Post 241.

Between sexual violence statistics and the slow pace of legal progress for domestic workers, feminist activism often feels like running in the same place or, worse, pushing a boulder uphill each day only to start again at the bottom the next.

The loudest and most prevalent voices seem to oppose, misrepresent and resent. When you are visibly, vocally and consistently challenging any idea that inequality between the sexes is natural, ordained or evolutionary, you see how the backlash to women’s rights, and the demonization of feminism as a movement to achieve those rights, is real.

You have heart-wrenching understanding of just how much the state is failing women in terms of policy, plans, legislation, services, sexual and economic empowerment, and commitment to changing beliefs and values. You see how homophobia means more to people than letting women and men be valued simply for being human, rather meeting feminine or masculine ideals, and letting them love whichever soul they choose.

But, there are surprisingly encouraging moments. As I sat in AMCHAM’s Annual Women’s Leadership Seminar last Friday, I looked around at the room full of women and thought that feminism was actually less of a marginal voice than it seems. Far from it, this movement to replace subordination and stereotyping with fairness and freedom was on the mic and in front, and women in positions of authority were invested in and advancing its potential transformations.

There were numbers and power here, representing a majority that I had underestimated. I reflected on how much more I had to learn about how that majority, and those women increasingly, even if slowly, occupying leadership positions, were allies I had not sufficiently connected to or appreciated.

I had not noticed that women entering the corporate sector had created such shifts in relation to women’s rights, perhaps because their work fell under my radar, or I had considered it partial, classist and mainstream, or because their relative invisibility, as a majority which is nonetheless negotiating within patriarchal constraints on professional life, made me miscalculate their solidarity.

Amongst speakers, there was Charmaine Gandhi-Andrews, Chief Immigration Officer (Ag.) in the Ministry of National Security. Her leadership on issues of trafficked women was inspiring. This is exactly what an immigration division should be doing, not just raiding, arresting and deporting, but accounting for the political and economic gender inequalities that they meet face to face. Gandhi-Andrews was unapologetically badass, and is doing deeply relevant and necessary work for incredibly vulnerable women. I hope to be like her someday.

Teresa White, Group Human Resource Director at ANSA McAl, talked about the sexual harassment policy the company has in place. She said every right thing I wanted to hear about such policies – that they are not just protocols for victims of sexual harassment, rather they are meant to entirely eliminate it by changing the rules, culture and responsibilities of the whole institution. I have much to learn from those managing such policies in practice, precisely because they are a global feminist strategy to not just empower individual women, but to transform the entire waged economy.

In conversation, Anya Schnoor, Managing Director of Scotiabank Trinidad and Tobago, told me that the bank had signed onto the UN ‘He For She Campaign’, meant to encourage men to speak out for gender equality. She added that they also had a ‘She for She Campaign’, which made my heart sing, as I never imagined a bank would prioritize solidarities among women, even though it’s an area women always emphasise as a challenge, desire and need.

The event also featured AMCHAM T&T’s support for the ‘Leave She Alone’ campaign, premised on men as vocal allies in ending violence against women. And, CEO Nirad Tewarie, gave exactly the speech guys should give: men have to do the work to create gender parity and have to be open to learning from women and feminists about how to do better along the way.

Optimistically, there may just be a feminist majority to collaborate with and learn from; women and men in corporate life pushing barriers in a myriad of ways I had not realised. The next step for all Caribbean feminisms’ yet unachieved goals? Recognise an opportunity and strategize.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

Post 229.

If I could wish on a December super moon, large and bright enough to grant both Christmas requests and New Year resolutions, I’d wish for a Trinidad and Tobago where I didn’t have to write so repeatedly about sexual violence.

I’d lift spirits with a story of Ziya discovering Queen Latifah and Monie Love’s 1989 feminist hit, ‘Ladies First’, and it rolling on repeat through this week’s traffic while she excessively bops her neck and spits like they do, “Some think that we can’t flow (can’t flow)/ Stereotypes, they got to go (got to go)”.

