Entry 384.

Gender and sexuality often become weaponised in electoral campaigns, providing a chance to observe contesting values in democratic life.

Women, and particularly young women, remain vulnerable to attacks on the basis of their bodies, dress, marital and parental status, and sexuality. One man, in the year 2020, thought it appropriate to ask on Facebook, “Should unmarried women with children be allowed to contest the general elections?”

This highlights how much patriarchal conjugality, and wifehood, police women’s citizenship. Such a question is not innocent. Women were once considered to be unfit for employment if unmarried mothers. They had to fight to vote, and run for office, because they were considered to be represented by their husband, as his subordinate whose responsibility was to rock the cradle, not rule the world.

Take the social media attack on UNC’s Toco/Sangre Grande candidate, Nabila Greene. It’s actually irrelevant what women, and young women, do in private, legal and consensual entanglements. It’s irrelevant whether they do it married or unmarried, with same-sex partners, naked or covered in money.

Undermining women’s aspirations for political leadership, through breaking their trust and violating their privacy, is a deliberate containment of their democratic participation. And, it works. It’s one disturbing reason why there are fewer women in political leadership today.

Decades of feminist activism, against sexism in leadership, double standards regarding respectability and “slut” shaming, has enabled a generation of young women and men to grow up aware that shame should be placed on perpetrators of “revenge pornography” and those who turn to personal attacks on women’s gender and sexuality to win.

UNC PRO, and herself a young woman, Anita Haynes was “on the money” when she responded, “What I have seen is that for female candidates, in particular, the attacks are always personal. They always attempt to put us in positions to have us confirm or deny things from what could be from your private life.” There was “nothing in the video that debars someone from holding office. The goal there is to shame someone…And that shame will prevent you from running and will prevent you from representing your people.”

By contrast, Camille Robinson-Regis, playing old-school marm, described the video as raising questions about the moral compass of a person who engages in this kind of conduct and as raising “serious questions about the person’s ability to exercise sound judgment.” The chairman of the PNM’s Women’s League missed the opportunity for a non-partisan message, to all young women entering politics, that women should be judged by their qualifications, contribution, capacity and potential, and that all parties should hold to this standard. Isn’t this precisely what a Women’s League should stand for?

In other lead-up moments, there were two instances of homophobic electioneering, first in San Juan/Barataria, and then in the recirculation of an old Jack Warner diatribe from 2015. The less said about Warner, the better.

In response to the first instance, PrideTT called on all parties to refrain from personal attacks based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity/expression, asserting that these have “no bearing on their ability and qualifications to do any job in T&T.” Homophobia is widespread and real, yet I was impressed by the Nur E Islam’s disavowal of its power to exclude good citizens from office, particularly if they are practising Muslims. These are the community-level nuances of democracy in action, not captured by polls.

Two final examples highlight continued tolerance for gender-based and sexual violence, which are not yet considered so abhorrent that they deny men political legitimacy. An interim protection order was granted against candidate Winston Peters by a woman who publicly stated she feared for her life and has made a report to the GBV Unit. This time, PNM’s Robinson-Regis defended Gypsy, saying the allegations were not an election issue. Then, there are Watson Duke’s charges of rape and sexual assault.

Weighing in, Womantra and allied feminist organisations called on “all political parties to give an undertaking that persons who are accused of domestic violence and sexual offences, including sexual harassment, will not be nominated as candidates pending their exoneration by the relevant authorities.” If nothing else, understand young women’s fear that these could be the men who hold power over them and to whom they must pay respect, like those abusive uncles who somehow retain their place and authority in the family.

Elections provide historic ground for struggles over citizenship and democracy. Such struggles are always interwoven with public deliberation and negotiation over gender and sexuality.

Post 334.

“Vote for we and we will set you free”, sings David Rudder in the Madman’s Rant, parodying election-time sloganeering.

So said, so done. The campaign trail keeps it simple and typical: promises of more police car, to take the country far, to put the bandits away, to make criminals damn well pay, to abolish the tax, and to give we the facts.

It’s an easy myth to swallow because the alternative requires more of our attention and responsibility. We show up at rallies to nod at our heads at good speech, but don’t follow a story far enough to know when we are being hoodwinked, when we need to intervene, or when not everybody will be set free.

Take the National Workplace Policy on Sexual Harassment in Trinidad and Tobago. Symbolically laid in Parliament on International Women’s Day 2019, Senator the Honourable Jennifer Baptiste Primus stated, “For far too long, victims of Sexual Harassment in the workplace have borne pain and suffering in silence as the perpetrators of this disgraceful and unacceptable behaviour have utilised intimidation, victim shaming and abuse of power to get away with it, without facing any sanction or penalty. However, Madam Speaker those days are over”.

There’s much to celebrate about a policy, long called for by feminist activists, finally being drafted and publicized, but what about the details? Employers must keep a sexual harassment log documenting all incidents of sexual harassment at the workplace. The grievance procedure guidelines emphasise the role of a complaints committee and change management teams.

Now think of all the low-income women – young women, mothers, primary breadwinners, those supporting aged parents, illegal migrants – working in shops, restaurants and malls in Port of Spain, Chaguanas and San Fernando, or working as domestics cleaning and providing child care in homes, for whom the employer is the real perpetrator, as is so common.

To whom do they turn without losing their job? In this precarious economy, Madame Speaker, are their days of sexual harassment really over? Keep in mind that, despite parliamentary speeches, this policy is not yet approved by Cabinet, constituting more smoke than fire.

Take the recent legislation for the Sex Offenders Registry. Containing much that is useful for protecting society from specific kinds of sexual offenders, the Registry as it currently stands could further stigmatize groups of women, such as sex workers, who already come from the most vulnerable categories of women: the young, poor, sexually abused, under-educated, migrant and trafficked. Civil society groups made this otherwise overlooked and undervalued point to Honourable AG Al-Rawi.

Should good legislation do harm? When the bill becomes an Act, we will see whether this group is liable to further long-term penalty, entirely defying the purpose of a register, which is to protect the vulnerable, in the first place. Organisations such as CAISO have also pointed out that if the buggery law is upheld by the Privy Council, which the state is seeking, consensual anal sex would also not only remain a crime, but absurdly require such criminalized citizens also be registered.

Take the 2012 Children’s Act. As the age of consent to sexual relations is now set at eighteen years old, sexual and reproductive health service providers, such as the Family Planning Association of Trinidad and Tobago, now have to report incidents of penetration of minors sixteen and seventeen years old, even by others within three years of their age, even when it occurs by consent.

This means that providing confidential counselling services to teens over sixteen without reporting those cases to the police can now be a crime. This risk to service providers means that FPATT no longer provides the youth counselling it once used to, leaving a vast need now unmet. This same act, it should be noted, also decriminalized heterosexual penetration between minors while extending the punishment for such same-sex sexual relations among minors to, of all things, life imprisonment. So much for child rights.

NGOs will tell you that real transformations, rather than empty slogans, most matter. When politicians hit the platform to wax about their accomplishments, remember it’s easy to convince a population of a government’s successes when we are not bothered to follow details and when headlines are all corner block-talk seems to need.

Political participation and power mean paying attention to the fine-print of legislation, policies or budgets even when splashy campaigns deliberately distract. Vote for them, by all means, but know that only a madman would believe anyone but yourself is going to set you free.