some obstacles to filling out report forms. CAFRA has been undertaking gender sensitization with police for decades, and the Network of Rural Women Producers has been working with youth and police in the police youth clubs, using the UN He For She Campaign and the Foundations Programme, to promote gender equality.

A civil society advisory committee to provide guidance and ensure accountability is key. The Unit has the opportunity to get things right before getting them wrong. Women’s lives are at stake. Fear and outrage demand urgency.

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 332.

On Sunday, in front of an audience of over a thousand, three young women topped the annual First Citizens National Poetry Slam Final for the first time in eight years.
Remember their names, for often we don’t remember our own poets, despite poetry’s power to save lives, inspire action, and document history as it is being lived.

Alexandra Stewart, whose piece last year represented the voice of our planet advocating for ecological conservation, placed first this time. I thought she well deserved the big prize of $50 000. She was my choice of winner for her poem had a clear message, didn’t over-use rhyme, felt authentic, was well-paced, kept within time, and showed straight up good writing and delivery.

Ironically, it was about the disrespect shown to poets when they are asked to perform for free, or for less than they need to even make ends meet. This is real and all artists in T and T can relate to budgets that include all the costs, but none for musicians and poetry. Her delivery kept it to the point. Artists also have to eat.

Earning second place, Shineque Saunders wrote an emotional piece about being separated from her mother who migrates to help her family survive. Shineque played her mom’s different voices in creative ways, creating a British accent and different name for the woman who migrated and a Trinbagonian accent for the one who remained, eventually bringing the stories of the two together to highlight the sacrifices mothers make again and again for their children. It spoke to a common reality for many today, represented confidently with both drama and flow.

Finally, Deneka Thomas, last year’s winner, placed third with a poem about the character of La Diablesse, showing us how rape can turn women into supposed-monsters. La Diablesse’s typical characterization as seducer of men isn’t just a story of sexuality and danger, but also one of negotiating power out of sexual violence and trauma, one we little hear because this character has remained so demonized and yet so silent in folklore. Redeeming such voices, through style and play, is a feminist act of turning words to power.

As a younger generation stepping in where Paula Obe, Lisa Allen-Agostini, Dara Njeri, Carol Hosein, Ivory Hayes, myself and others once held stage lights, it’s brilliant to see young women nurtured by 2 Cents Movement and, soon coming out of the school tours, setting the standard for spoken word on stage.

The story of young women championing at performance poetry has reasons for capturing our attention. The stage in the Caribbean has always been male-dominated, the lyrics “man” is still a resilient archetype, and so many women who have carried the spoken word movement over these decades and their very names have disappeared from its history.

Spoken word spaces have always been progressive, with young men also advocating an end to violence, speaking about tumultuous or disappointing relationships with their fathers, highlighting child sexual abuse, and analyzing poverty and injustice and much more. Yet, these are also spaces where young women can point to continuing politics of male privilege and the resilient nuances of a boys’ club.

On and off stage, there’s a story of women’s experience as performance poets that remains to be negotiated, transformed and told. That they exist in a community of young men also willing to challenge patriarchal religious authority, ego and silences speaks to the potential of another generation to right earlier wrongs.

The National Poetry Slam is a gathering of another generation’s politics and vision. It’s a gayelle of their lyricism. It feels youthful and fresh, leaving you, not just alive, but hopeful that others care enough to put the world’s challenges to pen and then to perform their call at a microphone.

As part of the wider NGC Bocas Lit Fest’s readings from poets and writers of all kinds, it’s a signal that out there, regardless of your class or sex or sexual orientation or age or race, all you need are words and, like one of those from among us who have been published or are young veterans of the stage, you too can write.

You too can step up to the mic.

 

 

 

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.