It’s all in that song. Opening shots of women rebels like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Angela Davis and a young Winnie Mandela. ‘Ain’t I a Woman’, they would ask, and don’t I deserve every right due to me, every moment of equality and every experience of unthreatened freedom? Later, a chorus follows that flips ‘ladies first’ into reverse, from mere precious chivalry to women exercising self-defining political and lyrical power.

The video backdrop is a bombed-out housing project which, when we cut to BBC world radio, mixes straight to breaking images of a bombed-out Aleppo. Queen La foregrounds news footage of armed struggle against apartheid in South Africa. I show Zi Google images of children on the other side of the world so that she can make sense of today’s news.

Truth is, I haven’t yet figured out how to script for what’s present and here. After remembering the names of 47 women killed this year, at last Saturday’s Life in Leggings gathering, I returned home feeling despair. Ziya knows about patriarchy, simplified as ‘when men think they are more powerful than women’, but I don’t have adequate language to talk to her about why the flow of some women’s lives is abruptly stopped or how much longer it will take to end stereotypes that got to go.

The message to girls is to learn to protect themselves, but how to explain why they are so vulnerable to sexual harm, and why self-defense classes are as much a solution as Aleppo’s destruction.

TTPS report that, in 2015, there were 180 female rape victims under eighteen years old plus 109 over eighteen. Officially classified as ‘rape’, though indicating a different kind of vulnerability, particularly without proper sex education in schools, sex with females 14-16 years old accounted for 137 cases while sex with females under 14 years old accounted for 112 cases. That was last year alone, and only rape cases that reached the police. The last thing those girls need to be asked is, why didn’t you fight back, like an out of timing tune whose refrain is, what more could you have done to stop this happening to you.

In war-free T and T, I’m clear about which lyrics to flip. The first is that girls and women have personal responsibility for our safety. No. We do not open ourselves up to attack anytime. Sex crimes are the responsibility of the attacker, whether it happens at home by someone a girl knows or on in public by a stranger. Sexual violence is neither normal nor inevitable. It is not ‘just the way things are’. Sexuality spliced with everyday violence is fundamentally a sign of things not being as they should be.

This creates rape culture, where gender-based violence is sexualized, and where there is pervasive and passive acceptance of female vulnerability, victim-blaming and hyper-masculinity.

Verse after verse, voice after voice, we must hold government’s accountable, whether in relation to the never-approved national gender policy or in relation to the never implemented National Strategic Action Plan on Gender Based and Sexual Violence. Back-up voices must pitch for police and judiciary accountability, and successful prosecution of the majority of cases, stopping in its tracks such repetitive impunity.

In the dark-night sky that will usher in a new year, enough stars will be visible for every one of these wishes, though all they really require is state and social will. When Zi asks, why violence against women, why Aleppo, and I turn off the radio, not knowing exactly what to say, you’ll understand why some mornings I turn up the volume and set ‘Ladies First’ on replay.

Post 228.

Almost forty years ago, Audre Lorde wrote, “we can sit in our safe corners as mute as bottles, and still we will be no less afraid”. Around the region today, women are posting sexual harassment, abuse and assault survival stories as part of the #lifeinleggings movement, precisely to overcome that silencing and fear.

The hashtag and postings were started by Barbadian women Ronelle King and Allyson Benn to highlight the pervasiveness of sexual violence. Can any of us say that we don’t know one woman who has experienced such threat, fear, harm and denial of choice, possibly many times?

They linked their initiative to Barbados’ 50th independence and, therefore, to the impossibility of ‘development’ without also ending gender inequalities. Caribbean states have paid scant attention to the realities of rape culture while reframing twenty years of lip service into a story of “too much focus on women”. Yet, the courage it takes to share these stories suggests that silencing remains more dominant than safe space for women’s truths about their relationships, families, communities and nation.

Breaking these silences remains a risk. Families are invested in hiding stories of sexual predation, telling women that it happened in the past or that it’s more important to just keep peace. People respond that, somehow, you must have looked for that because of your clothes, your job or smile. Others’ trauma at hearing what happened to you has to be managed, sometimes making it easier to say nothing. It’s common to not be believed or to be blamed or seen as bringing down shame or wanting attention or, worse, as a joke.

