Post 410.

IN THE hope that you reach out to support, I’m beginning to focus on violence prevention by organisations in our communities and nation. My mantra in this series, over the next weeks, is that we should first strengthen the work of those groups with long experience in gender-based violence prevention, amplifying the leadership and impact they have been making over these decades.

New groups have a real contribution to make, but also a lot to learn in terms of analyses and strategies. That’s okay too, movements are meant to be inclusive and evolving, bringing in new ideas, voices and leaders and connecting them with the expertise and knowledge generated by those speaking out and organising for a longer time.

We always have an opportunity to make a difference, and this series points you to some ways we can. If you recently attended a vigil or a march, walked with your placard, or called for solutions, you may now have a greater connection to your power to create change. Know that you can do more than cry out on social media, and there are organisations that can help turn frustration into ongoing action that heals, helps and provides hope.

So many groups are now providing charity, helping to secure housing or even providing tech-solutions for transportation. Nonetheless, the core work of ending violence against women and girls also always changes our beliefs and values about manhood and womanhood, addresses the vulnerabilities and traumas created by those beliefs, differently socialises girls and boys, and holds states accountable for socio-economic decisions that promote equality, meet family needs, and build paths to peace.

This week, I’m first highlighting the Network of NGOs of TT for the Advancement of Women, a network of women’s groups that has taught me so much since the mid-1990s. Over the years, I’d have an idea and asked Hazel Brown and others about it, only to find out it had been tried and there were already important lessons learned, that I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel and could get excellent wisdom to guide my own approach. For those even wanting to chart a path for their own newly-formed group, the Network is a resource. Reach out for mentorship.

Currently, the Network is trying to estimate the economic cost of violence to women and girls, and to get help for a project that measures those costs. As convenor Jacquie Burgess says, “Measuring the costs of VAWG (violence against women and girls) enables policymakers to make data-driven decisions about resource allocations, test effectiveness of various strategies and provide a rationale for private sector involvement. It also strengthens the argument for ending VAWG because it is a violation of women’s human rights which we can show sets back society both socially and economically.” (Contact Jacquie Burgess at 678-7549.)

“Girl Power” is another Network project which was rolled out in one urban and two rural districts in Trinidad, targeting adolescents and young adults. This project provided a safe space where young women and girls could develop into citizens safe from sexual and physical violence, and the burden of unwanted pregnancies. Participants benefitted from sex and sexuality, and physical security modules which were incorporated into sports and physical activity along with a module on financial literacy and empowerment. Network plans to adapt that project to target girls ten years old over the next year, as a prevention measure. For this work in the area of violence against women and girls, your help is needed.

Women Working for Social Progress (Workingwomen), another stalwart women’s organisation established in the 1980s, with a focus on cross-race and cross-class solidarity, has a drop-in centre. Insufficient human and financial resources have left it unable to be fully operational for over two years. The centre once provided a space where families found solace and remedies for their problems in a community setting. The drop-in centre is located along the east-west corridor, which may better meet the needs of those for whom reaching Port of Spain is a challenge.

Workingwomen takes the kind of whole family approach in which so many believe, so while primary focus is on women and girls, their model also engages boys and men as allies. It also identifies where boys and men are hurting so healing can reduce harmful behaviours that perpetuate violence. Those of you interested in creating spaces for healing among men and boys may find a home with the non-judgmental approach of Workingwomen.

To maintain momentum, let’s put our desires for change where our energies can make a transformation.

Post 405.

Now facing one of the driest economic seasons in 25 years, we need revenue generation, but also strategies to conserve both state finances and the sustainability of our communities. Covid19 led to quick decision-making, in relation to virtual courts, that could save $80 million. It also led to timely and merciful release of prisoners. We can choose the right strategies. As always, it is a question of political will.

Prison reform is one of those strategies, and there are decades of good recommendations to implement. Incarceration is costly to both governments and GDP, but it also costs families and communities of those who are never able to rehabilitate their lives, heal from childhood or family trauma that put them at risk of criminality in the first place, get drug treatment, safely escape the risks posed by gangs, or find legal decent employment.

As old slave colonies, Caribbean countries made early investments in prisons. Indeed, for enslaved and indentured workers, plantations were prisons. As a recent regional Caribbean report, “Survey of Individuals Deprived of their Liberty: Caribbean 2016-2019” (IDB 2020), outlines, it is therefore not surprising that, today, “six of the 15 countries with the highest incarceration rates worldwide are Caribbean islands.”

