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.

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Post 256.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Post 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.

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.