Now isn’t the time to say not all men rape, assault or harass. Women are not accusing all men, they are simply no longer hiding what actually happened to them. Women are not responsible for protecting themselves, for ‘men don’t molest decent girls’. These stories begin when we are children and modesty provides no safety. Women don’t want men’s protection, we want their solidarity. There’s one message that can change women’s #lifeinleggings, and that is that men’s sexual self-responsibility has no excuses.

From Bajan politicians to Guyanese indigenous women to Jamaican reggae singers to Trinidadian university educators to policewomen in St. Vincent to disabled girls across the region, every kind of Caribbean woman has stories. Imagine what it means when education, class privilege, fame, age, ethnicity or profession makes no difference?

Audre Lorde has written, “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you”. Almost forty years later, in support of #lifeinleggings, Tonya Haynes, in the Caribbean feminist blog, Code Red for Gender Justice, wrote,

“Women broke every silence. We spoke of street harassment: girl, yuh pussy fat! Principals who made no room for comprehensive sexuality education but slut-shamed girls who were themselves sexually abused. Rape by current and former partners. Years of sexual abuse by fathers, step-fathers, uncles, cousins. Stories of men who told us that they’re waiting for our four-year-old daughters to grow up. Men who offered jobs or rides or food or protection only to demand sex. Only to split our bodies open when we refused. Men who raped us because we are lesbian, because we are women, because we are girls, because they could. We exploded every myth about how good girls and good women are protected from this violence. That good men will protect us.  That all we have to do is call in our squad of brothers and uncles and fathers. We asked, and who will women and girls call when our fathers and brothers and uncles assault them? We affirmed that asking men to protect us from male violence is not freedom. All men benefit from male privilege and unequal relations of gender which disadvantage and devalue women and girls. We demand autonomy not protection! We split this island open for every woman and girl who has had her body split open. We split this island open and let all the secrets fall out”.

If you want to break your own silences, there is a #lifeinleggings gathering, on Saturday from 4-6pm, at the Big Black Box on Murray Street in Woodbrook. Go. Listen. Share. Let all our own islands’ secrets fall out.

Post 227.

A bill now before Cabinet proposes to raise the age of marriage for girls to eighteen years old. This is because the Children’s Act (2012) defines girls under this age as children, for whom marriage and motherhood constitute a violation of rights.

There will be brouhaha about this bill, but it follows a necessary global trend and, while imperfect, is worth supporting.

Some will say that marriage of minors is culturally or religiously sanctioned. Others will argue that the age of marriage and sexual consent should be set at sixteen years old, not eighteen, and that this is necessary to counter the sin and shame of unwed sex and motherhood.

The fact is the laws need to change. The civil marriage act specifies no minimum marriageable age. The Hindu Marriage Act, and Muslim Marriage and Divorce Acts, contain discriminatory provisions which enable marriage of girls at much younger ages than boys, reproducing a patriarchal view that girls do not need as much time for development of their independence and maturity before marriage.

But, there is more at stake. Child marriage is only one example of adult predatory masculinity, which can also be seen in girls’ rates of pregnancy, abortion, sexual abuse and incest, and HIV.

There have been small numbers of girls married at twelve, thirteen and fourteen as late as 2015. Seventeen 13 year-old girls were married in 2010 along with nine 14 year-olds. Between 2011 and today, twenty-one fourteen year-old girls were married. Overwhelmingly, of the 548 child marriages that took place between 2006 and 2016, the majority of those girls were married to adult men.

These are not relationships between equally adolescent minors. These are examples of relationships in which girls’ unequal age, power, and negotiating capacity are normalized. Were the situation to be reversed, where in one year twenty-six boys under 14 years old were married to mainly adult women, this would be appear to all as a theft of childhood, and molestation.

The symbolic significance of marriage blurs our understanding of child marriage rates as only one indicator of girls’ wider sexual vulnerability.