This includes The Bahamas, Barbados, Guyana, Suriname, and TT. Yet, incarceration has not made us safe. The Bahamas, Guyana, Jamaica, and TT “all have homicide rates more than three times the global average.”

Notoriously, our prisons also have high numbers (between 23 per cent and 50 per cent) of non-convicted people who may be first-time offenders or committed for non-violent or petty drug offences. If you have ever known anyone on remand, there are no social programmes, goods which must be bought at the prison are expensive for families, violent and non-violent offenders may be housed together, and court delays mock the right to justice on time.

In fact, prisons are hardly part of producing greater justice at all. The majority of those imprisoned are poor men with unemployment rates higher than the general population. They have been failed by unhealthy but dominant masculine ideals, by schools which they leave with lower rates of literacy and fewer livelihood skills, and by nations that accept class and race inequalities, and their harms, as the status quo. It is no coincidence that jails are full of poor people rotating in and out of hell.

Disturbingly, family problems – from domestic violence to a need to look for work during adolescence, abandonment or separation of families or being expelled from home – were key issues that prisoners had in common. As the IDB report emphasised, “Inmates who grew up in deprived settings – characterised by family violence, drug and alcohol abuse by parents or caregivers, incarceration of family members, early separation from their household, and criminal gangs in the neighbourhood – were more likely to commit a crime and showed higher levels of recidivism.”

It is so serious that “41 per cent of inmates surveyed in the six Caribbean countries were recidivists” and “40 per cent of prisoners that recidivated were imprisoned within a year of their release. In Guyana, Barbados, Suriname, and The Bahamas, roughly a quarter lost their freedom again in less than six months.”

This is a direct outcome of insufficient prison rehabilitation and reintegration programmes, pre- and post-release support, incentives for employers, and programmes that keep prisoners connected to families. Most incarcerated people have children, and children with incarcerated family are at higher risk themselves. In four countries, Barbados, Jamaica, The Bahamas, and TT, such cyclical incarceration began with juvenile detention. If we can protect adolescents from risk of criminality, and even adolescent ownership of firearms, and adopt non-carceral solutions, we can stop the cycle.

This requires investment in prevention in at-risk communities, which is also less costly and more humane than the social damage, and police suppression, of crime and violence. It also requires that we recognise how the violence and overcrowding among inmates create further conditions for violence, as men adopt hyper-masculine identities to survive, ally with gangs for protection and then are indebted upon release, and return to their families with anger, mental ill-health, and experiences of violation.

We must ask ourselves whether we value punishment, like the plantation whip, so much that we will continue an approach that increases incarceration and crime, or whether we will do whatever it takes to make our small societies safer, more just, more peaceful and more loving at this difficult time. Read the report. It’s clear what we ought to do.

Post 351.

Monday 25 November was International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. It begins what is globally known as 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence. The 16 Days Campaign ends on December 10th, which is Human Rights Day.

On Monday night itself, I got a late call about a woman, 30 years old and mother to two boys who are five and six. On Sunday, her boys’ father severely beat her and stabbed her in the head, violating a protection order, and almost killing her. His premeditated goal was to leave her dead. She’s now critical, in hospital, and will struggle with brain injury, physical injury and psychological injury for a very long time.

The call was to ask me for help. Was there subsidized housing available for this hard-working mother? Did I know anyone that could donate enough to pay her rent for the months of rehabilitation when she cannot work? Would anyone donate toward family therapy, or her single-handed financial responsibility for her boys? Was any system in place that could meet her needs in a timely, just, sufficient and realistic way?

I said I would see what I could do. Looking after her $3000 of monthly rent for a year isn’t an inconceivable donation and it could make the difference for generations. Please contact me if you are willing to help.

The problem of men killing women and mothers is real, with a face, a family and a cost. This horrific story is repeated again and again across the country. We can put a number to women murdered by their partners this year, but how many women have barely lived? To understand the relevance of this question, here are the facts.

One in three women in Trinidad and Tobago report experiencing physical or sexual violence from their partner in their lifetime. The majority of these women report experiencing violence “many times”.