Turn to teenage pregnancy: Between 2008 and 2015, there were 35 pregnancies to girls twelve years old or younger, 2645 to girls between thirteen and sixteen years old, and 12 551 to girls seventeen to nineteen years old. “In these statistics, said the AG, “We have recorded the actual live births of thousands of children in circumstances potentially equal to statutory rape”.

In terms of sexual offense charges, between 2000 and 2015, there were 2 258 matters in relation to girls compared to two charges for sex with males under sixteen years old. As of July 2015, there were 559 cases related to sexual intercourse with a female under the age 14 years, 128 related to sexual intercourse with a person over 14 years and under 16 years without consent, and 45 related to sexual intercourse with a dependent minor. It is well documented that girls’ sexual vulnerability to adult men vastly increases between ten and fourteen years old, the very age around which child marriage debate pivots.

With regard to abortions recorded by public hospitals, between 2011 and 2015, there were 67 among girls thirteen to sixteen years old and 683 among those seventeen to nineteen years old. Finally, the HIV statistics are telling as girls 15-24 years old have almost always had higher rates than boys of their age. In 2014, girls accounted for 60% of infections among 15 to 19 year olds.

We need further research on these numbers and their meanings as well as on the prevalence and implications of adult men’s informal unions with girl children. Nonetheless, the overall trends are totally clear.

In a context where there is no national sexual and reproductive health policy, and no comprehensive sexual education in schools, girl children are overwhelmingly being targeted by men and boys older than them, in ways that impact their empowerment, self-determination, reproductive health, and right to live free from harm.

We must ask which is more important: protection of patriarchal ideologies, symbolic ethnic and religious laws, respectability politics and predatory masculinities or public will that presses political will to provide protections that girls urgently need.

Post 226. RED CARD RAPE CULTURE.

UWI’s responsibility is to transform the Caribbean by nurturing students’ commitment to fairness, justice, non-violence and sustainability. Young men have as much role as young women in creating gender equality and ending cultures of domination founded on sexism and homophobia. Indeed, this is my answer to the oft-asked question, ‘What about the men?’

Men have power to end violence against women at the staggering rates at which it occurs, just as they have responsibility to collectively organize to transform masculinities that create risk in boys and men’s lives. Young men have the opportunity to define their own identities by different ideals from those of past generations, creating future Caribbean male leaders willing to exchange the perks of privilege for the politics of justice for all, and a legacy in which women’s rights are never left behind.

Such commitment requires social movements that challenge the status quo and its tolerance for inequitable social norms. It requires role models and collective reward for positive change, thus changing young men’s options, solidarities, strategies and dreams.

Boys are now growing up conscious of themselves as gendered beings because of conversations about womanhood and manhood which feminism introduced into contemporary culture. This means that there’s potential among young men still working out their truths and transformations against educational advancements of young women and, yet, resilience of sexual violence against them. Such contradictions mark a cultural crossroads, and chance for young men to strike out directions that lead to dead ends.

Last Friday, the Institute for Gender and Development Studies, St. Augustine Campus, collaborated with the young men of the dorm, Canada Hall, to give young men a non-judgmental space to imagine a world without sexual violence against women. ‘Red Card Rape Culture’ wasn’t just a workshop with male students from ten Caribbean countries, or a hashtag that could go viral, it was a metaphor for men’s power to refuse the impunity of such violence. For, the field could never be level with such pervasive foul play, and their best selves would never let things run that way.

Rape culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence is glamorized, trivialized and excused in media and popular culture, leaving no guarantees for women regarding freedom from objectification of their bodies, disregard for their rights, unwanted advances, dehumanization or male domination. It’s the imposition of what men want and how they want it on girls and women.

Given that this is one of the issues most raised by their young, female peers, International Men’s Day, commemorated on November 19th, provided an ideal moment to meet young men’s needs for politically-progressive mentorship and to encourage their contributions to movement-building.

The workshop tackled beliefs, blame, consent, shaming and normalization. It went through a range of statements that included: “There are situations when a girl says no but she means yes”, “Rapists think differently from other men”, “It is a woman’s responsibility to not get raped”, “It’s wrong to lead him on and when he is ready… say “no””, “She sent me pics. She should have known I would share it”, “Nothing wrong with lyrics from songs like Kick Een She Back Door”, and “Women bring out a part in men that they cannot control.”