In the 15 to 64 age bracket, over 100,000 women in Trinidad and Tobago are estimated to have experienced one or more acts of physical and/or sexual violence perpetrated by male partners. Approximately 11,000 are likely to still be in abusive relationships.

Understand that women are most vulnerable after they end a relationship, are no longer so easily controlled or threatened, have turned to the state for protection, and have tried to move on with their lives. Keep in mind that women take as long to leave as they do for many reasons. For example, 39% of women who stayed in violent relationships did not want to leave their children, 12% could not support themselves, and 11% had nowhere to go.

Women survivors of intimate partner violence (IPV) are more likely to have problems: 40% report poor general health (vs. 28% for non-survivors), 24% report chronic body pain (vs. 11% for non-survivors), and 13% report difficulty performing usual activities (vs. 7% for non-survivors). Also among survivors, 31% are unable to concentrate, 9% need sick leave, and 10% lose self-confidence.

Survivors of intimate partner violence report greater trauma among their children. Signs of this include: 18% poor school performance i.e. having to repeat school years (vs. 9% for non-survivors), 14% incidence of bed-wetting (vs. 8% for non-survivors), and social behavior such as aggression among 10% (vs. 3% for non-survivors).

Young women and mothers are more vulnerable. Women whose partners are unemployed or have only primary school education are more vulnerable. Women with disabilities are more vulnerable. Shockingly, seven percent of women who have been pregnant experienced physical partner violence during a pregnancy. More than half reported being punched or kicked in the abdomen. Two in five experienced worse violence during that time than otherwise.

If you are a radio host, religious leader, politician, union leader or head of the maxi-taxi association, use these facts to call for accountability instead of impunity.

Your message is that perpetration of such violence must stop. Men have a role in ending the societal problem of male violence against girls and women. The government must immediately approve a comprehensive national prevention strategy. Each of us can change social norms that reproduce violence, and demand state systems that address harm and trauma in ways that bring justice and healing. Most of all, men must stop murdering women.

This message is urgent and necessary. Helping even this one woman is urgent and necessary. If you have a platform, use it. If you can, contact me to donate. Over these 16 days, commit to whatever individual and collective difference you can make.

Post 348.

Parents often hurt children in ways they never realise or are willing to acknowledge. Later on, when the relationship between them breaks down, parents can feel unappreciated, rejected and frustrated. It’s as if the child was always so uncommunicative, so difficult, so angry and so cold.

A little honesty and self-reflection, and investment in listening, both of which are harder than they sound, would explain so much to parents who find their children’s behaviour inexplicable as they grow into adults.

The hurts are often unintended, but they begin from young, in how adults speak to children and discipline them, pay insufficient attention to their feelings, or fail to acknowledge their own wrongs. Those hurts bury themselves deep and become the knife that slowly tears bonds of trust.

Adults rarely apologise to children for their behaviour and rarely take responsibility for the many times they made their children feel rejected, abandoned or unsupported. They rarely acknowledge the dysfunctional contexts that children have had to grow up in or the instability created by everything from divorce to depression in the adult relationships around them.

We pretend that children are unaffected by our personalities and stresses, despite the fact that they live with us every day. We expect them to be grateful to us to the point of negating their protective strategies. We expect good behaviour at any cost. Mostly, adults feel that they did their best and can be unwilling to hear children’s experience of difficulties and struggles, as if doing their best ends any further conversation.

When parents reach a place where their children don’t think that there is any point opening up, for they will either misunderstand, disagree, deny or blame them for having those feelings, that’s when trust is nearly irreparably torn. On the one hand, parents grieve. On the other they insist that everything should still be normal, as if this is what respect entails.

Parents can hardly deal with blame at this stage in their life when past decisions can’t be fixed and are possibly already regretted. Children are not interested in their regrets or their explanations. All they want is to have their hurts acknowledged. For every disappointment a parent expresses to his or her child, there are many that children could validly respond with, but are not allowed to.

The other day, I shouted at Ziya for making me tell her a dozen times (or it felt like a dozen times) to do something. She got upset and said I told her to tell me when I do hurtful things. She said I didn’t tell her I was getting angry that she wasn’t listening. I was exasperated, what did she expect would happen when I had to tell her the fifth time?

I’m a child she said, you need to explain these things to me. How else will I know? I decided to listen. We took a walk and held hands. I apologised for yelling. I said it was wrong. I explained I get frustrated, especially when I’m tired, and she needs to do things the first time I tell her. She said I should tell her when I’m getting angry so that she will know that’s how I’m feeling. I agreed. I thanked her for being willing to talk, for helping me to become a better mother, for trusting me enough to believe that we could improve things together.

Now, when I’m getting to the weary, fourth-time-I’ve-told-you point, I remind her of our conversation. Just as she told me to, I tell her I’m getting frustrated, and she gets up and goes do what she’s told. It’s not perfect, but it works. There’s one less tear that may never mend.

There will be many other times I unnecessarily hurt her feelings. That’s life. None of us is perfect as people or parents, but saying that to a child is simply a way of not taking responsibility. I understand that I did my best, but that imperfection has its costs.

Such acknowledgement would protect the threads of connection, communication and trust between us. It would enable me to thank her for emerging into a strong and smart adult, and for deciding to forgive me as many times as she will, despite my failings over her lifetime. Such honesty would make me a better parent in the present.

Children want parents’ love and protection, but not when their trust in us is broken. If this feels familiar, and you don’t understand why, it’s your turn to listen.

Post 218.

I’m hoping that the partner of Ricardo Jerome, who is the mother of his child, and who was documented being savagely kicked and beaten in a public place, remains safe during the time of his court-allowed visits for Christmas and New Year’s Day.

I was astounded by magistrate Debbie-Ann Bassaw’s decision, wondering what allowing a batterer family time means. Does violence break the family contract or does fatherhood justify continued belonging regardless of how brutal the violence? Do mythic ideals of family, fatherhood, motherhood and Christmas trump hard realities of accountability and safety?

Can a boy child and his mother who have, in their own home, been witness to and victim of repeated brutal domination have a family Christmas defined by trust, care and love? What kind of love is so violent? And, what does such violence teach about family and love?

Anyone who has experienced family violence knows that it becomes normalized. It’s easy to learn to love those who are not nice to you, who are abusive to you, who neglect your rights and rightful feelings, and who love you in ways that hurt. It’s easy to become disassociated from your emotions, to forget how to differentiate your needs from others, and to lose familiarity with being in control of your life. Standing up for yourself comes with all kinds of self-blame, even if preventing such violence isn’t your responsibility.

Women stay for many reasons, none of which are ‘liking licks’, but rather compassion for their abusers, hope for change against all odds, deep self-devaluation, dependence and fear. Trauma isn’t lived in logical ways, and it takes great space and time away from those relationships to see a self that is possible outside of their rigid frame.

In deciding to send this woman-beater home, whose interest was being served? And, what was at stake in his partner saying yes or no, presumably in the moment, as she was called by police when the matter came up, wasn’t given sessions with a counselor first, and was made responsible, and therefore blamable, as woman and mother. This in the context of one daily newspaper even putting her status as ‘victim’ in quotes in its headline as if it’s a matter of debate. If not victim, then what?

Was there any psychological assessment done of batterer, partner and son to determine if this was the right protocol? Was that information available before the police called Jerome’s victim? Decades of data point to the difficulty women face in denying their abusers access to them, to the repetitive violence through which women stay before finally finding capacity to leave, and to women’s greater risk for their life when they really do break the pattern in which they are entrapped.

How could responsibility for that decision be placed on a woman who has not yet managed to powerfully refuse and permanently escape persistent abuse?

Here, the state should have honoured the protection order without question. You don’t send batterers back those they regularly beat up, and think that won’t add to a cycle of tolerance for relationships that leave bruises. The state should be the one to say no to violence with impunity, and that means refusing to allow abusers back into families without having to show real, sustained change. And, if family time is so cherished, safe spaces should be provided by state services for families to meet under supervision, over the course of counseling and not at home. It’s not in a child’s interest to see such trauma and torture overlooked by any of those concerned.

Do you remember being a boy or girl child and how much your heart trembled by hurts no one wanted to talk about, or wanted to excuse or pretend were over the next day? Do you remember what is like to carry such emotional confusion without resolution, and to be caught in your parents’ dysfunction, powerless to do anything to make it go away? Amidst these unresolved tensions, is such a family and home really safe?

Today, before Christmas, harms like this weigh on my heart. I wish true peace and love to all. May the New Year support and sustain us in the right start.