Young men could ‘red card’ the statements they disagreed with, ‘yellow card’ those they were not sure about, and ‘green card’ those they considered right. They could see each other doing it, noting when they shared views or differed, and observing both consensus and individual resistance. At the end, they wrote their own counter-messages. Some of these were: “A Man Is Like A Taxi Driver, He Knows When To Stop”, “Women Should Not Live In Fear, How She’s Dressed Does Not Mean Yes”, “If She Says No, Get Up and Go”, and “No Doesn’t Mean Yes”.

For International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, commemorated today, these statements are now on social media as memes and across the campus as posters, giving these young men’s words visibility, as part of transforming the kinds of commitments UWI men articulate as ideal.

End violence. Empower women and men to create gender equality. Transform our Caribbean future. #redcardrapeculture.

Post 232.

Dear Karian,

As a woman who has been followed on the street by men even after ignoring them or polite ‘no thank you’. A woman who has had men yell at her from Independence Sq. KFC about her ‘box’ and how it looking like lunch. A woman who was sexually harassed in the TV6 newsroom and until today, when I see that cameraman in public, I’m angry at his indecency and harm. Just as I’m angry at the ex-Minister who thought his unwanted touching on the campaign trail would be accepted because of his status, rather than refused because of mine.

A woman who has walked past many men’s unwanted comments that degrade more than compliment, and knew it could become worse if only I said no or stop or insisted on respect. A woman who doesn’t feel safe in her neighborhood or workplace or on streets, and not only at night, because men, whether a few or many, present a sexual threat.

A woman whose woman friends tell story after story of growing up with harassment on the streets, at work, at the gym, in Carnival, in meetings, in churches, in mosques, in temples, in training programmes, outside of schools, inside of schools, in libraries, in ministers’ offices, in parties and in every other location.

Women whose stories are an angering tale of negotiating self-silencing and fear, speaking out and risk: those who said nothing and wished they could and did, those who spoke back and had abuse or a bottle thrown back at them, those who cuss out those specific men knowing that they were borrowing from the energy required to cuss out more tomorrow.

Women who are called ‘lesbian’, ‘bitch’ and ‘cunt’ repeatedly, as an insult, as part of a threat, as a consequence of dismissing unwanted advances, from men they know and complete strangers. Women whose stories abounded everywhere but in the press, for more than a few days, though those stories occur every single day.  Women who were not yet women when they began to have these stories to tell.

As that woman, I write with everything women feel, knowing another one of us is being wronged in ways with which we are too familiar. All emotions are here. Sorrow that one time won’t be your first or last. Anger that you are not the first or last. Anger at the complicity of men and their failure to collectively break the bro code, to say no to all forms of sexism and sexual harassment that harm women and deny that harm.

Men’s collective and public failure to acknowledge the normalcy of predatory masculinity allows so many to pretend, with insistence, authority and pride, they don’t know the difference between harassment and compliment, between unwanted and chosen. I despair at their denial of rape culture in all its forms, playing it down as unreal because it’s an inconvenient truth.

I am sorry and angry that you had to be brave, that you had to get angry, that you had to protect yourself because your society fails to protect women. You are a fighter, though you should not have to be simply to walk on the streets. You are an example to all fearful young women I tell to speak out and tell their harassers to stop, though you shouldn’t have to shame men for their violence, knowing that even more around you are secure in their impunity.

You were right to cuss those men hard, loud and stink, though the cuss out is really, rightly, for the whole society. You don’t have to be a daughter or wife to deserve respect. You are a person, with your own honour and you don’t have to business about whose bad behaviour that checks. But, you know all that already. We all do.

You are right to think that your story will make little difference to legislators, policy-makers, police officers and more, for sexual and street harassment will remain an unprosecuted and pervasive reality.  You are right to simply want to be left to walk free. All I can say, young sister, is that you owe shame, silence, respectability and fear nothing. And, know, lioness, that you are not alone.